Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet much acclaimed worldwide for her unique poems. Known for her seclusion from outer world and introvert nature, she was one of the major figures in American literature. This prolific poet wrote over seventeen hundred poems in her lifetime. Her style of writing was quite unique to the other writings of her era. Her poems were generally written in short lines and lacked titles. Use of slant rhyme with unconventional capitalization and punctuation made her poems unique in American literature. Her poems were mostly centered around two basic themes, death and immorality. She was mostly known to the world through her correspondences with her acquaintances. Only after the death of her, the world knew about her vast collection of over seventeen hundred poems. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 which was heavily edited by her personal acquaintances, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Her first unaltered and complete collection of poems was published in 1955 by Thomas H. Johnson. Partly criticized for her eccentric nature, she is now considered as an innovative and pre- modernist poet.
Emily Dickinson Childhood and Early life
Emily Dickinson was born at Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her family was one of the affluent families in the region. Her father, Edward Dickinson, served as the treasurer of Amherst College for four decades and also represented Hampshire district in the US Congress. Her mother was Emily Norcross from Monson. Emily Dickinson had two siblings, elder brother William Austin, also known as Austin, and younger sister Lavinia Norcross, also known as Lavinia or Vinnie. Emily Dickinson was always a well behaved and contented child. She had a liking in music especially to piano. Emily Dickinson had her primary education in a two-storey building at Peasant Street. At the age of ten, Emily and her sister Lavinia were sent to Amherst Academy for further studies. Emily spent seven years in the academy, learning English, classical literature, Latin, botany, geology and history and mental philosophy. Death always had a deepening effect on Emily’s mentality. After the death of her cousin and best friend, Sophia Holland, who died in the April of 1844, Emily was traumatized in pain and was sent to her family home in Boston to recover. She rejoined Amherst Academy after recovering from the shock and continued her studies.
Her last years at academy were considered as her most active ones. She met her lifelong friends and later correspondents during this part of her education life. These people include Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert. She also became close to the new young principal, Leonard Humphrey during her last days in the academy. After leaving academy, she attended Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley for a brief period of ten months. There were no certain reasons for her short stay at seminary, but many people believed her poor health or home sickness were the probable reasons. She returned home on March 25, 1848 and engaged herself in household activities. At the age of eighteen, Dickinson came in contact with a young attorney, Benjamin Franklin Newton. He had a formative influence on her and can be referred as one of her tutors, preceptors or masters. He gave her a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first book of collected poems which shaped her poetic mind. Benjamin Franklin Newton also introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth. It was also said that Dickinson was familiar with Bible and other contemporary literatures. The other notable writers and poets who had a creative influence on her were Lydia Maria Child, Charlotte Bronte and William Shakespeare.
The year 1850, started with the death of Emily’s dear friend, Leonard Humphrey who died suddenly due to brain congestion at the young age of 25. But 1850s also brought her the long-lasting and affectionate friendship from Susan Gilbert. Emily sent Susan around three hundred letters during the course of their friendship while Susan always remained supportive for her. Susan was her beloved friend, muse, influence and advisor. She later married Emily’s brother Austin after four years of courtship. Until 1855, Emily had confined herself to the Amherst only. It was in the spring of that year that she accompanied her mother and sister to a trip to Washington, where her father was representing Massachusetts in Congress. The threesome then headed towards Philadelphia to visit the family. It was here that Dickinson met Charles Wadsworth, who was a famous minister and became her close friend till death. In mid years of 1850s, Emily’s mother got bedridden due to various chronic illnesses. Since she required someone to be with her all the time, Emily took the role to look after her hence stayed at home all the time.
With the progression of years, Emily became more and more withdrawn from outer world. With the summer of 1858, she started reviewing her previously written poems and arranged the manuscript books. During the period from 1858 to 1865, she created forty fascicles which were holding a collection of eight hundred self-written poems. It was during this time that she was acquainted with Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican and his wife Mary. During their frequent visits to Dickinsons, Emily sent them nearly three dozen letters and over fifty poems. Their friendship grew in subsequent years as Bowles published her few poems in his journal. On June 16, 1874, her father Edward Dickinson died after a stroke. She didn’t attend the funeral and the memorial service instead stayed at her room only. This loss pushed her further in seclusion. During the years 1872-73 she became acquainted with Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem. Some people believed that the relationship between the two was more than friendship and probably was a romantic one. They exchanged letters in which they shared literary interests. Phillips Lord died in March 1884 after suffering from critical illness for years and Emily again lost one of her close friends.
Emily Dickinson kept on writing even in her last days but had stopped organizing and editing them. The 1880s came with heavy losses for Dickinsons family. Her mother died on November 14, 1882 and the following year Austin and Sue's third and youngest child, Gilbert who was also the Emily's favorite died due to typhoid fever. Her grief worsened after every death till she became very weak and feeble. She was confined to bed after showing various symptoms of feebleness but still sent her last bundle of letters in the spring. After several days of being in a serious condition, Dickinson passed away on May 15, 1886 at the age of 55. The cause of her death was believed to be Bright's disease. According to her will, her coffin was carried through fields of buttercups to the burial site. She was buried in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.
Emily’s sister Lavinia burned most of her letters as promised to her. But she kept the forty fascicles as there were no instructions given by Emily about them. In November 1890, the first volume of her poems edited jointly by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson was published. The first volume became a critical and financial success and went through eleven reprints in two years. The poem’s second series came in year 1891 followed by third series in 1896. Between the time period 1914 and 1929, a new series of poem collections which included some unpublished poems were published by Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Dickinson’s poems saw their first scholarly publication in 1955 when Thomas H. Johnson edited a complete three volume set. This was the first time her complete and unaltered poem collection was published.