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Emily Dickinson

For Emily Dickinson, the immeasurable, unrecorded life was far more real than the verifiable one; the intersections of visible and invisible worlds far more electric than facts recognized by biographers. A sketch of her known dates and places cannot capture or account for Dickinson’s extraordinary sensibility or originality, which brought fresh currents into American thought and literature and expanded the possibilities of poetry.

Dickinson lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was born in 1830 and died in 1886. She shared her family’s household with her younger sister Lavinia, her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, and her father, Edward Dickinson, a lawyer, congressman, and treasurer of Amherst College. Her brother Austin, one year older, a lawyer like his father, lived for most of his life in the house next door, after marrying Dickinson’s friend Susan Huntington Gilbert. We know few details about Dickinson’s mother: she had a year of higher education, rather unusual for a woman in the early nineteenth century; like Emily, she was a skilled and avid gardener; she shared domestic responsibilities with her daughters, and Lavinia took on much of the household management.

Squire Edward Dickinson emerges as a dominant and domineering figure in the family, whom Emily Dickinson seems to have both honored and humored. To her brother Austin, away at law school, she wrote:

We dont have many jokes tho’ now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that its pretty much all real life. Fathers real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt!...

About ten years later she wrote to a friend: “He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” Dickinson implied that her parents neither comprehended nor aided her development, but we know that their quiet style of living, their secure economic class, and perhaps even their emotional remoteness allowed her the privacy in which to develop her writing. Lavinia protected that privacy, and said after Dickinson’s death that Emily was the one of the family who had thinking to do.

By the age of twelve, Dickinson was a fluent and prolific writer of letters. Austin described the dramatic effect of her talent at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College), where she spent one year. “Her compositions were unlike anything ever heard—and always produced a sensation—both with the scholars and Teachers—her imagination sparkled—and she gave it free rein. She was full of courage—but always had a peculiar personal sensitiveness. She saw things directly and just as they were. She abhorred sham....”

Dickinson’s early letters reveal a witty, startling, irreverent imagination, and a passion for situations which combined friendship, honesty, secrecy, private jokes, and talk about books and ideas. Though her childhood was a time of mass evangelistic conversions, or revivals, in the churches of western Massachusetts, when all souls were urged to commit themselves to Christ, Dickinson refused to think badly of “the world,” or believe that greater pleasures could be found in heaven than on earth. Of her family’s habits of traditional prayer and churchgoing she wrote, “[They] are religious—except me—and address an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call ‘Father.’” Her letters indicate that she found life exhilarating and sufficient, if only it would last, and that for her, heaven was embodied in familiar surroundings, in nature, in love, and in the power of thought.

Why Dickinson spent only one year at Mount Holyoke, we do not know. Her father seems to have wanted her at home. Religious pressure may also have contributed to her departure. Mary Lyon, founder of the Seminary, ranked incoming students on the basis of their spiritual condition, and her staff made separate lists of those who “had a hope” (of receiving God’s grace), or had “indulged” a hope, or had no hope. Dickinson’s name remained on the final list, despite intense public pressure to attend religious meetings and re-examine her soul. Her letters suggest that she refused to profess a sense of sin; such a refusal required an astonishing degree of originality and courage. Her poems and letters indicate that throughout her life she felt she had a direct route to the Infinite, especially through the world of the mind, and that churches, sermons, preachers, revival meetings, and theological vocabulary did not express her sense of eternity, tremendousness, awe, or spiritual center, which she also named Circumference. Attention to her own experience was her great route to the Infinite.

After one year of college, Dickinson made only five or six trips away from Amherst, traveling in her twenty-fifth year with her father to Philadelphia and Washington, and spending time in Boston in her early thirties when she developed an acute eye problem.

For women of Dickinson’s class, the appropriate social institutions were the family and the church; with those came many societal obligations. Women of her day were not expected to be intellectuals, leaders, thinkers, philosophers, or creators. But Dickinson rebelled. She was a woman who created her own avenues of thought, providing a striking example of an alternative sensibility, a dissenting imagination, a re-creating mind.

Attenuated doses of society were enough for Dickinson. She found the electricity between two individuals in a room quite overpowering, when it wasn’t stifling, and she needed much time for solitude.

Dickinson rarely, if ever, left her family’s house and grounds during the last twenty years of her life, but we should not imagine her disconnected from life. The Dickinson family was prominent in the town and the state, and many visitors came to visit at the two Dickinson houses. Susan, Austin, and their children lived next door. The family holdings included gardens, lawns, a meadow, a stream, an oak grove, a barn, and a conservatory. A number of household workers were employed, including many from among the local community of Irish immigrants. Dickinson’s bedroom overlooked the main road from Boston to Amherst, on which there was constant traffic. She could look from the windows of that room, where she wrote most of her poetry, toward the house of her sister-in-law and brother, and toward Amherst College and the town’s center with its churches, shops, and citizens coming and going.

