What is known today about Dickinson's personal life has largely been taken from hundreds of letters that she wrote to family and acquaintances as well as (sometimes biased) impressions about her character that were written in the diaries and journals of those close to her. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts to a successful family that had strong ties to the community, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. She was schooled at the Amherst Academy for seven years before spending a truncated amount of time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. After leaving school, she rarely traveled outside of Amherst or very far from her family's home, which was called the Homestead. During this time, Dickinson became a prolific private poet, choosing to publish only a handful of her poems, all of which were greatly altered to fit the more conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poetry is lyrically unique for the time period; her lines are short, typically lack titles, and often utilize slant rhyme and unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Her poems also tend to deal with the themes of death and immortality, two subject matters that plagued her personal letters to friends.
Although a majority of her acquaintances supposedly were aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death – when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems – that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published four years after her death by friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited the content. It was not until Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955 that a complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available. Contemporary critics now place Emily Dickinson alongside other American poets like Walt Whitman and Robert Frost in her importance to American poetry.
By the time Emily Dickinson was born in 1830, the achievement of her family's six generations in America was already heavily apparent. The Dickinson family's genealogy began in the New World when Nathaniel Dickinson traveled from England with the Great Migration led by the puritan John Winthrop in 1630. After settling in Wethersfield, Connecticut and largely concerning himself with matters of farming and homesteading, Dickinson moved his family along with fifty-eight other men and their families just east of Northampton in Massachusetts to establish the new plantation of Hadley. It is recorded that his grandson, Ebenezer Dickinson, fought with the Indians at Deerfield during the Massacre of 1704. Ebenezer's son, Nathan, and his grandson, Nathan Jr., moved from Hadley to the district that would become Amherst in 1759. The Dickinsons prospered, excelling at farming within their small community and also taking part in the war against the British. It was here that Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was born in 1775. From early on, the Dickinsons in western Massachusetts area fairly outnumbered other large clans, averaging nine or ten children per family. A family historian recorded in the 1880s that the Dickinsons in the Amherst Hadley area "threatened to choke out all other forms of vegetation."
Samuel Dickinson was a well regarded lawyer in Amherst who, spending his life and money fostering Christian education, wished to become a minister. In 1814 he originated the movement to found Amherst College, which developed out of the secondary school Amherst Academy, and nearly singlehandedly organized the college. Both schools would play an important part in his children's and grand children's future. The house on Main Street into which Emily was born, lived in most of her life, and died, called the Homestead, was built by Samuel in 1813; it was the first brick house in Amherst.
Samuel's eldest son and Emily's father, Edward Dickinson, was the treasurer at Amherst College for nearly forty years. He also served numerous times as a State Legislator and once represented the Hampshire district as a United States Congressman. Edward married Emily Norcross from Monson in 1828 when he was twenty-five and she was twenty-four. They had three children, William Austin (1829-1895), Emily Elizabeth, and Lavinia Norcross (1833-1899).
Most of what is now known of Emily Dickinson's life has been gathered from correspondence, impressions in journals and diaries from her family, friends and relations, and interpretation of her poetry. Therefore, little is known and much is surmised about her personal life.
A drawing of the young Emily Dickinson, age nine. It was made from a portrait featuring Emily, Austin and Lavinia as children.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830 into what had become a prominent, but not opulent, family. Eight months before she was born, her father had bought the west half of the Homestead which belonged at the time to John Leland and Nathan Dickinson, a cousin. The two families, made up of nearly a dozen people, lived together in the large brick home until Edward was able to purchase a house of his own on North Pleasant Street in 1840. The house had plenty of room and Emily's brother Austin would later describe this new home as the "mansion" over which he and Emily presided as "lord and lady" while their parents were absent. The house happened to overlook Amherst's burial ground, described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding." Although Emily consistently referred to her father in a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was regularly cold and distant. In one letter to a confidante, she stated that she "always ran Home to Awe (Austin) when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none."
