Read her poem "Because I Could Not Stop for Death"
Also known as: Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (full name)
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" A rhetorical question – Emily Dickinson, the lyric poet sometimes known as the New England mystic, knew there was no other way. She spent her life creating an opus of 1,775 poems, only ten of which were published in her lifetime. She knew what made poetry, otherwise she could never have kept writing in the face of such public indifference. Yet this question was still posed in an 1870 letter to the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man with whom Dickinson corresponded for many years about her poetry. Higginson, who professed to know exactly what made a good poem, managed to pass over 102 of the poems Dickinson sent to him over the course of their correspondence. He advised the Amherst poet to study her craft further, but never offered to publish one of the poems she sent to him.
After her death in 1886 and with the dedicated sponsorship of her sister Lavinia, Dickinson's poems started to be published. Though the critics complained initially about Dickinson's brief, deceptively simple lyrics and their – at the time – unorthodox use of language, the public made their voice known quite unanimously. The first printing of Dickinson's poems quickly sold out and was just as quickly supplanted by further printings and further collections. The Dickinson literary mill has been working ever since, for over a hundred years, and Emily Dickinson is now considered one of the great American poets, read by adults and children alike, and translated into the major languages of the world. Critic Richard Sewall in his definitive two-volume biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson, compares her to Walt Whitman for her contribution to American letters, and her poetry has been interpreted by various writers as representing everything from the first bugle call of Modernism to a deconstruction of America's Puritan past. The literary critic Donald F. Connors summed up Dickinson's achievement aptly – quoting the poet in the bargain – when he noted in College English that, "Stopping by the landmarks of her poetry, we find ourselves uplifted by her life-poems, moved by her love poems, and taught to see more clearly by her poems on nature and immortality. Within this fourfold circle of experience we perceive the core of Emily's being, and – 'This was a poet!'"
Some people are so connected with a place that it has become joined with their name. Henry David Thoreau and Walden Pond are one forever in literary history; the displaced Englishman, Raymond Chandler, had his Los Angeles. So it is for Emily Dickinson and Amherst, Massachusetts. Born December 10, 1830, she was the second of three children of Edward and Emily Dickinson. Named after her mother, young Emily grew up in the small farming town of Amherst, though her family was, as Ruth Miller noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "at the center of culture and social activity," in the town. Hers was the eighth generation of the family to live and prosper in New England since the large Puritan immigration of the seventeenth century. Amherst College had been founded by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson; her father, a lawyer, was also treasurer for the college, a position that her older brother Austin later held as well. Edward Dickinson was a well known local figure, a moderator of the Amherst town meetings for sixteen years, an elected representative of the General Court of Massachusetts, and a one-term member of the U.S. Congress from Massachusetts' Tenth District in 1854 and 1855. Additionally, he was admitted to practice law before the Supreme Court, an honor that set him apart from other local lawyers. It is not surprising that young Emily Dickinson stood in awe of her father, who was somewhat remote, as fathers of the time tended to be. He was a proselytizer for the Puritan ideals he himself had received as a child: moderation, hard work, the power of reason over passion, and the virtue of self-denial. Dickinson learned her lessons well: "Flowers are so enticing that I fear they are sins – like gambling and apostasy," she once wrote in a letter quoted in Millicent Todd Bingham's Emily Dickinson's Home. By the time she was a teenager, Dickinson realized that her father had been the most important influence in her formative years, while her mother was a simpler person, dedicated to the home and family. Like her mother, Dickinson grew up assuming domestic duties as her responsibility, but she also demonstrated an early love of poetry. She copied out poems she read in the newspapers and from collections in her father's library, often attempting to improve on the original.
In 1841 Dickinson entered Amherst Academy where she studied French, Latin, history, geology, botany, and philosophy. Illness kept her from regular attendance, though she did graduate in 1847. Though concerned with poetry at an early age, Dickinson was not merely a bookish adolescent, as can be see from the following extract from a letter quoted in Portrait of Emily Dickinson by David Higgins: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed!" she wrote. "I expect to be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how I shall delight to make them await my bidding, and with what delight shall I witness their suspense while I make my final decision." By all accounts, Dickinson had what could be typified as a normal childhood, with children from the faculty and local profession as friends. She was bright and witty and went to parties like all the other girls. The figure of the reclusive Dickinson was a product of the woman of thirty-something.
