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Emily Dickinson
1830 - 1886
 


One of the finest Iyric poets in the English language, the American poet Emily Dickinson was a keen observer of nature and a wise interpreter of human passion. Her family and friends published most of her work posthumously.

 

American poetry in the 19th century was rich and varied, ranging from the symbolic fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe through the moralistic quatrains of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the revolutionary free verse of Walt Whitman. In the privacy of her study Emily Dickinson developed her own forms and pursued her own visions, oblivious of literary fashions and unconcerned with the changing national literature. If she was influenced at all by other writers, they were John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Isaac Watts (his hymns), and the biblical prophets.

Dickinson was born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass., the eldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of Congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College, and of Emily Norcross Dickinson, a submissive, timid woman. The Dickinsons' only son, William Austin, also a lawyer, succeeded his father as treasurer of the college. Their youngest child, Lavinia, was the chief housekeeper and, like her sister Emily, remained at home, unmarried, all her life. The sixth member of this tightly knit group was Susan Gilbert, an ambitious and witty schoolmate of Emily's, who married Austin in 1856 and moved into the house next door to the Dickinsons. At first she was Emily's confidante and a valued critic of her poetry, but by 1879 Emily was speaking of her "pseudo-sister" and had long since ceased exchanging notes and poems.


Early Education

Amherst in the 1840s was a sleepy village in the lush Connecticut Valley, dominated by the Church and the college. Dickinson was reared in Trinitarian Congregationalism, but she never joined the Church and probably chafed at the austerity of the town. Concerts were rare; card games, dancing, and theater were unheard of. For relaxation she walked the hills with her dog, visited friends, and read. But it is also obvious that Puritan New England bred in her a sharp eye for local color, a love of introspection and self-analysis, and a fortitude that sustained her through years of intense loneliness.

Dickinson graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year (the longest time she was ever to spend away from home) she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary at South Hadley, but because of her fragile health she did not return. At the age of 17 she settled into the Dickinson home and turned herself into a competent housekeeper and a more than ordinary observer of Amherst life.


Early Work

It is not known when Dickinson began to write poetry or what happened to the poems of her early youth. Only five poems can be dated prior to 1858, the year in which she began gathering her work into hand-written fair copies bound loosely with looped thread to make small packets. She sent these five early poems to friends in letters or as valentines, and one of them was published anonymously without her permission in the Springfield Republican (Feb. 20, 1852). After 1858 she apparently convinced herself she had a genuine talent, for now the packets were carefully stored in an ebony box, awaiting inspection by future readers or even by a publisher.

Publication, however, was not easily arranged. After Dickinson besieged her friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Republican, with poems and letters for 4 years, he published two poems, both anonymously: "I taste a liquor never brewed" (May 4, 1861) and "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (March 1, 1862). And the first of these was edited, probably by Bowles, to regularize (and thus, flatten) the rhymes and the punctuation. Dickinson began the poem: "I taste a liquor never brewed - /From Tankards scooped in Pearl - /Not all the Frankfort Berries/Yield such an Alcohol." But Bowles printed: "I taste a liquor never brewed,/From tankards scooped in pearl;/Not Frankfort berries yield the sense/Such a delicious whirl." She used no title; Bowles titled it "The May-Wine." (Only seven poems were published during her lifetime, and all had been altered by editors.)


Friendship with T. W. Higginson

In 1862 Dickinson turned to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson for advice about her poems. She had known him only through his essays in the Atlantic Monthly, but in time he became, in her words, her "preceptor" and eventually her "safest friend." She began her first letter to him by asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Six years later she was bold enough to say, "You were not aware that you saved my life." They did not meet until 1870, at her urging, surprisingly, and only once more after that. Higginson told his wife, after the first meeting, "I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."

What Dickinson was seeking was assurance as well as advice, and Higginson apparently gave it without knowing it, through a correspondence that lasted the rest of her life. He advised against publishing, but he also kept her abreast of the literary world (indeed, of the outside world, since as early as 1868, she was writing him, "I do not cross my father's ground to any house or town"). He helped her not at all with what mattered most to her - establishing her own private poetic method - but he was a friendly ear and a congenial mentor during the most troubled years of her life. Out of her inner turmoil came rare lyrics in a form that Higginson never really understood - if he had, he would not have tried to "edit" them, either in the 1860s or after her death. Dickinson could not take his "surgery," as she called it, but she took his friendship willingly.


