Emily Dickinson is widely recognized as one of America’s most original and celebrated poets. Her remarkable literary style, characterized by its epigrammatic compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance, and lack of high polish, distinguished her from her contemporaries and has continued to captivate readers for generations.
But who was Emily Dickinson? As we delve into her life story, we uncover a world rich in contrasts – from her quiet, secluded life to her enduring posthumous fame, and from her traditional upbringing to her revolutionary poetic style.
Who Was Emily Dickinson?
Known for her reclusive lifestyle, Dickinson spent a significant portion of her life in relative seclusion. This trend began in her early 20s when she started to restrict her social activity. She opted to stay home from communal functions and cultivate intense epistolary relationships with a select few correspondents
This unconventional way of life was considered peculiar by many in her hometown. She was known to wear white clothing frequently and often refused to come downstairs to greet guests. She chose instead to hold conversations through the closed door of her bedroom.
The intriguing contrast between Dickinson’s posthumous fame and her reclusive life adds to the fascination surrounding her life and works. Despite living largely in seclusion and publishing only ten of her nearly 1,800 poems during her lifetime, Dickinson’s reputation as an exceptional poet has only grown since her death.
Her unique personality, coupled with her decision to lead a life of solitude, continues to ignite curiosity and foster a deeper appreciation for her body of work.
Unraveling the mysteries of Emily Dickinson’s life provides a captivating lens through which to view her poetry. These contrasts offer a glimpse into the complex individual behind the poems and invite us to further explore her extraordinary life and works.
1. Early Life and Family Background
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in the idyllic town of Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the oldest daughter in a family that held significant prominence in their community.
Her father, Edward Dickinson, was not only a successful lawyer but also served as a member of Congress and treasurer for Amherst College. Emily was one of the three children in the Dickinson family. Her younger brother Austin followed his father’s footsteps into law, while her youngest sibling Lavinia became the heart of the household.
The Dickinson family was deeply rooted in Calvinist beliefs. This religious faith, known for its doctrine of predestination and strict code of morality, was a significant influence in their household. Despite being a part of a fervently religious family, Emily was noted to have a complex relationship with religion, which we will explore further in later sections.
Young Emily displayed a zest for life that is often overlooked due to her later reclusive lifestyle. She was intelligent, and fun-loving, and enjoyed the company of her friends and family.
Passion for Botany
Dickinson’s early years were marked by a deep fascination with botany. She found great pleasure in walking the hills with her dog. She used to observe and analyze the flora and fauna around her. This love for nature was not only reflected in her personal pastime but also significantly influenced her poetry. Emily’s poems are filled with botanical metaphors and imagery, a testament to her early passion for botany.
Despite her social flair during her youth, Emily gradually retreated from society as she grew older. Her early life was filled with friendships, intellectual pursuits, and a deep-rooted connection with nature, all of which left indelible imprints on her poetry. The enigmatic poet, who later chose seclusion over society, started her journey amidst friends, family, and the captivating beauty of Amherst.
2. Reclusive Lifestyle and Its Possible Causes
Emily Dickinson, one of America’s greatest poets, is as well known for her reclusive lifestyle as she is for her poetry. The last 15 years of her life were spent in relative isolation from society, a fact that has intrigued scholars and fans alike.
Dickinson’s decision to retreat into solitude was not an overnight change but a gradual process influenced by various factors. During the later years of her life, her mother’s declining health necessitated her presence at home. She found herself increasingly consumed by caregiving responsibilities.
This experience had a profound impact on Dickinson, who began to limit her social interactions. The deaths of close friends and a beloved nephew further pushed her into seclusion. It created a void that no amount of social interaction could fill.
Challenging the common notion of reclusiveness, Dickinson’s choice might be considered less about avoiding society and more about creating a safe space for her to grieve and reflect.
Writing Autonomy and Mental Health Issues
Although her seclusion has often been perceived negatively, it could also be viewed as Dickinson’s attempt to gain autonomy over her writing. Living in isolation allowed her to write without interruption, free from societal expectations and norms.
