Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (Amherst, Massachusetts, December 10, 1830 – Amherst, May 15, 1886) was an American poet, her passionate poetry has placed her in the small pantheon of seminal American poets alongside Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman.
Dickinson came from a family of prestige and possessed strong ties to her community, although she lived much of her life in seclusion at home. After studying for seven years at Amherst Academy, she briefly attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to the family home in Amherst. Her neighbors considered her eccentric; she had a predilection for always wearing white clothes, was known to refuse to greet guests, and in the last years of her life, for not even wanting to leave her room. Dickinson never married and most of her friendships depended entirely on correspondence.
In the privacy of her home, Dickinson was a prolific poet; however, during her lifetime not a dozen of her nearly 1800 poems were ever published. The work published during her lifetime was significantly altered by publishers, adapting them to the poetic rules and conventions of the time. Nevertheless, Dickinson”s poems are unique in comparison to those of her contemporaries: they contain short lines, are usually untitled, contain imperfect consonant rhymes and unconventional punctuation. Many of her poems focus on themes related to death and immortality, two themes also recurrent in the letters she sent to her friends.
Dickinson”s acquaintances probably knew of her writings but it was not until after her death in 1886 that Dickinson”s younger sister Lavinia discovered the poems Emily kept and the breadth of her work became apparent. Her first collection of poems was published in 1890 by well-known figures such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, although they significantly altered the originals. The scholar Thomas H. Johnson published in 1955 a complete collection of Dickinson, the first of her poetry, and mostly unchanged. Despite an unfavorable and skeptical critical and reception in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Emily Dickinson is almost universally regarded as one of the most important American poets of all time.
Emily Dickinson came from a prominent New England family. Her ancestors had come to the United States in the first wave of Puritan immigration and the strict Protestant religion they professed influenced the artist”s work.
Lawyers, educators and political officials populated Emily Dickinson”s family tree; one of her ancestors was Town Clerk of Wethersfield, Connecticut in 1659. Her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson was Town Clerk, a representative in the General Court, a senator in the State Senate, and for forty years a judge of Hampton County, Massachusetts.
The poet”s father, Edward Dickinson, a Yale University lawyer, was a judge in Amherst, a representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a senator in the state capital, and finally a representative for the state of Massachusetts in the Washington Congress. Edward founded the Massachusetts Central Railroad and, in addition, Amherst College along with Samuel, his father. …
The partner of Edward Dickinson”s law firm was a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, for this reason, was always linked to the town of Amherst, influencing the philosophy and work of Emily Dickinson. Edward”s wife and mother of the poet was Emily Norcross Dickinson (1804-1882), at the end of her life she was prostrate and in charge of her daughters. Emily Dickinson had two brothers: the older, William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895), generally known by his middle name, married in 1856 Susan Gilbert, a friend of his sister Emily, and lived in the house adjoining his father”s house. His younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson (1833-1899), also known as “Vinnie,” was the one who discovered Emily Dickinson”s works after her death and became the first compiler and editor of her poetry.
Emily Dickinson was born in pre-Civil War times, when strong ideological and political currents were clashing in upper-middle-class American society.
Even the most affluent homes lacked hot water and indoor baths, and housework placed an enormous burden on women; however, because of the good economic position, the Dickinson family had an Irish maid. Because of the situation in New England at the time, Dickinson was a rare case in rural society because of her concern for obtaining a good education.
Stern Puritan religiosity was everywhere and the only accepted artistic expression was the music of the church choir. The Protestant orthodoxy of 1830 considered novels as “dissipated literature”; card games and dancing were not allowed; there were no classical music concerts and there was no theater. The presence of women alone was not tolerated at gatherings outside of the daily tea between neighbors, and Easter and Christmas were not celebrated until 1864, when the first Episcopal Church was established in Amherst and introduced these customs.
Once Amherst College was founded by Emily Dickinson”s grandfather and father, the union between the institution and the church led to the formation of missionaries who eventually left Amherst to spread Protestant ideals to the farthest corners of the globe. The occasional return of some of these missionaries introduced new ideas, visions and concepts to the conservative society of the town, which thus began to make contact with the outside world and was inclined to abandon old customs and beliefs more quickly than other areas of the region.
Childhood, adolescence and studies
Emily Dickinson was born in her parents” home on December 10, 1830, two years after her parents married. Very attached to the Puritan ideals and concepts in vogue, it took her many years to begin to rebel, although never completely.
Emily had little recollection of her grandparents or aunts and uncles, yet as a child she had a close relationship with two little orphaned cousins, whom she helped to educate and even secretly read some of her poems to one of them, Clara Newman.
It is impossible to completely reconstruct the poet”s childhood, the data available to researchers are scarce and fragmentary. However, it is known that Emily”s older brother, William Austin Dickinson, a year and a half older than her, was born on April 16, 1829. He was educated at Amherst College and became, like his father, a lawyer after graduating from Harvard University.
