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|Born||Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
December 10, 1830
|Died||May 15, 1886 (aged 55)
|Notable works||List of Emily Dickinson poems|
While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.
Although Dickinson's acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 — when Lavinia, Dickinson's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems — that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Despite some unfavorable reception and skepticism over the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding her literary prowess, Dickinson is now almost universally considered to be one of the most significant of all American poets.
Family and early childhood
- William Austin (1829–1895), known as Austin, Aust or Awe
- Emily Elizabeth
- Lavinia Norcross (1833–1899), known as Lavinia or Vinnie
Dickinson attended primary school in a two-story building on Pleasant Street. Her education was "ambitiously classical for a Victorian girl". Her father wanted his children well-educated and he followed their progress even while away on business. When Emily was seven, he wrote home, reminding his children to "keep school, and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned". While Emily consistently described her father in a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was regularly cold and aloof. In a letter to a confidante, Emily wrote she "always ran Home to Awe [Austin] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none."
On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started together at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time, her father purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Emily's brother Austin later described this large new home as the "mansion" over which he and Emily presided as "lord and lady" while their parents were absent. The house overlooked Amherst's burial ground, described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding".
They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me "still" –
Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –
|Emily Dickinson, c. 1862|
Dickinson was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April 1844, Emily was traumatized. Recalling the incident two years later, Emily wrote that "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face." She became so melancholic that her parents sent her to stay with family in Boston to recover. With her health and spirits restored, she soon returned to Amherst Academy to continue her studies. During this period, she first met people who were to become lifelong friends and correspondents, such as Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert (who later married Emily's brother Austin).
In 1845, a religious revival took place in Amherst, resulting in 46 confessions of faith among Dickinson's peers. Dickinson wrote to a friend the following year: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior." She went on to say that it was her "greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to feel that he would listen to my prayers." The experience did not last: Dickinson never made a formal declaration of faith and attended services regularly for only a few years. After her church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home".
During the last year of her stay at the Academy, Emily became friendly with Leonard Humphrey, its popular new young principal. After finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which later became Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst. She was at the seminary for only ten months. Although she liked the girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there. The explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ considerably: either she was in poor health, her father wanted to have her at home, she rebelled against the evangelical fervor present at the school, she disliked the discipline-minded teachers, or she was simply homesick. Whatever the specific reason for leaving Holyoke, her brother Austin appeared on March 25, 1848, to "bring [her] home at all events". Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities. She took up baking for the family and enjoyed attending local events and activities in the budding college town.
Early influences and writingWhen she was eighteen, Dickinson's family befriended a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton. According to a letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family." Although their relationship was probably not romantic, Newton was a formative influence and would become the second in a series of older men (after Humphrey) that Dickinson referred to, variously, as her tutor, preceptor or master.
Newton likely introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth, and his gift to her of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first book of collected poems had a liberating effect. She wrote later that he, "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring". Newton held her in high regard, believing in and recognizing her as a poet. When he was dying of tuberculosis, he wrote to her, saying that he would like to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw. Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to Newton.
Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible but also with contemporary popular literature. She was probably influenced by Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York, another gift from Newton (after reading it, she gushed "This then is a book! And there are more of them!"). Her brother smuggled a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh into the house for her (because her father might disapprove) and a friend lent her Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in late 1849. Jane Eyre's influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog. William Shakespeare was also a potent influence in her life. Referring to his plays, she wrote to one friend "Why clasp any hand but this?" and to another, "Why is any other book needed?"