According to all available accounts, the young Emily was a well behaved girl. During her mother's illness following the birth of younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie), her mother's sister, Aunt Lavinia, took the two-and-a-half year old Emily for an extended visit to Monson. Aunt Lavinia, who was twenty-one at the time, later wrote to her brother-in-law that Emily was "perfectly well & contented - She is a very good child & but little trouble."  Emily's aunt also noted the girl's affinity for music and her particular talent for the piano, which she called "the moosic." This talent apparently did not come to the attention of her parents until her father at last bought a piano for her when she was fourteen.
Edward Dickinson put much emphasis on the value of his children's education. When Emily was seven, he wrote home advising his son and daughters to "keep school, and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned, since I came away." The first reference to Emily attending primary school, which was situated in a two-story building on Pleasant Street, opposite the house to which Edward moved the family in 1840, was when she was five years old. This is where she learned to read, write, spell and do simple arithmetic. Emily then attended Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. She and Vinnie entered together at the beginning of the fall term, September 7, 1840. Spending seven years at the Academy, with a few terms off due to illness, her letters mention taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, "mental philosophy," arithmetic and others. In early 1838, mid-1844, and spring 1848, Emily was forced to miss a great deal of school for health reasons. The longest period of absence, however, was in 1845-1846 when she was only enrolled for eleven weeks.
From a very young age, Emily was exposed to the "deepening menace" of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. The death of a a close friend and second cousin, Sophia Holland, in April of 1844 affected Emily greatly. Holland's illness and death from typhus proved traumatic for the thirteen year old Emily. Recalling the incident two years later, Emily wrote that "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face." Emily entered into such a state of melancholy that her parents sent her to Boston for a month to recover. This trip seems to have restored her health and spirits somewhat and she later returned to Amherst Academy to continue her studies. A majority of Dickinson's friends and correspondents, such as Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey and Susan Huntington Gilbert (who would later marry Austin, Emily's brother), were met during this period of her life.
Dickinson assembled two collections during her lifetime, one of which was her assortment of poems. The second collection was her sixty-six page book of pressed flowers. Having studied botany from the age of nine, as a teenager Dickinson pieced together a herbarium consisting of 424 pressed specimens in a large, eleven by thirteen inches, leather volume. These flowers were classified using the Linnaean system with handwritten labels. The herbarium is now held in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. The garden at the Homestead was well known and admired locally, although it has not survived and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists. Its layout and what was grown in it can be gleaned from letters and the recollections of her friends and family. One niece, for example, remembered "carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweetpeas, hyacinths enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—a butterfly utopia." In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she "could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets." She also loved bulbs and was skilled at forcing them. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached: "they valued the posy more than the poetry."
Supposedly one of only two known photographs of Emily Dickinson. Taken around 1850, its authenticity is questioned.
In 1846, Dickinson confided to a friend that she briefly and mistakenly believed that she had found salvation when she was younger. She wrote, "I can say that I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior." She went on to say that it was her "greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to fel that he would listen to my prayers," although the conversion did not last. Despite the fact that many of her friends and family experienced a religious conversion, especially in 1845 when there was a revival which resulted in forty-six confessions of faith from her peers, Emily was either unwilling or unable to do likewise throughout her life. Although unorthodox in her religion, having not made a formal declaration of faith, she did attend services rather regularly until probably around 1852. A poem that she wrote after her church attendance had stopped entirely began with the lines: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home."
After finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which would later become Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles from Amherst. She was at the Seminary, which was in its tenth year, for only ten months. Although she liked the girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there. The explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ variously: either she was in poor health, her father wanted to have her at home, she rebelled against the evangelical fervor present at the school, she disliked the disciplinary teachers, or she was simply homesick. Whatever the specific reason for leaving Holyoke, her brother Austin appeared on March 25, 1848 to "bring [her] home at all events." After settling back home in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities and chores. Baking for the family soon became Emily's vocation. She enjoyed attending local events and activities that took place in the budding college town. In 1850 she wrote that "Amherst is alive with fun this winter... Oh, a very great town this is!"