Austin Dickinson married in 1856 Susan Huntington Gilbert, Emily Dickinson”s former classmate at Amherst Academy, who seems to have played an important role in the writer”s emotional life. Susan Gilbert, upon moving with Austin into the house next door to where Emily lived, became the poet”s friend, lover, and confidante, and it is recorded in the correspondence maintained “wire by wire” that her sister-in-law was the second person to whom she showed her poems. She even dared to suggest to Emily some changes and retouches that were never made. It has also been proposed that Susan was the recipient of about three hundred of Dickinson”s love poems and that this love was reciprocated.
Lavinia Dickinson, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833, was her companion and friend until the end of her life. The few intimate confidences known about Emily come from Lavinia. “Vinnie” felt a deep adoration for her sister and for her poetic talent; however, she respected until Emily”s death the decision to keep her works hidden, and also protected her private life as far as she was given to do so, creating and maintaining the atmosphere of calm, isolation and solitude that Emily needed to shape her great poetic production. Lavinia”s faith in her sister”s works allowed for their protection for posterity, until their first posthumous publication. Lavinia”s devotion was responsible for making Emily”s biographer, George Frisbie Whicher, and the world realize that “America”s most memorable lyric poet had lived and died in anonymity.”
Amherst Academy was for boys only, despite this, in 1838 it first opened enrollment to girls and in 1840, Edward Dickinson and his wife enrolled Emily.
Despite her humility – she wrote “I went to school but had no instruction” – Emily”s education at the academy was solid and thorough. There she learned literature, religion, history, mathematics, geology and biology. She received solid instruction in Greek and Latin that enabled her, for example, to read Virgil”s Aeneid in its original language.
The weakest point of Dickinson”s education was undoubtedly mathematics, for which she had no facility and did not like. Her narrative talent led her to write the compositions of her classmates who, in return, did algebra and geometry homework for her.
From this period a letter to her friend Jane Humphrey is preserved, written at the age of eleven, which shows a scholarly and laughing style: “Today is Wednesday, and there has been oratory class. A young man read a composition the subject of which was ”Think twice before you speak.” I thought him the silliest creature that ever lived, and I told him that he should have thought twice before writing.
The rector of the academy at the time was an experienced educator who had just arrived from Berlin. Edward Dickinson suggested to his daughter that she enroll in the German courses that the rector taught, since she would certainly not have another occasion to learn that language in the future. In addition, Emily studied piano with her aunt, had singing on Sundays and also gardening, floriculture and horticulture; these last passions would not leave her until the end of her life.
Emily Dickinson”s education was, therefore, much deeper and more solid than those of other women of her time and place. However, at times the girl, whose health was not very good, felt saturated and overworked. At the age of fourteen she wrote a letter to a classmate in which she said: “We will finish our education sometime, won”t we? Then you can be Plato and I can be Socrates, as long as you are not wiser than me”.
Amherst Academy and Amherst College had a faculty of nationally renowned scientists, including biologists Edward Hitchcock and Charles Baker Adams, and geologist Charles Upham Shepard, who brought their enormous collections of specimens to the college. In 1848, when the poet was eighteen years old, both institutions built an important astronomical observatory with a good telescope, and cabinets to hold the collections.
All this stimulated Dickinson”s interest in the natural sciences, she knew from an early age the names of all the constellations and stars, and she devoted herself enthusiastically to botany. She knew perfectly well where to find every species of wildflower growing in the region and classified them correctly according to the Latin binomial nomenclature. All this scientific erudition was firmly stored in his memory and was used for the naturalistic plot of his poems many years later.
The Mary Lyon Seminary for Young Ladies at Mount Holyoke also received Emily Dickinson to help her religious formation and complete her higher education. In 1847, the young girl left the family home for the first time to study at the seminary.
Dickinson, at just sixteen years old, was one of the youngest of Mount Holyoke”s 235 students, who were guarded by a select group of young women teachers in their twenties and thirties. The teenager passed the strict entrance exams with flying colors and was very pleased with the education at the seminary.
There, they tried to get Emily to turn to religion to devote herself to missionary work abroad, but after a deep examination of conscience Dickinson found that she was not interested in it and refused, being enrolled in the group of seventy students who were considered “unconverted”.
Despite this, Emily Dickinson and her portentous imagination were very popular at the seminary. A fellow student wrote that “Emily was always surrounded at recess by a group of girls eager to hear her bizarre and enormously amusing stories, always made up on the spot.”
In less than a year, Dickinson passed the entire course, mainly because of her thorough knowledge of Latin. He quickly passed English History and Grammar, obtaining excellent marks in the final exams, which were oral and public. The next course was Chemistry and Physiology, and the third, Astronomy and Rhetoric, all subjects in which, as has been said, Emily had a profound knowledge. The professors, in view of her evident mastery of Botany, gave her a pass in this subject without the need to take it or to take exams.
In the spring Emily became ill and could no longer remain at the seminary. Edward Dickinson sent Austin to fetch her and bring her back. After this second academic experience of her life, Emily Dickinson never went back to school again.
Emily Dickinson”s private life has always remained veiled from the public, but one need only glance at her poems to discover in them an extraordinary coherence, passion and intensity. Most of her works deal with her love for someone, a man or a woman, whose name is never mentioned, and whom she could not marry.