Some historians suggest that Dickinson’s isolation may also have been due to her struggling with mental health issues. Her family described her as having a “nervous personality“, and it’s suggested that she may have suffered from severe anxiety and depression.
Socializing Through Letters
Despite her physical isolation, Dickinson was far from antisocial. She cultivated deep relationships through her prolific letter writing, exchanging thoughts and sentiments with friends and family.
Her letters provide valuable insights into her life, thoughts, and emotions, revealing a woman who was deeply connected with the world despite her chosen solitude. It was through these letters that she shared her world, and in return, drew inspiration for her poetry.
In seeking solitude, Emily Dickinson discovered a world within herself, where she could freely explore her thoughts and emotions through the written word. Her reclusiveness provides us with an intriguing contrast to her posthumously celebrated work. It reminds us that solitude can sometimes be a fertile ground for creativity.
3. Literary Career and Publication During Her Lifetime
Emily Dickinson, a name synonymous with poetry, had a fascinating literary journey. It is surprising to note that during her lifetime, only a fraction of her work was publicly recognized.
- In fact, out of nearly 1,800 poems that she wrote, only ten were published during her life. One of her most renowned poems, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” (1861), is a testament to her unique style and profound understanding of human emotions.
- Dickinson’s reclusive nature did not deter her from producing vast amounts of poetry. Her younger sister, Lavinia, played a crucial role in bringing Emily’s work into the limelight. Upon Emily’s death.
- Lavinia discovered forty handbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or “fascicles,” as they are sometimes called. These volumes, carefully crafted by Dickinson herself, were published posthumously, introducing the world to Emily’s poetic genius.
- In addition to the poems published during her lifetime, three of Dickinson’s poems were anonymously featured in the newspaper Drum Beat during the Civil War. This anonymous publication, while not widely recognized at the time, added another dimension to her mysterious persona.
- The fact that Emily chose to remain anonymous speaks volumes about her inclination toward solitude and her desire to let her work speak for itself.
- The first volume of Dickinson’s work was published posthumously in 1890 – four years after her death.
- The last volume was published in 1955, demonstrating the timeless appeal and enduring relevance of her work.
The publication of these volumes marked the beginning of Emily Dickinson’s posthumous fame, rendering her one of the most influential figures in American literature.
4. Unconventional Love Affairs and Personal Tastes
Emily Dickinson’s personal affairs, much like her life and poetry, were shrouded in a veil of mystery. Rumors abound that she was involved in several love affairs. The most prominent is with her childhood friend Susan Gilbert.
As revealed by recent scholarship, it is believed that Dickinson had a lifelong love affair with Susan, who eventually became her sister-in-law by marrying Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson.
This unconventional love affair is reflected in her poems, such as “I cannot live with You” (640), wherein she expresses deep and profound love for a man from whom she is permanently separated.
In the poem, she vividly depicts how her existence revolves around this man and how his absence makes her feel dead. It captures the essence of her intense yet complicated love life.
Love for Gardening
Beyond her mysterious love affairs, Emily Dickinson had a profound love for gardening that significantly influenced her poetry. Her passion for botany found its way into her verses, with nature often serving as a metaphor for human emotions and experiences.
Numerous poems exhibit her keen observations of the natural world, portraying flowers, plants, and landscapes in vibrant detail.
Love for White Clothing
An enduring myth associated with Emily Dickinson is her supposed exclusive preference for white clothing. But, this is not entirely accurate. While it is true that Dickinson preferred wearing white in her later years.
Her earlier letters and accounts by those who knew her reveal a woman who enjoyed a variety of colors. Her wardrobe wasn’t limited to just white; she wore other colors too, reflecting her vibrant personality and unique personal tastes.
5. Religious Beliefs and Spiritual Journey
Emily Dickinson’s relationship with religion was as complex as her poetic verse. Born into a devout Calvinist family, she was surrounded by religious influences from an early age. Her father was a staunch believer, and the Puritan culture of 19th-century Massachusetts further shaped her spiritual perspectives.