Dickinson's state of mind in 1850 was greatly affected by another untimely death: that of Leonard Humphrey, who was the principal of the Academy for the last year of her stay. As a student, Emily revered him greatly and knew him as a friend. His death came not only as a shock to her, but to the entire community, which greatly mourned him. She later called him "Master," a term that she reserved for the few men in her life whose wisdom, advice, or love she sought. Two years after the young man's death, she revealed to her friend Abiah Root the extent of her melancholy:
...some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey.
Influence and early writing
By the time she was eighteen, the Dickinson family had befriended a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton, who was born in Worcester. According to a letter written by Emily after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family." A formative influence of Emily's, Newton was nine years older than her and, unlike most of those who were in her social orbit at the time, he was not orthodox. He would become the second in a series of older men that Emily referred to variously as her tutor, preceptor, or master. It is thought that Newton introduced her to William Wordsworth and one book that he is known to have given her, a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first collected poems, published in 1847, had a liberating effect on the young poet. Shortly after Emerson's death in 1882, Dickinson would write that he "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring." Although it is unlikely that her relationship with Newton was of a romantic nature, it is clear that he held a high regard for her. He also believed in and recognized her as a poet, writing to her as he was dying of tuberculosis that he "would like" to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw. It is often thought that Dickinson's autobiographical statement of 1862 – "When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned" – is a reference to Newton.
Aside from those by Wordsworth and Emerson, other literary works that Dickinson was exposed to during this time period, and quite possibly influenced her writing, include Lydia Child's Letters from New York, also given to her by Newman (after reading it, she exclaimed "This then is a book! And there are more of them!"), Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh, which her brother Austin smuggled into the house for her, and Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, lent to her by Elbridge Bowdoin in late 1849. Jane Eyre's entire effect on the poet cannot be substantiated, but it is known that when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she gave him the same name as the character St. John Rivers' dog, Carlo. Years later, villagers would later recall the large companion joining the poet on walks and visits. William Shakespeare also became a potent factor in Dickinson's life; pointing to the bard's indispensability, she wrote to one friend about his collection of plays, "Why clasp any hand but this?" and "Why is any other book needed?" to another.
Thomas H. Johnson, who would later publish The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955, was able to date only five of Dickinson's poems before 1858. Two of these are mock valentines done in an ornate and humorous style and two others are conventional lyrics, one of which is about missing her brother Austin. The fifth poem, however, which begins "I have a Bird in spring" and conveys her grief over the feared loss of friendship, was sent to her friend Sue Gilbert. During the 1850s, Emily's strongest and most affectionate relationship was with Sue. Emily would eventually send over three hundred letters, more letters than any other correspondent, to Sue over the course of their friendship. Her missives typically dealt with demands for Sue's affection and the fear of unrequited admiration, but because Sue was often aloof and disagreeable, Emily was continually hurt by what was mostly a tempestuous friendship. Sue married Austin in 1856 after a four year courtship. Edward Dickinson, in order to induce his son not to move west, made Austin full partner and built a house, called the Evergreens, for him and Sue which stood to the west side of the Homestead. In 1855, Edward had purchased the brick home his father had built and his family once again took up residence on Main Street.
Until she visited her father in Washington during his tenure as Representative from the Tenth Congressional District of Massachusetts, Emily had not strayed far from Amherst. This trip, which took place from February to March 1855, proved to be her furthest journey away from home and, aside from a brief sojourn to Boston nine years later, the longest. She spent three weeks in Washington with her father, accompanied by her sister and mother, and then two weeks in Philadelphia to visit family. It was while she was in Philadelphia that she met Charles Wadsworth, then a famous minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she solidified a strong friendship until his death in 1882. Despite only seeing him twice after 1855 (he had moved to San Francisco in 1862), the relationship proved to be a central one for Dickinson; at his death she variously referred to him as "my Philadelphia," "my Clergyman," "my dearest earthly friend" and "my Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood."