We also know that Dickinson was a cosmopolitan and eclectic reader. Her letters indicate that she read newspapers and periodicals, following closely local and national events, and reading contemporary poetry and fiction as soon as it came into print. Many of her letters contain requests to borrow books or offers to loan them. She seems to have learned much of the Bible and Shakespeare by heart; her letters are filled with scriptural and literary allusion. She read women writers with particular passion, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, the Brontës, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and her own friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, who urged her vehemently, and in vain, to publish her poems.

Dickinson was immensely responsive to friendship with those she found interesting, and loved both women and men with a passionate intensity expressed in both letters and poems. “My friends are my estate,” she once wrote. Throughout her life she referred to those she loved as “treasures” and “possessions.” For her, friendship was like Heaven, and she resented the Calvinistic God, both “burglar” and “banker,” who would jealously take those she loved from her. At the same time, she hoped, and believed with “uncertain certainty,” that, after death, God would  “refund” her “confiscated Gods.”

One whom Dickinson loved was her sister-in-law Susan, a woman with whom she was closely connected from her late teens until her death. As far as we know, Susan received more of Dickinson’s writing than any other correspondent. The letters and poems sent across the lawn to Susan are evidence of the intimacy and constancy as well as the tensions of this friendship. Those inclined to view Dickinson as emotionally impoverished might think instead of her living for three decades next door to the woman, also a writer, to whom she wrote: “With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living—To say that sincerely is strange praise.”

Apparently Austin Dickinson, with his mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who was editing the poems for publication, mutilated Dickinson’s manuscripts, erasing his wife’s name and scissoring out references to her. One poem sent to Susan, “One Sister have I in our house,” included in our selection, was completely scratched out, line by line. It seems that Susan, too, withheld information. Only after her death in 1913 did she allow her daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi to publish poems and letters she had received from Dickinson, and it is possible that this writing to be shared with the world was carefully chosen, while other work was destroyed.

It is important to understand the role in Dickinson studies played by homophobia, which is the fear and hatred of love between people of the same sex. We do not know to what extent Dickinson expressed her sexual desires physically, but we do have clear evidence that her affinities were both lesbian and heterosexual.

One of the most enduring legends in Dickinson studies is the story that the love poems were written to the man Dickinson addressed in several passionate letters as “Master.” (It is unclear whether these letters were ever actually sent.) Some argue that “Master” can be identified as the Reverend Charles Wadsworth of Philadelphia and claim that it was Wadsworth who “broke the poet’s heart.” This story set off the search for “the one true [male] love” of Dickinson’s life, which has extended into many contemporary readings of Dickinson.

In the end, though we cannot define the exact nature of Dickinson’s bonds with the women and men of her “estate,” it is important to realize that she counted each a “treasure.” Among them were Benjamin Newton, her early friend; Springfield Daily Republican editor Samuel Bowles, his wife Mary, and his cousin Maria Whitney; Judge Otis Lord, a family friend in love with her and she with him late in her life; Mrs. Holland, whom she addressed as “Little Sister”; the writer and reformer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whom she called her “Mentor.” Each to her was a rare object of love and desire, as well as a source of intellectual stimulation and an audience for her writing.

At the age of 31, Dickinson sent several poems to Higginson, responding to his “Letter to a Young Contributor” in The Atlantic Monthly. She asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” The Higginson selection in this anthology includes a letter to his wife describing his first visit to Dickinson: “I never was with a person who drained my nerve power so much,” he wrote. Even though Higginson stood in awe of the poet, he apparently commented that the poetry was “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled,” and despite Dickinson’s admiration for her “teacher,” she seems never to have taken any of his advice. The only documentation we have of Dickinson ever having taken anyone’s suggestions concerning her poems is an exchange of letters in which she sent Susan a requested revision.

Although ten poems by Emily Dickinson were published during her lifetime, we have no evidence that she sought, desired, or welcomed their publication, and considerable evidence that she did not. She enclosed many poems in letters, but no member of the family guessed how seriously she took herself as a poet until after she died, when it was realized that over a period of years she had engaged in what is probably the most remarkable instance of private publication in American letters.

Dickinson copied almost 1,200 poems onto folded sheets of white, unlined stationery, marking with a small “x” certain words and phrases she considered revising, then listed possible alternative word choices at the bottom of the page. She stacked several folded sheets on top of one another, punched two holes, and tied each packet together along one edge with cotton string. Each of the “packets,” also called “fascicles” (we have no way of knowing what name Dickinson had for them), contains from 16 to 24 pages and an average of 20 poems. Dickinson’s use of and intentions for these packets are unknown. They may have constituted a storage and filing system; some critics believe they have thematic coherence.

