One of the finest Iyric poets in the English language, the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wasa keen observer of nature and a wise interpreter of human passion. Her family and friends published most of her work posthumously.
American poetry in the 19th century was rich and varied, ranging from the symbolic fantasies of Edgar Allan Poe through the moralistic quatrains of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to the revolutionary free verse of Walt Whitman. In the privacy of her study Emily Dickinson developed her own forms and pursued her own visions, oblivious of literary fashions and unconcerned with the changing national literature. If she was influenced at all by other writers, they were John Keats, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Isaac Watts (his hymns), and the biblical prophets.
Dickinson was born on Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass., the eldest daughter of Edward Dickinson, a successful lawyer, member of Congress, and for many years treasurer of Amherst College, and of Emily Norcross Dickinson, a submissive, timid woman. The Dickinsons' only son, William Austin, also a lawyer, succeeded his father as treasurer of the college. Their youngest child, Lavinia, was the chief housekeeper and, like her sister Emily, remained at home, unmarried, all her life. The sixth member of this tightly knit group was Susan Gilbert, an ambitious and witty schoolmate of Emily's, who married Austin in 1856 and moved into the house next door to the Dickinsons. At first she was Emily's confidante and a valued critic of her poetry, but by 1879 Emily was speaking of her "pseudo-sister" and had long since ceased exchanging notes and poems.
Amherst in the 1840s was a sleepy village in the lush Connecticut Valley, dominated by the Church and the college. Dickinson was reared in Trinitarian Congregationalism, but she never joined the Church and probably chafed at the austerity of the town. Concerts were rare; card games, dancing, and theater were unheard of. For relaxation she walked the hills with her dog, visited friends, and read. But it is also obvious that Puritan New England bred in her a sharp eye for local color, a love of introspection and self-analysis, and a fortitude that sustained her through years of intense loneliness.
Dickinson graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847. The following year (the longest time she was ever to spend away from home) she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary at South Hadley, but because of her fragile health she did not return. At the age of 17 she settled into the Dickinson home and turned herself into a competent housekeeper and a more than ordinary observer of Amherst life.
It is not known when Dickinson began to write poetry or what happened to the poems of her early youth. Only five poems can be dated prior to 1858, the year in which she began gathering her work into hand-written fair copies bound loosely with looped thread to make small packets. She sent these five early poems to friends in letters or as valentines, and one of them was published anonymously without her permission in the Springfield Republican (Feb. 20, 1852). After 1858 she apparently convinced herself she had a genuine talent, for now the packets were carefully stored in an ebony box, awaiting inspection by future readers or even by a publisher.
Publication, however, was not easily arranged. After Dickinson besieged her friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Republican, with poems and letters for 4 years, he published two poems, both anonymously: "I taste a liquor never brewed" (May 4, 1861) and "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (March 1, 1862). And the first of these was edited, probably by Bowles, to regularize (and thus, flatten) the rhymes and the punctuation. Dickinson began the poem: "I taste a liquor never brewed—/From Tankards scooped in Pearl—/Not all the Frankfort Berries/Yield such an Alcohol." But Bowles printed: "I taste a liquor never brewed,/From tankards scooped in pearl;/Not Frankfort berries yield the sense/Such a delicious whirl." She used no title; Bowles titled it "The May-Wine." (Only seven poems were published during her lifetime, and all had been altered by editors.)
Friendship with T. W. Higginson
In 1862 Dickinson turned to the literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson for advice about her poems. She had known him only through his essays in the Atlantic Monthly, but in time he became, in her words, her "preceptor" and eventually her "safest friend." She began her first letter to him by asking, "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Six years later she was bold enough to say, "You were not aware that you saved my life." They did not meet until 1870, at her urging, surprisingly, and only once more after that. Higginson told his wife, after the first meeting, "I was never with anyone who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."
What Dickinson was seeking was assurance as well as advice, and Higginson apparently gave it without knowing it, through a correspondence that lasted the rest of her life. He advised against publishing, but he also kept her abreast of the literary world (indeed, of the outside world, since as early as 1868, she was writing him, "I do not cross my father's ground to any house or town"). He helped her not at all with what mattered most to her—establishing her own private poetic method—but he was a friendly ear and a congenial mentor during the most troubled years of her life. Out of her inner turmoil came rare lyrics in a form that Higginson never really understood—if he had, he would not have tried to "edit" them, either in the 1860s or after her death. Dickinson could not take his "surgery," as she called it, but she took his friendship willingly.
