Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
IF I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
by Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, "Part One: Life VI"
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst,
Mass., into a severely religious, puritanical family that had lived in New
England for eight generations, to Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer
who was active in civic affairs and Emily Norcross. She was the second
of three children. She had a brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia. Although
her parents were not very close to their children, The three children, Austin,
Emily and Lavinia, remained close throughout their adult lives.
¹ Emily was educated at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female
Seminary. Mount Holyoke, which she attended from 1847 to 1848, insisted
on religious as well as intellectual growth, and Emily was under considerable
pressure to become a professing Christian. She resisted, however, and although
many of her poems deal with God, she remained all her life a skeptic. Despite
her doubts, she was subject to strong religious feelings, a conflict that
lent tension to her writings. While she was attending Mount Holyoke she
was severely homesick and return to her home after one year.
She spent a
great deal of this time with her family. She often fled from visitors and
eventually lived as a virtual recluse in her father’s house.
The Dickinson Homestead
In the earlier years she lived a normal life filled with friendships,
parties, church, and housekeeping. Before she was 30, however, she began
to withdraw from village activities and gradually ceased to leave home at
all. By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost total physical isolation from
the outside world, but actively maintained many correspondences and had
started to wear only white during her seclusion.
Dickinson’s younger sister Lavinia, who never married, also lived at
home for her entire life in similar isolation. Lavinia and Austin, who
lived in the house next door after his marriage to a friend of Emily's,
were not only family, but intellectual companions during Dickinson’s lifetime.
Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she met on a trip to Philadelphia
had an enormous impact on her thoughts and poetry.
¹By the late 1850s, when she was writing poems at a steadily increasing
pace, Dickinson loved a man whom she called "Master" in three drafts of
letters. "Master" does not exactly resemble any of her known friends but
may have been Bowles or Wadsworth. This love shines forth in several lines
from her poems: "I'm ceded, I've stopped being Theirs," "Tis so much
joy!" and "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" to name only
a few. Other poems reveal the frustration of this love and its gradual sublimation
into a love for Christ and a celestial marriage to him.
She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as
well as John Keats.
¹ The poems of the 1850s are fairly conventional in sentiment and
form, but beginning about 1860 they become experimental both in language
and prosody, though they owe much to the meters of the English hymn writer
Isaac Watts and to Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible.
Dickinson's prevailing poetic form was the quatrain of three iambic feet.
She used many other forms as well, and to even the simpler hymnbook measures
she gave complexity by constantly altering the metrical beat to fit her
thought: now slow, now fast, now hesitant. She broke new ground in her wide
use of off-rhymes, varying from the true in a variety of ways that also helped
to convey her thought and its tensions. In striving for an epigrammatic conciseness,
she stripped her language of superfluous words and saw to it that those
that remained were vivid and exact. She tampered freely with syntax and
liked to place a familiar word in an extraordinary context, shocking the
reader to attention and discovery.
¹ The years of Dickinson's greatest poetic output, about 800 poems,
coincide with the Civil War. Although she looked inward and not to the
war for the substance of her poetry, the tense atmosphere of the war years
may have contributed to the urgency of her writing.
After the Civil War, Dickinson's poetic tide ebbed, but she sought increasingly
to regulate her life by the rules of art. Her letters, some of them equal
in artistry to her poems, classicize daily experience in an epigrammatic
style. For example, when a friend affronted Dickinson by sending a letter
jointly to her and her sister, she replied: "A Mutual plum is not a plum.
I was too respectful to take the pulp and do not like a stone."
The subjects of Dickinson's poems, expressed in intimate, domestic figures
of speech, include love, death, and nature. The contrast between her quiet,
secluded life in the house in which she was born and died and the depth
and intensity of her terse poems has provoked much speculation about her
personality and personal relationships. Her 1,775 poems and her letters,
which survive in almost as great a number, reveal a passionate, witty woman
and a scrupulous craftsman who made an art not only of her poetry but also
of her correspondence and her life.
¹ Her later years were marked with sorrow at the deaths of many
people she loved. The most prostrating of these were the deaths of her father
in 1874 and her eight-year-old nephew Gilbert in 1883, which occasioned
some of her finest letters. She also mourned the loss of Bowles in 1878,
Holland in 1881, Charles Wadsworth and her mother in 1882, Otis P. Lord in
1884, a judge from Salem, Massachusetts, with whom Dickinson fell in love
about 1878, had been the closest friend of her father, and Helen Hunt Jackson
Dickinson was extremely prolific as a poet 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. Only seven poems were published during her lifetime, five
of them in the Springfield Republican.
After Emily's death, Lavinia found her poems, tied into packets with
string, untitled and most had never been read by anyone other then Emily
herself. With the help of Mabel Todd, who edit the poems, three editions
were published, one in 1890, one in 1891 and again in 1896.
After the publication of Mabel Todd's edited versions of Emily Dickinson's
poetry in 1890, 1891 and 1896, the collection of poems was locked away in
a box for the next sixty years. In the years leading up to 1955 other edited
versions of Emily's poetry was published such as an edition published by
one of Emily's nieces, Martha Bianchi in 1914. But it was not until 1955
that Thomas Johnson rediscovered the original poems and published the first
complete collection of Emily Dickinson's poetry in her original style.
²Funeral processions usually passed up Main Street but Emily had instructed,
however, that her pall bearers, six Irish caretakers of the homestead property,
carry her casket through the barn, across the back field, and into West
She died in Amherst on May 15, 1886 of Brights disease .
Inscription on tombstone:
MAY 15, 1886
is a Word
is such a thankful Word
not so heavy as mine
been hungry all the years
then, such abyss
I can stop one heart from breaking
myself to him
Nobody! Who are you?
I could not stop for Death
To view more of Emily Dickinson's
Famous Poets and Poems
Some more of his poems
She has over 1700 Poems
[Poet's Corner Index]
Reference, Research and
The History Channel
¹ Dickinson, Emily. (2006). In Encyclopædia Britannica.
Retrieved June 7, 2006, from Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service:
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