Unfortunately, as Emily Dickinson”s poetry was published in a completely arbitrary order, no concrete chronological sequence can be distinguished today, which destroys the possible dramatic progression that would narrate the succession of emotions she felt towards this unknown person, undoubtedly, something of capital importance in the artist”s life and that could have influenced, even, her decision to self-recluse.
The subject of numerous rumors during her lifetime and many more after her death, Emily”s emotional and intimate life is still waiting to be revealed by researchers and scholars. The possible exaggeration of her life is contradicted by the poet herself when she writes: “My life has been too simple and austere to trouble anyone,” although perhaps this phrase refers only to the facts of her life and not to her deep feelings.
Already between 1850 and 1880, numerous rumors circulated in Massachusetts about Judge Dickinson”s daughter”s love affairs and, after the publication of her first book of poems, gossip about her unhappy “love story” spread.
The popular or academic theories can be divided into two groups, the love with a young man whom Edward Dickinson forbade her to continue seeing or the relationship with a married Protestant pastor who fled to a distant city in order not to succumb to temptation. Both, even if they cannot be proven, have a small undercurrent of historical truth. Nor should one discount the hypothesis held by some more contemporary biographers that Emily was deeply in love with her counselor, friend and sister-in-law, her older brother”s wife, who lived next door to her house.
One of the first theories concerns a law student who worked in Edward”s law office during the year Emily was at Mount Holyoke, and the year after that. The second is based on the, as she herself wrote, “intimacy of many years” with an important religious man who was introduced to her in Philadelphia in 1854. Although both relationships did indeed take place, there is not the slightest evidence that Emily Dickinson was the bride or mistress of either of them; nor even that she ever met with them alone on any occasion.
More fruitful was the “deep and confidential” friendship with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington. She was one of the few people to whom Emily shared her poems and is now believed to have been the true love inspiration for at least several hundred of them.
Throughout her life, Emily Dickinson put herself in the hands of men whom she considered wiser than herself and who could tell her what books to read, how she should organize her knowledge, and pave the path of the art she intended to pursue. The last and best documented, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, discovered on April 5, 1862, when the poet was 31, that he was not her first teacher. Higginson is the one whom Emily always calls Master in her letters and to whom the popular voice has ascribed the nickname “Master of Letters”.
In that year of 1862, in the second letter she writes to him, the poet says: “When I was a little girl, I had a friend who taught me what immortality was, but he came too close to it and never returned. Soon after my teacher died, and for long years my only companion was the dictionary. Then I found another, but he did not want me to be his pupil and left the region.”
The two men Dickinson mentions in her letter to Higginson are, in truth, the protagonists of her love poems. She herself expresses this in other letters, and there is no reason to deny it. However, their respective identities would have to wait seven decades to be revealed.
In 1933, a collector of autographs published his catalog, and in his collection appeared an unpublished letter from Emily Dickinson that would shed light on the name of the “friend who taught her immortality”.
The missive, dated January 13, 1854, is addressed to Rev. Edward Everett Hale, who was at that time pastor of the Unity Church in Worcester: “I think, sir, as you were pastor of Mr. B. F. Newton, who died some time ago in Worcester, you can satisfy my need to learn whether his last hours were cheerful. I was very fond of him, and would like to know if he rests in peace.”
The letter goes on to explain that Newton worked with her father, and that she, being but a child, was fascinated by his colossal intellect and his remarkable teachings. She says that Mr. Newton was for her a kind but serious preceptor, who taught her which authors to read, which poets to admire, and many artistic and religious teachings.
Ask Hale if he believes Newton is in paradise, and he recalls that “he taught me with fervor and affection, and when he left our side he had become my older brother, loved, longed for and remembered.”
Born in Worcester on March 19, 1821 and, therefore, ten years older than Dickinson. Benjamin F. Newton made such a deep impression on the poet that, as soon as she met him, she wrote to her friend, neighbor and future sister-in-law Susan Gilbert a letter dated 1848 where she says: “I have found a new and beautiful friend”.
Newton stayed with the Dickinson”s for two years and, for whatever reasons, including an alleged prohibition by Edward against his continuing to frequent his daughter, left Amherst in late 1849, never to return.
Back in his hometown he went into law and commerce, in 1851 he married Sarah Warner Rugg, 12 years his senior. By this time Newton was already seriously ill with tuberculosis, an ailment that led to his death on March 24, 1853, at the age of 33, ten months before Emily wrote to Pastor Hale inquiring about his last moments.
The charm that Newton provoked in Emily Dickinson came from the hand of literature, although Edward Dickinson bought her many books, he asked the girl not to read them, because his old and conservative Puritan mentality feared that they could affect her spirit. Edward Dickinson especially despised Dickens and Harriet Beecher Stowe, which his daughter deplored many years later.
