Last reviewed: June 2018
December 10, 1830
May 15, 1886
Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, was the daughter of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her father, a graduate of Yale College, practiced law in Amherst, engaged in politics, and was treasurer of Amherst College for thirty-seven years. After graduation from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, her brother, William Austin Dickinson, eldest of the three children, took up the practice of law in Amherst and succeeded his father in 1872 as college treasurer. At the time of Austin’s marriage in 1856 to Susan Gilbert, his father built the couple a house on land adjoining the family homestead. Both Emily Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, remained single, living in the family home all their lives. A year after Edward Dickinson’s death in 1874, Emily Norcross Dickinson became paralyzed, and the sisters shared the task of caring for their invalid mother until her death in 1882. Thus Emily Dickinson throughout her life was intimately a part of the daily routines of all members of her family. The closeness of ties regulated the poet’s domestic existence. Emily Dickinson
Small in stature, with chestnut hair and brown eyes, Dickinson was remembered for her vivacity. Even as a girl her droll wit gave her singularity, and all her life she maintained an eager interest in people and books. During her youth on one or two occasions she visited relatives in Boston, and her letters home report events with sprightly detail. Having completed her preparatory training at Amherst Academy, at sixteen she was admitted to the second-year class at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in September 1847. Though Dickinson was enthusiastic about her new life there, at least during the first months, and completed the year creditably, she did not return to graduate. Early in 1855 she and Lavinia spent a month in Washington, DC, with their father, then a member of Congress. During the years 1864 and 1865 she was compelled to stay for several months in Cambridge and Boston to undergo treatment for an eye affliction. Other than these early sojourns, the poet remained at home, tending to her domestic duties and to her art.
Though none of Dickinson’s early poetry survives, the supposition is that she began writing verse in her early twenties. Benjamin Newton, a young law student in her father’s office, encouraged this pursuit but died in 1853. His importance is reflected in the poet’s continued references to him as her earliest guide. She seems to have experienced seven or eight years of great poetic creativity, commencing in 1858. In that year she began collecting into “volumes” the brief, neatly transcribed lyrics that for the most part were known only to a few people during her lifetime. These packets each consist of a few sheets of folded stationery, loosely threaded at the spine. By 1862 Dickinson clearly felt enough assurance in the quality of her verse to respond to Thomas Higginson’s Atlantic Monthly article “Letter to a Young Contributor.” She enclosed with her letter four poems, asking, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Thinking the poet wished to publish (according to the poet, something she never intended), Higginson apparently responded by describing her original approach to metric and rhyme patterns as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled” and by suggesting that she defer publishing. Although Dickinson never took Higginson’s conventional advice, she counted him among her closest friends, and they maintained a correspondence until the poet’s death.
In fact, after 1870, letters became almost Dickinson’s sole way of maintaining association with her large number of friends. It is in this manner that she “published” many of her poems, either incorporating a poem into the text of her missive or enclosing it with the letter. Over the years many friends thus came to know her work. Along with Higginson, these included her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson; Samuel Bowles, publisher of the Springfield Republican; Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, Bowles’s associates and founders of Scribner’s Monthly; and the poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson. Fewer than a dozen poems are known to have been published in Dickinson’s lifetime, all anonymously, and most of them surreptitiously by friends who wished to see them in print.
A source of conflict in Dickinson studies centers on several draft letters, very passionate and sensual but addressed only to “Master.” For decades, scholars tried to identify this correspondent and connect this person with both the poet’s reclusive behavior and her poetry. A popular reading suggested that Dickinson lived at home and wrote poetry because of a broken heart. Beginning especially in the 1980s, feminist scholars and cultural studies have focused instead on the limited possibilities open for women at that time. Feminist scholars have also defined the poet’s reclusion as a strategic retreat, her method of giving herself the time and space needed in order to write the 1,775 poems that compose her opus.
Dickinson died on May 15, 1886, of complications arising from Bright’s disease, a form of kidney disease characterized by nephritis. After her death, Lavinia Dickinson discovered the many hundred manuscript poems, and she persuaded Mabel Loomis Todd, who in turn persuaded Higginson, to edit a slender volume: Poems (1890). Though the reviews were somewhat discouraging, the demand for the volume was heartening, and in the following year the two editors brought out Poems: Second Series. Todd edited two volumes of Dickinson’s letters in 1894, and two years later a further selection of verses: Poems: Third Series. No more appeared until Emily Dickinson’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi issued The Single Hound in 1914, followed by Further Poems in 1929 and Unpublished Poems in 1936. In 1945 Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham brought out Bolts of Melody; with its appearance, virtually all the Dickinson poems were finally in print.
The distinguishing nature of Dickinson’s revolutionary poetry is its conciseness and intensity. The lyrics are brief, unlike the loquacious poems of Walt Whitman, her contemporary who also eschewed the conventions of the day reflected in such works as those by the popular “fireside poets.” Dickinson’s poems are often described as being concerned with such “flood subjects” as the phenomena of nature and the themes of love, death, and immortality. Her prosodic patterns all stem from meters familiar to her in hymn books, but her skill at introducing new rhymes, metric forms, and varying poetic feet—often within a single poem—are originalities that have given added richness to versification and in many ways set the stage for the modern poets. Never commonplace, her language draws upon the homely phrases native to her speech. Her diction is laconic, stripped to the fewest words in order to gain power. She delighted, like the seventeenth century metaphysical poets, in the paradox: in balancing side by side the concrete and the abstract, the minute and the transcendent, the serious and the comic, the usual and the least expected. The unconventionality of her style no longer offends, as it appears to have done before the public was awakened to her true inventiveness, for it is now recognized as the manner by which her startling paradoxes are quickened and given their immediacy.