Emily's mother suffered from longstanding illnesses that kept her in and out of bed, living an invalid's life from the mid 1850s until her death. Writing a friend in summer 1858, Emily said that she would visit if she could leave "home, or mother. I do not go out at all, lest father will come and miss me, or miss some little act, which I might forget, should I run away – Mother is much as usual. I Know not what to hope of her." As her mother continued to decline, the poet's domestic responsibilities weighed heavier upon her and she was restrained to the Homestead. Forty years after the fact, Vinnie stated that because their mother was consistently ill, one of the daughters had to remain constantly at home, and Emily, choosing this role as her own, and "finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it." Withdrawing more and more ("my Lexicon – was my only companion –") from the outside world, Emily began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work on clean stationary, assembling carefully pieced together manuscript books. The forty fascicles she created from 1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No one from her inner circle was aware of the existence of these books until her death.
Publication and productivity
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –," entitled "The Sleeping," as it appeared heavily edited in the Springfield Republican in 1862.
In the late 1850s, the Dickinsons befriended Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor-in chief of the Springfield Republican. Bowles and his wife Mary began visiting the Evergreens shortly after Austin's and Sue's marriage and were a common fixture amongst the family for years to come. During this time Emily sent him over three dozen letters (only thirty-five have survived) and nearly fifty poems. Whatever the extent of their relationship, it brought out some of her most intense writing. Although Bowles had previously published women poets in his newspaper, these poems were typically "feminine" in nature rather than serious, intellectual pieces. The first poem written by Dickinson to appear in the Republican, "Nobody knows this little rose" on August 2, 1858, which was quite possibly published without Dickinson's permission, was written as a private poem for a friend. The other poems that the Republican later published were "I taste a liquor never brewed –," entitled "The May-Wine," in May 1861, "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –," entitled "The Sleeping," in March 1862, "Blazing in the Gold and quenching in Purple," entitled "Sunset," in March 1864, and "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," entitled "The Snake" in February 1866.
All of her poems were published anonymously and were heavily edited for publication, giving the poems more conventional punctuation as well as titles. When "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" was published not only without her permission, but with additional punctuation that separated the third and fourth lines, Dickinson complained that it altered the meaning of the entire poem. One poem in particular, "I taste a liquor never brewed –," had the last two lines in the first stanza completely rewritten for the sake of conventional rhyme:
How the first stanza was originally written How the first stanza appeared in the Republican
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol! I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl!
The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from an active social life and regularly refused to leave the Homestead, proved to be Dickinson's most productive writing period. Thomas Johnson believed that she composed 86 poems in 1861, 366 in 1862, 141 in 1863, and 174 in 1864. In February and March 1864, a few of her poems were published in Drum Beat, a short-run Brooklyn paper designed to raise money for medical care for Union soldiers in the war. Another poem appeared in April of that same year in the Brooklyn Daily Union, although it is not known who sent in these poems or whether or not Dickinson gave consent.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson as he appeared as colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers from 1862 to 1864.
In April of 1862, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic, radical abolitionist and ex-minister, had written a lead story for the recent edition of the Atlantic Monthly entitled "Letter to a Young Contributor. Higginson's essay was full of practical advice for would-be writers, holding up to a high literary standard even while opening the gates to women and immigrants. Seeking literary advice that no one close to her could provide, Dickinson sent him a letter:
Are you too deeply occuplied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly – and I have none to ask –
Should you think it breathed – and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude –
If I make the mistake – that you dared to tell me – would give me sincerer honor – toward you –
I enclose my name – asking you, if you please – Sir – to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me – it is needless to ask – since Honor is it's [sic] own pawn –
The letter was unsigned, but she had included her name on a card and enclosed it in an envelope along with four of her poems. Everything was written in ink except for her name, which was in pencil. Further displaying her anxiety in seeking such opinion of her work, Dickinson posted every subsequent letter to Higginson not mailed from Amherst, but from nearby Palmer, Hadley, and even one from Middletown, Connecticut. Although Higginson's letters were destroyed, Dickinson later wrote that he had begun by performing some sort of "surgery" on her submissions. When he apparently praised her, she replied that "I have had few pleasures so deep as your pinion, and if I tried to thank you, my tears would block my tongue." He did, however, delay that she publish her work, not knowing that she had already appeared in print. Although she assured him that publishing was as foreign to her "as Firmament to Fun," she also proposed that "If fame belonged to me, I could not escape her."