Newton, on the other hand, gave Dickinson a copy of Emerson”s Poems and wrote her passionate letters in which, in a veiled way, he tried to prepare her for his imminent death. Dickinson tells Thomas Higginson, speaking of a letter she had received from Newton: “His letter did not make me drunk, for I am used to rum. He told me that he would like to live till I was a poetess, but that death had a greater potency than I could manage.” Another letter to the “Master” says that “my first friend wrote to me the week before his death, ”If I live, I will come to Amherst to see you; if I die, I certainly will.”” Twenty-three years later, Emily Dickinson was still quoting from memory the words of these last letters from her friend of youth.
The reasons for Newton”s return to Worcester are unclear, but Edward Dickinson”s repudiation of a possible romance is not an unlikely cause. Newton was poor, progressive, and had end-stage tuberculosis. He was certainly not the kind of match the Amherst judge desired for his adored daughter, let alone a good influence in the eyes of the puritanical father.
While Emily was struggling with the grief that Newton”s death had unleashed in her, she met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, then pastor of Arch Street Presbyterian Church, in Philadelphia in May 1854. Wadsworth was 40 years old and happily married, but he made a deep impression on the young poet of 23: “He was the atom I preferred among all the clay of which men are made; he was a dark jewel, born of the stormy waters and strayed on some low ridge.”
While it is not certain that Emily felt a strong erotic attraction to Newton, there is no doubt that throughout her later life she was deeply in love with Wadsworth. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, it cannot be said for certain whether Emily Dickinson was in love with Charles Wadsworth. The pastor died on April 1, 1882, while Newton died on March 24. In the autumn of the same year she wrote: “August has given me the most important things; April has robbed me of most of them.” At the bottom of the text we read the following anguished question, “Is God the enemy of love?”.
On the one-year anniversary of Charles Wadsworth”s death he wrote: “Every other surprise in the long run becomes monotonous, but the death of the beloved man fills every moment and the now. Love has but one date for me: April 1, yesterday, today and forever.”
If from these confessions it is clear the enormous amorous impact that Wadsworth had on Dickinson”s life, there is no proof that she was important to him. Shy and reserved, there is no record that he noticed Emily on those occasions.
However, the only painting hanging in the poet”s room was a daguerreotype portrait of the Philadelphia pastor. It is interesting to note that Dickinson”s deep and undying love was generated and consolidated in only three interviews, although there are hints of a fourth possible encounter. Her sister Lavinia, who lived with her all her life, never met Charles Wadsworth until the last time.
There are no surviving documents from the first two occasions when Wadsworth met Emily, so we will never know the real reasons why the pastor left the East Coast of the United States and went to preach in San Francisco in the spring of 1861, in the midst of the Civil War.
But she never forgot him. In 1869 Dickinson learned that Wadsworth was back in Philadelphia, and she began writing letters to him in 1870.
But it was twenty years before they saw each other again. One evening in the summer of 1880, Wadsworth knocked on the door of the Dickinson home. Lavinia opened and called Emily to the door. Upon seeing her beloved, the following dialogue, perfectly documented by Wicher, ensued. Emily said to him, “Why didn”t you let me know you were coming, so as to prepare me for your visit?” to which the reverend replied, “It”s just that I didn”t know it myself. I got down from the pulpit and got on the train.” She asked him, referring to the journey between Philadelphia and Amherst, “And how long did it take?” “Twenty years,” whispered the presbyter.
Charles Wadsworth died two years later, when Emily was 51, leaving her in utter despair.
Beginning of his confinement
After the deaths of Newton and Wadsworth, Emily Dickinson”s life was totally empty and her only way to avoid death, according to her main biographer already mentioned, consisted of poetry. She then renewed the tenacious refusal to publish her poems and began to stop leaving her father”s house, and often even her own room.
The refusal to publish, even if Dickinson”s attitude had historical parallels such as Franz Kafka, is still an abnormality that deserves to be better studied in the future.
While, as has been said, Dickinson was not opposed to people reading her poems, she did read some to her cousin Clara Newman and wrote others for her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert; however, she did not let just anyone read them. Apart from the aforementioned members of her family, all the other people who read her works when the poet was still alive were literary professionals: writers, critics, teachers or publishers, and can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The list includes her “Master of Letters” Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Professor Samuel Bowles, writer Helen Hunt Jackson, editor Thomas Niles, and critic and writer Josiah Gilbert Holland.
Ana Mañeru, the poet”s translator, on the contrary, thinks that some three hundred poems are dedicated to her great love, reciprocated, by her sister-in-law and editor, Susan Gilbert or Susan Huntington Dickinson (1830-1913).
Only poems published during his lifetime
Samuel Bowles, who was very interested in literature and particularly poetry, ran a local newspaper, and in it were published, with or without Dickinson”s consent, four of the only six poems that saw the light of day while she lived.
The first was a primitive and unimportant Valentine”s Day poem, while the second was already a more finished sample of his craft.
In 1862, Safe in their alabaster chambers and Weary of life”s great mart were published unsigned. The famous poem about the snake, A narrow fellow in the grass , a true masterpiece today called The Snake, was “stolen” from the poet by someone she trusted, almost certainly Susan Gilbert, and was published against her will in The Springfield Republican newspaper in its February 14, 1866 edition.
