59 Emily Dickinson

Introduction to Emily Dickinson

Family and early childhood

The Dickinson children (Emily on the left), ca. 1840. From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born at the family’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not wealthy, family. Her father, Edward Dickinson was a lawyer in Amherst and a trustee of Amherst College. Two hundred years earlier, her patrilineal ancestors had arrived in the New World—in the Puritan Great Migration—where they prospered. Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. In 1813, he built the Homestead, a large mansion on the town’s Main Street, that became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Samuel Dickinson’s eldest son, Edward, was treasurer of Amherst College from 1835 to 1873, served in the Massachusetts House of Representatives (1838–1839; 1873), the Massachusetts Senate (1842–1843), and represented Massachusetts’s 10th congressional district in the 33rd U.S. Congress (1853–1855).[11] On May 6, 1828, he married Emily Norcross from Monson. They had three children:
  • William Austin (1829–1895), known as Austin, Aust or Awe
  • Emily Elizabeth
  • Lavinia Norcross (1833–1899), known as Lavinia or Vinnie

By all accounts, young Emily was a well-behaved girl. On an extended visit to Monson when she was two, Emily’s Aunt Lavinia described Emily as “perfectly well & contented—She is a very good child & but little trouble.” Emily’s aunt also noted the girl’s affinity for music and her particular talent for the piano, which she called “the moosic“.

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”.

Teenage years

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 spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy,” and arithmetic. Daniel Taggart Fiske, the school’s principal at the time, would later recall that Dickinson was “very bright” and “an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties”. Although she had a few terms off due to illness—the longest of which was in 1845–1846, when she was enrolled for only eleven weeks—she enjoyed her strenuous studies, writing to a friend that the Academy was “a very fine school”.

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 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 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 stayed 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 reasons 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 writing

When 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 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 Eyres 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?”

Adulthood and seclusion

In early 1850, Dickinson wrote that “Amherst is alive with fun this winter … Oh, a very great town this is!” Her high spirits soon turned to melancholy after another death. The Amherst Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly of “brain congestion” at age 25. Two years after his death, she revealed to her friend Abiah Root the extent of her depression:

some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey.

During the 1850s, Emily’s strongest and most affectionate relationship was with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. Emily eventually sent her over three hundred letters, more than to any other correspondent, over the course of their relationship. Susan was supportive of the poet, playing the role of “most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser” whose editorial suggestions Dickinson sometimes followed. In an 1882 letter to Susan, Emily said, “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living.”

The importance of Emily’s relationship with Susan has widely been overlooked due to a point of view first promoted by Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s longtime mistress, who diminished Susan’s role in Emily’s life due to her own poor relationship with her lover’s wife. However, the notion of a “cruel” Susan—as promoted by her romantic rival—has been questioned, most especially by Susan and Austin’s surviving children, with whom Emily was close. Many scholars interpret the relationship between Emily and Susan as a romantic one. In The Emily Dickinson Journal Lena Koski wrote, “Dickinson’s letters to Gilbert express strong homoerotic feelings.” She quotes from many of their letters, including one from 1852 in which Emily proclaims, “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me … I hope for you so much, and feel so eager for you, feel that I cannot wait, feel that now I must have you—that the expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish, and my heart beats so fast … my darling, so near I seem to you, that I disdain this pen, and wait for a warmer language.” The relationship between Emily and Susan is portrayed in the film Wild Nights with Emily and explored in the TV series Dickinson.

Sue married Austin in 1856 after a four-year courtship, though their marriage was not a happy one. Edward Dickinson built a house for Austin and Sue naming it the Evergreens, a stand of which was located on the west side of the Homestead.

Until 1855, Dickinson had not strayed far from Amherst. That spring, accompanied by her mother and sister, she took one of her longest and farthest trips away from home. First, they spent three weeks in Washington, where her father was representing Massachusetts in Congress. Then they went to Philadelphia for two weeks to visit family. In Philadelphia, she met Charles Wadsworth, a famous minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she forged a strong friendship which lasted until his death in 1882. Despite seeing him only twice after 1855 (he moved to San Francisco in 1862), she variously referred to him as “my Philadelphia”, “my Clergyman”, “my dearest earthly friend” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood”.

