Emily Dickinson: Individuality Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, to Edward Dickinson, a well-respected lawyer, and his wife Emily Norcross Dickinson, whom she was named after. She lived her whole life in the same house with her sister Lavina including after her parent s death in her middle years. Her parents had been very traditional, as most people were in those days. Her father, along with the rest of the family, were Christians and she alone decided to rebel against that and reject the Church. She like many of her contemporaries had rejected the traditional views in life and adopted the new transcendental outlook.
Massachusetts, the state where Emily was born and raised, was the epicenter of religious practice before the transcendental period. Founded by the Puritans, the feeling of avenging had never left the people. After all of the Great Awakenings and religious revivals, the people of New England began to question the old ways. What used to be the focal point of all lives was now under speculation and often doubted. People began to search for new meanings in life. People like Emerson and Thoreau believed that answers lie in the individual.
Emerson set the tone for the era when he said, Insist on yourself; never imitate (McMichael 691). Emily Dickinson believed and practiced this philosophy. When she was young, she was brought up by a stern and disciplined father. In her childhood she was shy and already different from the others. Like all the Dickinson children, male or female, Emily was sent for formal DeHaven 2 education in Amherst Academy. After attending Amherst Academy with many other conscientious thinkers, and after reading many of Emerson s essays, she began to develop into a free willed person.
Many of her friends had converted to Christianity. Her family was also putting an enormous amount of pressure for her to convert. No longer the submissive youngster she would not bend her will on such issues as religion, literature, and personal associations. She maintained a correspondence with Rev. Charles Wadsworth over a substantial period of time.
Even though she rejected the Church as an entity she never did reject or accept God. Wadsworth appealed to her because he had an incredibly powerful mind and deep emotions. When he moved away in 1861, Emily was scarred and she expressed her deep sorrow in three successive poems in the years thereafter. I believe that although they were never romantically involved their relationship was apparently very profound. Emily s feelings for him grew to such great extents that she sealed herself from the outside world. She felt that she had no one left to talk to on a philosophical level and it is in my opinion that this is what led her into seclusion.
Her life became filled with gloom and despair until she met Judge Otis P. Lord late in her life. Realizing that they were both well into their lives, they never married. When Judge Lord passed away, Emily s health condition, which had been hindered since childhood, worsened.
In Emily s life the most important things to her were love, religion, individuality, and nature. When discussing DeHaven 3 these themes she followed her lifestyle and broke away from traditional forms of writing and wrote with an intense energy and complexity that had never been seen before and is rarely seen today. She was a rarity not only because of her poetry but because she was one of the first female pioneers into the field of poetry. Emily often speaks of love in her poems, but she did it in such a way that would make people not want to fall in love. She writes of parting, separation, and loss.
This is supported by the experiences she felt with Wadsworth and Otis P. Lord: Not with a club the heart is broken, Nor with a stone; A whip so small you could not see it, I ve known (Johnson 272) This seems to be an actual account of the emotions she experienced during her relationship with Otis Lord. Individuality played a pervasive role in her life as a result of her bout with separation. Emily did not conform to society. She did not believe it was society s place to dictate to her how she should lead her life. Her poems reflect this sense of rebellion and revolution against tradition.
From all the jails the boys and girls Ecstatically leap, Beloved, only afternoon That prison doesn t keep. (Kirby 71) In this poem Emily shows her feelings towards formalized schooling. Being a product of reputable college one would think that she would be in favor of this. But as her beliefs in transcendentalism grew so DeHaven 4 did her belief in individuality. She grew to adopt the Emersonian concepts and lead a daily life by them. Emily also went against the Church, which was an extreme rarity of the time.
Similar to many others that shared her beliefs, she too did not think that a set religion was the way for salvation. Everyone should experience things for themselves. Some keep the Sabbath going to Church; I keep it, staying at Home, With a Bobolink for a Chorister, And an Orchard, for a Dome. (Johnson 66) According to this poem Emily clearly states that nature is her source of guidance and she has little need for the Church as an institution.
Like Thoreau, Emily believed that people needed to understand nature before they could begin to comprehend humanity because humanity was just a part of nature. Unlike many others, she felt that nature was beautiful and must be understood. Has it feet like water-lilies Has it feathers like a bird Is it brought from famous countries, Of which I have never heard (Will there really be a morning) (Porter 128) Further on in the poem she goes on to ask if the scholar or some wise man from the skies (Porter 129) knows where to find morning. It can be inferred that morning, something so common place and taken for granted, cannot be grasped by even the greatest so-called minds. Emily also saw the frightful part of nature. Death was an extension of the natural order.
Probably the most prominent theme in her writing is death. She took death in a relatively casual way when DeHaven 5 compared to the puritan beliefs that surrounded her life. Death to her was just the next logical step of life and compares it to a carriage ride that travels through many other common place happenings. Because I could not stop for Death-He kindly stopped for me-The Carriage held but just Ourselves-And Immortality. (Johnson 177-78) Life according to Emily is brief and the people living out their lives have little control. In this short life That only lasts an hour, How much, how little, Is within our power! (Kirby 63) However non-religious she may appear and however insignificant she believes life to be, she does however show some signs in accepting life after death.
This world is not Conclusion; A Species stands beyond, Invisible, as Music, But positive as Sound. (Johnson 123) To Emily the most important things in her life were religion, individuality, nature, and death. She may not have believed in God but He did have a profound impact throughout her childhood. Dickinson and Emerson alike felt the most important thing was to maintain ones individuality as she did.
Be true to yourself and never imitate the beliefs of anyone else. She was fascinated by both nature and death and attempted to explain both in her writings. Johnson, Thomas H. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson s Poems. Canada: Brown, Little and Company, 1961.
Kirby, Joan. Emily Dickinson. New York: St. Martin s Press, 1991. McMichael's, George. Concise Anthology of American Literature.
Fourth Edition. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1998. Porter, David T. The Art of Emily Dickinson s Early Poetry. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966.