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by Bamber Gascoigne

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


American lyrical poet, a recluse, nicknamed the "nun of Amherst" – only seven of Dickinson's some 1800 poems were published during her lifetime, five of them in the Springfield Republican. Dickinson never married. She withdrew from social contact and devoted herself in secret into writing. Dickinson is often mistakenly read as a Christian poet.

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind –
As if my Brain had split –
I tried to match it – Seam by Seam –
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before –
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls – upon a Floor.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a family well known for educational and political activity. Her father, an orthodox Calvinist, was a lawyer and treasurer of the local college. He also served in Congress. Dickinson's mother, whose name was also Emily, was a cold, religious, hard-working housewife, who suffered from depression. Her relationship with her daughter was distant. Later Dickinson wrote in a letter, that she never had a mother.

Dickinson was educated at Amherst Academy (1834-47), where she ot a good scientific education, and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (1847-48). Around 1850 she began to compose poems – "Awake ye muses nine, sing me a strain divine, / Unwind the solemn twine, and tie my Valentine!" she said in her earliest known poem, dated March 4, 1850. It was published in Springfield Daily Republican in 1852.

The style of her first efforts was fairly conventional, but after years of practice she began to give room for experiments. Often written in the metre of hymns, her poems did not only deal with with issues of death, faith and immortality, but with nature, domesticity, and the power and limits of language. From c.1858 Dickinson assembled many of her poems in packets of 'fascicles', which she bound herself with needle and thread. A selection of these poems appeared in 1890.

In 1862 Dickinson started her life long correspondence and friendship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), a writer and reformer, who commanded during the Civil War the first troop of African-American soldiers. Higginson later published Army Life in a Black Regiment in 1870. On of the four poems he received from Dickinson was the famous 'Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.'

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.
Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence –
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

Although Higginson was astounded by Dickinson's originality and encouraged her literary aspirations, he advised her not to publish. He called Emily "my partially cracked poetess at Amherst". Dickinson's decision to follow the advise was influenced by her ambivalent attitude toward her role as a woman writer and desire to protect her privacy, to live in her self-impised exile. She was grateful to Higginson for his editorial suggestions, but did not follow them blindly.

After the Civil War Dickinson restricted her contacts outside Amherst to exchange of letters, dressed only in white and saw few of the visitors who came to meet her. In fact, most of her time she spent in her room. During her most productive years, she almost wrote a poem a day. Meanwhile, outside, the battle between her brother Austin, who lived next door to her house, and rest of the family continued. Austin Dickinson (1829-1895) was a lawyer, married to a cultivated woman, Susan Gilbert, by whom he had three children. In his early 50s he entered into an affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, who was married to an Amherst professor. The affair continued until his death, and was a permanent source of gossips for the community. Emily called her "Lady Macbeth of Amherst".

Although Dickinson lived secluded life, her letters reveal knowledge of the writings of John Keats, John Ruskin, and Sir Thomas Browne. Most important writers for her were Shakespeare, Elizabeth Browning, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, George Eliot, and George Sand. There were frequent refereces to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poetry in her early letters, but her later opinion of the popular poet is unclear. After receiving Higginson's Short Studies of American Authors for Christmas in 1879, she wrote in a letter: "Of Poe, I know to little to think – Hawthorne appals, entices – / Mrs Jackson soars to your estimate lawfully as a Bird, but of Howells and James, one hesitates" ('"What are you reading now?": Emily Dickinson's Epistolary Book Club'  by Eleanor Heginbotham, in Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays, edited by Jane Donahue Eberwein & Cindy MacKenzie, 2009, p. 150).

Dickinson's emotional life remains mysterious, despite much speculation about a possible disappointed love affair. Two candidates have been presented: Reverend Charles Wadsworth, with whom she corresponded, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, to whom she addressed many poems. In 1861-62 she had a crisis; it is not known if she ever fully recovered. Wadsworth had moved to San Francisco and Bowles disappointed her by traveling in 1861 to Europe. He returned in Autumn 1862. At that time Dickinson did not want to meet him or write to him any more.