For a brief spell after graduating from the academy she was absent from her beloved Amherst while she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary a few miles away in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Though initially homesick, she soon adapted to the new environment and made many new friends among the other 300 girls attending the school. However, Dickinson left the seminary after only one year. Never really healthy, Dickinson was often sick during this year and missed her family. A greater cause for her departure was that the girls were asked to join the church, and Dickinson wanted no part of that. Reared in a community heavily influenced by Calvinism where such enjoyments as card playing, dancing, and novel reading were frowned on, Dickinson rejected such strictures and was not going to embrace them now that she was approaching adulthood.
Returning to Amherst and the family home Dickinson settled into the role of oldest daughter and helper to her mother, a role she continued for the rest of her life. Her younger sister, Lavinia, a much more practical and down-to-earth sort of young woman, stayed on at home also. Like Emily Dickinson, Lavinia never married. Dickinson's brother, Austin, married the daughter of a local tavern keeper and a friend of Emily's, but when the couple proposed to set up life in Chicago, Edward Dickinson intervened, building them a house next door to the family home and making his son partner in his law firm. It appears that Austin's marriage went bad very early on, but his bride, Susan Gilbert, became something of a renowned hostess, inviting into her home luminaries such as Emerson and the founder of Scribner's Magazine, Dr. Josiah Holland, as well as other editors and legal men. Emily took part in the social life of the vital small community, but also became nursemaid to her mother who was often unwell. She struck up friendships with students at the college and young instructors, one being the principal of Amherst Academy, Leonard Humphrey, who encouraged her poetry and to whom, in 1850, she wrote a forty-line rhyme as a valentine, a custom much practiced at the time. This led to her first publication, in the Amherst college magazine, The Independent. Another such friendship was made with a law student working as a clerk in her father's law office. Benjamin Franklin Newton apparently encouraged her to go forward with her poetry, sending her the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. In 1852, he submitted a poem in the form of a mock valentine she had given him, "Sic Transit," to the Springfield Republican, her first publication in that paper. In a letter quoted in Higgins, Dickinson remembered the young law student: "Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand and beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen, and in a life again, nobler, and much more blessed –" Newton, like Humphrey, died young, the former in 1850, the latter in 1853, "which enables us to come close to an early dating of the budding career," according to Miller in Dictionary of Literary Biography. These two young men were her "masters" as Dickinson referred to them in later letters and poems.
Dickinson began writing in earnest in the 1850s, inspired initially by the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson as well as by another Emily, one of the Bronte sisters. Though her formal education was somewhat limited, Dickinson was well versed in models for her writing. She knew the Bible and Shakespeare, and had read Greek and Roman classics in translation. She was also familiar with the other leading American and English authors of the time: Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Brontes and the Brownings, Keats, Ruskin, Tennyson, and George Eliot, whom she much admired. Early publications perhaps spurred her on, but she was that uncommon type – a writer's writer. Public acclaim was not the motivating force to her output; that came from some deeper, inner need. Her life was very uneventful in a worldly way. There were brief visits to Boston, Washington D.C., and Philadelphia in the early part of the decade, and there has been speculation about an unhappy love affair, with any of several men and even one woman named as the unresponsive recipient of Dickinson's love. While visiting her father serving in Congress in 1855, Dickinson and her sister stopped off in Philadelphia where she heard the preaching of the well known clergyman, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. There was a romantic quality to this figure: an eloquence tempered by a brooding nature. He and Dickinson exchanged letters, mostly of a spiritual nature. Wadsworth was married and a father; Dickinson's letters to him call him "Master" and herself "Daisy." Biographical speculation lists Wadsworth as a possible focus for her love in these years. At her sister-in-law's house, Dickinson also came into contact with Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican who published her 1852 poem. Dickinson made it a practice to send along a poem with her letters to friends. Bowles was the recipient of at least fifty-one such gifts, and apparently she was hoping that he would publish more of her work in his newspaper. Bowles is another candidate for the role of "Master," for the recipient of the sentiments in various lines of her poems of the time: "'Tis so much joy! 'Tis so much joy," and "Dare you see a Soul in the White Heat?" Bowles, however, had very different tastes in poetry than Dickinson. He, as most other editors and publishers, appreciated strong rhymes, regular meter, safe and known illusions. Dickinson presented none of this. In fact she was too original for her time.