From the mid-1850s, Emily’s mother became effectively bedridden with various chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. Writing to a friend in summer 1858, Emily said she would visit if she could leave “home, or mother. I do not go out at all, lest father will come and miss me, or miss some little act, which I might forget, should I run away – Mother is much as usual. I Know not what to hope of her”. As her mother continued to decline, Dickinson’s domestic responsibilities weighed more heavily upon her and she confined herself within the Homestead. Forty years later, Lavinia said that because their mother was chronically ill, one of the daughters had to remain always with her. Emily took this role as her own, and “finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it”.

Withdrawing more and more from the outside world, Emily began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books. The forty fascicles she created from 1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No one was aware of the existence of these books until after her death.

In the late 1850s, the Dickinsons befriended Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, and his wife, Mary. They visited the Dickinsons regularly for years to come. During this time Emily sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most intense writing and Bowles published a few of her poems in his journal. It was from 1858 to 1861 that Dickinson is believed to have written a trio of letters that have been called “The Master Letters”. These three letters, drafted to an unknown man simply referred to as “Master”, continue to be the subject of speculation and contention amongst scholars.

The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from social life, proved to be Dickinson’s most productive writing period. Modern scholars and researchers are divided as to the cause for Dickinson’s withdrawal and extreme seclusion. While she was diagnosed as having “nervous prostration” by a physician during her lifetime, some today believe she may have suffered from illnesses as various as agoraphobia and epilepsy.

Is “my Verse … alive?”

In April 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, radical abolitionist, and ex-minister, wrote a lead piece for The Atlantic Monthly titled, “Letter to a Young Contributor”. Higginson’s essay, in which he urged aspiring writers to “charge your style with life”, contained practical advice for those wishing to break into print. Dickinson’s decision to contact Higginson suggests that by 1862 she was contemplating publication and that it may have become increasingly difficult to write poetry without an audience. Seeking literary guidance that no one close to her could provide, Dickinson sent him a letter, which read in full:

Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform; he was colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers from 1862 to 1864.

Mr Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –
If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –
I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it’s [sic] own pawn –

This highly nuanced and largely theatrical letter was unsigned, but she had included her name on a card and enclosed it in an envelope, along with four of her poems. He praised her work but suggested that she delay publishing until she had written longer, being unaware she had already appeared in print. She assured him that publishing was as foreign to her “as Firmament to Fin”, but also proposed that “If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her”. Dickinson delighted in dramatic self-characterization and mystery in her letters to Higginson. She said of herself, “I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.” She stressed her solitary nature, saying her only real companions were the hills, the sundown, and her dog, Carlo. She also mentioned that whereas her mother did not “care for Thought”, her father bought her books, but begged her “not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind”.

Dickinson valued his advice, going from calling him “Mr. Higginson” to “Dear friend” as well as signing her letters, “Your Gnome” and “Your Scholar”. His interest in her work certainly provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862. They corresponded until her death, but her difficulty in expressing her literary needs and a reluctance to enter into a cooperative exchange left Higginson nonplussed; he did not press her to publish in subsequent correspondence. Dickinson’s own ambivalence on the matter militated against the likelihood of publication. Literary critic Edmund Wilson, in his review of Civil War literature, surmised that “with encouragement, she would certainly have published”.

The woman in white

In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote fewer poems in 1866. Beset with personal loss as well as loss of domestic help, Dickinson may have been too overcome to keep up her previous level of writing. Carlo died during this time after providing sixteen years of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog. Although the household servant of nine years, Margaret O Brien, had married and left the Homestead that same year, it was not until 1869 that her family brought in a permanent household servant, Margaret Maher, to replace the old one. Emily once again was responsible for chores, including the baking, at which she excelled.

A solemn thing – it was – I said –
A Woman – White – to be –
And wear – if God should count me fit –
Her blameless mystery –

Emily Dickinson, c. 1861

Around this time, Dickinson’s behavior began to change. She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face. She acquired local notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. Dickinson’s one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878–1882. Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person. Austin and his family began to protect Emily’s privacy, deciding that she was not to be a subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that “Aunt Emily stood for indulgence. MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote a short article in 1891 called “A Child’s Recollection of Emily Dickinson”, thought of her as always offering support to the neighborhood children.

