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By Emily Dickinson (1891)

"I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough." —from The Letters of Emily Dickinson

Overview

Emily Dickinson is not only one of the supreme lyric poets of American literature. She has also come to symbolize the purest kind of artistic vocation. Not merely unrecognized but virtually unpublished in her own lifetime, she developed her genius in the utmost privacy, invisible to all except a small circle of family and friends. Driven only by her own imagination, she created a body of work unsurpassed in its expressive originality, penetrating insight, and dark beauty.

Introduction to the Poetry of Emily Dickinson

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –,” “Because I could not stop for Death –”, and “I dwell in Possibility –” are some of the most memorable opening lines in American poetry, written by an artist who was virtually unknown during her 55 years of life.

Filled with original metaphors and unexpected syntax, Emily Dickinson’s poetry sometimes reads like a riddle. She regularly employs paradox—a statement that seems like a contradiction but actually is not—in order to get at the truth from an unpredictable angle. Twenty-first century readers must occasionally renounce a literal way of reading in order to appreciate her “certain Slant of light.”

Her gift for figurative language—imagery, metaphor, personification, simile—emerges throughout her almost 1,800 poems in brilliant and subtle ways. Although she was not conventionally religious, her poetry often borrows the metrical patterns of the hymns and psalms of her childhood. Dickinson uses punctuation and capitalization of nouns uniquely. Her idiosyncratic use of the dash especially emphasizes her ideas. She rarely wrote a poem of more than 20 lines, and this brevity itself suggests her view of poetry: that it should “stun” and surprise, pleasing the reader with “Bolts—of Melody.”

Her “flood subject” was immortality and she often wrote about death. Certainly Dickinson’s life was filled with sorrow, and she grieved the deaths of many friends and family. But her poetry is also filled with the insightful happiness of a woman who had loved deeply and who relished the beauty of nature. Her belief in the promise of eternal life sustained her, and one of her poems begins: “Forever — is composed of Nows —.”

As the poem below suggests, even after a poet dies, each age becomes a lens—like the lamp's glass or the sky's suns—“Disseminating” the poem’s “Circumference,” spreading light from age to age.

The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —
—Emily Dickinson, from "The Poets light but Lamps"

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Portrait of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, age 16. Photo courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Used with permission of the Emily Dickinson Museum

Emily Dickinson, the middle child of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, was born on December 10, 1830, in the family house (called the Homestead) on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts.

The crowded house and Edward’s growing legal and political career soon called for new quarters, and when Emily was nine years old, her family purchased a house on what is now North Pleasant Street in Amherst. Close to her older brother Austin and younger sister Lavinia, Dickinson had a fond attachment to the house on Pleasant Street. Domestic duties like baking and gardening occupied her time, along with school, church activities, reading books, learning to sing and play the piano, writing letters, and taking nature walks to collect wild flowers that she pressed into an album called her “herbarium.”

Dickinson’s formal schooling was exceptional for a girl in the early nineteenth century, though not unusual for girls in Amherst. After a short time at an Amherst district school, she attended Amherst Academy for about seven years before entering Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in 1847. She stayed at the Seminary for one year, the longest time she ever spent away from home.

In Dickinson’s early 20s, writing became increasingly important to her. Letters to her older brother Austin reveal a growing sense of “difference” between herself and others: “What makes a few of us so different from others? It’s a question I often ask myself” (April 21, 1853). This sense of separation became more pronounced as she grew older and her poetic sensibilities matured. By 1855, the family returned to the Homestead, where Dickinson had her own upstairs room and developed her passion for gardening. That same year, Edward Dickinson’s service in the House of Representatives brought the poet to Washington, DC—one of her only trips away from Amherst.

Although Emily Dickinson’s calling as a poet began in her teens, she came into her own as an artist later, during a short but intense period of creativity that resulted in her composing, revising, and saving hundreds of poems. That period, which scholars identify as 1858–1865, includes many passionate love lyrics and three poetic letters to the mysterious person she calls “Master,” and overlaps with the most significant event of American 19th-century history, the Civil War.

