Emily Dickinson

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Biography of Emily Dickinson, an American poet, whose passionate poetry has placed her author in the small pantheon of American fundamental poets.

Emily Dickinson’s family history

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her family enjoyed great social prestige and had strong ties to her community.

Amherst panoramic 1966
Amherst panoramic shot taken in the year of Emily Dickinson’s death. Credit: Wikipedia

Emily Dickinson came from a prominent New England family. Her ancestors had come to the United States in the first Puritan migration wave.

The severe Puritan religiosity was present everywhere, and practically the only accepted artistic expression was the music of the church choir.

No dances, classical music concerts, or meetings of single women, other than tea between neighbors, and at home.

Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was a Hampton County, Massachusetts judge for forty years, City Clerk, General Court representative, and Senator in the State Senate.

Her father, Edward Dickinson, a Yale University attorney, was a judge in Amherst, a representative in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, a senator in the state capital, and a representative for the State of Massachusetts in the Washington Congress. He founded the Massachusetts Central Railroad railway line.

Edward Dickinson’s partner in his law firm was a cousin of Ralph Waldo Emerson who, for this reason, was always linked to the people of Amherst and influenced Emily’s philosophy and work.

Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was in charge of her children: Austin, Emily and Lavinia.

The latter, the younger sister, was the discoverer of Emily’s works after her death and became the first compiler and editor of her poetry.

Emily hardly remembered her grandparents, or her uncles.

However, as a child she had a close relationship with two little orphan cousins, whom she helped educate and even got to read some of her poems in secret, one of them, Clara Newman.

Education received by Emily Dickinson

Emily’s older brother Austin Dickinson, a year and a half older than her, was educated at Amherst College and graduated as a lawyer from Harvard University.

Thanks to the comfortable social and economic situation of her parents, Emily had a good education. A rare case for rural New England society of its time.

The elementary school where Emily studied had been built on land belonging to her grandfather. The latter had contributed most of his fortune to the creation of a prestigious university in the city.

This university, founded in 1814, was called Amherst Academy. It quickly became known as one of the best private academies in the State

Amherst College, attached to the Academy, was founded in 1821. It flourished similarly and was based on the efforts and support of the Dickinson family.

 At first, the Amherst Academy was for boys only; girls were also allowed in 1838.

Emily Dickinson’s Higher Studies

Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847.

The Amherst Academy and College had a faculty of professors made up of nationally renowned scientists, including biologists Edward Hitchcock, Charles Baker, and geologist Charles Shepard, who donated their large collections of specimens to the college.

Both institutions built cabinets to store the collections, as well as an important astronomical observatory equipped with a good telescope.

Emily dickinson Museum
Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts. Credit: Daderot. Wikimedia Commons.

All this stimulated Emily Dickinson’s interest in the natural sciences: from an early age, she learned the names of all constellations and visible stars.

She devoted herself enthusiastically to botany. She knew perfectly where to find each species of wild flora that grew in the region, and classified them correctly according to the Latin nomenclature.

Most of the teachers were recent graduates of Amherst College. They were still young and intellectually curious.

Dickinson describes them with great affection and in a letter to her sister Lavinia, she said: “You know that I am always in love with my teachers“.

The Director of the Academy, Daniel Fiske, was twenty-three years old. The curriculum was broad and ambitious.

In those years, the famous geologist Edward Hitchcock was named president of Amherst College; the school used its Elementary Geology as a textbook.

Hitchcock’s disquisitions on volcanoes, fossils, and rock formations provided a broad and rich vocabulary for Dickinson’s poetry.

Supplementary Studies by Emily Dickinson

Edward Dickinson suggested that his daughter enroll in German courses because, for sure, she would not have another chance to learn that language in the future.

In addition, the girl studied singing on Sundays, piano with her aunt, and also gardening, floriculture and horticulture; these last passions did not abandon her until the end of her life.

Emily Dickinson’s upbringing was, therefore, much more profound and solid than that of other women of her time and place.

After graduating from College in 1847, Emily enrolled in Mount Holyoke Women’s Seminary. For the first time, she lived outside his home.

At Mount Holyoke Seminary, there were 235 students under the tutelage of a select group of young teachers in their twenties and thirties.

There they tried to immerse Emily fully in religion, in order to prepare her as a missionary. But the 17-year-old teenage Emily found no interest in that prospect of the future.

Despite this, she was very popular in the seminary. Her wonderful imagination made her always be surrounded by a group of girls eager to hear her stories, strange and extremely funny.

Emily passed the first grade comfortably, thanks to her deep knowledge of Latin. She obtained excellent grades in the final exams in English History and Grammar, which were oral and public. Mathematics was not good at her.

In the following two courses Chemistry, Physiology, Astronomy and Rhetoric were studied. In all of these subjects, Emily had deep prior knowledge.

In view of her evident mastery of Botany, they gave her this subject as approved without the need to take it or take exams.