Photostatic representations of “fascicle” poems as well as electronic images, in online editions, of unbound poems, drafts, and fragments allow us to study Dickinson’s manuscripts, observing, for instance, her exact use of punctuation. She used dashes in the place of more traditional marks, such as periods, commas, colons, and semicolons, and some see it as significant that the dashes vary in length and that some slope upward, some downward. One supposition is that Dickinson may have used the dash to direct a reader to stress certain words and phrases. With the dash, Dickinson could avoid what she may have considered the spurious finality of the period. Photostats of the poems also show us Dickinson’s line breaks, now a subject of debate among readers, editors, and critics.

When she died, Dickinson left Lavinia and Maggie Maher, a woman who worked in the household, specific instructions to destroy the letters she had received and saved. She made no mention of her poetry. When Lavinia discovered the poems, she was determined to get them into print, and she persuaded Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd to edit them. Todd and Higginson published volumes of selected poems in 1890 and 1891; in 1896 Todd edited a third volume. The poems were received with great excitement; the 1890 volume went through seven printings in a year, the 1891 volume five printings in two years. Because of complex family feuds which separated the manuscripts, Dickinson’s complete poems and all known variant readings were not published until 1955.

In reading Dickinson’s poetry, it is best not to look for creeds or statements of belief. Though she reflects her community’s Protestant and Calvinistic frames of reference, religious terminology in her poetry does not indicate that she held orthodox religious beliefs. She is by turn satirical, skeptical, awed, reverent, speculative, outraged, tantalized, ironic, or God-like herself. She scorns theological portraits of “God” but aligns herself personally with divinity, sometimes as Jesus and sometimes as co-creator. Dickinson wrote a remarkable number of poems on pain, a taboo subject in her time and place. She refused to accept the Calvinistic teaching that she had earned pain, through original sin, or the Transcendentalist habit of transcending it, through denial or euphemism. Tracking her experience led her to fearful and dire states of insight, often bordering on madness and despair. She felt appalling losses, which in some cases also brought compensations of knowledge or spiritual insight, but she insisted on recording her perception of pain in language which was unflinching: “I like a look of Agony, / Because I know it’s true—”

Dickinson experimented radically with poetic style: she was taut, terse, suggestive, oblique. The words she chose live vividly on the page and invite readers to fill the poems with their own sense of connection. Her tone is often both intimate and stark, especially in the many first lines beginning with “I”: “I felt a funeral in my brain...,” “I dwell in possibility...,” “I measure every grief I meet....” She rearranged word order, ignored rules of punctuation, evaded rhyme schemes even while suggesting them, and in general tried to ventilate and open up language to the point where it approximated her own sense of the layered complexity of matter, spirit, and consciousness. The English sentence as she inherited it must have seemed to her like a blunt instrument. Her meter suggests not certainty or regularity, but mobility, unfinished business, life in motion. Because she rarely rhymed exactly, one critic has suggested that for her, life did not rhyme. But it seems to have come tantalizingly, agonizingly close before it refused.

Certainly Dickinson’s explorations of consciousness, and the strategies she used to free language from traditional structures and expectations continue to challenge, reward, and astonish readers year after year. Dickinson was a poet who had the courage to resist many authorities, even at the price of being misunderstood. Wresting language back to the service of her own experience, she gives us glimpses of a person too startling to be acceptable to her community, with a mind too exacting to use language as she had learned it, a heart of unacceptable desires and unanswerable demands, and a sensibility embodying in life and language an early and genuine example of the sometimes illusory American trait of self-reliance.
Peggy McIntosh
Wellesley College, Center for Research on Women

