Emily Dickinson – A Biography of a Recluse and Enigmatic Writer

Emily Dickinson is a very celebrated and well-known American poet of the 19th century. She was born on 10th December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had written around 1800 poems in her lifetime out of which, during her lifetime, only around 10 were published.

Most of her work gained popularity only after her death.  She would compose poems for her friends and family and write letters to them. A greater number of her poems were kept with herself.

Emily Dickinson was regarded as one of America’s greatest poets. She was well known for her unusual life of self-imposed social seclusion.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

Although she lived a life of seclusion, she wrote powerful poetry which questioned transcendent topics like the nature of life, immortality, death and the individual.

Early Life of Emily Dickinson

Emily had two siblings, her being the middle child. She came from a well to do family. Her father was elected in Congress for a term and was also the treasurer of the Amherst College and also helped found the college.

Growing up, Emily was close to her two siblings, brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia. She was not a very social person, she was quite reclusive and introverted and interacted with only a handful of people throughout her lifetime.

Though Dickinson’s brother married, her sister and Dickinson herself chose to stay unmarried. The two sisters cared for their mother while she was unwell to the day she died in 1882.

She attended Amherst College for seven years and excelled throughout. She then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year and then dropped out of school for reasons unknown.

The people that she met during her life had great contributions to her poetry, particularly Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she first met on a trip to Philadelphia.

Emily Dickinson

He left for the West Coast shortly after a visit to her home in 1860, and some critics believe his departure gave rise to the heartsick flow of verse from Dickinson in the years that followed.

The nature of their relationship is uncertain, but she regarded him as her ‘closest earthly friend.’ There are other possibilities for the unrequited love that was the subject of many of Dickinson’s poems include Otis P. Lord, a Massachusetts Supreme Court judge, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

Emily Dickinson Life

By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost complete isolation from the outside world. But she maintained correspondences and read widely. She spent a great deal of this time with her family.

Her father was actively involved in state and national politics, serving in Congress for one term. Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia, also lived at home for her entire life in similar isolation.

Work and Career of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s poetry was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town, which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.

Poems of Emily Dickinson
Poems of Emily Dickinson

She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning and John Keats as well. She was discouraged from reading Walt Whitman, who was her contemporary because of the rumours of its disgracefulness.

Emily Dickinson Works

Although Dickinson was extremely prolific and regarded as a solid intellectual and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime.

The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890 and the last in 1955. She died in Amherst in 1886.

Emily Dickinson’s Poems

Upon her death, Dickinson’s family discovered forty handbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or “fascicles” as they are sometimes called. Dickinson assembled these booklets by folding and sewing five or six sheets of stationery paper and copying what seem to be final versions of poems.

An excerpt from 'Because I could not stop for death'.
An excerpt from ‘Because I could not stop for death’.

The original order of the poems was not restored until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of the paper itself to restore her intended order, relying on smudge marks, needle punctures, and other clues to reassemble the packets.

Since then, many critics have argued that there is a thematic unity in these small collections, rather than their order being simply chronological or convenient. (Belknap Press, 1981) is the only volume that keeps the order intact.

One of her very widely known poems is called ‘”Hope” is the thing with feathers’. The poem was written in the year 1862. This poem is one of the most celebrated pieces of literature by the poet.

The poem has a very positive tone to it. In this poem, the poet uses Metaphor and compares ‘hope’ with a thing with feathers that is a bird. This is further established throughout the poem when in the first stanza of the poem, the poet says that just like the bird holds on or clings its talons to the perches in the same way the human heart holds on and clings to hope to get the power to get through tough times.

In the second stanza of the poem, the poet says that the Nightingale sings sweetly even through a rough storm indicating that the bird has hope that the stormy clouds and darker days will eventually clear out and what will lie ahead it will be light and happiness.

In the last stanza, the poet speaks as though she herself is the bird. Hope gives strength in the toughest and harshest of times but never expects or asks for anything in return.

This poem brings out the support and calmness that hope provides through some challenging times through life and gives us something to look forward to when we are being tested.

Because I could not stop for Death

Her poems like ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, published in 1863, and ‘Success is counted sweetest’, published in 1864,  are also widely popular. In her poem, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, Dickinson has used the figure of speech of personification, which the poet uses very often in her poems for impact, to portray ‘Death’ and ‘Immortality’ as a people with whom she rides a carriage.

The poem’s tone changes from gentle to harsh as it progresses. The poem also shows the willingness of the poet to ride the carriage with Death.

Success is counted sweetest

In the poem, ‘Success is counted sweetest’, talks about the importance of success. In the poem, the poet is trying to say that only those who have tasted failure will be able to realize what the true meaning of success is. In the poem, she gives the example of soldiers in a war.

The soldiers who are on the losing side and are dying can hear the celebration of the soldiers of the winning side and hence can understand what true success means. In this poem, the poet uses the figure of speech of Metaphor where she compares the nectar and victory.

Emily Dickinson has a very unique way of composing her poems. Her poems create an impact on the reader’s mind and the reader can understand the place she writes from. She uses rhyme schemes in her poems in every second and fourth line of every stanza.

Her poems though not very long, most of her poems only about three to four stanzas long, never fail to impress the readers. She often used many figures of speeches in her poems to deliver the message of her poems in a more interesting manner. Like in one of her most well-known poems, ’”Hope” is the thing with feathers’, she uses the figure of speech Metaphor in which she compares hope with a bird and in the last stanza of the poem she speaks as though she herself is the bird.

She composed poems on a very wide range of themes and topics. Her writing style cannot be characterized as positive or negative as she composed poems about death, love, hope, etc. showing her versatility as a poet.

She also likes to use punctuations unusually and unconventionally throughout the lines of her poems which sometimes messes with the readers. Her unique and compact way of composing is what causes her poems to have an impact and connect with the readers on such a huge scale.

She had never abided to following the grammatical rules while writing poems. She made her own identity as a poet by being unique in her writing style. It is the legacy of Dickinson that keeps her work relevant and loved even after so many years of her death.

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