Emily Dickinson – History, Major Works and Achievements

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson – Biography, notable poems and facts

Writing poems with themes of nature, immortality and death, the reclusive American poet Emily Dickinson was one of our nation’s most renowned poets of the 19th-century. Daughter of a one-time U.S. congressman, Dickinson became increasingly antisocial as she grew older. However, none of that had a dent on her writing abilities, as she committed herself to her artistry. As a matter of fact, her somewhat reclusive lifestyle made her an even more fascinating figure in American history.

During her lifetime only just under 10 of her poems were published, many of them anonymously. However, it turned out that Dickinson had written about 1,800 poems. That revelation was made known after her death when her sister discovered a treasure trove of Emily Dickinson poems. Following their publication in 1890, it did not take too long for the literary community to have a heartfelt appreciation of the sheer depth and intensity that characterized Dickinson’s poems.

As a matter of fact, her powerful and very moving poems are some of the best read in the United States. Her works are praised for containing bold original verses that give further support to her being a brilliant poet with one of the most distinctive voices in American poetry.

Birth and family background

Emily Dickinson was the middle child of three. She had an older brother called Austin and a younger sister called Lavinia. Emily and her sister were unmarried all their lives. | Image: The Dickinson children (Emily on the left), ca. 1840. From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

She was born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson on December 10, 1830 in the town of Amherst, which is about 50 miles from Boston, Massachusetts.

The second child of her parents, Emily Dickinson grew up in her family house “The Homestead”. Because of her family’s very good standing in the community their residence was often the venue for very important people of letters and leading thinkers, including the famous American author Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her father Edward Dickinson was a Whig lawyer who worked as a treasurer in Amherst College. He also went on to become a U.S. legislator for one term.

Much of her introverted character traits perhaps came from her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, a woman who hailed from an influential family in Monson.

Did you know: Emily Dickinson lived her whole life in Massachusetts?

Amherst Academy

At Amherst Academy, Emily Dickinson received lots of praises from her tutors for her literary abilities. In addition to literature, she loved the sciences and Latin.

Growing up, Emily’s interest in writing and stories was very much evident as she would risk incurring the wrath of her father to read banned reading materials like Walt Whitman’s works. She was described as independently minded and unwilling to go by traditions on some issues.

The California Gold Rush of 1849

Mount Holyoke College

After a seven-year stay at Amherst Academy, she proceeded to attend Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a very religious school with strict rules. Emily Dickinson did not profess any commitment to any particular religious faith. She stood her ground while all her school mates at Amherst College professed a Christian faith in order to be “saved”. She thus found it a hard pill to swallow the Calvinist view that all men were inherently sinful and that professing to Jesus Christ was the only way to cleanse oneself.

Beginning around her teen years, she found herself increasingly isolated, perhaps as a result of her slight opposition to religious and social traditions of the day. It’s been said that she was not the slightest bit bothered about this as she was committed to staying true to her personal convictions. Much of the things that she experienced in this period of her life later informed the hundreds of poems she wrote.

Emily saw religious experience as something that went beyond making vows and professions to God and the church; she believed that deep religious experience often times came from opening one’s eyes to the beauty of nature and letting oneself to be in a state of ecstatic joy.

Emily Dickinson on pain and suffering

Poetry and notable works

This Amherst, Massachusetts-born poet wrote some of her first poems in her teens. The themes of those poems were mainly on topics of heartfelt emotions and esteem garnished with some bit of humor and anecdotes.

She often sent those poems as letters to her friends and family members. She would continue this habit of hers well into her adult life.

Upon a critical look at the poems and letters that Emily Dickinson wrote, one cannot help but notice that she is trying to communicate her feeling of abandonment and how she manages to deal with the reclusive life she had chosen.

Living as a reclusive poet

Beginning in her 20s, she took to spending more and more time indoors as a result of the discomfort she felt in some social situations. A number of family and financial issues nudged her even further into a reclusive state. She took residence in her family house, along with her sister Lavinia. Regardless she still communicated with her friends and family via letters. In her letters, almost similar to her poems, she was able to freely express her deepest feelings. However, in some of poems, she purposely tried to be vague about certain things, especially those about her emotional relationships.

In some of her poems, she described her isolation as an unpleasant thing; however, she was quick to credit it for being the source of her creativity.

Dickinson’s reclusive lifestyle began around her early 20s, when she slashed the number of correspondences she had with people. | Quote: Emily Dickinson on privacy

Contrary to what some people think about Dickinson, the author actually engaged with her times. Many of her poems were based on everyday subjects; they certainly weren’t created in a vacuum. She was an avid reader and corresponded heavily with her friends and family and other leading thinkers of her era.

Emily Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth

While visiting her father in Washington, D.C., her path crossed with Presbyterian Reverend Charles Wadsworth. In some of her writings, she shows just how much she held Wadsworth in high regard. There were some people, including Emily’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi, who claim that the poet fell in love with the minister, who was married. Dickinson called Wadsworth “my dearest earthly friend” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood.’