But Dickinson kept writing. By 1858 she had begun gathering her poems together in packets which she called "fascicles," bound in string. Fifty poems were written in 1858; 100 the next year; sixty-five in 1860; eighty in 1861; and an astounding 366 in 1862. She also continued indirectly submitting her poems to Bowles who, in a 1860 article, derided such poetry as unhealthy and the product of lonely women. Though no names were mentioned, Dickinson took it to heart, and it was about this time that she began her withdrawal from the world. Also at about this same time Wadsworth informed her that he would be moving to the West and thus completely out of her orbit. Whatever the cause, it is generally assumed that Dickinson suffered an emotional trauma at this time and rejected the temporal world for a more spiritual plane. Her poetry reflects this frustration and rejection of worldly love and the acceptance of a new love in Christ and in a sort of celestial harmony. Dickinson's removal from the world was a process that slowly confined her life to her daily household chores and her nightly work on poetry – continually revising and refining poems she knew would never be read by others. She took to wearing only white and indulged herself with long, solitary walks in the countryside around Amherst. From the point of view of her neighbors, she was becoming something of an eccentric.
Dickinson wrote in poem numbered 883--for she gave no titles to her works, simply gathered them together in her fascicles – that "The Poets light but Lamps– / Themselves – go out– / The Wicks they Stimulate– / If vital Light / Inhere as do the Suns– / Each Age a Lens / Disseminating their / Circumference– " She would spend the rest of her days engaged in this occupation of lamplighting for an indifferent public. Her emotional crisis is thought to have been the inspiration for her awesome output of 1862. That year also she began her communication with Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly, encouraged by an article he had written as advice to a prospective poet. Higginson's ultimate rejection of her poetry, however, only served to drive Dickinson farther into her private world. He visited her once, in 1870, an event which he was later to celebrate in print after Dickinson's death subsequent discovery by the reading public.
Dickinson's poetry of the 1860s and beyond leave the old world of poetic form far behind. Suddenly she was experimenting with both language and form. Outwardly the poems maintain the form of the quatrain, generally with three iambic feet, a form inspired by the English hymn writer Isaac Watts. Additionally, many of her poems borrow from the rhythms of nursery rhymes. Language and imagery was heavily inspired by the King James version of the Bible as well as by Shakespeare, but increasingly Dickinson was creating her own unique blend of vernacular and poetic language to express her own unique message. She began employing slant or off-rhymes, as well as slant rhythms. These rhythms were called deformities by Higginson, but are now recognized for their power to shock the reader into recognition, as in the lines: "The heart asks pleasure first; / And then, excuse from pain; / And then, those little anodynes / That deafen suffering." As Miller noted in Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Conventional rhyme schemes or familiar stanza patterns could not serve poems that were documents of revelation." Dickinson also pared her language down to essentials – creating neologisms such as "gianture" and "diminuet" in the process. Her striving for conciseness often led to what some critics termed ungrammatical writing, as in the lines: "The grass so little has to do / I wish I were a hay." Her use of dashes for pause and capitalization for emphasis were also personal signatures.
The years of the Civil War coincide with Dickinson's greatest output – some 800 poems. The war, however, did not provide inspiration for the poems; that came from inside the poet. After the war, her production of poetry began to trail off, though her letter writing continued.
After the late 1860s, Dickinson never again left the confines of the family's property. The death of Dickinson's father in 1874 was a severe shock to her, and from that time on she never left her house in Amherst. The following year her mother had a stroke, becoming paralyzed, and Dickinson began taking care of her. Her routine was constant: household tasks during the day, when she might scribble out some ideas or lines, and then at night her writing and collection of fascicles. The routine was broken somewhat by her relationship with Judge Otis Lord, a man eighteen years her senior, who had been a friend of her father's. This relationship with Lord was perhaps the closest thing Dickinson had to a satisfying love. Dickinson's final years were filled with the death of loved ones: her mother died in 1882, a favorite nephew in 1883, and Lord in 1884. Dickinson suffered an emotional collapse from which she never recovered. In 1886 she was diagnosed as suffering from the kidney disorder known as Bright's disease, and died from it on May 15, 1886.
