Selected products from Emily Dickinson
The American poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an introvert, living a predominantly
reclusive life and notorious amongst her community for her reluctance to leave her room or greet visitors. As a result of this inability to interact interpersonally she had several correspondent relationships as an alternative to receiving guests in person, and in her writing she often characterises herself quite dramatically and theatrically. Though most of these acquaintances were aware of her poetry to at least some extent, fewer than a dozen from her extensive canon were published during her lifetime and those which were published were quite heavily altered by her publishers in order that they might meet contemporary literary convention. Even with this modification, or perhaps because of it, it was only in the twentieth century that her writing became truly accepted into the American poetic canon.
She was born on the 10th December, 1830, at the family’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. The family was a prominent one, her grandfather Samuel Dickinson having arrived during the Puritan Great Migration and subsequently prospered, founding Amherst college and building the large mansion on the town’s main street into which she and her siblings were born. His eldest, Edward, became treasurer of the college for some forty years, served numerous terms as a State Legislator and represented the Hampshire district in the United States Congress. He married Emily Norcross on 6th May and they had three children, the second of whom was Emily. She was the middle of three siblings, the eldest being William Austin (1829-1895) and the youngest being Lavinia Norcorss (1833-1899). Dickinson was considered a well-behaved child; indeed, her Aunt Lavinia described her as “perfectly well and contented - she is a very good child & but little trouble”. Alongside this good behaviour, her aunt noted her affinity for music.
Attending primary school in a two-storey building in the town on Pleasant Street, she had an education which was “ambitiously classical for a Victorian girl”, owing to her father’s wish that his children be well-educated. His interest in their schooling was such that he ensured to keep track of their progress even while travelling on business. While she was seven, he wrote home, entreating his children to “keep school, and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned”. Though she describes her father in warmly affectionate tones, according to her correspondences her mother was distant and cold. Dickinson would write that she “always ran Home to Awe [her brother William] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none”. Then, on 7th September 1840, Dickinson and her sister both started at Amherst Academy and their father purchased a new house on North Pleasant Street. It overlooked the town’s cemetery, described by one local minister as treeless and “forbidding”. The house was later described by William as the “mansion” over which he and Emily presided, during their parents’ absence, as “lord and lady”.
She spent seven years at the Academy, studying English, classical literature, Latin, history, geology, botany, mental philosophy and arithmetic. Her principle at the time later described her as “very bright”, “an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties”. Despite taking quite extensive leave from school owing to illness, it was clear that she enjoyed her studies and the challenge they offered, while describing the Academy to a friend as “a very fine school”. Though her time at school was happy and fulfilling, she was reminded of the closeness of death from an early age, particularly when her second cousin and close friend Sophia Holland fell ill from typhus and died in April 1844, leaving Emily heavily traumatised. She wrote some two years later that “it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face”. The incident left her so melancholic that she was sent by her parents to stay with family in Boston in order that she might recover, after which she retuned to Amherst Academy in better health and spirits. It was during this time that she met several of the people who would become lifelong friends and correspondents.
It is conceivable that the emotional turmoil she experienced following Sophia’s death left her seeking spiritual guidance and affirmation so, when in 1845 there was a religious revival in Amherst, she and 46 of her peers confessed their faith and found God. Dickinson wrote that it was her “greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God and to feel that he would listen to my prayers”. However, further evidence to this conversion being a quick fix following her friend’s death is found in how temporary her devotion to the Lord was; only a few years later did she write “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church / I keep it, staying at home” in a poem on 1852 which demonstrably pertains to her loss of faith. Then, having made friends with the Academy’s new young principle, Leonard Humphrey, during her final year there, she commenced attendance at Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, later to become Mount Holyoke College, in South Hadley, some ten miles away from Amherst. She would make no lasting friendships, though she wrote that she liked some of the girls, and her brother came to fetch her after only a year. It is not clear whether her motive for leaving was poor health, homesickness, her father’s missing her, rebellion against the school’s evangelical fervour or disagreement with the disciplinarian teachers, but William arrived on 25th March 1848 to “bring [her] home at all events”. Dickinson then took up baking for the family as a means of passing the time, a pastime which she greatly enjoyed, and spent time attending local events in the town. In the meantime, she considered herself mentored by Humphrey, following their friendship while she had been under him at the Academy.
The Dickinson family had befriended a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton by the time she was eighteen who had, according to a letter written by Dickinson following Newton’s death, been “with my Father two years, before going to Worcester - in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family”. Though it is theorised that his introduction to the family at such an opportune time following her recent womanhood indicated an attempt at establishing for her a romantic interest, their relationship remained assuredly platonic, Dickinson considering him a second mentor and tutor. In this mentoring role, Newton introduced Dickinson to the work of William Wordsworth, while the present of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s first collection of poems which he gave to her instigated something of a liberation, if only a modest one, writing later that he “whose name my Father’s Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring”. Newton had a high opinion of her, recognising her poetic talent, and while he was dying of tuberculosis he wrote to her of his wish to live to see her achieve the greatness he could see in her. It is likely that her statement of 1862 that “when a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me immortality - but venturing too near, himself - he never returned” is a reference to Newton.