Dickinson's father died in 1874. Her mother, who had a stroke, died in 1882. During this period Judge Otis Lord, a friend and colleague of her father, brought some love into Dickinson's life. Lord was a widower and 18 years her senior.

Emily Dickinson died at the age of fifty-five on May 15, 1886. Her last words were: "I must go in, the fog is rising." She had suffered from Bright's disease since 1884. "I almost wish there was no Eternity," she had written in her youth. "To think that we must forever live and never cease to be." Dickinson's funeral was held in the Dickinson home in the presence of a few intimates. T.W. Higginson recalled that her face in death held "a wondrous restoration of youth – she is 54 [55] & looked 30, not a gray hair or wrinkle, and peace perfect on the beautiful brow."

After Dickinson's death Susan Gilbert tried to get her poems published but failed. Eventually a selection was brought out by Mabel Todd and T. W. Higginson. Lavinia destroyed most of Dickinson's correspondence. Despite its editorial imperfections, the first volume became popular and was followed by Poems: Second Series (1891) and Poems: Third Series (1896). In the early decades of the twentieth century, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet's niece, transcribed and published more poems. Bolts of Melody (1945) essentially completed the task of bringing oeuvre to the public.

The publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Emily Dickinson's poems finally gave readers a complete and accurate text. Johnson's work was not made easier that the author had left alternative versions of words, lines and sometimes of whole poems. Johnson found a valuable assistant in Theodora Ward, who was then completing an edition of Dickinson's letters to her grandparents. As editor of Emily Dickinson's Selected Poems (1924), Conrad Aiken (1889-1973) was largely responsible for establishing her posthumous literary reputation.

Dickinson's work has had a considerable influence on modern poetry. Her frequent use of dashes, sporadic capitalization of nouns, off-rhymes, broken metre, unconventional metaphors have contributed her reputation as one of the most innovative poets of 19th-century American literature. Amherst has became a pilgrimage for her fans and aspiring lyricists, her life and work has attracted a number of scholars, and like Sylvia Plath, her dedication to her art has inspired feminist writers. Dickinson is also one of those poets whose words have given much comfort for people who have mental problems.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Later feminist critic have challenged the popular conception of the poet as reclusive, eccentric figure, and underlined her intellectual struggle and passive aggressiveness. Her verse is full of allusions to volcanoes, shipwrecks, funerals, and other manifestations of natural and human violence, which she hide into her writings. Pain and extreme psychic feelings were among her central themes; according to some researchers she may have been epileptic. In a letter she wrote to Higginson, "I had a terror – since September – I could tell to none – and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground – because I am afraid."

Scholars have explored Dickinson's relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert, her admiration for the English poet Elisabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) and her affection for US writer Helen Hunt Jackson (1830-1885). Dickinson read voraciously and called poets "the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of soul." Judith Farr have pointed out that she spoke of the soul or souls 141 in her poems. Soul was for her a lost boat, an internal lamp, a storm within, an emperor. "The Soul unto itself / Is an imperial friend – / Or the most agonizing Spy / An Enemy – could send – "