Dickinson did not disclose many personal details to her new tutor, but instead enacted the poet's fondness for self-dramatization. She stressed her solitary nature, stating that her only real companions were the hills, the sundown, and her dog, Carlo. Although she mentioned both her brother and sister, she said nothing about her sister-in-law. She also mentioned that whereas her mother didn't "care for Though," her father bought her books, but begged her "not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind." Dickinson valued his advice as time went on, going from calling him "Mr. Higginson" to "Dear friend" as well as signing her letters "Your Gnome" and "Your Scholar." It is certain that his interest in her work provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862. Despite Higginson joining the Union forces as a colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers shortly after "meeting" Dickinson, they would continue their correspondence until her death.
The woman in white
In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson only wrote about seventy poems in 1866. Beset with personal loss (her dog Carlo died after sixteen years of companionship) as well as loss of domestic help (the household servant of nine years had got married and left employment), it is possible that Dickinson was too overcome to keep up her blistering speed. Dickinson never owned another dog and it was not until 1869 that her family brought in a permanent household servant to replace the old one. Emily once again was beset with chores, including the baking, which she again excelled at.
Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878-1882. Many friends and acquaintances made note of the poet's affinity for simple white clothes as well as her practicality; her wear did not require corsets or expensive dressmakers. Not only did she abandon popular fashion conventions, but as early as 1867, Dickinson began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door, rather than speaking to them face to face. By this time she did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary. When Higginson urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so that they could meet face to face for the first time, she declined, writing: "Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town." It wasn't until 1870 when he came to Amherst that they had their meeting, which began with her giving him two day lilies. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as "a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair. . . in a very plain & exquisitely clean white pique & a blue net worsted shawl." He also felt that he never was "with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her." Higginson also happened to show Dickinson's poems to a woman called Helen Hunt Jackson, who had been at Amherst with Dickinson when they were girls. By the early 1870s, Jackson was deeply involved in the publishing world, with seven books and well over four hundred magazine and newspaper pieces to her credit. Jackson managed to convince Dickinson to publish her poem "Success is counted sweetest" anonymously in a volume of poems called A Masque of Poets. The poem, however, was altered to agree with contemporary taste.
Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person. Austin and his family even began to protect Emily's privacy, deciding that she was not to be a subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence. MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote a short article in 1891 called "A Child's Recollection of Emily Dickinson," thought of Emily as always offering support to the neighborhood children.
 Later life and loves
After resigning as treasurer of Amherst College in 1873, Edward Dickinson procured the more arduous job of being appointed to the ten-member joint committee on the Hoosac Tunnel in Boston. On June 16, 1874 while away from home, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke, dying in the afternoon. When the simple funeral was held in the Homestead's entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open. She also did not attend the memorial service on June 28. She would write to Higginson that "His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists." A year later, on June 15, 1875, Emily's mother also suffered a stroke that produced a partial lateral paralysis and an impaired memory. Lamenting her mother's physical as well as mental demands, Emily wrote that "Home is so far from Home."
Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court from Salem became an acquaintance of Dickinson's, and her last Master, in approximately 1872 or 1873. It is generally accepted that Lord and Dickinson's friendship turned into a late-life romance after his wife's death in 1877, although the nature of their relationship cannot be said for certain because their bulk of letters were destroyed. Dickinson found another kindred soul in Lord, although he was more conservative than her; she referred to him as "My lovely Salem." They wrote to each other religiously every Sunday; a surviving fragment of a letter written by Dickinson states that "Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day." At the beginning of their romance, however, Dickinson had her second and last meeting in Amherst with Charles Wadsworth, her "Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood." He told her that he was "liable at any time to die," which he did on April 1, 1882. As to her numerous past Masters, Dickinson wrote to Lord that "it has been an April of meaning to me – I have been in your Bosom – My Philadelphia [Wadsworth] has passed from Earth, and. . .Ralph Waldo Emerson. . .Has touched the secret Spring." Judge Lord died in March 1884 and Dickinson referred to him as "our latest Lost."
Decline and death
As opposed to her earlier practices, Emily failed to clean up and organize her later poems, although she continued to write. She also exacted a promise from her sister Vinnie to burn her papers, possibly including her manuscript books and ungathered verse, upon the poet's death.