The last poem, which paradoxically speaks of success, was published in an anthology prepared by Helen Hunt Jackson on condition that Emily”s signature did not appear in it.
The disoriented “Maestro
In 1862, Emily Dickinson, perhaps under the effects of doubt about whether her poetry had any real quality, sent multiple poems to Thomas Higginson accompanied by the following question, which in light of current knowledge may well be interpreted as a plea: “Mr. Higginson: are you too busy, could you spare a moment to tell me if my poems have life?”
It can be said, to Higginson”s credit, that he was quick to respond to Dickinson”s desperate plea for guidance, praising her poems and suggesting profound tweaks that, he felt, could bring her work into line with the poetic norms in vogue at the time. If he managed to understand the overwhelming quality of her poetry, it is certain that he did not know what to do with it.
Dickinson realized that by adopting the myriad changes Higginson proposed to make her poetry “publishable” meant a stylistic involution and thus a denial of her original and unique artistic identity, so she gently but firmly rejected them. Higginson kept the poems for more than thirty years, only to be shocked at the success of the book Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890 as an absolute layman who would never have had anything to do with the matter. He wrote in an essay the following year that “after fifty years of knowing them, the problem arises for me now as then of what place should be assigned to them in literature. It escapes me, and to this day I find myself stunned before such poems”. Fifteen years after the artist”s death, when Higgingson was asked why he had not persuaded her to publish them in one of the anthologies he compiled, he replied: “Because I dared not use them”.
Helen Hunt Jackson”s attempts
Helen Hunt Jackson, wife of the mayor and later celebrated novelist, suffered three devastating losses between 1863 and 1865 that could have left her in a state equal to or worse than that in which Dickinson later fell.
Helen”s husband was murdered in the first of those years, and her two young children also died before twenty months had passed. However, Mrs. Jackson, instead of becoming depressed, began writing novels.
A friend of Emily Dickinson and Higginson”s protégé, Helen Jackson went to great lengths to get Emily to publish at least some of her poetry. The poet”s refusal was closed and unassailable, until the novelist got her a place in an anthology of unsigned poems, which was entitled A Masque of poets in 1878. Alone with the guarantee of anonymity, Emily gave him a single poem, Success is counted sweetest, reputed among the best of that volume.
Jackson presented Emily”s works to the editor who published her novels, Thomas Niles, who realized the brilliance that remained hidden in those pages and added his efforts to those of the editor to convince the poet. However, he was unsuccessful and in 1883, Dickinson wrote him a letter where she laughed at “the kind but incredible opinion of Helen Hunt and you, which I should like to deserve”.
Helen sketched a last effort on February 5, 1884, writing Emily a letter in which she said, “What wonderful folders full of verses you must have there! It is a cruel mistake for your time and your generation that flat refusal to make them known.” By this time, however, Emily was blind and had suffered a severe nervous breakdown from which she could never recover, and Helen struggled in vain.
Helen Hunt Jackson died six months later.
Emily Dickinson”s self-imposed seclusion and isolation were neither sudden nor abnormal, at first. From her removal from the seminary until her death, Emily lived quietly in her father”s house, which was not uncommon for women of her class. Her sister Lavinia and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, for example, followed identical paths.
In her twenties and thirties, Emily went to church, did her shopping and behaved perfectly in all respects. She took long walks with her dog “Carlo” and even attended exhibitions and charity functions, as evidenced by the fact that institutions still keep her business cards on file. Holland”s family visited her in 1861, and remember her “in a brown dress, a darker cloak and a parasol of the same color.” The first two photographs accompanying this article also show her in dark clothing.
At the end of that year, the poetess began to shun visits and outings, and began to dress exclusively in white, a strange habit that would accompany her for the remaining quarter of a century of her life.
By 1862 she was rarely seen in the town. In 1864 she traveled to Boston to visit an oculist and repeated the trip the following year, during which time she stayed with cousins in Cambridgeport. He never traveled again and missed the appointment the doctor had made for 1866.
By 1870, despite Higginson”s pleas for him to leave, the decision to shut himself away was final: “I do not leave my father”s land; I no longer go to any other house, nor do I move from the village.” This exaggeration of private life had become, by that time, a kind of phobia or morbid aversion to people.
In the last fifteen years of her life, no one in Amherst ever saw her again, except for the occasional passerby to catch a glimpse of her white-clad figure strolling through the Dickinson garden on summer evenings. Sometimes she would hide in the stairwell of her father”s house, in the shadows, and surprise the attendees at a dinner or meeting with a quietly voiced interjection or comment.
Her letters of that period show that something abnormal was happening with the portentous writer: “I have had a strange winter: I did not feel well, and you know that March makes me dizzy”, letter written to Louise Norcross. In another note she apologizes for not attending a dinner to which she was invited and says: “The nights became hot and I had to close the windows to keep out the coconut. I also had to close the street door so it wouldn”t open by itself in the early morning and I had to leave the gas light on so I could see the danger and be able to distinguish it. My brain was confused -I still haven”t been able to sort it out- and the old thorn still hurts my heart; that”s why I couldn”t come to visit you”.