Years of Emotional Crisis

Between 1858 and 1866 Dickinson wrote more than 1100 poems, full of aphorisms, paradoxes, off rhymes, and eccentric grammar. Few are more than 16 lines long, composed in meters based on English hymnology. The major subjects are love and separation, death, nature, and God - but especially love. When she writes "My life closed twice before its close," one can only guess who her real or fancied lovers might have been. Higginson was not one of them. It is more than likely that her first "dear friend" was Benjamin Newton, a young man too poor to marry, who had worked for a few years in her father's law office. He left Amherst for Worcester and died there in 1853.

During a visit to Philadelphia a year later Dickinson met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Sixteen years her senior, a brilliant preacher, already married, he was hardly more than a mental image of a lover. There is no doubt she made him this, but nothing more. He visited her once in 1860. When he moved to San Francisco in May 1862, she was in despair. Only a month before, Samuel Bowles had sailed for Europe to recover his health. Little wonder that in her first letter to Higginson she said, "I had a terror … - and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground - because I am afraid." She needed love, but she had to indulge this need through her poems, perhaps because she felt she could cope with it no other way.

When Bowles returned to Amherst in November, Dickinson was so overwhelmed she remained in her bedroom and sent a note down, " … That you return to us alive is better than a summer, and more to hear your voice below than news of any bird." By the time Wadsworth returned from California in 1870 and resettled in Philadelphia, the crisis was over. His second visit, in 1880, was anticlimax. Higginson had not saved her life; her life was never in danger. What had been in danger was her emotional equilibrium and her control over a talent that was so intense it longed for the eruptions that might have destroyed it.


Last Years

In the last 2 decades of her life Dickinson wrote fewer than 50 poems a year, perhaps because of continuing eye trouble, more probably because she had to take increasing responsibility in running the household. Her father died in 1874, and a year later her mother suffered a paralyzing stroke that left her an invalid until her death. There was little time for poetry, not even for serious consideration of marriage (if it was actually proffered) with a widower and old family friend, Judge Otis Lord. Their love was genuine, but once again the timing was wrong. It was too late to recast her life completely. Her mother died in 1882, Judge Lord 2 years later. Dickinson's health failed noticeably after a nervous collapse in 1884, and on May 15, 1886, she died of nephritis.


Posthumous Publication

How the complete poems of Dickinson were finally gathered is a publishing saga almost too complicated for brief summary. Lavinia Dickinson inherited the ebony box; she asked Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst astronomy professor, to join Higginson in editing the manuscripts. Unfortunately, they felt even then that they had to alter the syntax, smooth the rhymes, cut some lines, and create titles for each poem. Three volumes appeared in quick succession: 1890, 1891, and 1896. In 1914 Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published some of the poems her mother, Susan, had saved. In the next 3 decades four more volumes appeared, the most important being Bolts of Melody (1945), edited by Mrs. Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, from the manuscripts the Todds had never returned to Lavinia Dickinson. In 1955 Thomas H. Johnson prepared for Harvard University Press a three-volume edition, chronologically arranged, of "variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts." Here, for the first time, the reader saw the poems as Dickinson had left them. The Johnson text of the 1,775 extant poems is now the standard one.

It is clear that Dickinson could not have written to please publishers, who were not ready to risk her striking aphoristic style and original metaphors. She had the right to educate the public, as Poe and Whitman eventually did, but she never had the invitation. Had she published during her lifetime, adverse public criticism might have driven her into deeper solitude, even silence. "If fame belonged to me," she told Higginson, "I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase … My barefoot rank is better." The 20th century has lifted her without doubt to the first rank among poets.
 


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During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson, though known to a few, hardly existed as a national figure. Only ten of her poems found their way into print, all anonymously. There was a flurry of interest during the decade of the 1890s occasioned by the publication of three slim volumes of selections (1890, 1891, and 1896). But the editing during the next half-century was erratic and piecemeal. It was not until 1955 that her entire corpus of 1,775 poems appeared, carefully edited, with variants. The Letters followed (1958), giving, at last, adequate and reliable material for a just estimate of her work. The event, historic in our cultural history, gave rise to much re-evaluation and intensified research. It continues unabated.

