Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Though virtually unknown in her lifetime, Dickinson has come to be regarded alongside Walt Whitman as one of the two great American poets of the nineteenth century. Where Whitman represents blustering wild America, the America of frontiers and factories, full of American energy and American hope, Dickinson, with grace, with clarity, with an intelligence unequalled by any other American poet of her time, represents America's conscience. Many, in the wake of the twentieth century and its disasters, have come to know Dickinson and her sad intelligence like an old friend.
Ever the recluse, Dickinson's poetry is hard to classify. She was not a public personae, so she didn't write as part of any school or movement. She wrote for her own pleasure, or to express her own private triumphs and tragedies. Often it is said of certain writers that they wrote for themselves, but she is one of the few for whom it is really true. And yet, for that reason, she was truly innovative, and decades ahead of her time, stylistically and thematically. Her poetry was not truly appreciated until decades after her death, with the advent of modernism.
The independence and immediacy of Dickinson's work and her personal vision captured something uniquely American. She was perhaps the most philosophical American poet until Wallace Stevens; and in that regard, she is one of the most profoundly thoughtful poets America has ever had.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a prominent family well known for their political and educational influence. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson (1775–1838), was one of the founders of Amherst College, whose campus stands less than a mile from the family home. Her father, Edward Dickinson (1803–1874), was a lawyer and treasurer for the college. He was also politically prominent, serving on the Massachusetts General Court from 1838 to 1842, in the Massachusetts Senate from 1842 to 1843, and in the U.S. House of Representatives (to which he was elected as a Whig candidate in 1852). His wife, and the poet's mother, was Emily Norcross Dickinson (1804–1882). She was quiet and chronically ill. William Austin Dickinson (1829–1895), usually known by his middle name, was the poet’s older brother. He later married Dickinson's most intimate friend, Susan Gilbert, in 1856 and made his home next door to the house in which Emily lived most of her life. Their younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833–1899), often known as "Vinnie," encouraged the posthumous editing and publishing of her sister's poetry.
Dickinson lived most of her life in the family's houses in Amherst. In 1840, Emily was educated at the nearby Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. She studied English and classical literature, learning Latin and reading the Aeneid over several years, and was taught in other subjects including religion, history, mathematics, geology, and biology.
In 1847, at age 17, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which would later become Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley. When she again became ill in the spring, Austin was sent to bring her home after less than a year at the Seminary, and she did not return to the school. After that, she left home only for short trips to visit relatives in Boston, Cambridge, and Connecticut. For decades, popular wisdom portrayed Dickinson as an agoraphobic recluse. New scholarship suggests that she may not have been quite so eccentric, and may have even entertained a wide circle of friends. However, a record of Dickinson's adult life is almost impossible to construct; most of those with whom Dickinson would have corresponded lived very close by, and as a result Dickinson's letters are simply insufficient to paint a complete picture of her life. Few other documents remain from which a biography might be constructed. As a result, the life and times of one of America's greatest and most influential poets remains, largely, a source of conjecture.
Dickinson died on May 15, 1886. The cause of death was listed as Bright's disease (nephritis).
Dickinson's poetry is often recognizable at a glance, and is unlike the work of any other poet. Her facility with ballad and hymn meter, her extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in her manuscripts, and her idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery combine to create a unique lyric style that is at the same time hauntingly modern. No poet prior to Dickinson, in either England or America, sounded anything like her; her voice was of a distinctly new era, an American revolution in poetry; only Whitman and Poe were anywhere near the kind of poetry Dickinson was composing in her Amherst cloister.
Dickinson's poetry, beyond its inventive, almost playful (yet often menacing) tone that calls to mind William Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience, is characteristic in its highly psychological style. In studying Dickinson's poems it is important to remember her intention: she wrote almost of her poetry for herself and herself alone; had her wishes been carried out, almost all of it would have been destroyed by her kin upon her death. Because of this, Dickinson's poetry speaks with honesty and forthrightness of thought unparalleled in her time and unequalled to this day in its eloquence. The Confessional school of poets that would emerge in America in the 1950s, including such prestigious poets as Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton would unanimously hold Dickinson as a primary role-model for this reason.