When Higginson urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so they could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing: “Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”. It was not until he came to Amherst in 1870 that they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as “a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair … in a very plain & exquisitely clean white piqué & a blue net worsted shawl.” He also felt that he never was “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

Posies and poesies

Scholar Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, “was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet”. Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. During her lifetime, she assembled a collection of pressed plants in a sixty-six page leather-bound herbarium. It contained 424 pressed flower specimens that she collected, classified, and labeled using the Linnaean system. The Homestead garden was well-known and admired locally in its time. It has not survived but efforts to revive it have begun. Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered “carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia”. In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she “could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets”. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but “they valued the posy more than the poetry”.

Later life

On June 16, 1874, while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke and died. When the simple funeral was held in the Homestead’s entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open. Neither did she attend the memorial service on June 28. She wrote to Higginson that her father’s “Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.” A year later, on June 15, 1875, Emily’s mother also suffered a stroke, which produced a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory. Lamenting her mother’s increasing physical as well as mental demands, Emily wrote that “Home is so far from Home”.

Though the great Waters sleep,
That they are still the Deep,
We cannot doubt –
No vacillating God
Ignited this Abode
To put it out –

Emily Dickinson, c. 1884

Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873 became an acquaintance of Dickinson’s. After the death of Lord’s wife in 1877, his friendship with Dickinson probably became a late-life romance, though as their letters were destroyed, this is surmised. Dickinson found a kindred soul in Lord, especially in terms of shared literary interests; the few letters which survived contain multiple quotations of Shakespeare’s work, including the plays OthelloAntony and CleopatraHamlet and King Lear. In 1880 he gave her Cowden Clarke’s Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (1877). Dickinson wrote that “While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us?” She referred to him as “My lovely Salem” and they wrote to each other religiously every Sunday. Dickinson looked forward to this day greatly; a surviving fragment of a letter written by her states that “Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day”.

After being critically ill for several years, Judge Lord died in March 1884. Dickinson referred to him as “our latest Lost”. Two years before this, on April 1, 1882, Dickinson’s “Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood”, Charles Wadsworth, also had died after a long illness.

Poetry

Dickinson’s poems generally fall into three distinct periods, the works in each period having certain general characters in common.

  • Pre-1861. These are often conventional and sentimental in nature. Thomas H. Johnson, who later published The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was able to date only five of Dickinson’s poems before 1858. Two of these are mock valentines done in an ornate and humorous style, and two others are conventional lyrics, one of which is about missing her brother Austin. The fifth poem, which begins “I have a Bird in spring”, conveys her grief over the feared loss of friendship and was sent to her friend Sue Gilbert.
  • 1861–1865. This was her most creative period—these poems represent her most vigorous and creative work. Johnson estimated that she composed 86 poems in 1861, 366 in 1862, 141 in 1863, and 174 in 1864. He also believed that during this period, she fully developed her themes of life and mortality.
  • Post-1866. It is estimated that two-thirds of the entire body of her poetry was written before this year.

Structure and syntax

Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript of her poem “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”

The extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in Dickinson’s manuscripts, and the idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery, combine to create a body of work that is “far more various in its styles and forms than is commonly supposed”. Dickinson avoids pentameter, opting more generally for trimeter, tetrameter and, less often, dimeter. Sometimes her use of these meters is regular, but oftentimes it is irregular. The regular form that she most often employs is the ballad stanza, a traditional form that is divided into quatrains, using tetrameter for the first and third lines and trimeter for the second and fourth, while rhyming the second and fourth lines (ABCB). Though Dickinson often uses perfect rhymes for lines two and four, she also makes frequent use of slant rhyme. In some of her poems, she varies the meter from the traditional ballad stanza by using trimeter for lines one, two and four, while only using tetrameter for line three.

Since many of her poems were written in traditional ballad stanzas with ABCB rhyme schemes, some of these poems can be sung to fit the melodies of popular folk songs and hymns that also use the common meter, employing alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Familiar examples of such songs are “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Amazing Grace'”.

Dickinson scholar and poet Anthony Hecht finds resonances in Dickinson’s poetry not only with hymns and song-forms but also with psalms and riddles, citing the following example: “Who is the East? / The Yellow Man / Who may be Purple if he can / That carries in the Sun. / Who is the West? / The Purple Man / Who may be Yellow if He can / That lets Him out again.”

Late 20th-century scholars are “deeply interested” by Dickinson’s highly individual use of punctuation and lineation (line lengths and line breaks). Following the publication of one of the few poems that appeared in her lifetime – “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”, published as “The Snake” in the Republican – Dickinson complained that the edited punctuation (an added comma and a full stop substitution for the original dash) altered the meaning of the entire poem.