Not that she had gone unnoticed till then. The flurry of the 1890s showed, among other things, a significant discrepancy between the popular appeal of her poetry, demonstrated by eleven reprintings of the first volume in a single year, and the cautious, mixed reception by the critics. The reviews, generally, recognized her originality and imaginative power but deplored her stylistic eccentricities--her approximate rhymes, jolting rhythms, strained syntax, bizarre imagery, symbol, metaphor. Her first reviewer (Arlo Bates), though sympathetic, called her poems "half barbaric." But it was just such qualities that attracted a new generation of poets--imagists, symbolists, metaphorists--in general, those who responded to a new voice and its capacity to refresh the language. She has been translated into at least six languages (including Japanese, which readily appropriates her often haiku-like manner), and studies of her life and work appear from all quarters of the globe.

The facts of her life are few and simple, the interpretations many and complex. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, at the time a small farming town with a college and a hat factory; she seldom left it, and she died there. After a year at Mount Holyoke, her growing sense of poetic vocation led to ever deeper concentration and the privacy of her home.

Her reclusiveness has been variously explained--a frustrated love affair, a tyrannical father, an inadequate mother, religious perplexities, failure to publish, the limits imposed upon women in her time. But, as with the attempts to categorize her poetry--is she a transcendentalist? a mystic? a romantic? a metaphysical? a meditative? was she pessimistic? optimistic? a believer? a disbeliever?--no single theory is adequate. Her range is wide, her "voices" many; her heights are high, her depths deep. One of the most private of major poets, she was of little help in answering these questions. Yet, as the studies proliferate, her once "half barbaric" poems become available to an ever-widening public and her place in the pantheon of world poets ever more secure.
 


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She is widely considered one of the greatest poets in American literature. Her unique, gemlike lyrics are distillations of profound feeling and original intellect that stand outside the mainstream of 19th-century American literature.

Life

Dickinson spent almost all her life in her birthplace. Her father was a prominent lawyer who was active in civic affairs. His three children (Emily; a son, Austin; and another daughter, Lavinia) thus had the opportunity to meet many distinguished visitors. Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy irregularly for six years and Mount Holyoke Seminary for one, and in those years lived a normal life filled with friendships, parties, church, and housekeeping. Before she was 30, however, she began to withdraw from village activities and gradually ceased to leave home at all. While she corresponded with many friends, she eventually stopped seeing them. She often fled from visitors and eventually lived as a virtual recluse in her father's house. As a mature woman, she was intense and sensitive and was exhausted by emotional contact with others.

Even before her withdrawal from the world Dickinson had been writing poetry, and her creative peak seems to have been reached in the period from 1858 to 1862. Although she was encouraged by the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who never truly comprehended her genius, and Helen Hunt Jackson, who believed she was a great poet, Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime. Dickinson's mode of existence, although circumscribed, was evidently satisfying, even essential, to her. After her death in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson discovered over 1,000 poems in her sister's bureau. For too long Dickinson was treated less as a serious artist than as a romantic figure who had renounced the world after a disappointment in love. This legend, based on conjecture, distortion, and even fabrication, has been known to plague even some of her modern biographers.
 


Works

While Dickinson wrote love poetry that indicates a strong attachment, it has proved impossible to know the object of her feelings, or even how much was fed by her poetic imagination. The chief tension in her work comes from a different source: her inability to accept the orthodox religious faith of her day and her longing for its spiritual comfort. Immortality she called “the flood subject,” and she alternated confident statements of belief with lyrics of despairing uncertainty that were both reverent and rebellious. Her verse, noted for its aphoristic style, its wit, its delicate metrical variation and irregular rhymes, its directness of statement, and its bold and startling imagery, has won enormous acclaim and had a great influence on 20th-century poetry.

Dickinson's posthumous fame began when Mabel Loomis Todd and Higginson edited and published two volumes of poems (1890, 1891) and some of her correspondence (2 vol., 1894). Other editions of verse followed, many of which were marred by unskillful and unnecessary editing. A definitive edition of her works did not appear until the 1950s, when T. H. Johnson published her poems (3 vol., 1955) and letters (3 vol., 1958); only then was serious study of her work possible. Dickinson scholarship was further advanced by R. W. Franklin's variorum edition of her poetry (3 vol., 1998).


 

 

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This web page was last updated on: 19 December, 2008