In her early 30s, Dickinson underwent treatments for a painful eye condition, now thought to be iritis—sensitivity to light. While under the care of Henry W. Williams for seven months in 1864 and six months in 1865, she boarded with her cousins, Frances and Louisa Norcross in Boston.

After these visits and treatments, Dickinson’s lifestyle further developed into the one that we mythologize today—a more reclusive, quiet existence. Although she rarely ventured beyond the Homestead, she did entertain several significant visitors, including the famous essayist and social reformer Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she finally met in 1870 after a long correspondence when he visited her at home in Amherst.

Dickinson’s adult life was marked by the illness and death of friends and loved ones, including her father, who died in 1874, and her mother, in 1882. Her friendship with Judge Otis Phillips Lord resulted in a marriage proposal that she turned down in 1882; he died two years later. The poet became ill herself shortly after her eight-year-old nephew died—as she wrote to a friend late in 1883, “The Crisis of the sorrow of so many years is all that tires me.” She remained in poor health until she died at age 55 on May 15, 1886. She was buried four days later in the town cemetery, now known as West Cemetery.

The Homestead and The Evergreens

Used with permission of the Emily Dickinson Museum

In 1855, Emily Dickinson moved with her family back to “the Homestead,” the house in Amherst where she had been born and lived her first nine years. Her father purchased the home in early 1855 and made significant renovations to it. In 1856, the Homestead became part of an enhanced Dickinson estate when Dickinson’s adored older brother, Austin, married her close friend Susan Huntington Gilbert, and Edward Dickinson built the couple a home next door known as the Evergreens.

That household was a lively nexus for Amherst society, and Dickinson herself took part in social gatherings there early in Austin and Susan’s marriage. Their lifestyle eventually would contrast markedly with her own more reclusive manner. The couple’s three children—Ned, born in 1861; Martha, in 1866; and Gilbert, in 1875—brought great joy to Emily’s life. In addition to providing close proximity to her brother and his family, the renovated Homestead offered Dickinson several other advantages. Her father added a conservatory where Emily could engage year-round in her beloved hobby of gardening and raise climate-sensitive plants.

Perhaps most importantly, Dickinson had a room of her own, the southwest corner bedroom on the second floor, a space essential to her writing. The two Dickinson daughters, who never married, remained at the Homestead for the rest of their lives. After Emily’s death in 1886, Lavinia lived on at the Homestead until she died in 1899, championing the publication of her sister’s poetry.

Today both houses are open to the public year round.

  1. Begin your discussion by reading a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems out loud. Notice the different ways in which Dickinson uses rhyme. What sounds and rhythms can you hear?
  2. In “Because I could not stop for Death –,” how does Dickinson use the extended metaphor of a carriage ride to describe a journey we all have to take?
  3. Scholar Judith Farr notes that although “not entirely orthodox in her Christian faith,” Emily Dickinson “held certain doctrines to be precious, especially that of the Resurrection and the union of body and soul after death.” What evidence of this do you see in such poems as “This World is not conclusion” or “I know that He exists”?
  4. More than anything, Dickinson loved tending her garden and writing poetry. What parallels exist between the two activities?
  5. “Wild nights – Wild nights!” was not published in Dickinson’s lifetime. In 1891, why might editors have been worried about publishing this poem?
  6. How is Dickinson’s quiet life reflected in her poems? Consider how poems such as “I dwell in Possibility –” or “They shut me up in Prose –” might be autobiographical.

Audio

Emily Dickinson Audio Guide

Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson audio guide features a program written and narrated by John Barr with poetry readings by Mary Jo Salter. All poems cited are from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.) Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
 

Kay Ryan reads "I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-" by Emily Dickinson [:59]

i_heard_a_fly_buzz_dickinson_dec2014.mp3

Audio Tabs

In honor of the late great Emily Dickinson's birthday on December 10th, we're featuring this classic from Dickinson read by poet Kay Ryan. To hear more from the former Poet Laureate, please tune in to this podcast.