The return home at the end of his Studies

In the spring of 1850, Emily became ill and could no longer remain in the seminary. Her father sent for her and returned home to Amherst. Afterward, she never studied again.

Main street in downtown Amherst, Massachusetts. Credit: Wikipedia

Her brother Austin Dickinson married Susan Huntington, Emily’s former fellow student at the Academy in 1856.

Austin and Susan moved into the house next to Emily’s. Both women became friends.

Susan became Emily’s confidant and it is noted that she was the second person to whom she showed some of her poems.

Lavinia Dickinson, her younger sister, born on February 28, 1833, was her companion and friend until the end of her life. The few intimate confidences known to Emily come from Lavinia.

Bright and intelligent woman, Lavinia had a deep adoration for her sister and for her poetic talent. She respected and protected Emily’s private life as far as she was allowed to.

Neighbors regarded Emily Dickinson as a very eccentric person. At home, she refused to greet guests and, in the last years of her life, she didn’t even want to leave her room.

From her departure from the seminary until her death, Emily Dickinson lived peacefully in her father’s house, which was not uncommon for women in her class.

Her sister Lavinia and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, for example, followed identical paths.

Emily Dickinson’s social life

Emily went to church, did the shopping, and behaved perfectly in every way. She took long walks with her dog, attended exhibitions and charity functions.

But at the end of that year, the poet began to shy away from visits and outings, and began to dress exclusively in white, a strange custom that would accompany her during the quarter of the century that she still had to live.

Emily never married. Most of her work deals with her love for someone she could not marry. Communication with most of her friends was mainly by letters.

Emily Dickinson’s private life has always been veiled to the public. But in her poems there is extraordinary passion and intensity.

Her first romantic love

When she was little, she had two romantic loves that she calls “friends” in her letters.

The first of them was the preceptor Benjamin Newton, ten years older than Emily. She met him in 1848, made a deep impression on him, and saw him as a beautiful new friend.

Newton presented Emily with a copy of Emerson’s Poems and wrote her passionate letters where, in a veiled manner, he attempted to prepare her for his impending death: he had terminal tuberculosis.

Emily was fascinated by his colossal intellect, by his friendliness, and by recommending which authors to read, which poets to admire, and taught her many artistic and religious teachings. She loved him like an older brother.

It seems that Mr. Edward Dickinson managed to get Newton to leave Amherst in late 1849, never to return. He died in 1853 at the age of 33, in Worchester, his hometown.

Her second romantic love

In May 1854, when she was 24 years old, Emily met the Rev. Charles Wadsworth. He was 40 years old, happily married, and pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. It made a deep impression and a huge love impact on the young poet.

There are no documents from the first two occasions that Wadsworth met Emily. But she never forgot it.

In 1869 she learned that Wadsworth was back in Philadelphia after the Civil War, and began writing letters to him.

They hadn’t seen each other since 1860. One summer afternoon in 1880, Wadsworth knocked on the door of the Dickinsons’ house. Lavinia opened it and knocked on Emily’s door.

Charles Wadsworth died two years later, on April 1, 1882. Emily was 51 years old, and was left in utter despair.

On the first year of Charles Wadsworth’s death, she wrote: “All other surprises eventually become monotonous, but the death of the beloved man fills every moment and now. Love has only one date for me: April 1, yesterday, today and forever”.

The only painting hanging in Emily’s room was a daguerreotype portrait of Pastor Wadsworth. Emily’s deep and eternal love was generated and consolidated in just three encounters.

Beginning of the reclusion of this young poet

After the deaths of Newton and Wadsworth, Emily Dickinson’s life was completely empty.

Already in 1862 she was rarely seen around the city. In 1864 she traveled to Boston to visit an eye doctor and repeated the trip the following year.

She never traveled again, not even to keep the appointment that the doctor had arranged for her in 1866.

When Master Higginson asked her in 1864 if she had gone to see her doctor, she replied: “I have not been able to go, but I work in my prison and I am a guest of myself”.

In 1870, despite Higginson’s pleas to get out, the decision to shut herself in was already final: “I don’t leave my father’s land; I no longer go to any other house, nor do I move from the town”.

This exaggeration of private life had become a kind of aversion to people.

From 1871 to 1886, no one in Amherst saw her again, except that an occasional stroller caught a glimpse of her white-robed figure strolling through the Dickinsons’ garden on summer evenings.

Her letters from that period demonstrate that something abnormal was happening to the mind of the marvelous writer.

During the last three years of her life (1884 – 1886) she did not even leave her room, not even to receive the publisher Samuel Bowles, who had never stopped visiting her.

The old man stood at the entrance and shouted for her up the stairs, saying “mischievous!” and adding a loving swear word. He was never successful in his attempt to see her or to change a word with her.

Emily Dickinson took refuge in poetry, but she flatly refused to publish her poems. She read some to her cousin Clara Newman and wrote others for her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert. She didn’t let anyone else read them.

