Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) wrote her whimsical, darting verse with sublime indifference to any notion of being a democratic or popular poet. Her work, far different from that of either Whitman or Longfellow, illustrated the fact that one could take a single household and an inactive life, and make enchanting poetry out of it.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her father was a prominent lawyer and politician and where her grandfather had established an academy and college. Dickinson's family was very closely knit and she and her sister remained at home and did not marry. Dickinson seldom left Amherst; she attended college in a nearby town for one year, and later made one trip as far as Washington and two or three trips to Boston. After 1862 she became a total recluse, not leaving her house nor seeing even close friends. Her early letters and descriptions of herself in her youth reveal an attractive girl with a lively wit. Her later retirement from the world, though perhaps affected by an unhappy love affair, seems mainly to have resulted from her own personality, from a desire to separate herself from the world. The range of her poetry suggests not her limited experiences but the power of her creativity and imagination.
When she began writing poetry Dickinson had relatively little formal education. She did know Shakespeare and classical mythology and was especially interested in women authors such as Elizabeth Browning and the Bronte sisters. She was also acquainted with the works of Emerson. Thoreau and Hawthorne. Though she did not believe in the conventional religion of her family, she had studied the Bible, and many of her poems resemble hymns in form.
There were several men who, at different times in her life, acted as teacher or master to Dickinson. The first was Benjamin Newton, a young lawyer in her father's law office who improved her literary and cultural tastes and influenced her ideas on religion. She refers to him as "a friend, who taught me immortality".
Dickinson's next teacher was Charles Wadsworth, a married middle-aged minister who provided her with intellectual challenge and contact with the outside world. It appears that she felt an affection for him that he could not return, and when he moved to San Francisco in 1862, she removed herself from society even more than she had before. Wadsworth may have been the model for the lover in her poems, though it is just as likely that the literary figure is purely imaginary.
Dickinson's greatest outpouring of poems occurred in the early 1860s, and because she was so isolated, the Civil War affected her thinking very little. At this time she sent some of her work to Thomas Higginson, a prominent critic and author. He was impressed by her poetry, but suggested that she use a more conventional grammar. Dickinson, however, refused to revise her poems to fit the standards of others and took no interest in having them published; in fact she had only seven poems published during her lifetime. In Higginson she did, nevertheless, gain an intelligent and sympathetic critic with whom to discuss her work.
In the last years of her life Dickinson seldom saw visitors, but kept in touch with her friends through letters, short poems and small gifts. After her death in 1886, her sister found nearly 1,800 poems that she had written. Many of the poems were finally published in the 1890s, and Emily Dickinson, like Melville, was rediscovered by the literary world in the 1920s.
Emily Dickinson's poetry comes out in bursts. The poems are short, many of them being based on a single image or symbol. But within her little lyrics Miss Dickinson writes about some of the most important things in life. She writes about love and a lover, whom she either never really found or else gave up. She writes about nature.
She writes about mortality and immortality. She writes about success, which she thought she never achieved, and about failure, which she considered her constant companion. She writes of these things so brilliantly that she is now ranked as one of America's great poets.
Her poetry is read today throughout much of the world and yet its exact wording has not been completely determined, nor has its arrangement and punctuation. Since Dickinson never prepared her poems for publication, one of the bitterest battles in American literary history has been fought over who should publish and edit what she wrote. However, regardless of details or conflicts, there is no doubt that the solitary Miss Dickinson of Amherst, Massachusetts, is a writer of great power and beauty.