The ten poems published during Dickinson's lifetime were done so anonymously. After her death, her sister Lavinia, discovered the fascicles containing some 1,800 poems in the top drawer of Emily's dresser, and resolved to see them published. She enlisted the aid of a local woman, Mable Loomis Todd, who had for many years carried on an affair with Austin Dickinson, and was therefore almost part of the family.
These two women sought the help of Higginson, who, though he published none of the poems during Dickinson's lifetime, was now helpful in preparing a first volume, Poems, for publication. His helpfulness, however, extended to 'correcting' some of the originals, re- wording what he felt to be awkward passages or grammatical slips. Such corrections were later eliminated and the original texts restored. Higginson also helped to secure a publisher for the first volume, though the publisher was so skeptical of the sales potential that he wanted the family to underwrite the cost of publication.
Such fears were completely unfounded: Poems had to be reprinted twice within two months of publication in 1890, and eventually went through 16 editions in the next eight years. So popular were the poems, that Higginson and Todd quickly prepared a second volume, again revising what they considered to be rough passages and giving titles to the originally untitled works. The fascicles were completely taken apart and the poems published by subject matter and theme: love, death, nature, and friendship. This second volume, Poems, Second Series, again proved popular, and went through five editions by 1893.
In a few short years, Dickinson became, posthumously, a poet of renown. However, the collaborative efforts of Todd and Lavinia soon foundered. Dickinson's sister Lavinia brought suit against Todd to prevent the exchange of a piece of property willed to her by the recently deceased Austin as partial payment for her work on the poems. Scandal ensued, and Mrs. Todd quietly kept the hundreds of manuscript poems still in her possession.
Thereafter, Susan Dickinson and her daughter prepared what they believed to be the only remaining poems for publication. Happily, some of these included poems formerly edited by Higginson and Todd and thus the reading public finally was permitted to read Dickinson's unadulterated versions of the poems. By the 1930s what was thought to be a complete edition was published, but in 1945 the poems Todd had kept, a further 668 works, were added and published in Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson by Todd's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham. Eventually a definitive edition of all the known poems was published, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, restoring the original manuscript version of the texts, replacing titles with numbers determined by a meticulous reconstruction of Dickinson's fascicles and a handwriting analysis to determine dates of each poem. Letters and diaries were also released, allowing for a closer examination of the poet's life.
Dickinson takes as subject matter for her poems all the standard themes: love, death, and nature. Like Thoreau, she pared down her own life so as to live a creative inner life. And the materials of her poems are also quite simple: robins, bees, household items, and even domestic chores. But her lyric poems use such common places as metaphors for faith, pain, love, eternity, and the fleeting nature of success. As Michael Myers noted in Thinking and Writing about Literature, Dickinson's method is to "reveal the inadequacy of declarative statements by evoking qualifications and questions with images that complicate firm assertions and affirmations." Dickinson herself confirms such a judgment in the lines: "Tell all the truth but tell it slant– / Success in Circuit lies."
The first publication of Dickinson's poems brought not only rapid sales, but fulsome praise. Not incidentally, some of this praise came from the editors themselves, including Higginson, but another early champion was Ella Gilbert Ives who wrote in the Boston Evening Transcript about Dickinson's "power of condensation, the rhythmic hammer of her thoughts" being "so phenomenal that it calls for a new system of weights and measures.... Many can lull, but few can awake." Other poets also praised Dickinson, including Amy Lowell who felt she was a spiritual sister to her own Imagist poetry. However, some critics looked on Dickinson as perhaps original, but lacking in real poetic technique and depth. Harold Munro, for example, in a 1925 essay in The Criterion, noted what he termed Dickinson's "large splendid awkwardness" and questioned exactly how candid she was in her poems. Others, like the critic R. P. Blackmur, originally writing in the Southern Review, felt that Dickinson's successes were "accidental," that "two-thirds" of her poems were merely exercises, and that she did not have the proper technique to turn such exercises into masterpieces.