Dickinson's poetry, moreover, is elusive and symbolic. Her poetry calls to mind the brilliant riddles of Anglo-Saxon poetry as well as the metaphysical and mysterious poetry of such great English lyric poets as Donne, Herbert, and Marvell. It is highly likely that Dickinson, a Puritan, may have come into contact with the work of the Metaphysicals, if not directly then by way of the popular American Metaphysical poet Edward Taylor. However, all of this is largely speculative. What is clear is that Dickinson, regardless of her influences, developed a style of clear, piercing imagery that was all her own, leaving the reader mixed with a sense of awe and vexed wonder. Consider, as one of the finest examples of her great verse, the poem "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died":
During a religious revival that swept western Massachusetts during the decades of the 1840s and 1850s, Dickinson found her vocation as a poet. Most of her work is reflective of life's small moments and some larger issues in society. Over half of her poems were written during the years of the American Civil War. Many suggest that the Civil War gave some of the tense feeling in her poetry. Dickinson toyed briefly with the idea of having her poems published, even asking Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, for advice. Higginson immediately realized the poet's talent, but when he tried to "improve" Dickinson's poems, adapting them to the more florid, romantic style popular at the time, Dickinson quickly lost interest in the project.
By her death, only seven of Dickinson's poems had been published. Five of those seven were published in the Springfield Republican. Three posthumous collections published in the 1890s established her as a powerful eccentric, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that she was appreciated as a poet. Dickinson's poetry was collected after her death by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, with Todd initially collecting and organizing the material and Higginson editing it. They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the manuscripts' punctuation and capitalization to late nineteenth-century standards, occasionally rewording poems to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. A volume of Dickinson's Poems was published in Boston in 1890, and became quite popular; by the end of 1892 eleven editions had sold. Poems: Second Series was published in 1891 and ran to five editions by 1893; a third series was published in 1896. Two volumes of Dickinson's letters, heavily edited and selected by Todd (who falsified dates on some of them), were published in 1894. This wave of posthumous publications gave Dickinson's poetry its first real public exposure, and it found an immediate audience. Backed by Higginson and William Dean Howells with favorable notices and reviews, the poetry was popular from 1890 to 1892. Later in the decade, critical opinion became negative. Thomas Bailey Aldrich published an influential negative review anonymously in the January 1892 Atlantic Monthly:
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....[A]n 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. (Qtd. in Buckingham, 281-282)
In the early twentieth century, Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published a series of further collections, including many previously unpublished poems, with similarly normalized punctuation and capitalization; The Single Hound emerged in 1914, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1924, and Further Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi emerged through the 1930s, gradually releasing more previously unpublished poems. With the rise of modernist poetry, Dickinson's failure to conform to nineteenth-century ideas of poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful to new generations of readers. A new wave of feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a woman poet. Her stock had clearly risen, but Dickinson was not generally thought a great poet among the first generation of modernists, as is clear from R.P. Blackmur's critical essay of 1937:
She was neither a professional poet nor an amateur; 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, as Mr. Tate says, at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision. That is what makes her good—in a few poems and many passages representatively great. But...the bulk of her verse is not representative but mere fragmentary indicative notation. The pity of it is that the document her whole work makes shows nothing so much as that she had the themes, the insight, the observation, and the capacity for honesty, which had she only known how—or only known why—would have made the major instead of the minor fraction of her verse genuine poetry. But her dying society had no tradition by which to teach her the one lesson she did not know by instinct. (195)
The texts of these early editions would hardly be recognized by later readers, as their extensive editing had altered the texts found in Dickinson's manuscripts substantially. A new and complete edition of Dickinson's poetry by Thomas H. Johnson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in three volumes in 1955. This edition formed the basis of all later Dickinson scholarship, and provided the Dickinson known to readers thereafter: the poems were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, were strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and were often extremely elliptical in their language. They were printed for the first time much more nearly as Dickinson had left them, in versions approximating the text in her manuscripts. A later variorum edition provided many alternate wordings from which Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention, had been forced to choose for the sake of readability.
Later readers would draw attention to the remaining problems in reading even Johnson's relatively unaltered typeset texts of Dickinson, claiming that Dickinson's treatment of her manuscripts suggested that their physical and graphic properties were important to the reading of her poems. Possibly meaningful distinctions could be drawn, they argued, among different lengths and angles of dash in the poems, and different 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; even R.W. Franklin's 1998 variorum edition of the poems, which aimed to supplant Johnson's edition as the scholarly standard text, used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the manuscripts' dashes more closely. Some scholars claimed that the poems should be studied by reading the manuscripts themselves.
Because of her frequent use of common meter, many of Dickinson's poems can easily be set to tunes. Dickinson’s poetry has been used as texts for art pieces by composers such as Aaron Copland and Nick Peros.
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