Original wording
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
Republican version
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not,
His notice sudden is.

As Farr points out, “snakes instantly notice you”; Dickinson’s version captures the “breathless immediacy” of the encounter; and The Republicans punctuation renders “her lines more commonplace”. With the increasingly close focus on Dickinson’s structures and syntax has come a growing appreciation that they are “aesthetically based”. Although Johnson’s landmark 1955 edition of poems was relatively unaltered from the original, later scholars critiqued it for deviating from the style and layout of Dickinson’s manuscripts. Meaningful distinctions, these scholars assert, can be drawn from varying lengths and angles of dash, and differing arrangements of text on the page. Several volumes have attempted to render Dickinson’s handwritten dashes using many typographic symbols of varying length and angle. R. W. Franklin’s 1998 variorum edition of the poems provided alternate wordings to those chosen by Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention. Franklin also used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the manuscripts’ dashes more closely.

Major themes

Dickinson left no formal statement of her aesthetic intentions and, because of the variety of her themes, her work does not fit conveniently into any one genre. She has been regarded, alongside Emerson (whose poems Dickinson admired), as a Transcendentalist. However, Farr disagrees with this analysis, saying that Dickinson’s “relentlessly measuring mind … deflates the airy elevation of the Transcendental”. Apart from the major themes discussed below, Dickinson’s poetry frequently uses humor, puns, irony and satire.

Flowers and gardens: Farr notes that Dickinson’s “poems and letters almost wholly concern flowers” and that allusions to gardens often refer to an “imaginative realm … wherein flowers [are] often emblems for actions and emotions”. She associates some flowers, like gentians and anemones, with youth and humility; others with prudence and insight. Her poems were often sent to friends with accompanying letters and nosegays. Farr notes that one of Dickinson’s earlier poems, written about 1859, appears to “conflate her poetry itself with the posies”: “My nosegays are for Captives – / Dim – long expectant eyes – / Fingers denied the plucking, / Patient till Paradise – / To such, if they sh’d whisper / Of morning and the moor – / They bear no other errand, / And I, no other prayer”.

The Master poems: Dickinson left a large number of poems addressed to “Signor”, “Sir” and “Master”, who is characterized as Dickinson’s “lover for all eternity”. These confessional poems are often “searing in their self-inquiry” and “harrowing to the reader” and typically take their metaphors from texts and paintings of Dickinson’s day. The Dickinson family themselves believed these poems were addressed to actual individuals but this view is frequently rejected by scholars. Farr, for example, contends that the Master is an unattainable composite figure, “human, with specific characteristics, but godlike” and speculates that Master may be a “kind of Christian muse”.

Morbidity: Dickinson’s poems reflect her “early and lifelong fascination” with illness, dying and death. Perhaps surprisingly for a New England spinster, her poems allude to death by many methods: “crucifixion, drowning, hanging, suffocation, freezing, premature burial, shooting, stabbing and guillotinage”. She reserved her sharpest insights into the “death blow aimed by God” and the “funeral in the brain”, often reinforced by images of thirst and starvation. Dickinson scholar Vivian Pollak considers these references an autobiographical reflection of Dickinson’s “thirsting-starving persona”, an outward expression of her needy self-image as small, thin and frail. Dickinson’s most psychologically complex poems explore the theme that the loss of hunger for life causes the death of self and place this at “the interface of murder and suicide”.

Gospel poems: Throughout her life, Dickinson wrote poems reflecting a preoccupation with the teachings of Jesus Christ and, indeed, many are addressed to him. She stresses the Gospels’ contemporary pertinence and recreates them, often with “wit and American colloquial language”. Scholar Dorothy Oberhaus finds that the “salient feature uniting Christian poets … is their reverential attention to the life of Jesus Christ” and contends that Dickinson’s deep structures place her in the “poetic tradition of Christian devotion” alongside Hopkins, Eliot and Auden. In a Nativity poem, Dickinson combines lightness and wit to revisit an ancient theme: “The Savior must have been / A docile Gentleman – / To come so far so cold a Day / For little Fellowmen / The Road to Bethlehem / Since He and I were Boys / Was leveled, but for that twould be / A rugged billion Miles –”.

