Emily Dickinson


Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born Dec. 10, 1830 in Amherst, Mass. and died May 15, 1886. She was, with Walt Whitman, one of the two foremost American poets of the 19th century. Her grandfather founded Amherst College. Her father, Edward, and her older brother Austin served as treasurers of Amherst College and in many other civic positions. Dickinson graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847 and attended nearby Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now known as Mount Holyoke College) for one year, returning home shaken by the attempts to persuade her to join the Congregational church. Despite a longing for a secure faith, Dickinson was nevertheless unable to make a profession of faith.

Dickinson was introduced to Ralph Waldo Emerson's transcendentalism by pastor Charles Wadworth. He was her dearest friend from 1855 - 1862 until he moved to California. By 1858, Dickinson had begun to copy poems into little packets. In the early 1860s she underwent a profound psychological and emotional disturbance, which biographers have tried to connect with a tragic, unrequited love. Samuel Bowles (editor of the Springfield Republican), Charles Wadsworth, and others have been suggested as the beloved, but the evidence is inconclusive. Whatever its source, the crisis stirred her imagination and brought her to poetic maturity. During the years 1862-66 she wrote more than a third of her total output of poems.

In April 1862 she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a popular critic, asking for advice about her poems. Their originality in form and content--irregular rhythms adapted from hymn meters, slant rhymes, eccentric phrasing and syntax, and emotional intensity and candor--led him to advise against publication. Though keeping Higginson as a correspondent, she continued to write poems in the same style. By the late 1860s, increasingly withdrawn from contacts beyond the family circle, Dickinson had become a recluse, dressing always in white. She apparently never left the family property after the late 1860's and became known as the "nun of Amherst." The sentimental stereotype of Dickinson as a frail, injured spinster has given way to the recognition that her seclusion was a deliberate choice made to secure independence for her vocation: living out her inner life unflinchingly in her tightly packed poems.

The facts of her external life reveal little to spark comment: friendships, mostly through correspondence; devotion to her parents until their deaths, to her younger, unmarried sister Lavinia, and to her brother Austin, whose unhappy marriage was a strain on all the family; and, finally, a reciprocated love for Judge Otis P. Lord, a widowed friend of her father, which came too late for marriage. What Dickinson gained through renunciation is enacted in the contradictory moods of her poetry. The lack of biographical evidence about a lover has recently aroused suggestion that the love poems present an integral struggle with a masculine aspect of herself that seems to be the link with and the key to her sexual nature, spiritual identity, and creative imagination. Some of her poems exist in two versions - with alternate sets of pronouns. Lillian Faderman recently showed that Dickinson's passionate letters to her friend Susan Gilbert were heavily edited by Dickinson's niece in order to muffle to deep professions of love they offered. Does this make her a lesbian? One can certainly read much of her work from a lesbian-feminist slant, according to Toni McNaron, without turning her into a practicing lesbian.

Fearing that she would be misunderstood, Dickinson chose not to publish (she published only seven poems during her lifetime), confident of posthumous fame. During her final decades she never left her house and garden, but among her papers was a scrap that read, "Area--no test of depth." Since her death of Bright's disease, Emily Dickinson has come to be hailed as perhaps the greatest female poet since Sappho. After her death, her bureau was found to contain over 1,000 poems. In total, she wrote over 1800 poems. It was not until 1955 that Dickenson's complete poems were published as she wrote them. The first poems were edited and "corrected" by Higginson.

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