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Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Though she was almost unknown and nearly unpublished in her own lifetime, Dickinson has since come to be regarded along with Walt Whitman as one of the two great American poets of the nineteenth century. Often called reclusive, Dickinson lived nearly her whole life at her family's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her life, though superficially uneventful, has inspired numerous biographers and voluminous speculation on her possible romantic relationships with men or women.
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. Her work was initially published in heavily edited form, finding popularity in the 1890s. Still rising in popularity and critical esteem, her poetry was republished in 1955 in a form closer to her manuscripts. It still appears strikingly modern in many respects.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts to a prominent family known for support of the local educational institutions. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College, and her father, Edward Dickinson, served as lawyer and treasurer for the institution. Her father also served in powerful positions on the General Court of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Senate, and the United States House of Representatives.
Dickinson lived most of her life in the family's houses in Amherst. She was educated at the Amherst Academy, and at seventeen began attending the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which would later become Mount Holyoke College). She did not thrive in the school's strict religious atmosphere, and disagreed with Mary Lyon, the school's founder, on matters of religion; she returned to living at home after less than a year. After that, she left home only for short trips to visit relatives in Boston, Cambridge, and Connecticut.
Edward Dickinson had a reputation as a stern patriarch. When he spoke, his wife, "Trembled, obeyed, and was silent," Emily once wrote. Much of Emily Dickinson's education and knowledge of the world outside Amherst came from books which were smuggled into the house by her older brother, Austin.
For decades, popular wisdom portrayed Dickinson as an agoraphobic recluse peeking out from the attic window and always wearing white. New scholarship suggests a much wider circle of influence than previously thought, including friends and extended family whom Dickinson kept in contact with through letters and their occasional visits to her Amherst home.
Dickinson's possible romantic and sexual attachments have been matters of great controversy among her biographers and critics. There is little reliable evidence on which to base a conclusion about the objects of her affection, though Dickinson's passion is made clear by some of her poems and letters. Attention has focussed especially on a group of letters addressed only to "Master" (and so known as the Master letters), in which Dickinson appears to be writing to a male lover; neither the addressee of these letters, nor whether they were sent, has been established.
For a century following her death, immense efforts were made to speculate about whether any men in her life might once have been her lovers. Dozens of men were suggested, and many biographers have been particularly convinced of the possibility that Dickinson might have been romantically involved with the newspaper publisher Samuel Bowles, or a friend of her father's, Judge Otis Lord. Lord was 18 years older than her, and their possible romantic relationship, if it existed at all, probably did not begin until she was over fifty years old.
Biographers have also found evidence that Dickinson may have had romantic attachments to women in her younger years, a hypothesis which has grown in popularity as homophobia declined in later twentieth-century American society. After a possible short-lived romance with Emily Fowler circa 1850, some conjecture that the first major love interest of Dickinson's life was Susan Gilbert, a schoolteacher whom Dickinson fell in love with in 1851 and to whom she wrote numerous love letters. All of Gilbert's replies were burnt by Dickinson's family after Dickinson's death (possibly to conceal her lesbianism), but Dickinson's letters to Gilbert have survived. The following is excerpted from a letter from Dickinson to Gilbert in late April 1852.
- Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper Good bye, again.
- I have thought of it all day, Susie, and I fear of but little else, and when I was gone to meeting it filled my mind so full, I could not find a chink to put the worthy pastor; when he said "Our Heavenly Father," I said "Oh Darling Sue"; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang—it would have made you laugh to hear one little voice, piping to the departed. I made up words and kept singing how I loved you, and you had gone, while all the rest of the choir were singing Hallelujahs. I presume nobody heard me, because I sang so small, but it was a kind of a comfort to think I might put them out, singing of you. I a'nt there this afternoon, tho', because I am here, writing a little letter to my dear Sue, and I am very happy. I think of ten weeks—Dear One, and I think of love, and you, and my heart grows full and warm, and my breath stands still. The sun does'nt shine at all, but I can feel a sunshine stealing into my soul and making it all summer, and every thorn, a rose. And I pray that such summer's sun shine on my Absent One, and cause her bird to sing!
Gilbert married Dickinson's brother Austin Dickinson in 1856, and some think this broke Emily's heart. The correspondence between them ceased for two years, and so few traces have been found of what Emily did during that period that some biographers have speculated that she may have had a nervous breakdown.
Emily reconciled with Susan Gilbert in 1858 and resumed correspondence with her in a different tone, asking Gilbert to critique her poems, which at this time she began working harder at than ever. Dickinson went on to romance a variety of other women, whose names she summed up thus in a March 1859 letter to one of them, Catherine Scott Turner: "I never missed a Kate before,—Two Sues—Eliza and a Martha, comprehend my girls."
Another possible argument adduced in support of her love of women is Dickinson's propensity to play with gender signifiers in her letters. She referred to herself in either the text or the signature of many of her letters with various names including "Emily," "Emilie," "Uncle Emily," and "Brother Emily."
Dickinson died of what would today be called nephritis. Her last words were: "I must go in, for the fog is rising."
Poetry and Influence
During a religious revival that swept Western Massachusetts during the decades of 1840-50, Dickinson found her vocation as a poet. One of her biographers has suggested that Dickinson thought of becoming a poet in the Biblical terms of Jacob wrestling with the angel.
Most of her work is not only reflective of the small moments of what happens around her, but also of the larger battles and themes of what was happening in the larger society. For example, over half of her poems were written during the years of the American Civil War. In the words of one of her most memorable lines, Dickinson's poems tell all the truth but tell it slant:
- 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 everyman be blind—
Dickinson toyed briefly with the idea of having her poems published, even asking Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic and family friend, for advice. Higginson immediately realized the young 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 the time of her death, no more than seven of Dickinson's 1776 poems had been published. Three posthumous collections in the 1890s established her as a powerful eccentric, but it wasn't until the twentieth century that she was truly appreciated as one of the greatest American poets.
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. They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the manuscripts' punctuation and capitalization to late nineteenth-century standards, occasionally also 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 was Dickinson's poetry's first real public exposure, and it was immediately popular.
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, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi emerged through the 1930s, releasing gradually more previously unpublished poems, and with the rise of modernist poetry, and a new wave of feminism, Dickinson found new generations of admirers.
The texts of these early editions would hardly be recognized by later readers, though, 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. Some scholars claimed that the poems should be studied by reading the manuscripts themselves (which have subsequently also become available in facsimile, for those interested in an unmediated reading of Dickinson's own texts).
- Crumbley, Paul. Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1997. Claiming several angles and lengths of dash in Dickinson's manuscripts are significant, argues for interpreters to inspect the poems' handwritten text. The book itself uses a variety of typographic symbols to approximate Dickinson's written dashes.
- Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1960. ISBN 0-316-18413-6 (and others). The standard text of Dickinson's poetry.
- The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1981. Facsimile edition of many of Dickinson's manuscripts, bound into fascicles as she first assembled them. In two large volumes.
- Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 1955.
- Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 1974. ISBN 0-374-51581-9. The standard biography, running to more than 800 pages and covering most topics of importance to Dickinson's life and family.
- Dickinson Electronic Archives
- Emily Dickinson International Society
- Dickinson article from the online Literary Encyclopedia
- Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson
- "Her own words shed new light on Emily Dickinson": CNN Review of Open Me Carefully
- Emily Dickinson - The Complete Poems: online text of an early edition edited by Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi, with regularized punctuation and extensive editing. Despite the title, this is a partial selection from Dickinson's work.
- The Complete Poems with Italian translation
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