The Undiscovered Continent: Academic Suzanne Juhasz considers that Dickinson saw the mind and spirit as tangible visitable places and that for much of her life she lived within them. Often, this intensely private place is referred to as the “undiscovered continent” and the “landscape of the spirit” and embellished with nature imagery. At other times, the imagery is darker and forbidding—castles or prisons, complete with corridors and rooms—to create a dwelling place of “oneself” where one resides with one’s other selves. An example that brings together many of these ideas is: “Me from Myself – to banish – / Had I Art – / Impregnable my Fortress / Unto All Heart – / But since myself—assault Me – / How have I peace / Except by subjugating / Consciousness. / And since We’re mutual Monarch / How this be / Except by Abdication – / Me – of Me?”.

Reception

Dickinson wrote and sent this poem (“A Route of Evanescence”) to Thomas Higginson in 1880.

The surge of posthumous publication gave Dickinson’s poetry its first public exposure. Backed by Higginson and with a favorable notice from William Dean Howells, an editor of Harper’s Magazine, the poetry received mixed reviews after it was first published in 1890. Higginson himself stated in his preface to the first edition of Dickinson’s published work that the poetry’s quality “is that of extraordinary grasp and insight”, albeit “without the proper control and chastening” that the experience of publishing during her lifetime might have conferred. His judgment that her opus was “incomplete and unsatisfactory” would be echoed in the essays of the New Critics in the 1930s.

Maurice Thompson, who was literary editor of The Independent for twelve years, noted in 1891 that her poetry had “a strange mixture of rare individuality and originality”. Some critics hailed Dickinson’s effort, but disapproved of her unusual non-traditional style. Andrew Lang, a British writer, dismissed Dickinson’s work, stating that “if poetry is to exist at all, it really must have form and grammar, and must rhyme when it professes to rhyme. The wisdom of the ages and the nature of man insist on so much”. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a poet and novelist, equally dismissed Dickinson’s poetic technique in The Atlantic Monthly in January 1892: “It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson … But the incoherence and formlessness of her — versicles are fatal … an eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar”.

Critical attention to Dickinson’s poetry was meager from 1897 to the early 1920s. By the start of the 20th century, interest in her poetry became broader in scope and some critics began to consider Dickinson as essentially modern. Rather than seeing Dickinson’s poetic styling as a result of lack of knowledge or skill, modern critics believed the irregularities were consciously artistic. In a 1915 essay, Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant called the poet’s inspiration “daring” and named her “one of the rarest flowers the sterner New England land ever bore”. With the growing popularity of modernist poetry in the 1920s, Dickinson’s failure to conform to 19th-century poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful to new generations of readers. Dickinson was suddenly referred to by various critics as a great woman poet, and a cult following began to form.

In the 1930s, a number of the New Critics – among them R. P. Blackmur, Allen Tate, Cleanth Brooks and Yvor Winters – appraised the significance of Dickinson’s poetry. As critic Roland Hagenbüchle pointed out, their “affirmative and prohibitive tenets turned out to be of special relevance to Dickinson scholarship”. Blackmur, in an attempt to focus and clarify the major claims for and against the poet’s greatness, wrote in a landmark 1937 critical essay: “… she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit. Her gift for words and the cultural predicament of her time drove her to poetry instead of antimacassars … She came … at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision.”

The second wave of feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a female poet. In the first collection of critical essays on Dickinson from a feminist perspective, she is heralded as the greatest woman poet in the English language. Biographers and theorists of the past tended to separate Dickinson’s roles as a woman and a poet. For example, George Whicher wrote in his 1952 book This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson, “Perhaps as a poet [Dickinson] could find the fulfillment she had missed as a woman.” Feminist criticism, on the other hand, declares that there is a necessary and powerful conjunction between Dickinson being a woman and a poet. Adrienne Rich theorized in Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson (1976) that Dickinson’s identity as a woman poet brought her power: “[she] chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed … She carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time … neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economics.”

Some scholars question the poet’s sexuality, theorizing that the numerous letters and poems that were dedicated to Susan Gilbert Dickinson indicate a lesbian romance, and speculating about how this may have influenced her poetry. Critics such as John Cody, Lillian Faderman, Vivian R. Pollak, Paula Bennett, Judith Farr, Ellen Louise Hart, and Martha Nell Smith have argued that Susan was the central erotic relationship in Dickinson’s life.

References

“Emily Dickinson.” Wikimedia, Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson.