Ellen Louise Hart
University of California at Santa Cruz, Cowell College

In the Heath Anthology
Letter To Abiah Root (1850)
Letter To Austin Dickinson (1851)
Letter To Susan Gilbert (Dickinson) (c.1852)  [n.b., Letters written in 1852, 1854, c. 1870, c. 1878, 1883, c. 1884]
[Her Breast is fit for pearls,] (c.1857)
[Success is counted sweetest] (c.1857)
[I never lost as much but twice] (c.1858)
[One Sister have I in our house,] (c.1858)
[These are the days when Birds come back--] (c.1859)
[Come Slowly--Eden!] (c.1860)
[Did the Harebell loose her girdle] (c.1860)
[Some keep the Sabbath going to Church] (c.1860)
[I can wade Grief--] (c.1861)
[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain] (c.1861)
[I like a look of Agony] (c.1861)
[If your Nerve, deny you--] (c.1861)
[I'm Nobody! Who Are You?] (c.1861)
[It sifts from Leaden Sieves] (c.1861)
[Rearrange a "Wife's" affection!] (c.1861)  [n.b., 1945]
[There came a Day at Summer's full,] (c.1861)
[There's a certain Slant of light,] (c.1861)
[Wild Nights--Wild Nights!] (c.1861)
Letter To recipient unknown (c.1861)
Letter To Samuel Bowles (c.1861)  [n.b., Letters written in 1861, 1862]
[A Bird came down the Walk--] (c.1862)
[After great pain, a formal feeling comes--] (c.1862)
[Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?] (c.1862)
[Empty my Heart, of Thee] (c.1862)
[God is a distant--stately Lover--] (c.1862)
[Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night] (c.1862)
[I cannot live with You--] (c.1862)
[I dwell in Possibility--] (c.1862)
[I had been hurgry, all the Years--] (c.1862)
[I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--] (c.1862)
[I know that He exists.] (c.1862)
[I reason, Earth is short--] (c.1862)
[I reckon--when I count at all--] (c.1862)
[I send Two Sunsets] (c.1862)
[I showed her Heights she never saw--] (c.1862)
[I started Early--Took my Dog--] (c.1862)
[I tie my Hat--I crease my Shawl] (c.1862)
[Much Madness is divinest Sense--] (c.1862)
[Of all the Souls that stand create--] (c.1862)
[One Crucifixion is recorded--only--] (c.1862)
[Ourselves were wed one summer--dear--] (c.1862)
[The Brain--is wider than the Sky--] (c.1862)
[The Soul selects her own Society] (c.1862)
[The soul's Superior instants] (c.1862)
[They shut me up in Prose--] (c.1862)
[This is my letter to the World] (c.1862)
[This was a Poet--It is That--] (c.1862)
[This World is not Conclusion] (c.1862)
[Title divine--is mine!] (c.1862)
[What Soft--Cherubic Creatures--] (c.1862)
[Your Riches--taught me--Poverty.] (c.1862)
Letter To T.W. Higginson (c.1862)  [n.b., Letters written in 1862, 1876, 1886]
[Because I could not stop for Death--] (c.1863)
[Essential Oils--are wrung--] (c.1863)
[My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--] (c.1863)
[One need not be a Chamber--to be Haunted--] (c.1863)
[Presentiment--is that long Shadow--on the Lawn--] (c.1863)
[Publication--is the Auction] (c.1863)
[She rose to His Requirement--dropt] (c.1863)
[They say that "Time Assuages"--] (c.1863)
[The Poets light but Lamps] (c.1864)
[This Consciousness that is aware] (c.1864)
[A narrow Fellow in the Grass] (c.1865)
[The Missing All, prevented Me] (c.1865)
[Perception of an object costs] (c.1866)
[Revolution is the Pod] (c.1866)
[The Bustle in a House] (c.1866)
Letter To Mrs. J. G. Holland (1866)
[Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--] (c.1868)
[He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow--] (c.1872)
[Not with a Club, the Heart is broken] (c.1874)
[What mystery pervades a well!] (c.1877)
[A Counterfeit--a Plated Person--] (c.1878)  [n.b., 1924]
Letter To Otis P. Lord [rough draft] (1878)
["Heavenly Father"--take to thee] (c.1879)  [n.b., 1914]
[A Route of Evanescence] (c.1879)  [n.b., 1891]
[The Bible is an Antique Volume--] (c.1882)
[To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,]] (c.1896)
[Volcanoes be in Sicily] (c.1914)

Other Works

Cultural Objects
There are no Cultural Objects for this author.

Singing Scansion (Lois Leveen, April 27, 2001)

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The electronic text of selected Dickinson poems.

Dickinson Electronic Archives
An extensive collection of primary materials including texts by Dickinson (and other members of her family) and critical and creative multimedia responses to her work.

Emily Dickinson
Extensive site including biographical material, related links, and electronic texts of poetry by Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson's Letters
The correspondence between Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

The Dickinson Homestead
Information about the home of Emily Dickinson.

The Emily Dickinson International Society
Information about the Society, associated Dickinson journals, pictures, and more.

Secondary Sources

Jane Donahue Eberwein, ed., An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, 1998

Judith Farr, The Passion of Emily Dickinson, 1992

Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbuchle and Cristanne Miller, eds., The Emily Dickinson Handbook, 1998

Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson, 1985

Susan Howe, The Birth-mark: unsettling the wilderness in American literary history, 1993

Alfe Murray, "Miss Margaret's Emily Dickinson," Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, Spring 1999

Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols., 1974

Martha Nell Smith, Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson, 1992

Shira Wolosky, Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War, 1984

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