Alongside Wordsworth and Emerson, she was likely influenced by Lyda Maria Child’s Letters from New York, another of Newton’s gifts, about which she professed “this then is a book! And there are more of them!” having read it. Meanwhile, her brother smuggled her a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Kavanagh for fear of their father’s disapproval, while a friend lent her a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in late 1849. However, and in something of a contradiction of her earlier delight at the discovery of books, and how plentiful they were, she wrote of Shakespeare’s plays, “why clasp any hand but this”, for “why is any other book needed?”
Having written in early 1850 that “Amherst is alive with fun this winter ... Oh, a very great town this is!”, her happiness was quickly soured when Leonard Humphrey died of brain congestion at the age of 25. This was another great shock to her and sent her into another depression, about which she wrote to her friends. One of the closest of these was with Susan Gilbert, to whom she sent over three hundred letters, more than to any of her other acquaintances. Susan supported her in her poetry, acting as “most beloved friend, influence, muse, and advisor”, and making editorial suggestions, some of which Dickinson followed. William proceeded to court Susan for four years, and they married in 1856 though the relationship was largely an unhappy one.
In 1855 she undertook the longest trip away from Amherst with her sister and mother, spending three weeks in Washington with their father where he was representing Massachusetts in Congress, and then Philadelphia for two to visit family. While there, she met Charles Wadsworth, one of the more famous members of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, who would become a close friend until his death in 1882. Though she only saw him twice following this initial meeting, she would refer to him as her “dearest earthly friend”. This trip would prove her mother’s last as she became bedridden by several chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. Dickinson found herself caring for her mother almost constantly, writing to a friend that she would visit if she could “leave home, or mother. I do not go out at all, lest my father will come and miss me, or miss some little act, which I might forget, should I run away - Mother is much as usual. I Know not what to hope of her.” The more her mother’s condition worsened, the more she secluded herself in the family homestead, taking on the role of her carer and remaining there with her books and her poetry.
Then, starting in Summer 1858, she embarked upon what would prove to be her legacy, reviewing poems she had previously written and collecting them into carefully pieced-together manuscript books, in clean copies. This body of work amounted to some forty fascicles which she created between 1858 and 1865, containing nearly 800 poems. These she kept to herself, and nobody became aware of their existence until after her death. Around the time she began this work the Dickinsons became friends with Samuel Bowles, owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican, who visited them with his wife regularly over the next three years. Over the course of those three years Emily sent him over three dozen letters and almost fifty poems, one of the most intense periods of writing of her life. Bowles published a few of these poems in his journal. Then, following on from this intensity she sustained a less ferocious yet equally prolific period of writing, though she further secluded herself and was diagnosed with “nervous prostration” by a physician. Modern science has suggested that she may have suffered from conditions such as agoraphobia and epilepsy.
In April 1862, the literary critic, radical abolitionist and ex-minister Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote a lead piece for The Atlantic Monthly entitled ‘Letter to a Young Contributor’, in which he encouraged aspiring writers to “charge your life with style” while offering practical advice for those wishing to see their work in print. Dickinson wrote him a theatrical, self-characterising letter, indicating her wish to break into print herself, probably discouraged by her lack of audience. Though they corresponded until her death, her inability to express explicitly what she needed from him in terms of advice and encouragement left him unwilling to push her to publish.
By 1866 her writing had slowed down again, and she concurrently began to leave the house less and less, wearing a white dress as she did so for which she became notorious amongst the townspeople of Amherst. On receiving visitors, she took to answering them from behind closed doors, and when she was invited by Higginson to visit her in Boston so they could meet in person for the first time she declined, offering that “could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town”. He did finally come to visit in 1870, though he concluded that he never was “with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad no to live hear her.” She now turned to the botany she had taken interest in while still a schoolgirl, enjoying the peace and solitude of the garden.
Then, on 16th June 1874 while he was in Boston, her father Edward suffered a fatal stroke. There was a simple funeral held in the family home’s entrance hall, though Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open, and she neither attended the memorial service which was held on the 28th June. Writing to Higginson that her father’s heart was “pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists”, her fragile emotional state was further damaged by the stroke her mother suffered the following year, producing a partial lateral paralysis and imparing her memory. She described the combined emotional effect of these two events, writing that “Home is so far from Home.” In 1872 began a late relationship with Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly retired Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judge with whom she shared conversation about Shakespeare, and shared copies of his works, among others.
The 1880s saw frequent deaths which became trying for Dickinson, and eventually upended her world. In autumn of 1884 she wrote that “the dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” Seeing “a great darkness coming” that summer, she fainted while baking in the kitchen and remained unconscious for several hours of the night, after which she suffered from various symptoms of ill-health for various weeks. By 30th November her symptoms had begun to worry William so much that he cancelled a trip to Boston and she was subsequently confined to her bed, though she managed a final burst of letters in the spring. She died on 15th May 1886 after her symptoms had become progressively worse, at the age of 55. Her chief physician gave the cause of death as Bright’s disease, and its duration as two and a half years. She was laid in a white coffin and her funeral service was given in the library, after which her coffin was carried through fields of buttercups to the family plot at West Cemetery in Amherst. Though before her death she entreated Lavinia to burn all of her manuscripts, on the discovery of nearly eighteen hundred poems Lavinia sought to publish them, and the first volume was published four years after her death.