Introducing Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th 1830. She was given the same Christian name as her mother, who before marriage was Emily Norcross. Her father Edward Dickinson had graduated from Yale, and had become a prominent lawyer and a politician. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, had made his mark on the town of Amherst by founding Amherst College. Emily was born second, her elder sibling being William Austin (whom Emily would call ‘Aw’). Later a sister would join them, Lavinia. Emily therefore belonged to a well connected if not hugely affluent, but certainly comfortable, Massachusetts family. She, rather atypically, was to devote herself to what has been described as a largely hermit-like existence and to the craft of writing.
Emily grew up in a house built by Samuel, her paternal grandfather. Known as ‘the Homestead’, this was a substantial dwelling, added to by her father in 1855, and today a museum. It was to remain Emily’s home throughout her life, apart from a spell of a few years spent in a house in North Pleasant Street, in which Emily’s bedroom window had a view of the town’s cemetery. Here, frequent burials took place. Significantly, the theme of death recurs in Emily’s poetry.
Her first school was Amherst Academy where she spent seven years, commencing from the age of nine. Emily shone academically, studying Latin, classical literature, the works of Virgil, history, botany and mathematics. This was an uncommonly broad spectrum for the time. In early childhood she also took up piano and was considered to be very proficient.
Suffering several bouts of illness during those youthful years, Dickinson also had a keen awareness of death. She referred to it as the "deepening menace". One incident which left lasting mental scars was the loss of friend Sophia Holland, who was Emily’s second cousin. She died as a result of typhus. The grief displayed by Emily caused some alarm and led to one of her rare absences from home, when she was sent to Boston to stay with relatives. This episode meant that her studies at Amherst Academy were interrupted.
For a brief period, Emily was educated away from whom. Both she and her sister Lavinia became boarding pupils at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. Emily embarked on her stay there at the age of seventeen but remained less than a year. No clear account survives to explain her premature departure from Mount Holyoke in 1848. Ill health and homesickness are both suspected of being the cause. At any event, it was her brother who was dispatched on a mission to collect her and bring her home.
Her serious poetry-writing career commenced upon her return to Amherst. This was interspersed with baking and other household pursuits.
The town of Amherst witnessed a religious revival in 1845, and this led to a large number of young people professing their Christian faith. Emily for a time was under the influence of this movement. During that period, she wrote: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior." Her church attendance subsequently tailed off, as is demonstrated in the poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home".
One of the few journeys that she made occurred in 1855 when with her younger sister Lavinia Emily made a journey to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. In the latter of these two cities Emily struck up another important acquaintanceship. This was with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Later to be dubbed by her "my closest earthly friend", Wadsworth in 1860 came to Amherst to visit Emily. Many have speculated that he was the inspiration for certain lovelorn outpourings noticeable in poems written subsequently.
Among her formative influences there numbered a handful of older men who played the role of mentor. With members of the legal profession in the family, it is unsurprising that Emily formed a friendship with a young acquaintance of her father’s, the lawyer Benjamin Franklin Newton. He influenced the direction of her writing and wrote in a letter that he knew she would gain recognition. Sadly, Benjamin was among those friends who died prematurely.
The public perception locally of Emily was of a reclusive young woman who frequently dressed entirely in white. Her chief companion was her dog, Pablo, a Newfoundland. She was to develop into a prolific letter writer and it was by this means that she conducted the majority of her friendships. Evidence from her letters suggests that she had a closer bond with her father Edward than with her mother Emily. There is much evidence to that she had a thorough grounding in a wide variety of literary texts, from the works of Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, Longfellow and contemporary writer Lydia Maria Child.
Meanwhile, in the now enlarged family home, Edward annually hosted a reception at the start of the Amherst College academic year which Emily attended. Emily’s very close friend Susan Gilbert married Emily’s brother in 1856. The couple spent their married life in a neighboring house, ‘The Evergreens’, presented to them by Edward, now also a museum.