When Higginson asked her in 1864 if she had been to see her doctor, she replied, “I have not been able to go, but I work in my prison and am a guest to myself.” Five years later she writes to her cousin Norcross: “I do not feel well enough to forget that I was ill all my life, but I have improved: I can work.”
For the last three years of her life she did not even leave her room, not even to receive Samuel Bowles, who had never failed to visit her. The old man would stand in the doorway and call her loudly up the staircase, calling her a “minx” and adding an affectionate expletive. He never succeeded in his attempt to see her or exchange a word with her.
When Higginson”s first wife died in 1874, the poet sent him this sentence: “Loneliness is new to you, Master: let me lead you”.
Nevertheless, her poems and letters prove false the appearance of monotony and mental illness that many erroneously attribute to these last years of the artist. The missives of this period are prose poems: one or two words per line, and an attentive and brilliant vital attitude that delighted the recipients: “Mother went for a walk, and came back with a flower on her shawl, so that we would know that the snow was gone. Noah would have liked my mother….. The cat had kittens in the chip-barrel, and papa walks like Cromwell when he is in a passion.”
He enjoyed the sight of the children playing in the adjoining field (“They look to me like a plush nation or a race of down”) and working on his knees in his flowers.
When her youngest nephew, the last child of Austin Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, died, Emily”s spirit, who adored that child, was broken for good. She spent the entire summer of 1884 in a chair, prostrated by Bright”s disease. Early in 1886 she wrote to her cousins her last letter, “They call me.”
Emily Dickinson passed from unconsciousness to death on May 15, 1886.
Shortly after the poet”s death, her sister Vinnie discovered 40 hand-bound volumes hidden in her room, containing the bulk of Emily”s work, more than 800 poems never published or seen by anyone. The poems she inserted in her letters constitute the rest of her work, most of which belong to the descendants of the recipients and are not available to the public.
The case of Emily Dickinson is very special in American literature. The great popularity she enjoyed and enjoys after her death often makes public opinion forget how isolated she was in life, first in her small village and then in her small room, without leaving it or receiving anyone.
Therefore, there are not many influences that her poetry received from her contemporaries, nor from her predecessors. The three main influences that can be traced in the work of this poet are the Bible, American humor and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Like every American born prior to the Civil War, Dickinson was familiar with the Bible from her earliest childhood, and the influence that sacred scripture operated upon her is demonstrated as early as her youthful letters: “The brightness of the sun speaks to me this morning, and Paul”s statement becomes real: ”the weight of Glory” Thomas”s faith in anatomy was stronger than his faith in Faith Why would we censure Othello, when the Great Lover”s criterion says, ”Thou shalt have no other God but me”?”
Several of Emily”s poems are based on biblical texts or recreate them with slightly ungodly fun, such as The Bible is an antique volume , The Devil, had he fidelity and Belshazzar had a letter .
Throughout her life she was populated by religious reading; however, the second most widely read text by Emily Dickinson was the newspaper and later, journal The Springfield Republican, edited by Samuel Bowles and Dr. Holland.
The journal published selected excerpts from Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe, among others. Many of these texts were humorous. The same influence they had on Emily is evident, for example, in Mark Twain, five years her junior, who also subscribed to the Springfield Republican. Twain”s own humor in turn influenced Dickinson, who had read several chapters of Old Times in the Mississippi.
Emily wrote burlesque sermons to amuse her classmates at school and seminary. Some of her sentences would make the author of Huckleberry Finn himself blush: “The pope entered the church in a sedan chair carried by several men. It is a fine ornament for any procession.”
Emily”s subtle wit sometimes combined her religious training with Yankee humor, and made her write such things as this letter to a friend: “I am Judith, the heroine of the Apocrypha, and you the orator of Ephesus. But the world sleeps in ignorance and error and does not listen to us. So we will have to uproot this society from its roots and plant it elsewhere. We will build hospices, transcendental state prisons… and not a few gallows.”
The looseness of her humor sometimes reaches the limits of cruelty: “Who will be the journalist who writes the articles about those funny accidents in which trains unexpectedly collide and gentlemen are cleanly decapitated in industrial accidents? Vinnie was disappointed that there were only a few today.” When a beggar woman knocked on his door, he wrote: “No one knocked today but a poor lady looking for a home. I told her I knew of a place, and gave her the address of the cemetery to save her a move.”
Emily had the serious concentration of the lyric poets and the flair for comedy of American writers. Sometimes she wove elegant exercises in phonetic humor, like the six lines of Lightly stepped a yellow star, where the music is punctuated by the sound of innumerable els, and the final, punctuated word “punctual” turns the whole poem into a musical joke in the style of Mozartian off-key. For her the sun was a lantern, the Apocalypse a morning after drinking rum, and the heart the cannon of some rioters.
All this delightful poetry and fine humor, not well understood in her time, have been preserved for posterity and show Emily Dickinson, like Mark Twain, in the guise of the poet and artist many years ahead of her time.
The poetess was well acquainted with Emerson”s Essays and owned a copy of his Poems . The celebrated poet visited Amherst on several occasions and once slept at the home of Emily”s brother Austin, who lived next door.
