Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was an American poet. She was born at the family’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not wealthy, family. Her father, Edward Dickinson was a lawyer in Amherst and a trustee of Amherst College. Two hundred years earlier, her patrilineal ancestors had arrived in the New World—in the Puritan Great Migration—where they prospered. Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. In 1813, he built the Homestead, a large mansion on the town’s Main Street, that became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Her father married Emily Norcross in 1828 and the couple had three children: William Austin, Lavinia Norcross and middle child Emily.
An excellent student, Emily Dickinson was educated at Amherst Academy (now Amherst College) for seven years and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year, before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Though the precise reasons for Dickinson’s final departure from the academy in 1848 are unknown; theories offered say that her fragile emotional state may have played a role and/or that her father decided to pull her from the school. Dickinson ultimately never joined a particular church or denomination, steadfastly going against the religious norms of the time.
Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in reclusive isolation. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. Dickinson was a recluse for the later years of her life. Scholars have thought that she suffered from conditions such as agoraphobia, depression and/or anxiety, or may have been sequestered due to her responsibilities as guardian of her sick mother. Dickinson was also treated for a painful ailment of her eyes. After the mid-1860s, she rarely left the confines of the Homestead. It was also around this time, from the late 1850s to mid-’60s, that Dickinson was most productive as a poet, creating small bundles of verse known as fascicles without any awareness on the part of her family members.
In her spare time, Dickinson studied botany and produced a vast herbarium. She also maintained correspondence with a variety of contacts. One of her friendships, with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, seems to have developed into a romance before Lord’s death in 1884.
Dickinson died of kidney disease in Amherst, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1886, at the age of 55.
The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering,
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.
Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955.
Emily Dickinson’s stature as a writer soared from the first publication of her poems in their intended form. She is known for her poignant and compressed verse, which profoundly influenced the direction of 20th-century poetry. The strength of her literary voice, as well as her reclusive and eccentric life, contributes to the sense of Dickinson as an indelible American character who continues to be discussed today. Jane Campion’s film The Piano and its novelization (co-authored by Kate Pullinger) were inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson as well as the novels by the Bronte Sisters. The 2016 film A Quiet Passion by Terence Davies is a biography of Dickinson, in which Cynthia Nixon plays the poet.
Sources / More to Read:
Wikipedia: Emily Dickinson
Biography.com: Emily Dickinson
Biography.com: Poetic Provocateur: 7 Surprising Facts on Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson Museum
Yale University Library
Flickr: The Dickinsons of Amherst
IMDb: A Quiet Passion (2016)