Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was a prolific American poet with a unique writing style. She was a poet with an exceptional ability to distill “amazing sense” from “ordinary meanings.” Her poetry is now considered among the finest in the English language. Yet much about this fascinating figure’s life and work is misunderstood. Often caricatured in popular culture as a white-clad recluse who poured out morbid verse in the sanctuary of her bedroom, Emily Dickinson was a serious artist whose intellectual curiosity and emotional intensity are revealed in concise and compelling poems that capture a range of human experiences.
Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived until her death from Bright’s disease on 15 May 1886. She spent most of her life in the family home that was built in 1813 by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson.
After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.
Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote.
She was an innovator, who used unconventional techniques. Her poems contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation that garnered both attention and criticism. During the late 19th and early 20th century, critics denounced Dickinson’s individual style and literary prowess, but later praised her originality and talent as a pre-modernist poet.
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. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.
While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, it is disheartening to know that fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was significantly altered by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.
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. Lavinia found hundreds of her poems tied into ‘fascicles’ stitched together by Emily’s own hand. Some were written in pencil, only a few titled, many unfinished. Lavinia enlisted the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd to edit them and roughly arrange them chronologically into collections: Poems, Series 1 in 1890, Poems, Series 2 in 1891, and Poems, Series 3 in 1896. The edits were aggressive to standardize punctuation and capitalization and some poems re-worded, but by and large it was a labor of love.
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.
The Emily Dickinson Museum was created in 2003 when ownership of the Evergreens, which had been occupied by Dickinson family heirs until 1988, was transferred to the college.
Emily Dickinson’s life and works have been the source of inspiration to artists, particularly to feminist orientated artists, of a variety of mediums. A few notable examples are as follows:
-Jane Campion’s film The Piano and its novelization (co-authored by Kate Pullinger) was inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The soundtrack to the film, written and composed by Michael Nyman contained songs with titles directly extracted from Dickinson’s poetry such as Big My Secret and most famously The Heart Asks Pleasure First.
-The cello rock band Rasputina drew inspiration from Dickinson for their 2010 album Sister Kinderhook. The songs Sweet Sister Temperance and My Porcelain Life are based specifically on the life of Dickinson.
Ending the post with three of her many wonderful poems.
He ate and drank the precious words,
His spirit grew robust;
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was dust.
He danced along the dingy days,
And this bequest of wings
Was but a book. What liberty
A loosened spirit brings!
[Published in “A Masque of Poets” at the request of “H.H.,” the author’s fellow-townswoman and friend.]
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
Break, agonized and clear!
Who has not found the heaven below
Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God’s residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.