Two student literary societies invited Emerson to deliver a lecture in the village, to which the poet agreed, appearing before the village youth on August 8, 1855. The topic was An Appeal to Scholars. It is uncertain whether Emily attended the lecture, but in 1855 she had not yet gone into seclusion, and the episode must have proved an exceptional event for such a small society as Amherst.
Emerson returned to the Dickinson settlement two years later, delivering another lecture at the chapel on December 16, 1857, entitled The Beauty of Rural Life. It is believed that on this occasion the poet was present, as her brother and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert were in the front row. The venerable figure of the great personage so impressed Gilbert that she vowed to invite him again.
Ralph Emerson spoke at Amherst on three other occasions in 1865 and had tea and slept at Austin and Susan”s house in 1872 and 1879; however, Emily was already living completely shut in by this time.
Like Whitman, Emerson”s phrases and philosophy are clearly visible in Emily Dickinson”s poetry. The explanation is that possibly all three belonged to the rural New England milieu of their time and admired each other, although the two poets never came to know the writer”s poems.
Emily may have copied the structure of Emerson”s quatrains, to which both were very fond, and was surely influenced by the ethical theory of transcendentalism, the exaltation of the rural pastorelle, the graceful rhythm, and the permanent renunciation of city life that Emerson advocated until his death.
Other readings and influences
Emily Dickinson alluded on many occasions to the “feasts” she would have with writers, novelists and poets of various origins, mainly English and American, contemporary or early.
Según sus propias palabras, disfrutaba especialmente de Alfred Tennyson, poeta de The Princess , Samuel Taylor Coleridge, escritor de Specimens of the Table Talk , Nathaniel Hawthorne, autor de Mosses of an Old Manse y The House of Seven Gables , Washington Irving con su biografía de A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus , Charles Dickens con David Copperfield, Bulwer-Lytton, novelista de The Caxtons , y los poetas John Keats y Robert Browning.
He particularly adored the latter”s wife, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and used to read English translations of the French George Sand. She also liked Charlotte Brontë and her sister Emily Brontë. Of the latter he was not so much interested in Wuthering Heights , but in her poetry.
The only author whose complete works he acknowledged having read was William Shakespeare. When he lost his sight almost completely, around 1864 and 1865, he wrote that he doubted whether, after having read all the plays of the great dramatist, it would still be necessary to be able to read other authors. In his last year of life he wrote to a friend who was due to travel to Stratford-upon-Avon: “Play Shakespeare for me.”
He said Keats was one of his favorite poets and made three references to William Wordsworth and two to Lord Byron.
As can be seen, these and many other writers and poets populated Emily Dickinson”s days but, apart from the three main influences considered above, it is difficult to say whether any of them had any effect on her poetry, which is a wholly original and, out of all question, deeply personal product. Her style is untransmissible and, therefore, neither imitable, nor possible to imitate.
Emily Dickinson defined her poetry with these words, “If I have the physical sensation of having my brains lifted, I know that is poetry.”
It was believed that she was not able to differentiate her poems from each other, to correct them or to select them. The book that was published as Poemas escogidos was not selected, corrected, or organized by the poet, who was already deceased. This apparent disorganization of her work and poetry earned her the attack of formalists, including Emily”s mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the Master.
Higginson took it upon himself to modify and “adapt” some of Dickinson”s early poems, and in her youthful letters she thanks him for the “surgery” she was unable to perform herself. After Emily”s death, Higginson felt free to overreach: she began pruning, correcting, changing, and retouching her poems, taking such extreme powers as, for example, introducing rhymes into stanzas that lacked them.
Language handling and apparent errors
The reality is that to the formalists of 1890 Emily Dickinson”s poetry seemed sloppy, when in truth she had been extraordinarily precise, even if some of her poetic habits were out of fashion by then.
Some grammatical “errors” that have been imputed to her were accepted as correct at the time she was born (1830), for example the use of lain : Indolent housewife, in daisies lain [Ama de casa indolente, entre las margaritas yacida]. He wrote extasy instead of ecstasy, but the former form appears in Webster”s dictionary. He put Himmaleh instead of Himalaya and Vevay instead of Vevey (city in Switzerland). She was accused of being ignorant, but the incorrect forms appeared in an atlas she had at home that had been printed many years before she was born.
She is also reproached for alleged historical and geographical “errors”, a rather absurd argument when used against a poet: she says that Cortés “discovered the Pacific” because Balboa did not fit in the metric. There is also a poem that says When Etna basks and purrs
Emily indifferently employed began and the participle begun as preterits, but Robert Browning did the same. It is well known that the good poet must force the rules of the language; moreover, most of the false slips that formalists find in Emily Dickinson”s poetry are due to the author”s eagerness to give her verses an archaic flavor. This is visualized in her use of be or are .
With respect to the frequency of use of certain words, the six he uses most often are “day,” “life,” “eye,” “eye,” “sun,” “man,” and “sky,” all of which are monosyllables in English except the last one, heavens. Among the nouns he used fifty or more times in his poetry, only “summer” and “morning” are polysyllabic in English. These habits may be better understood as a striving for conciseness than as technical errors.
