Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, an American poet who is "often described misleadingly as a 'virgin recluse' and a 'partially cracked poetess' (her own phrase) is now widely regarded as on of America's 19 th century genius of letters" (Morehouse 618). Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst Massachusetts to Edward Dickinson (a prominent lawyer, and later Congressman) and Emily Norcross Dickinson, and died May 15, 1886 in Amherst also. Her death certificate indicates that her occupation "at home" (Eberwein 563), an ambiguous title. Dickinson led a reclusive lifestyle, living most of her life on the Dickinson Homestead. Despite this, her poetry brilliantly reflects an inner creative inspiration. This is demonstrated when, in a conversation to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1870, she says "I find ecstasy in living the mere sense of living is joy enough" (Kennedy and Goia 369).
Dickinson grew up in a New England environment, which emphasized the close bonds between religious devotion, intellectual activity, and citizenship (Eberwein 564). Her education took place between the balance between Amherst's intellectual growth and the tradition of maintaining submissive behavior. Dickinson handled this balance quite beautifully. She began her education at Amherst's primary school, and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840-1847 along with her sister Lavina.
During her time at Amherst Academy, Dickinson was "greatly influenced by the scientist-theologian Edward Hitchcock and worshiped at the First Church during the period of revivalistic evangelical Protestantism known as the Second Awakening" (Eberwein 564). It was Amherst Academy that effectively excited and activated her intellectual capabilities. She was known as "a wit; she wrote comic sermons parodying the rhetoric of the local clergy" (Morehouse 622). Dickinson spent her schooldays studying and socializing with the young and sharp men and women of the Academy.
From 1847-1848, Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which she left after only three terms to return home to Amherst and her family due to a persistent illness and also homesickness. In addition, it has been suggested that Dickinson's formal education had already taken place at the Academy, and that she actually preferred her own home library to the one at Seminary school (Morehouse 622). Milton and Shakespeare were among her favorites, but she also delighted in the works of female writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the Bronzes. Dickinson "read and considered both what was new and what was 'classic'" (Morehouse 623). Ironically, she had to smuggle in poetry, the very genre of work that she is famous for, because it was perceived by her father to be works of pure imagination and hence frivolous and indulgent to read (Morehouse 623).
Although she professed to fear her father, Dickinson fortunately "seemed to have a sense of humor concerning the peculiarities of all members of her family" (Morehouse 621). | Top | After she returned from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson rarely left Amherst again, taking only a few trips to Boston for medical reasons, Philadelphia, and Washington D. C. As the years passed, she became more and more reclusive, spending a large amount of time in her room often writing poetry. What survives from these circumstances is the "intensely passionate poetry written from these private circumstances" (Kennedy and Goia 363). Dickinson "increasingly narrowed her circle to her family and a few close friends, notably Susan Gilbert" (Eberwein 564), who married her brother, Austin Dickinson, in 1856.
The couple moved in next door to the Dickinson Homestead, allowing Emily to frequently walk to visit Susan, whom she developed a deep friendship with. "We are only the poets, and everyone else is prose." (Morehouse 623) wrote Dickinson to Susan in the early 1850's. This letter marked a beginning of a deep friendship that was both literary and loving. The two women remained in contact for the next thirty years, despite stories of Dickinson's complete seclusion from the world. Susan married Dickinson's brother, Austin, in 1856, and the couple moved in next door to the Dickinson Homestead, and allowing Emily to frequently walk to visit Susan and her brother. During the 1850's, Amherst was a center for the "evangelical ardor that swept the northeast during the middle of the century" (623).
Emily Dickinson ceased going to church during this time, while her close girlhood friends were accepted into the church. In a poem, Dickinson wrote "Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church -- / I keep it staying at Home'o" (Kennedy and Goia 367). This reflects the fact that she was pursuing an independent spiritual journey, despite social pressures. Much speculation surrounds the crises that drove her to poetic expression and her reclusive behaviors. From 1858-1861 Dickinson composed three passionate romantic "Master" letters to an unknown male audience. The identity of this lover remains under speculation.
