Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson | Biography

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Early Years

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her parents, Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson, were well educated. Edward Dickinson was a successful lawyer who provided a comfortable living for his family, which included Emily's older brother, William Austin (called Austin), and younger sister, Lavinia. The three siblings had very different temperaments but were close and loyal to one another for much of their lives.

Emily Dickinson's relationship with her mother was distant, but she admired her father, a formidable and capable man. In addition to his law practice, which allowed his daughters to live well without having to marry and allowed his son to design a home—the Evergreens—next door, Edward Dickinson also served as treasurer of Amherst College and held several political offices in Massachusetts. Most notably, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1853–55.

As a child Emily Dickinson was cheerful and sociable, with many friends both male and female. When she was 10 she entered Amherst Academy, where she received an unusually thorough education for a girl of her era, studying Latin and Greek, composition, and the sciences, including geology and botany. As part of her studies she collected plants for a "herbarium" and labeled them by their Latin names. Her herbarium, which eventually filled 66 pages and contained 424 different species, served as the foundation for her lifelong love of gardening and the deep understanding of nature that informs her poetry. When she completed her studies at Amherst Academy, she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, from 1847–48. Although she was expected to remain for a two-year course, she left early because of homesickness, ill health, and discomfort with the evangelical atmosphere at the school.

An Unusual Life

After completing her formal education in 1848, she returned to Amherst and spent her days paying social visits and doing work in her home, including baking and gardening. But she started to become socially withdrawn in her early 20s. She made few trips outside of Amherst but did visit Washington, D.C., in 1855, and in 1864 she stayed in Boston for seven to eight months to take care of an eye affliction. Instead of in-person contacts, she became a prodigious letter writer during this time; experts now believe she wrote approximately 10,000 letters during her life, of which about 1,000 remain. Most of the surviving letters were sent to approximately 100 different people. The letters often reveal brilliant insights, and many contain poems. One of her most important correspondents was the American writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became her friend and, after her death, one of her editors.

Much speculation exists about Dickinson's life and why she chose to live as she did. Although no one knows for sure, some have speculated she had serious health problems. In Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds (2010), South African author Lyndall Gordon suggests Dickinson might have had epilepsy, a condition considered hereditary, which in those days would have made her unmarriageable. Her brother Austin indicated she was highly sensitive, and "as she saw more and more of society ... she could not resist the feeling that it was painfully hollow."

According to legend, Emily Dickinson always wore white clothing following her father's death. One observer wrote, "I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom the people call the Myth ... She has not been outside of her own home for fifteen years . . . She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful." Despite local lore surrounding Dickinson, it is unclear whether she actually wore white exclusively. If she did wear it frequently, however, practical reasons could explain her choice. White was easy to care for, as it could be bleached.

Dickinson's Writing

Dickinson's most intense period of creativity took place between 1858–64, starting when she was in her late 20s. She wrote poems on torn envelopes, scraps of paper, and old recipe cards. Also she carefully rewrote her poems in neater script than her standard handwriting and sewed them together in small bundles, called fascicles. She made more than 40 fascicles from a total of 800 poems during this time. By the age of 35 she had written more than 1,100 poems and continued writing for the rest of her life. Burdened by caring for others, however, and by her own illnesses, she wrote at a much slower pace in later years.

Although shy about publication—only 10 poems were published in her lifetime, most without her permission—she cared to know that her poetry had meaning to others, and she shared her work with friends and correspondents. She shared 276 poems with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, for example, and another 100 poems with her friend and posthumous editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Later Years, Death, and Legacy

In later life she became more reclusive as more sorrows assailed her, beginning with her father's death in 1874. After he died Dickinson and her sister Lavinia nursed their sickly mother, with whom they had never been close before her illness, until her death in 1882. At this time Dickinson was further saddened by a family fight caused by her brother's extramarital affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, a local woman. But the most devastating loss to her was the death of her eight-year-old nephew, Gilbert, her brother's son.

Emily Dickinson, too, would be overcome by illness. On May 15, 1886, she died of what her doctor diagnosed as Bright's disease (kidney inflammation) but which some modern doctors suspect might actually have been hypertension or high blood pressure.

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