For further reading: The Editing of Emily Dickinson by R.W. Franklin (1967); The Poetry of Emily Dickinson by Ruth Miller (1968); A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. S.P. Rosenbaum (1964); The Life of Emily Dickinson by Richard Benson Sewall (1974, paperback 1994); Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, ed. Suzanne Juhasz (1983); Undiscovered Continent by Suzanne Juhasz (1983); Emily Dickinson by Paul J. Ferlazzo (1984); Austin and Mabel by Polly Longsworth (1984); The Dickinson Sublime by Gary Lee Stonum (1990); Emily Dickinson, ed. Harold Bloom (1990); Emily Dickinson by Victoria Olsen, Martina S. Horner (1990); The Passion of Emily Dickinson by Judith Farr (1992); The Poems of Emily Dickinson: An Annotated Guide to Commentary Published in English, 1978-1989 by Joseph Duchac (1993); Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Judith Farr (1995); Emily Dickinson's Fascicles by Dorothy Huff Oberhaus (1995); Emily Dickinson's Gothic by Daneen Wardrop (1996); Dickinson and Audience, ed. by Martin Orzeck (1996); The Essential Dickinson, ed. Joyce Carol Oates (1996); Emily Dickinson, ed. Helen McNeil (1997); A Critical Study of Emily Dickinson's Letters by Robert Graham Lambert (1997); Emily Dickinson's Visions by James R. Guthrie (1998); Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women's Verse in America, 1820-1885 by Elizabeth A. Petrino (1998); An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, ed. Jane Donahue (1998); The Emily Dickinson Handbook, ed. Gudrun Grabher (1999); The Dickinsons of Amherst by Jerome Liebling, et al. (2001); Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds by Lyndall Gordon (2010); The Lonely House: A Biography of Emily Dickinson by Paul Brody (2013); Emily & Herman: A Literary Romance by John J. Healey (2015); Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference by Vivian R. Pollak (2017); The New Emily Dickinson Studies, edited by Michelle Kohler (2019); Becoming Emily: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Krystyna Poray Goddu (2019); The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Philosophical Perspectives, edited by Elisabeth Camp (2020); Quiet Fire: Emily Dickinson's Life and Poetry by Carol Dommermuth-Costa, Anna Landsverk (2022) - Transl.: The writers Katri Vala, Helvi Juvonen, Aale Tynni, and Aila Meriluoto have translated Dickinson's poems into Finnish. A relatively large collection of Dickinson's poems, entitled Golgatan kuningatar [The Queen of Golgatha] and translated and edited by Merja Virolainen, was published in 2004. - See also: Stephen Crane

Selected works:

  • Poems by Emily Dickinson, 1890 (ed. T.W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd)
  • Poems: Second Series, 1891 (ed. T.W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd)
  • Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1894 (2 vols., ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd)
  • Poems: Third Series, 1896 (ed. Mabel Loomis Todd)
  • Single Hound; Poems of a Lifetime, 1914 (ed. Martha Dickinson Bianchi)
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1924 (with an introduction by her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi)
  • The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1924 (ed. by Martha Dickinson Bianchi)
  • Selected Poems, 1924 (ed. by Conrad Aiken)
  • Further Poems of Emily Dickinson Withheld from Publication by Her Sister Lavinia, 1929 (edited by her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson)
  • Poems for Youth, 1934 (edited by Alfred Leete Hampson; foreword by May Lambertson Becker; illustrations by George and Doris Hauman)
  • Bolts of Melody: New Poems, 1945 (ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham)
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1955 (3 vols., ed. by Thomas H. Johnson)
  • The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1958 (3 vols., ed. by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora van Wagenen Ward)
  • The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1960 (ed. by Thomas H. Johnson)
  • The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, 1981 (2 vols., ed. Ralph W. Franklin)
  • New Poems of Emily Dickinson  1993 (ed. William H. Shurr)
  • The Essential Dickinson, 1996 (selected and with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates)
  • Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems, 1997 (selected and with an introduction by Thomas H. Johnson)
  • Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, 1998 (ed. Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart)
  • The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, 2003 (with an introduction and notes by Rachel Wetzsteon)
  • Selected Poems, 2006 (edited by Jackie Moore)
  • The Pocket Emily Dickinson, 2009 (edited by Brenda Hillman)
  • Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries, 2010 (edited by Helen Vendler)
  • Emily Dickinson Letters, 2011 (selected and edited by Emily Fragos)
  • Wild Nights: Selected Poems, 2012 (3rd ed., edited by Miriam Chalk)
  • The Gorgeous Nothings', 2013 (edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin)
  • Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them, 2016 (edited by Cristanne Miller)
  • Hope is the Thing with Feathers: the Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, 2019 (edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson)

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