Some suggest Charles Wadsworth or Samuel Bowles, both married men who she presumably had romantic attachments to. Other candidates include Susan and her friend Kate Scott Anth on Turner (Eberwein 565). It is during this time that Dickinson Begins to claim her poetic identity; "writing is her sole province" (Morehouse 623). Instead of completing the domestic chores that were expected of her in the Puritan ideas of self-sacrifice, Dickinson formed her own version of domesticity and "sewed her own manuscripts into books that had to wait until the world was ready for them" (Morehouse 623). These booklets, known now as "fascicles," contained poems which "remarkable for their distilled wit, ambiguous manner, and stylistic idiosyncrasies" (Eberwein 564). The poems were shared with close friends and family, but not offered for publication until after her death.
In fact, very few of her poems were published during her lifetime, reports vary between just two (The International Dictionary of Women's Biography 144), seven (Kennedy and Goia 369), and ten (Eberwein 564), although she composed 1775 known poems (Kennedy and Goia 369). It is evident through her poetry, as well as her actions, that Dickinson valued her privacy and did not necessarily desire to risk the fate of literary celebrity. | Top | In 1862, Emily Dickinson began her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a magazine editor. " 'Can you tell me if my verse is alive?' she asked and sent him two poems, then 'thanked him for the surgery' when he'd replied with suggestions" (Morehouse 624). In their lengthy correspondence, she signed herself his scholar. She complained to him in 1866 when "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" was published (perhaps because Susan submitted it) saying " 'it was robbed of me and defeated of the third line I told you I did not print.' This was not a poet without an audience; this was a poet who insisted upon the fluidity of a text." (Morehouse 634).
Dickinson's life, though private from the 1860's on, was not free of turmoil. Her eyesight bothered her, and some have speculated that she "suffered from esotropia, a misalignment of the pupils which could have made her extremely sensitive to light" (Morehouse 624). This could have at least partially accounted for her reclusive lifestyle. Dickinson took great pleasure in gardening, reading, friendships and nurturing Austin and Sue's three children (Eberwein 565).
She also took care of her invalid mother with Lavina. It seems as though Dickinson was constantly confronted with grief, as many of her family members and loved ones passed away. In her early poems, she coped width religious doubt. Her later writings, "especially her letters, suggest an increasingly hopeful sense of her relationship with God" (Eberwein 565). She remained "fierce, witty, and physical, a poet who described her position as a woman and poet in terms of paradox and extremes: 'My life had stood -- / a Loaded Gun'" (Morehouse 624). Emily Dickinson died, possibly of kidney failure, on May 15, 1886 at the age of 55 years.
Interestingly, her coffin was not carried through the streets of the town which she inhabited her entire life, but through the fields, "sweet with clover and wild flowers she had loved" (Morehouse 624-625). Upstairs in her home, her poetry awaited the world. Following her death, her sister Lavina came upon a box of fascicles and other manuscripts and decided to display Emily Dickinson's genius to the world. Higginson assisted with the publication and promotion, and in 1890 Poems by Emily Dickinson was published.
From 1890 until the mid-twentieth century, nine "posthumous collections of her poems were published by friends and relatives" (Kennedy and Goia 363). If the reclusive and antisocial Emily Dickinson had been "known only public achievements, she would have soon been forgotten" (Eberwein 565). Dickinson's style of poetry is definitely unique " o irregular, condensed, emotional " o brimming with intellectual energy and ironic wit. Her imagery ranges from domestic metaphors, through scientific and geographical references, to literary allusions (Eberwein 564). Although they suggested unrequited love and religious searching, Dickinson's lyrics are vague on circumstances and surrounding the feelings of longing, passions, and despair. In a quiet subversion to gender assumptions, Dickinson's poetry has been steadily gaining recognition as works of art.
She has become the "most widely recognized woman poet to write in the English language and as an inspiration, to modern women writers." Within the context of New England's Protestant and Transcendental cultures, Emily Dickinson has crafted a voice of "fruitful tension and spiritual anxieties unleashed by the Civil War" (Eberwein 566). It is evident that "attempts to categorize her would deny the language that she lived: moving, various and variant, something alive, still living" (Morehouse 621). Perhaps she described poetry in all its glory when, in 1870, she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson: "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as though the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry" (Kennedy and Goia 368).