The balance of critical opinion, though, is on the side of greatness. As Myers noted in Thinking and Writing about Literature, "Dickinson's poetry is challenging because it is radical and original in its rejection of most traditional nineteenth-century themes and techniques. Her poems require active engagement from the reader, because she seems to leave out so much with her elliptical style and remarkable contracting metaphors." On her lasting importance, Paul J. Ferlazzo concluded his study of the poet, Emily Dickinson, by noting that her "most important legacy" was the realization "that the human spirit may be rejuvenated, amended, and healed by the perception and application of truth and beauty." Elizabeth Jennings, an English poet and critic, noted in American Poetry that Dickinson's real strength depended on "personal honesty, on the faithful re-creation of a unique experience.... It is this power which places her among the great American poets." David T. Porter, in his The Art of Emily Dickinson's Early Poetry, pointed out that the distinctive qualities of her art lay in "its bold disregard of conventional shapeliness, the surprise of its novel verbal strategies, its seizure of the significant image, its disconcerting integrity in psychological disclosures, its firm control of powerful emotion." The American novelist and critic, Joyce Carol Oates, perhaps summed up Dickinson's achievement the best when she wrote in (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities, that "No one who has ever read even a few of Dickinson's extraordinary poems can fail to sense the heroic nature of this poet's quest ... a romance of epic proportions." Oates concluded her passage on Dickinson by noting that the reader takes more than merely artistic method away from a reading of Dickinson. One absorbs more, Oates, wrote: "a quality of personality and vision unlike any other...an American artist of words as inexhaustible as Shakespeare."
Poems, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, Roberts Brothers, 1890.
Poems, Second Series, edited by Todd and Higginson, Roberts Brothers, 1891.
Poems, Third Series, edited by Todd, Roberts Brothers, 1896.
The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Little, Brown, 1914.
Further Poems of Emily Dickinson Withheld from Publication by Her Sister Lavinia, edited by Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson, Little, Brown, 1929.
Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson, Little, Brown, 1935.
Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham, Harper, 1945.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 volumes, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Harvard University Press, 1955.
The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Johnson, Harvard University Press, 1958.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Johnson, Little, Brown, 1968.
A Letter to the World: Poems for Young Readers, selected and introduced by Rumer Godden, Bodley Head, 1968.
I'm Nobody! Who Are You?: Poems of Emily Dickinson for Children, introduced by Richard B. Sewall, illustrated by Rex Schneider, Stemmer House, 1978.
A Brighter Garden (poems for young readers), illustrated by Tasha Tudor, Philomel, 1990.
New Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by William H. Shurr, University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Doubleday, 1997.
Manuscripts from the Bianchi publications are housed in the Houghton Library at Harvard University and the Todd manuscripts are at the Frost Library of Amherst College. There are also other relevant materials in the Margaret Jane Pershing Collection of Emily Dickinson at Princeton University, the Galatea Collection at the Boston Public Library, the Jones Library at Amherst, and the Todd-Bingham Archive at Yale University.
Bingham, Millicent Todd, Emily Dickinson's Home, Harper, 1955.
Blackmur, R. P., "Emily Dickinson: Notes on Prejudice and Fact," Language as Gesture: Essays in Poetry, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952, pp. 25-50.
Connors, Donald F., "The Significance of Emily Dickinson," College English, April, 1942, pp. 624-33.
Dickinson, Emily, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Harvard University Press, 1955.
Ferlazzo, Paul J., Emily Dickinson, Twayne, 1976, p. 151.
Higgins, David, Portrait of Emily Dickinson, Rutgers University Press, 1967.
Ives, Ella Gilbert, "Emily Dickinson: Her Poetry, Prose, and Personality," The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890, edited by Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells, University of Michigan Press, 1964, pp. 71-78.
Jennings, Elizabeth, "Ideas and Expression in Emily Dickinson, Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound," American Poetry, edited by Irvin Ehrenpreis, Edward Arnold Ltd., 1965, pp. 97-113.
Johnson, Thomas H., Emily Dickinson, An Interpretive Biography, Belknap Press, 1955.
Miller, Ruth, "Emily Dickinson," Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 1: The American Renaissance in New England, edited by Joel Myerson, Gale, 1978, pp. 34-45.
Munro, Harold, "Emily Dickinson – Overrated," The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism since 1890, edited by Blake and Wells, University of Michigan Press, 1964, pp. 121-22t.
Myers, Michael, Thinking and Writing about Literature, St. Martin's Press, 1995, pp. 138-44.
Oates, Joyce Carol, "Soul at the White Heat: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," (Woman) Writer: Occasions and Opportunities, E. P. Dutton, 1988, pp. 163-89.
Porter, David T., The Art of Emily Dickinson's Early Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1966, p. 206.
Sewall, Richard B., The Life of Emily Dickinson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.
Source: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 7-26. Gale, 1992-99.