Here, regular guests included Samuel Bowles who was editor of the Springfield Republican, and eminent writer and philosopher as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emily’s friendship with Bowles developed and critics have considered whether he is the romantic subject of some of her poems. Others with whom she exchanged letters throughout her life were, Abby Wood, Abiah Root and Jane Humphrey.
Also among her small circle of friends, and possibly also recipient of her affections, was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He edited the Atlantic Monthly to which in 1862 Emily submitted four poems along with a letter appealing to Higginson to pay her the honor of giving them his consideration. Although he turned the works down at the time (and Emily herself claimed to have no desire for publication, saying it was as unnatural to her "as Firmament to Fin"), he subsequently did publish work by Emily, but only after her death.
This reflected the pattern whereby Emily Dickinson’s work was not recognized whilst she was alive. Just a handful of poems got published and this was done without her consent. Different sources disagree, but a figure of an incredible 1700 poems is often quoted as the approximate total number of poems written by this exceptional poetess. Although she was invited by Higginson to Boston, she declined, and they never met in person.
Emily Dickinson’s poems were unconventional. This explains in part why very few were published during the late Victorian era while she was alive. Those that were published were greatly altered by editors. Absence of titles, unorthodox punctuation and slant rhymes are some of the features that made her work quite innovative. The subject matter typically included death and the life beyond.
Similarly, her poems often took a stand that questioned the puritanical notions which surrounded her upbringing. Spiritual matters often form the subject matter and in that way she owed a debt to her heroes among the English poets, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats. Her outspoken, unadorned and wryly sardonic manner in poetry made her a trailblazer during a period in US literature when the tendency was to write decoratively or sentimentally. Some commentators have struggled to reconcile the idea of her solitary hermit-like habits with the topics and styles found in her writing.
It is documented that Emily’s last trip away from the family home was to Boston during a protracted period from 1864 to 1865 when she stayed with cousins there and received treatment for an eye condition. She was sternly prohibited from reading or writing until recovery was complete. Circumstances meant that Emily soon became more restricted to her home environment, as her mother was now severely ill. She required nursing from her daughters up until her death in 1882. From approximately 1874, the year in which Edward Dickinson died, Emily was rarely to be seen outside the house and garden. Soon, all outings beyond the Homestead ceased entirely. Gardening, baking, letter-writing and her poetry became Emily’s sole pursuits.
Indeed, it is gardening that one her local admiration in Amherst. Her extensive botanical knowledge impressed local townsfolk. Her own set of 424 pressed flowers bound in a volume and carefully labeled testified to this accomplishment. Friends received poems with posies of flowers attached.
Emily was now battling with an at times disabling condition of the kidneys, Bright’s Disease, ultimately to be the cause of her death. From the mid 1860s onwards, it is reported that she only conversed with outsiders by speaking through a crack at the front door. Having endured a series of losses of people close to her – one of these being the wholly unexpected demise of the young principal of Amherst Academy – Emily faced another blow when in 1878. She lost not only her mother in 1882 but also her great friend Charles Wadsworth. Sadly too her only nephew, her brother’s child Gilbert died in 1883. At just fifty-six, Emily Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886.
Emily had expressly requested that her funeral not be a church ceremony. Her life-long home, The Homestead, was instead the venue where people gathered. Her grave is in Amherst Massachusetts’s West Cemetery.
It may seem surprising that prior to her death, Emily’s family seem not to have acknowledged the prolific body of work that she produced. Fortunately for readers ever since, her sister Lavinia uncovered her work, a breathtaking quantity of poems numbering close on 1700. Lavinia, on the other hand, carried out her sister’s instructions to burn most of the vast body of correspondence with friends and scholars.
As for the poetry, just four years after Emily’s death, it was to be her cherished friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was to publish her first collection. There were substantial alterations and revisions, in order to make the poems fit in with the tastes of the day. It was not until 1955 that original untouched versions of her poems were finally published in one collection. Finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, Dickinson received recognition as an American poet of note.
By Heather Flood