Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. Though virtually unknown in her lifetime, Dickinson has come to be regarded with Walt Whitman as one of the two great American poets of the 19-th century. Her life has inspired numerous biographers and voluminous speculation; mostly about her sexuality, of which little is definitively known.
Dickinson was born in Amherst in western Massachusetts to a prominent family. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College, whose campus stands less than a mile from the family’s home. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer and treasurer for the college. He was also politically prominent, serving on the Massachusetts General Court from 1838 to 1842, the Massachusetts Senate from 1842 to 1843, and the U. S. House of Representatives. His wife, and the poet’s mother, was Emily Norcross Dickinson. She was quiet and chronically ill. William Austin Dickinson, usually known by his middle name, was her older brother. He later married her friend Susan Gilbert in 1856 and made his home next door to the house in which Emily lived most of her life. Their younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, often known as “Vinnie” encouraged the posthumous editing and publication of her sister’s poetry.
Dickinson lived most of her life in the family’s houses in Amherst. In 1840, Emily was educated at the nearby Amherst Academy, a former boys’ school which had opened to female students just two years earlier. She studied English and classical literature, learning Latin and reading the Aeneid over several years, and was taught in other subjects including religion, history, mathematics, geology, and biology. At 17, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. When she again became ill in the spring, Austin was sent to bring her home after less than a year at the Seminary, and she did not return to the school. After that, she left home only for short trips to visit relatives in Boston, Cambridge, and Connecticut. For decades, popular wisdom portrayed Dickinson as an agoraphobic recluse. New scholarship suggests a much wider circle of influence.
Dickinson’s possible romantic and sexual adventures have been matters of great controversy among her biographers and critics. There is little evidence on which to base a conclusion about the objects of her affection, though Dickinson’s
passion is made clear by some of her poems and letters. Attention has focused especially on a group of letters addressed only to “Master”, known as the Master letters, in which Dickinson appears to be writing to a male lover; neither the addressee of these letters, nor whether they were sent, has been established. Many biographers have been convinced Dickinson might have been romantically involved with the newspaper publisher Samuel Bowles, or a friend of her father’s, Judge Otis Lord. Biographers have also found evidence that Dickinson may have had romantic attachments to women in her younger years, a hypothesis which has grown in popularity, despite scant and highly ambiguous evidence. After a claimed romance with Emily Fowler, circa 1850, some conjecture that Susan Gilbert 1851, a schoolteacher, was another possible love. All of Gilbert’s replies were burnt by Dickinson’s family after Dickinson’s death, but Dickinson’s letters to Gilbert have survived. The following is excerpted from a letter from Dickinson to Gilbert in late April 1852.
Sweet Hour, blessed Hour, to carry me to you, and to bring you back to me, long enough to snatch one kiss, and whisper Good bye, again.
I have thought of it all day, Susie, and I fear of but little else, and when I was gone to meeting it filled my mind so full, I could not find a chink to put the worthy pastor; when he said “Our Heavenly Father” I said “Oh Darling Sue” ; when he read the 100th Psalm, I kept saying your precious letter all over to myself, and Susie, when they sang – it would have made you laugh to hear one little voice, piping to the departed. I made up words and kept singing how I loved you, and you had gone, while all the rest of the choir were singing Hallelujahs. I presume nobody heard me, because I sang so small, but it was a kind of a comfort to think I might put them out, singing of you. I a’nt there this afternoon, tho’, because I am here, writing a little letter to my dear Sue, and I am very happy. I think of ten weeks – Dear One, and I think of love, and you, and my heart grows full and warm, and my breath stands still. The sun does’nt shine at all, but I can feel a sunshine stealing into my soul and making it all summer, and every thorn, a rose. And I pray that such summer’s sun shine on my Absent One, and cause her bird to sing!.
Gilbert married Dickinson’s brother Austin Dickinson in 1856. Emily reconciled with Gilbert in 1858 and resumed correspondence with her in a different tone, asking Gilbert to critique her poems, which at this time she began working harder at than ever. Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886. The cause of death was listed as Bright’s disease.
Poetry and Influence.
Dickinson’s poetry is often recognizable at a glance, and is unlike the work of any other poet. Her facility with ballad and hymn meter, her extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in her manuscripts, and her idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery combine to create a unique lyric style.