Emily Dickinson's tombstone.
The 1880s were a difficult time for the remaining Dickinsons. Terminally alienated from his wife, Austin fell in love in 1882 with Mabel Loomis Todd, a young faculty wife who had recently moved to Amherst. Born the same year Sue and Austin were married, Todd was a trained singer, pianist, and painter. When Austin, who had become the treasurer of Amherst College like his father had been, and his wife invited Todd and her husband to visit them, Todd was intrigued by "a lady whom the people call the Myth," meaning the secretive poet. Austin became more silent and detached and Sue was sick with grief, writing that her "soul is heavy much of the time and hope lies far behind me." Emily's mother died November 14, 1882. The poet wrote five weeks later that "We were never intimate. . .while she was our Mother – but Mines in the same Ground meet by tunneling and when she became our Child, the Affection came." The next year, Austin and Sue's third and youngest child as well as Emily's favorite, Gilbert, died of typhoid fever.
As death succeeded death, the poet found her world upended. In the fall of 1884, she wrote that "The Dyings have been too deep for me, ad before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come." That summer she had seen "a great darkness coming" and fainted, remaining unconscious late into the night. Weeks of faintness and ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that Austin canceled a trip to Boston. She was confined to her bed for a few months, but managed to send a last burst of letters in the spring. On May 15, after a few days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died. Austin wrote in his diary for the day: "The day was awful. She ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the [afternoon] whistle sounded for six." Dickinson's chief physician gave the cause of death as "Bright's Disease" and its duration as two and a half years.
Dickinson was buried on Wednesday, May 19, 1886. Her body, dressed in white, was laid in a white casket with violets and ground pine over it. The funeral service, which was held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson, who had only met the poet twice in life, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine," a poem by Emily Brontë that had been a favorite of hers. In her coffin were placed vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady's Slipper orchid and a "knot of blue field violets".
Handwritten manuscript of Dickinson's poem "Wild nights, wild nights!"
Dickinson's poems fall intro three distinct periods, the works in each period having certain general characters in common: poems written before 1861 (often conventional and sentimental in nature), those written between 1861 and 1865 (the most creative period, these poems are more vigorous and emotional), and those written after 1866. Dickinson's facility with ballad and hymn meter, her extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in her manuscripts, and her idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery combine to create a unique lyric style. She did not write in traditional iambic pentameter (a convention of English-speaking poetry for centuries), nor did she write even a five beat line. Her line lengths vary from 4 syllables or 2 beats to often 8 syllables or 4 beats. Her poems' frequent use of approximate, or slant rhyme has attracted attention since the very beginning. In addition to the use of the short line, her poems are all quite short. They typically begin with a declaration or definition in the first line ("The fact that Earth is Heaven"), which is followed by a metaphorical change of the original premise in the second line ("Whether Heaven is Heaven or not").
Because of her frequent use of rhyme and free verse, many of Dickinson's poems can easily be set to tunes (for example "I heard a fly buzz when I died – / The Stillness in the Room / Was like the Stillness in the Air / Between the Heaves of Storm"). Dickinson’s poetry has been used as texts for art songs by composers such as Aaron Copland, Nick Peros, John Adams, and Michael Tilson Thomas. One can also sing many of her poems to the tunes of "Amazing Grace," "The Yellow Rose of Texas," "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," or the "Gilligan's Island" theme song. While this novelty is entertaining in itself, it also demonstrates the connection between poetry and song embodied for centuries in the ballad.
Biographers have often thought of much of Dickinson's poetry being biographical in nature, and it is true that many of the themes that reoccur in her poetry often made their way into her correspondence. A lot of her poetry deals with the themes of death and immortality. Thomas H. Johnson, while recognizing that many poets have made death central in much of their poetry, believed that Dickinson "did so in hers to an unusual degree."
