Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886) was an American poet. She was a prolific writer, but only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime. After her death, her family discovered nearly 1800 poems she had secretly written and locked away. The first volume of her collected poems, published four years later, was a popular and commercial success, and more volumes followed. Her poems are still very popular today and can be found in numerous anthologies.
Dickinson's short, untitled poems are known for their unusual style in addition to their insightfulness and vivid imagery. She frequently used slant (imperfect) rhyme and incorporated unconventional punctuation, eccentric capitalization, and other unique elements into her poetry. Her innovations greatly influenced the development of modern poetry.
Dickinson is considered to be one of the most important American poets along with Walt Whitman.
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, to Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson. She was the second of three children. They lived with Edward's parents and siblings at the family estate called the Homestead. Edward's father Samuel Dickinson who built the Homestead mansion was a principal founder of Amherst College. Edward, a lawyer and politician, also served as treasurer for the college.
The Homestead was sold in 1833 due to financial difficulties, and Samuel and his wife moved to Ohio. Edward and his family continued to live there as tenants until 1840 when he purchased a house on Pleasant Street. The same year, Emily Dickinson and her younger sister Lavinia entered Amherst Academy where her brother Austin also studied. Dickinson was an excellent student, known for her wit, and she made many friends at the academy. She then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847, but left after only one year. The reason for her departure is not known, but it is generally thought that she suffered from homesickness and depression. Religious differences may also have played a role in the decision. Amherst was going through a religious revival at the time. Dickinson, who held and expressed her own views on religion, was considered somewhat peculiar at the school.
After leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson found home life dissatisfying. She did not care for domestic work, with the exception of gardening and baking. After completing her chores, she spent her evenings reading. She enjoyed works by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Brontë, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and other contemporary writers in addition to Shakespeare and the Bible. She also began writing poetry, unbeknownst to her family, working late into the night. Her early poems were traditional and unlike her later work, but they still showed promise. In 1852, one of her poems, submitted by a friend without her knowledge, was published anonymously in the Springfield Daily Republican. Its editor, Samuel Bowles, would later become a good friend to Dickinson. She sent him many poems, several of which were published, also anonymously and apparently without her consent, in the Daily Republican.
In 1853, Edward Dickinson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and took up residence in Washington, D.C. On the way back from visiting her father in 1855, Dickinson stopped in Philadelphia to visit a school friend. While there, she befriended Reverend Charles Wadsworth. She was quite taken with him and he became a lifelong correspondent. He also visited her occasionally in Amherst. Some scholars believe Dickinson's love poems were inspired by Wadsworth.
Later in 1855, with Edward failing to win re-election, the family moved back to the Homestead which had recently been reacquired and renovated. Dickinson now had a conservatory for year-round gardening and also her own bedroom. The personal space allowed her to concentrate on her writing. She began experimenting with poetic form, challenging conventions and establishing her own innovative style. Around this time, Dickinson’s mother became chronically ill. Dickinson became her main caregiver and gradually retreated from society. She became more and more reclusive as time went on, but she maintained many correspondences.
In 1856, Dickinson's brother Austin married Susan Gilbert, one of her closest friends, and the couple moved into a new house built next door to the Homestead. Gilbert, who was also a writer, was an important part of Dickinson's intellectual life. Although their relationship soured in later years, Gilbert was a great influence during Dickinson's most productive years, and she received nearly 250 poems during the course of their friendship.
From 1858 to 1864, Dickinson refined and collected her poems into small handmade booklets. She did not show the booklets to anyone, but she routinely sent poems to her friends. Dickinson also sent many poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a famous literary figure, whom she contacted after reading a magazine article in which he offered advice to young writers. Higginson felt Dickinson's poems lacked structure and did not encourage her to publish. Dickinson herself expressed distaste for publishing, calling it an "auction" that reduced poetry to "disgrace of price." She continued to seek Higginson's advice, however, and he eventually became a mentor figure.
In 1860, Reverend Wadsworth came to the Homestead for an unexpected visit and took Dickinson out for a carriage ride. He left immediately afterwards, and Dickinson locked herself in her bedroom. No one knew what was said, but she suffered a nervous breakdown and was bedridden for a week. The following year, Wadsworth moved to San Francisco. It is speculated that he had made the decision earlier and shared the news with Dickinson.
Dickinson developed a severe, painful eye ailment in 1864 and spent many months in Boston for treatment. After the second round of treatment, she returned to Amherst in 1865 never to travel again. She rarely left the grounds of the Homestead. She often spent days at a time in the seclusion of her bedroom, and she refused many visitors. She continued to write poetry but stopped making extensive revisions and no longer bound her poems into booklets. She also began wearing white clothing exclusively and came to be known in the area as an eccentric.
In 1874, Dickinson's father died suddenly while away from home on political business. Then in 1875, her mother suffered a stroke and became partially paralyzed. There were other deaths and illnesses among Dickinson's friends and family members in the late 1870s and into the early 1880s.
During this difficult period of her life, Dickinson did find happiness in a late romance with Judge Otis Phillips Lord. Lord, a friend of her father and eighteen years her senior, had been a good friend to her for some time. After his wife's death in 1877, their relationship developed into a romance. It is believed that they were contemplating marriage, but Lord suffered a stroke in 1882 and died two years later.
Dickinson's last years were filled with losses. Her mother and Wadsworth both died in 1882. Then two years later, in the same year Otis Lord died, her eight-year old nephew, whom Dickinson adored, died from typhoid fever. Around the same time, Dickinson herself became ill. She was diagnosed with kidney disease and became an invalid. She died in 1886 at the age of 56.
After Dickinson's death, her sister Lavinia discovered a locked chest containing 40 handmade volumes and numerous loose sheets filled with nearly 1800 poems. The first collection Poems by Emily Dickinson was published in 1890 and was an immediate popular success. It was followed by two additional volumes. Co-edited by Higginson, the initial collections altered Dickinson's poems, most notably her unique punctuation and capitalization, to conform to the poetic conventions of the day. Critical reviews were mixed. It was not until1955 that a complete collection was published which restored her poems in their intended form and Dickinson's true talents were finally recognized.
With very few exceptions, Emily Dickinson's poems are untitled. They are generally known by their first lines.
- "Because I could not stop for Death"
- "Because that you are going"
- "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,"
- "I lost a World - the other day! "
- "If I can stop one Heart from breaking"
- "March is the Month of Expectation. "
- "Of Tolling Bell I ask the cause?"
- "The Bee is not afraid of me. "
- "There's a certain Slant of light"
- "While we were fearing it, it came —"