Many other errors attributed to the artist are, in fact, misprints by the editors, some stemming from the difficulty of deciphering Dickinson”s handwriting.
Metrics and rhymes
Rhyme, contrary to common belief, is usually very orthodox except in a few poems. He prefers iambic and trochaic rhyme, and four-accented verse.
The types of rhymes used by Emily Dickinson are:
Emily Dickinson accepts the following consonant equivalences in her poems, that is, she rhymes them as if they were the same letter:
Thematic analysis: naturalistic poetry
Much of Emily Dickinson”s poems concern nature, and they are arranged, according to their quantity, in this way:
As can be seen, he devoted particular attention to biology: animals, birds, reptiles, insects, trees, plants and flowers.
Of all living things he was attracted to those with wings: birds, bats and insects. Also flowers, and, although he lived in a rural environment, he never dedicated a poem to a farm animal. He only mentions the rooster three times. His dog “Carlo” appears only twice, and hounds three times.
The animal named most often is the bee, with an astonishing 52, and the bumblebee 9.
The order of the poems
As has been said, the poems published during the author”s lifetime can be counted on the fingers of one hand. This caused the problem of posthumous publications, i.e., those in which the author has died and has no say in the order or form in which his works should be published.
It should be clarified that Emily never took the trouble to date her poems, so we do not know with certainty when they were written, and she did not even order them in any particular way.
He wrote his poems in the margins of his books, on scraps of newspaper or on loose paper, often undersized, populating them with strange, seemingly random dashes, with an arbitrary use of capital letters. That is why today, in many of his poems, experts wonder where one line ends and another begins.
The publishers neglected his work even more. In the 1890s his three anthologies were published, with the material divided incoherently and arbitrarily into four sections entitled by the editors: Life, Nature, Love, and Time and Eternity. This strange criterion is still used today.
Later editors added three more volumes, with the poems grouped according to arbitrary criteria. This means that Emily Dickinson”s work has never been the subject of any serious effort to arrange it chronologically.
Thus, for example, the poems that refer to her love affair with Wadsworth are scattered among Part III: Love, Part IV: Other Poems, section 6, and Part VII: Aggregate Poems, section 3. They are interspersed with others that have no relation to the subject or to the period in question.
As mentioned above, the only three poems published during her lifetime were A Valentine, The Snake and Success. All the rest of her innumerable works were published after her death.
A large number of poems were published by editor Mabel Loomis Todd, and her “master” Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the following order:
There were no more publications until the following century, when Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet”s niece, undertook once again the task of editing her works:
There are also four compilations that build on the material in the previous books:
Nothing else is published, except for a single edition of the poem Because that you are going, an important love poem, in The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson , New York in 1930, by Genevieve Taggard. This book, very important for its critical value, was published as a tribute also on the centenary of the poet”s birth.
The poems in these editions would not be recognized by the modern reader thanks to the extensive and invasive rewriting and adaptation that the texts underwent. Despite this, a new collection would appear in 1955, which today forms the basis of scholarly studies on Emily Dickinson:
Finally, an attempt has been made to better represent Dickinsonian signs, thinking that they may have importance for the reading of his poems. This modern work is the most faithful and the most credible:
Partial selections from Emily Dickinson”s letters were published in these books:
Poets with whom she has been compared
Emily Dickinson”s poetry is unique, has an inimitable style and cannot be confused with that of any other poet in the world; however, because of her importance and transcendence in English-speaking letters she has been compared to the following poets:
Emily Dickinson in Spain
The Spanish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Juan Ramón Jiménez, was the first to appreciate and disseminate verses by this author in Spain. In his work Diary of a Newlywed Poet (1916), he translates and incorporates in his poem CCXVIII, poems 674, 1687 and 308 of the author.
Cultural references to Emily Dickinson in popular culture center mostly on plays and film projects. For example, in 1976 American playwright William Luce premiered The Belle of Amherst, a stage monologue about the poet on Broadway and London starring Julie Harris, who won her fifth Tony Award for playing Emily Dickinson. On British television it starred Claire Bloom.
The play toured the world, achieving great success in Argentina in the 1980s with China Zorrilla, directed by Alejandra Boero, with the poems translated into Spanish by Silvina Ocampo. Zorrilla reached more than 1000 performances in Argentina and was later performed in a South American tour that ended with presentations at the John F. Kennedy Center in Washington D. C., Hunter College in New York and Amherst. It was revived in Buenos Aires in 2007 by Norma Aleandro. In Madrid it was performed by Analía Gadé in 1983.
In 2016, the film A Quiet Passion , directed by Terence Davies and with cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister, was released.
In 2003, Paola Kaufmann”s novel The Sister was published, about the life of Emily Dickinson, narrated, fictionally, by her sister Lavinia.
The 2018 film Wild Nights with Emily is a comedy about Dickinson”s romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson.
In November 2019 Apple TV launched its own adaptation of the poet”s youth in the Dickinson series.