Yet, her poetry often reveals a critical and somewhat unconventional stance toward these traditional beliefs.
Despite her strong religious upbringing, Dickinson wrestled with Christianity, often expressing conflicted feelings toward it. Rather than blindly adhering to established doctrines, she subjected them to intense scrutiny.
Eternity, immortality, heaven, and paradise were not just words for her. They represented profound philosophical concepts that she dissected in her poetry. She addressed themes such as death, immortality, and the nature of God from a critical perspective. This demonstrates her liberal religious thinking.
But, this does not imply that she discarded Christianity altogether. On the contrary, she recognized and accepted the salvific nature of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection, based on the integrity of his personal life.
Mysticism in Her Poetry
Interestingly, Dickinson’s attitude towards spiritual matters was more poetic than philosophical. Her poems are imbued with a sense of mysticism, blending realism with spiritual exploration.
Through her writings, she embarked on a spiritual journey, using the metaphor of a journey to convey the path to eternity. This unconventional spirituality, richly reflected in her poetry, reveals a unique blend of faith, doubt, and curiosity.
Moreover, Dickinson seemed to display a leaning towards science, indicative of her open-minded approach to understanding the world. This inclination did not negate her religious beliefs but rather added another dimension to her spiritual journey.
It underscored her desire to reconcile faith and reason, tradition and innovation, belief and skepticism.
In essence, Emily Dickinson’s religious beliefs and spiritual journey were as intricate and enigmatic as her life. They were marked by a continuous interplay of faith and doubt, tradition and skepticism, the known and the unknown. And it is this complexity that makes her spiritual journey so captivating and her poetry so enduring.
Frequently Asked Questions
Who was Emily Dickinson?
Emily Dickinson was an iconic American poet, known for her unique and enigmatic style of writing.
When did Emily Dickinson live?
Emily Dickinson lived from December 10, 1830, to May 15, 1886.
What was Emily Dickinson’s writing style?
Emily Dickinson’s writing style was characterized by its concise and compressed form, often using unconventional punctuation and capitalization.
How many poems did Emily Dickinson write?
What themes are commonly found in Emily Dickinson’s poetries?
Common themes in Emily Dickinson’s poetry include love, nature, death, immortality, and the introspective exploration of the human mind.
What impact did Emily Dickinson have on American literature?
Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most important figures in American
literature, known for her significant contributions to poetry and her unique artistic voice.
How were Emily Dickinson’s poems discovered and published after her death?
After Emily Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered her extensive collection of poems, and they were later published by friends and scholars who recognized their value.
Conclusion and Reflections on Emily Dickinson’s Legacy
So, who was Emily Dickinson? Well. known as one of America’s greatest poets she led a life marked by its simplicity and seclusion. Despite this, she produced poetry of profound depth and power, questioning the nature of death and immortality with an almost romantic quality.
Dickinson’s poetry continues to resonate with readers worldwide, demonstrating its timeless appeal. Despite being heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, and growing up in a town that promoted a conservative approach to Christianity, Dickinson’s work is anything but orthodox.
Her poems represent a principled stand against societal expectations. From gender to religion to marriage, she refused to conform and instead used her pen to rebel.
Emily Dickinson’s enduring influence can be seen in the continuous studies and analyses of her poetry. With nearly 1,800 poems to her name, there is much to explore and understand about her inner world and her perspective on themes such as spirituality, nature, death, social conventions, and immortality.
In conclusion, Emily Dickinson’s legacy continues to thrive and inspire generations of readers and writers. Her poetry stands as a beacon of non-conformity, challenging societal norms and pushing the boundaries of what is considered “standard” in poetry.
We encourage you to delve deeper into Dickinson’s works and her intriguing life story. There is no doubt that your journey through the world of Emily Dickinson will leave you with a greater appreciation for her genius and a deeper understanding of