Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), America’s best-known female poet and one of the foremost authors in American literature. Dickinson’s simply constructed yet intensely felt, acutely intellectual writings take as their subject issues vital to humanity: the agonies and ecstasies of love, sexuality, the unfathomable nature of death, the horrors of war, God and religious belief, the importance of humor, and musings on the significance of literature, music, and art.
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was the middle child of a prominent lawyer and one-term United States congressional representative, Edward Dickinson, and his wife, Emily Norcross Dickinson. From 1840 to 1847 she attended the Amherst Academy, and from 1847 to 1848 she studied at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, a few miles from Amherst.
With the exception of a trip to Washington, D.C., in the late 1850s and a few trips to Boston for eye treatments in the early 1860s, Dickinson remained in Amherst, living in the same house on Main Street from 1855 until her death. During her lifetime, she published only about 10 of her nearly 2,000 poems, in newspapers, Civil War journals, and a poetry anthology. The first volume of Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, was published in 1890, after Dickinson’s death.
The notion that Dickinson was extremely reclusive is a popular one, but it is at best a partial truth. Dickinson’s first editors molded their descriptions of her and her work to conform to 19th-century stereotypes of women writers and to downplay qualities that did not match the conventional conception. Popular depictions of Dickinson, as in the play The Belle of Amherst (1976), have perpetuated a belief that she always dressed in white, was sensitive and reclusive in nature, and had an unrequited or secret love. Although she never married and certainly became more selective over the years about the company she kept, Dickinson was far more sociable than most descriptions would have us believe.
She frequently entertained guests at her home and at the home of her brother and sister-in-law during her 20s and 30s; one friend commented that Dickinson was so surrounded by friends at a party that she had no chance to talk with her. In addition, Dickinson kept up a voluminous correspondence with friends, family, and one of her spiritual mentors, minister Charles Wadsworth. Although it has long been believed that various correspondents, including Higginson and editor Samuel Bowles, served as literary guides, there is no evidence that they influenced her writing.
Biographers are increasingly recognizing the vital role of Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, in her writing. For more than 35 years the two women lived next door to each other, sharing mutual passions for literature, music, cooking, and gardening. Emily sent Susan more than 400 poems and letter-poems, twice as many as she sent to any other correspondent. Susan also is the only person at whose behest Dickinson actually changed a poem; in response to Susan’s criticism, Dickinson wrote four different second stanzas to “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.” Evidence has also surfaced that Susan participated in the writing of many poems with Emily, and Susan was probably responsible for the few printings Emily Dickinson saw of her poems during her lifetime. In 1998 Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson was published, documenting the two women’s friendship.
Dickinson enjoyed the King James Version of the Bible, as well as authors such as English writers William Shakespeare, John Milton, Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, and Thomas Carlyle. Dickinson’s early style shows the strong influence of Barrett Browning, Scottish poet Robert Browning, and English poets John Keats and George Herbert.
Dickinson often used variations of meters common in hymn writing, especially iambic tetrameter (eight syllables per line, with every second syllable being stressed). She frequently employed off-rhymes. Examples of off-rhymes include ocean with noon and seam with swim in the lines “Than Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam — / Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon / Leap, plashless as they swim” from the poem “A Bird came down the Walk.”
Dickinson used common language in startling ways, a strategy called defamiliarization. This technique would, as she put it, “distill amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings” and from “familiar species.” Her poem “A Bird came down the Walk” also illustrates her use of defamiliarization: “A Bird came down the Walk— /…drank a Dew / …stirred his Velvet Head” and then “unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home” while “Butterflies” leap “off Banks of Noon.” Dickinson’s short poetic lines, condensed by using intense metaphors and by extensive use of ellipsis (the omission of words understood to be there), contrasted sharply with the style of her contemporary Walt Whitman, who used long lines, little rhyme, and irregular rhythm in his poetry.
In the early stages of her career, Dickinson’s handwritten lyrics imitated the formalities of print, and her poetic techniques were conventional, but she later began to attend to the visual aspects of her work. For example, she arranged and broke lines of verse in highly unusual ways to underscore meaning and she created extravagantly shaped letters of the alphabet to emphasize or play with a poem’s sense. She also incorporated cutouts from novels, magazines, and even the Bible to augment her own use of language.
Although few of Dickinson’s poems were formally published during her lifetime, she herself “published” by sending out at least one-third of her poems in the more than 1,000 letters she wrote to at least 100 different correspondents. The recipients included writer Helen Hunt Jackson, who later published Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest” in the volume A Masque of Poets (1878), and Elizabeth Holland, whose husband was an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, a prominent publishing company. Dickinson’s method of binding about 800 of her poems into 40 manuscript books and distributing several hundred of them in letters is now widely recognized as her particular form of self-publication. She also read her poems aloud to several people, including her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross, over a period of three decades.
Editions of Dickinson’s writings include The Poems of Emily Dickinson (3 volumes, 1955), The Letters of Emily Dickinson (3 volumes, 1958), and The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (2 volumes, 1981).