Years of Emotional Crisis
Between 1858 and 1866 Dickinson wrote more than 1100 poems, full of aphorisms, paradoxes, off rhymes, and eccentric grammar. Few are more than 16 lines long, composed in meters based on English hymnology. The major subjects are love and separation, death, nature, and God—but especially love. When she writes "My life closed twice before its close," one can only guess who her real or fancied lovers might have been. Higginson was not one of them. It is more than likely that her first "dear friend" was Benjamin Newton, a young man too poor to marry, who had worked for a few years in her father's law office. He left Amherst for Worcester and died there in 1853.
During a visit to Philadelphia a year later Dickinson met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Sixteen years her senior, a brilliant preacher, already married, he was hardly more than a mental image of a lover. There is no doubt she made him this, but nothing more. He visited her once in 1860. When he moved to San Francisco in May 1862, she was in despair. Only a month before, Samuel Bowles had sailed for Europe to recover his health. Little wonder that in her first letter to Higginson she said, "I had a terror … —and so I sing as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid." She needed love, but she had to indulge this need through her poems, perhaps because she felt she could cope with it no other way.
When Bowles returned to Amherst in November, Dickinson was so overwhelmed she remained in her bedroom and sent a note down, " … That you return to us alive is better than a summer, and more to hear your voice below than news of any bird." By the time Wadsworth returned from California in 1870 and resettled in Philadelphia, the crisis was over. His second visit, in 1880, was anticlimax. Higginson had not saved her life; her life was never in danger. What had been in danger was her emotional equilibrium and her control over a talent that was so intense it longed for the eruptions that might have destroyed it.
In the last 2 decades of her life Dickinson wrote fewer than 50 poems a year, perhaps because of continuing eye trouble, more probably because she had to take increasing responsibility in running the household. Her father died in 1874, and a year later her mother suffered a paralyzing stroke that left her an invalid until her death. There was little time for poetry, not even for serious consideration of marriage (if it was actually proffered) with a widower and old family friend, Judge Otis Lord. Their love was genuine, but once again the timing was wrong. It was too late to recast her life completely. Her mother died in 1882, Judge Lord 2 years later. Dickinson's health failed noticeably after a nervous collapse in 1884, and on May 15, 1886, she died of nephritis.
How the complete poems of Dickinson were finally gathered is a publishing saga almost too complicated for brief summary. Lavinia Dickinson inherited the ebony box; she asked Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst astronomy professor, to join Higginson in editing the manuscripts. Unfortunately, they felt even then that they had to alter the syntax, smooth the rhymes, cut some lines, and create titles for each poem. Three volumes appeared in quick succession: 1890, 1891, and 1896. In 1914 Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published some of the poems her mother, Susan, had saved. In the next 3 decades four more volumes appeared, the most important being Bolts of Melody (1945), edited by Mrs. Todd and her daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, from the manuscripts the Todds had never returned to Lavinia Dickinson. In 1955 Thomas H. Johnson prepared for Harvard University Press a three-volume edition, chronologically arranged, of "variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts." Here, for the first time, the reader saw the poems as Dickinson had left them. The Johnson text of the 1,775 extant poems is now the standard one.
It is clear that Dickinson could not have written to please publishers, who were not ready to risk her striking aphoristic style and original metaphors. She had the right to educate the public, as Poe and Whitman eventually did, but she never had the invitation. Had she published during her lifetime, adverse public criticism might have driven her into deeper solitude, even silence. "If fame belonged to me," she told Higginson, "I could not escape her; if she did not, the longest day would pass me on the chase … My barefoot rank is better." The 20th century has lifted her without doubt to the first rank among poets.
Further Reading on Emily Dickinson
Thomas H. Johnson edited The Letters of Emily Dickinson (3 vols., 1958). His three-volume variorum edition of her poems (1955) was followed by a one-volume The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960) and a selection of 575 poems, Final Harvest (1961).
The best of the early biographies of Emily Dickinson is George Whicher, This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson (1938). It has been superseded by Richard Chase, Emily Dickinson (1951); Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography (1955); and David Higgins, Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose (1967). Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson (2 vols., 1960), is a valuable source book.
There are numerous critical studies. The best general appreciation is Charles R. Anderson, Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise (1960). More recent studies are Clark Griffith, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry (1964); Albert J. Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet (1965); Ruth Miller, The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1968); and William R. Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (1968). Richard B. Sewall edited Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays (1963). Equally useful is Cesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, eds., The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890 (1964).
Emily Dickinson's place in the history of American poetry is well established in Roy Harvey Pearce, The Continuity of American Poetry (1961), and Hyatt H. Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present (1968).