During a religious revival that swept Western Massachusetts during the decades of 1840-50, Dickinson found her vocation as a poet. Most of her work is reflective of life’s small moments and some larger issues in society. Over half of her poems were written during the years of the American Civil War. Many suggest that the Civil War gave some of the tense feeling in her poetry. Dickinson toyed briefly with the idea of having her poems published, even asking Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic and family friend, for advice. Higginson immediately realized the poet’s talent, but when he tried to “improve” Dickinson’s poems, adapting them to the more florid, romantic style popular at the time, Dickinson quickly lost interest in the project.
By her death, only seven of Dickinson’s poems had been published. Five of those seven were published in the Springfield Republican. Three posthumous collections in the 1890s established her as a powerful eccentric, but it wasn’t until the twentieth century that she was appreciated as a poet. Because of her characteristic non-metrical rhythms and rhyme scheme, it has been observed that many Dickinson poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Dickinson’s poetry was collected after her death by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, with Todd initially collecting and organizing the material and Higginson editing. They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the manuscripts’ punctuation and capitalization to late nineteenth-century standards, occasionally rewording poems to reduce Dickinson’s obliquity. A volume of Dickinson’s Poems was published in Boston in 1890, and became quite popular; by the end of 1892 eleven editions had sold. Poems: Second Series was published in 1891 and ran to five editions by 1893; a third series was published in 1896. Two volumes of Dickinson’s letters, heavily edited and selected by Todd, were published in 1894. This wave of posthumous publications was Dickinson’s poetry’s first real public exposure, and it found an immediate audience. Backed by Higginson and William Dean Howells with favorable notices and reviews, the poetry was popular from 1890 to 1892. Later in the decade, critical opinion became negative. Thomas Bailey Aldrich published an influential negative review anonymously in the January 1892 Atlantic Monthly:
It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson. But the incoherence and formlessness of her – I don’t know how to designate them – versicles are fatal.[A]n eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar. .
In the early 20th century, Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published a series of further collections, including many previously unpublished poems, with similarly normalized punctuation and capitalization; The Single Hound emerged in 1914, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1924, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi emerged through the 1930s, releasing gradually more previously unpublished poems. With the rise of modernist poetry, Dickinson’s failure to conform to nineteenth-century ideas of poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful to new generations of readers. A new wave of feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a woman poet. Her stock had clearly risen, but Dickinson was not generally thought a great poet among the first generation of modernists, as is clear from R. P. Blackmur’s critical essay of 1937:
She was neither a professional poet nor an amateur; she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit. Her gift for words and the cultural predicament of her time drove her to poetry instead of antimacassars. She came, as Mr. Tate says, at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision. That is what makes her good – in a few poems and many passages representatively great. But. the bulk of her verse is not representative but mere fragmentary indicative notation. The pity of it is that the document her whole work makes shows nothing so much as that she had the themes, the insight, the observation, and the capacity for honesty, which had she only known how – or only known why – would have made the major instead of the minor fraction of her verse genuine poetry. But her dying society had no tradition by which to teach her the one lesson she did not know by instinct.
The texts of these early editions would hardly be recognized by later readers, as their extensive editing had altered the texts found in Dickinson’s manuscripts substantially. A new and complete edition of Dickinson’s poetry by Thomas H. Johnson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in three volumes in 1955. This edition formed the basis of all later Dickinson scholarship, and provided the Dickinson known to readers thereafter: the poems were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, were strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and were often extremely elliptical in their language. They were printed for the first time much more nearly as Dickinson had left them, in versions approximating the text in her manuscripts. A later variorum edition provided many alternate wordings from which Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention, had been forced to choose for the sake of readability.
Later readers would draw attention to the remaining problems in reading even Johnson’s relatively unaltered typeset texts of Dickinson, claiming that Dickinson’s treatment of her manuscripts suggested that their physical and graphic properties were important to the reading of her poems. Possibly meaningful distinctions could be drawn, they argued, among different lengths and angles of dash in the poems, and different arrangements of text on the page. Several volumes have attempted to render Dickinson’s handwritten dashes using multiple typographic symbols of varying length and angle; even R. W. Franklin’s 1998 variorum edition of the poems, which aimed to supplant Johnson’s edition as the scholarly standard text, used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the manuscripts’ dashes more closely. Some scholars claimed that the poems should be studied by reading the manuscripts themselves.
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