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Emily Dickinson during the Civil War

She did not say that much about the American Civil War. She also did not lend her support to the war effort. Her attitude towards the war was similar to that of her brother Austin, who paid $500 to avoid partaking in the war.

It’s been noted that she wrote many of her works during the Civil War period (1861-1865). Perhaps all the death and carnage that ripping the country apart at the time further heightened her interest in topics of immortality, death, and spiritual growth. She would write her poems on clean papers and then sew those papers together to form a neat bundle. She most likely intended for those conveniently arranged copies of poems to be published sometime in the future. Some historians have noted that she expected them to be posthumously published.

Also, her interest in death and the immortality of the soul became pronounced after she started losing a number of her friends. This interest featured a lot in the themes of her poems. She also wrote poems that bemoaned society’s relegation of women to second class citizens.

Emily Dickinson and her brother Austin were supporters of the abolitionist movement. She constantly pleaded with her father to fight on the side of abolitionists as the Civil War loomed. Dickinson was even close friends with famed abolitionist and Civil War soldier Thomas Higginson.

Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Emily Dickinson was a friend of Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, Civil War soldier, and author. Image: Thomas Wentworth Higginson in uniform; he was colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers from 1862 to 1864.

Dickinson frequently corresponded with American author and Civil War soldier Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She sought Higginson’s advice on some of poems. She would later credit those constructive criticisms as having helped her a lot, especially during troubling times.

The invisible lover

In some of her poems, she makes mention of an invisible lover or distant lover whom she calls “Master”. By that she was referring to her passion and devotion to language and poems. However, some historians believe that the poet was referring to her friend Otis Philips Lord, a Massachusetts judge who was several years her senior. She most likely had strong emotional feelings for Lord. Others have claimed that “Master” was possibly Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law.

Later life and death

Deaths of some of her family members, including her father (in 1874) and her mother (1882), and her friends, publisher Samuel Bowles (in 1878), Lord (in 1884) and Wadsworth (in 1882), put an enormous strain on her health. Perhaps the biggest loss in her life came in 1883, when her eight-year-old nephew Gilbert Dickinson died.

Her later life also saw her stop attending church at all. Steadily, the love themes in her poems made way for the theme of death.

At the age of 55 Emily Dickinson passed away. The cause of the death was Bright’s disease. Doctors claimed that severe amount of stress undoubtedly compounded the poet’s illness.

Emily Dickinson on death

Did you know: Emily Dickinson wrote about 30 poems every year in the last decade and half of her life?

The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955)

After her death, close to 2,000 poems of hers were discovered by her sister Lavinia, who later sought the help of a local family friend Mabel Loomis Todd to edit and publish them in three series. The first collection was published in 1890, about four years after the poet’s death. In 1955, American scholar Thomas H. Johnson published the complete and unchanged poems of Dickinson. The publication was titled The Poems of Emily.

Emily Dickinson on time

Writing style and themes

The first thing that one notices when reading Dickinson’s poems is the manner in which she makes very short lines and verses. Obviously this, in addition to her captivating first lines, gave her a distinctive voice in American poetry.

Dickinson’s poems are also famed for being works of art that not only communicated her inner life, but her feelings and thoughts. In exploring the relationship between death and life, faith and doubt, and other themes, she sometimes contradicts herself, even within a single poem. This is the reason why some critics have described her as one of the most paradoxical poet in history.

More Emily Dickinson facts

Cover of the first edition of Poems, published in 1890

  • Her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler, was a co-founder of Amherst College.
  • Owing to ill health, she was taken out of school and brought home to recover. She therefore could not complete her formal education. Regardless she still went on to apply herself in a very remarkable manner, becoming one of America’s most prolific poets.
  • Her secluded lifestyle and unique dressing style, having frequently worn all white dresses in her later life, lent credence to the notion that she was an austere and very simple woman. To some, she was simply known as the “Woman in White” or the “Nun of Amherst”.
  • Unbeknownst to some people, Emily Dickinson was also an artist and musician. She is said to have developed interest in singing starting around her time in college. The poet saw a lot of connection between singing and poetry.
  • Some of the authors that she loved reading and admired the most include Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson and John Ruskin.
  • She did very well in school, especially at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, where she studied subjects like the classics, literature and Latin.
  • Her older brother Austin tied the knot with her closest friend, Susan Gilbert. Of all her family members and friends, Susan was the one who received the most number of poems from Emily Dickinson.
  • Benjamin Newton, a law student and one of her brother’s friends, was one of the people who encouraged her to go into poetry. Newton was an admirer of contemporary literature.
  • Some of her positive attributes and traits were that she was beautiful but simple, and soft spoken. She had dark eyes, dressed simple with a simple straightened hair. She also had a good sense of humor, almost an innocent childlike humor. In some of her poems, she even saw herself like a child, and in some cases, a tomboy.
  • The years between 1858 and 1865 was her most prolific period, as she penned about 800 poems. It’s been said that she was haunted by the menace of the bloodshed and all the deaths of the era, i.e. the American Civil War (1861-1865).

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