Publication and posthumous success
By her death in 1886, less than a dozen of Dickinson's poems had been published. Three posthumous collections in the 1890s established her as a powerful eccentric, but it was not until the 20th century that she was appreciated as a poet. Vinnie kept her promise to her older sister, burning most of the poet's correspondence. When she stumbled across the forty manuscripts that held Emily's vast collection of poetry, however, she recognized their worth and did not destroy them. Alone in the Homestead, Vinnie became obsessed to see her sister's poetry printed, turning first to Sue and then Mabel Loomis Todd for assistance.
The first volume of Emily Dickinson's Poems, edited jointly by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, was published in November 1890. They edited the poems extensively in order to regularize the manuscripts' punctuation and capitalization to late nineteenth-century standards, occasionally rewording poems to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. Containing 115 of her poems, it was a critical and financial success, going through eleven printings in two years. Poems: Second Series was published in 1891 and ran to five editions by 1893; a third series was published in 1896. Two volumes of Dickinson's letters, heavily edited and selected by Todd (who falsified dates on some of them), were published in 1894. During this time, Susan Dickinson also placed a few of Emily Dickinson's poems in literary journals such as Scribner's and The Independent.
This wave of posthumous publication gave Dickinson's poetry its first real public exposure, and it found an immediate audience. Backed by Higginson and William Dean Howells with favorable notices and reviews, the poetry was popular from 1890 to 1892. Later in the decade, critical opinion became negative. Thomas Bailey Aldrich, a poet and novelist, wrote about Dickinson in the January 1892 Atlantic Monthly:
It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson... . But the incoherence and formlessness of her — versicles are fatal... . [A]n eccentric, dreamy, half-educated recluse in an out-of-the-way New England village (or anywhere else) cannot with impunity set at defiance the laws of gravitation and grammar.
In the early 20th century, Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi published a series of further collections, including many previously unpublished poems, with similarly normalized punctuation and capitalization; The Single Hound emerged in 1914, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1924, and Further Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1929. Other volumes edited by Todd and Bianchi emerged through the 1930s, releasing gradually more previously unpublished poems. With the rise of modernist poetry, Dickinson's failure to conform to nineteenth-century ideas of poetic form was no longer surprising nor distasteful to new generations of readers. A new wave of feminism created greater cultural sympathy for her as a female poet. Her stock had clearly risen, but Dickinson was not generally thought a great poet among the first generation of modernists, as is clear from R.P. Blackmur's critical essay of 1937:
She was neither a professional poet nor an amateur; she was a private poet who wrote as indefatigably as some women cook or knit. Her gift for words and the cultural predicament of her time drove her to poetry instead of antimacassars... . She came, as Mr. Tate says, at the right time for one kind of poetry: the poetry of sophisticated, eccentric vision. That is what makes her good — in a few poems and many passages representatively great. But... the bulk of her verse is not representative but mere fragmentary indicative notation. The pity of it is that the document her whole work makes shows nothing so much as that she had the themes, the insight, the observation, and the capacity for honesty, which had she only known how — or only known why — would have made the major instead of the minor fraction of her verse genuine poetry. But her dying society had no tradition by which to teach her the one lesson she did not know by instinct.
A new and complete edition of Dickinson's poetry by Thomas H. Johnson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in three volumes in 1955. This edition formed the basis of all later Dickinson scholarship, and provided the Dickinson known to readers thereafter: the poems were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, were strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and were often extremely elliptical in their language. They were printed for the first time much more nearly as Dickinson had left them, in versions approximating the text in her manuscripts. A later variorum edition provided many alternate wordings from which Johnson, in a more limited editorial intervention, had been forced to choose for the sake of readability.
Later readers would draw attention to the remaining problems in reading even Johnson's relatively unaltered typeset texts of Dickinson, claiming that Dickinson's treatment of her manuscripts suggested that their physical and graphic properties were important to the reading of her poems. Possibly meaningful distinctions could be drawn, they argued, among different lengths and angles of dash in the poems, and different arrangements of text on the page. Several volumes have attempted to render Dickinson's handwritten dashes using many typographic symbols of varying length and angle; even R. W. Franklin's 1998 variorum edition of the poems, which aimed to supplant Johnson's edition as the scholarly standard text, used typeset dashes of varying length to approximate the manuscripts' dashes more closely.