POEMS

Because I could not stop for Death – (479)

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

All overgrown by cunning moss, (146)

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.
This Bird – observing others
When frosts too sharp became
Retire to other latitudes –
Quietly did the same –
But differed in returning –
Since Yorkshire hills are green –
Yet not in all the nests I meet –
Can Nightingale be seen –

Banish Air from Air – (963)

Banish Air from Air –
Divide Light if you dare –
They’ll meet
While Cubes in a Drop
Or Pellets of Shape
Fit –
Films cannot annul
Odors return whole
Force Flame
And with a Blonde push
Over your impotence
Flits Steam.

Before I got my eye put out – (336)

Before I got my eye put out –
I liked as well to see
As other creatures, that have eyes –
And know no other way –
But were it told to me, Today,
That I might have the Sky
For mine, I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me –
The Meadows – mine –
The Mountains – mine –
All Forests – Stintless stars –
As much of noon, as I could take –
Between my finite eyes –
The Motions of the Dipping Birds –
The Morning’s Amber Road –
For mine – to look at when I liked,
The news would strike me dead –
So safer – guess – with just my soul
Opon the window pane
Where other creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –

 

A Bird, came down the Walk – (359)

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

“A bird came down the walk.” Leaf 1. From Amherst College Emily Dickinson Collection. Open access.

The Bustle in a House (1108)

The Bustle in a House
The Morning after Death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted opon Earth –
The Sweeping up the Heart
And putting Love away
We shall not want to use again
Until Eternity –

Come slowly – Eden! (205)

Come slowly – Eden!
Lips unused to Thee –
Bashful – sip thy Jessamines –
As the fainting Bee –
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums –
Counts his nectars –
Enters – and is lost in Balms.

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act (1010)

Crumbling is not an instant’s Act
A fundamental pause
Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays —

‘Tis first a Cobweb on the Soul
A Cuticle of Dust
A Borer in the Axis
An Elemental Rust —

Ruin is formal — Devil’s work
Consecutive and slow —
Fail in an instant, no man did
Slipping — is Crashe’s law —

 

“Crumbling is not an instant’s act.” Leaf 1. Amherst College Emily Dickinson Collection. Open Access.

“Faith” is a fine invention (202)

“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!

Fame is a bee. (1788)

Fame is a bee.
It has a song—
It has a sting—
Ah, too, it has a wing.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers – (314)

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

I dwell in Possibility – (466)

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – (591)

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

I know that He exists. (365)

I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
’Tis an instant’s play –
’Tis a fond Ambush –
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!
But – should the play
Prove piercing earnest –
Should the glee – glaze –
In Death’s – stiff – stare –
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest –
Have crawled too far!

I started Early – Took my Dog – (656)

I started Early – Took my Dog –
And visited the Sea –
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me –
And Frigates – in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands –
Presuming Me to be a Mouse –
Aground – opon the Sands –
But no Man moved Me – till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe –
And past my Apron – and my Belt
And past my Boddice – too –
And made as He would eat me up –
As wholly as a Dew
Opon a Dandelion’s Sleeve –
And then – I started – too –
And He – He followed – close behind –
I felt His Silver Heel
Opon my Ancle – Then My Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl –
Until We met the Solid Town –
No One He seemed to know –
And bowing – with a Mighty look –
At me – The Sea withdrew –

In this short Life that only lasts an hour (1292)

In this short Life that only lasts an hour
How much – how little – is within our power
“In this short life.” From Amherst College Emily Dickinson Collection. Open access.

Much Madness is divinest Sense – (620)

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – (762)

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –
And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –
Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

Publication – is the Auction (788)

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –
Poverty – be justifying
For so foul a thing
Possibly – but We – would rather
From Our Garret go
White – unto the White Creator –
Than invest – Our Snow –
Thought belong to Him who gave it –
Then – to Him Who bear
It’s Corporeal illustration – sell
The Royal Air –
In the Parcel – Be the Merchant
Of the Heavenly Grace –
But reduce no Human Spirit
To Disgrace of Price –

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)

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 –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I, just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.

Success is counted sweetest (112)

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1263)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
image
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” From Amherst College Emily Dickinson Collection. Open access.

There’s a certain Slant of light, (320)

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

They shut me up in Prose – (445)

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 –
Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Look down opon Captivity –
And laugh – No more have I

This World is not Conclusion. (373)

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

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Emily Dickinson by Joel Gladd is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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