The privileged who could read them thought that many of them were dedicated to her third great love: their sister-in-law Susan Gilbert.

Poems published during the life of Emily Dickinson

Two of her poems were published in the newspaper “The Springfield Republican” in 1862, without Emily’s signature. The title just says “Original Poetry”.

Samuel Bowles, highly interested in literature and particularly poetry, ran a local newspaper, publishing four of the only six poems that came to light while Emily Dickinson lived.

On February 14, 1862, the newspaper published two other of her poems, unsigned. One of them, “The snake“, a true masterpiece; According to Emily, it was stolen from her by someone she trusted and published against her will.

Master Higginson

In 1862, Emily Dickinson sent several poems to her teacher Thomas Higginson, accompanied by the question: “Mr. Higginson, could you take a moment to tell me if my poems are alive?

Higginson responded promptly, praising her poems and suggesting extensive tweaks to suit the poetic norms in vogue at the time.

Emily realized that the innumerable changes proposed by the teacher, meant the negation of her own artistic identity. She reject the advice, gently but firmly.

Helen Hunt Jackson’s attempts

Helen Hunt Jackson was a friend and admirer of Emily Dickinson.

Helen Hunt’s husband was killed in 1963; unfortunately, her two children died within twenty months. But Mrs. Jackson, instead of getting depressed, started writing novels.

Helen was also a protégé of Master Higginson, and went out of her way to get Emily to publish some of her poetry.

At last, in 1878, she managed to get her to include “an unsigned poem” in an anthology of poems entitled “A Masquerade of Poets“.

With the guarantee of anonymity, Emily gave her a single poem, entitled “Success is said to be the sweetest thing“.

On February 5, 1884, Helen attempted one last effort to encourage her to publish her poems.

She sent a letter to Emily saying: “What wonderful folders full of verses you must have there! It is a cruel mistake for your time and your generation that resounding refusal to make them known”.

It was all in vain. Helen Hunt Jackson could no longer do anything, she died six months later.

Death of the poet Emily Dickinson

Emily’s poems and letters suggest that it is unlikely that she had the mental illness that many believed to detect in the artist’s later years.

The missives of this time are prose poems, which show a vital, attentive and brilliant attitude that enchanted the recipients.

She enjoyed watching the children playing on the neighboring field. And she liked to work on her knees, in her flowers.

When her youngest nephew died, the last child of Austin Dickinson and Susan Gilbert, the spirit of Emily, who adored that child, was definitely broken.

She spent the entire summer of 1884 in a chair, prostrated by Bright’s disease, the same nephritis that ended Mozart.

In early 1886 she wrote her last letter to her cousins: “They call me“. Emily Dickinson passed from unconsciousness to death on May 15, 1886.

Finding the poems of Emily Dickinson

Shortly after the poet’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered, hidden in her room, 40 hand-bound volumes, containing the substantial part of Emily’s work: more than 800 poems never published or seen by anyone.

Lavinia’s faith in the importance of her sister’s work protected a great inheritance for posterity. Lavinia made the world understand that the greatest poet of the United States had lived and died anonymously

The rest of her work is made up of the poetry she inserted in her letters, most of which belong to the descendants of her recipients and are not available to the public.

Main influences on her poetry

Emily Dickinson was, much of her life, isolated in her small town and in her small room.

The main influences she had on her poetry were: the Bible, the newspapers in her city, William Shakespeare, famous authors and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Several of Emily’s poems are based on biblical texts that she read from her childhood. At school, Emily wrote mocking sermons to amuse her classmates. Emily’s subtle ingenuity managed to combine religious texts with youthful humor.

Emily Dickinson was an avid reader of the newspaper edited by Samuel Bowles and Dr. Holland.

Selected excerpts from Washington Irving, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Harriet Beecher Stowe were published in that newspaper.

The poet knew Emerson’s “Essays” very well and owned a copy of his “Poems“. The celebrated poet visited Amherst on several occasions and once slept and had tea at the home of Austin, Emily’s brother, who lived in the next house.

Emerson’s phrasing and philosophy are clearly visible in the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

Emily may have copied the structure of Emerson’s quartets. She was surely influenced by the permanent renunciation of city life and the exaltation of rural tranquility that Emerson advocated throughout his life.

Emily Dickinson confessed that her preferred authors were: Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Lord Byron, and Robert Browning.

She particularly adored Elizabeth Barrett Browning and used to read translations of French George Sand. She also liked Charlotte Brontë and the poetry of her sister Emily Brontë.

The only author whom she admitted to having read the complete works was William Shakespeare.

In 1890, Emily Dickinson’s first collection of poetry was published. Unfortunately, the poet’s originals were significantly altered.

Finally, 65 years later, in 1955, the scholar Thomas H. Johnson first published a complete collection of Dickinson’s poems. Mostly unchanged.

Despite the fact that the work had an unfavorable reception, Emily Dickinson is considered almost universally, as one of the most important American poets of all time.

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