Article abstract: Dickinson, living a reclusive social life, led an inner life of intense, imaginative creativity that made her one of America’s greatest poets.
The sparse facts of Emily Elizabeth Dickinson’s external life can be summarized in a few sentences: She was born in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, spent her entire life in her family home, and died in it on May 15, 1886. She was graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847, then attended nearby Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year. She traveled occasionally to Springfield and twice to Boston. In 1854, she and her family visited Washington and Philadelphia. She never married and had no romantic relationships. Yet her interior life was so intense that a distinguished twentieth century poet and critic, Allen Tate, could write, “All pity for Miss Dickinson’s ‘starved life’ is misdirected. Her life was one of the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent.” It is a life which has proved a perplexing puzzle to many critics and biographers.
What led to Dickinson’s monastic seclusion from society? Was it forced on her by a possessive, despotic father? Was it self-willed by her timid temperament, by rejected love, or by her neurotic need for utmost privacy while she pursued the muse of poetry? Speculation abounds, certainty eludes; nothing is simple and direct about her behavior. Perhaps the opening lines of her poem #1129 are self-revealing:
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
When Dickinson was born, Amherst was a farming village of four to five hundred families, with a cultural tradition of Puritanism and a devotion to education as well as devoutness. The Dickinsons were prominent in public and collegiate activities. Samuel Fowler Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, founded Amherst College in 1821 to train preachers, teachers, and missionaries. Edward Dickinson (1813-1874), Emily’s father, was the eldest of nine children. He became a successful attorney and, at age thirty-two, was named treasurer of Amherst College, a position he kept for thirty-eight years. He served three terms in the Massachusetts legislature and one term as a member of Congress. Even political opponents respected him as forthright, courageous, diligent, solemn, intelligent, and reliable; he was the incarnation of responsibility and rectitude. In a letter to her brother, Dickinson mocked him (and her mother): “Father and Mother sit in state in the sitting-room perusing such papers, only, as they are well assured, have nothing carnal in them.”
Emily’s mother, Emily Norcross (1804-1882), was born in Monson, Massachusetts, twenty miles south of Amherst. Her father was a well-to-do farmer who sent his daughter to a reputable boarding school, where she behaved conventionally, preparing herself for the respectable, rational marriage that ensued after Edward Dickinson had courted her politely and passionlessly. The mother has received adverse treatment from most of Dickinson’s biographers because of several statements the daughter wrote to her confidant, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911):
My Mother does not care for thought.
I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.
I always ran Home to Awe when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none.
Richard Sewall indicates in his magisterial two-volume The Life of Emily Dickinson (1974) that Emily’s acerbic remarks should not be taken at their surface meaning in the light of the poet’s continued preference for remaining in the familial home. To be sure, Dickinson’s mother read meagerly and had a mediocre mind, but she was a tenderhearted, loving person who committed herself wholly to her family and to the household’s management. While she never understood her daughter’s complex nature, she also never intruded on Dickinson’s inner life.
Dickinson’s brother Austin (1829-1895) was closest to her in disposition. Personable, sensitive, empathic, and sociable, he became an attorney, joined his father’s practice, and succeeded him as Amherst’s treasurer in 1873. He shared his sister’s wit, taste in books, and love of nature; his vitality was a tonic for her. He married one of her schoolmates, Susan Gilbert, vivacious, worldly, and articulate.
Dickinson and her sister-in-law, living next door to each other, were in each other’s homes frequently during the first years of this marriage. Dickinson had a near-obsessive concern for her immediate family and greatly desired to make of her sister-in-law a true sister in spirit. She sent Sue nearly three hundred of her poems over the years—more than to anyone else. Yet a satisfyingly soulful friendship never quite materialized. To be sure, Sue’s parties did keep Dickinson in at least limited circulation in her early twenties. The two women exchanged books and letters, with Dickinson occasionally seeking Sue’s criticism of her poems. Dickinson, always fond of children, was particularly delighted with her nephew Gilbert; tragically, he died of typhoid fever at the age of eight; Dickinson’s letter of condolence called him “Dawn and Meridian in one.”
Yet the two women’s paths ineluctably diverged. Sue had a husband and, eventually, three children and was an extroverted social climber. For unknown reasons, Dickinson and Sue quarreled in 1854, and Dickinson wrote her the only dismissive letter in her correspondence: “You can go or stay.” They resumed their friendship, but it proved turbulent, as did Sue’s and Austin’s marriage. In 1866, Sue betrayed Emily’s confidence by sending her poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” to the Springfield Republican, which mutilated it by changing its punctuation. “It was robbed of me,” Dickinson bitterly complained.
With her natural sister Lavinia (1833-1899), Dickinson bonded intimately all her life. Like her older sister, Lavinia remained a spinster, remained at home, and outlived her family. Dickinson and Lavinia were devotedly protective of each other. The younger sister was relatively uncomplicated, steady in temperament, pretty, and outgoing. Their only quasi-serious difference centered on Vinnie’s love of cats, contrasted to Dickinson’s care for birds. It was Lavinia who organized the first large-scale publication of Dickinson’s poems after her death.
Outside her family circle, Dickinson had only a few friends, but they mattered greatly to her—she called them her “estate” and cultivated them intensely. While still in her teens, she established a pattern that was to recur throughout her life: She sought to attach herself to an older man who would be her confidant and mentor or, to use her terms, “preceptor” or “master.” These pilots would, she hoped, teach her something of the qualities which she knew she lacked: knowledge of the outer world, firm opinions and principles, sociability, and intellectual stability.
Dickinson’s first candidate was Benjamin Newton (1821-1853), only nine years her senior, who was a law student in her father’s office from 1847 to 1849. He served her in the roles of intellectual companion, guide in aesthetic and spiritual spheres, and older brother. He introduced her to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry, encouraged her to write her own, but died of consumption in his thirty-third year, before she became a serious poet. Her letters to him are not extant, but in a letter she wrote Higginson in 1862, she probably refers to Newton when she mentions a “friend who taught me Immortality—but venturing too near, himself—he never returned—.”
Dickinson’s first mature friendship was with Samuel Bowles (1834-1878), who inherited his father’s Springfield Republican and made it one of the most admired newspapers in the United States. Bowles had a penetrating mind, warmth, wit, dynamic energy, strongly liberal convictions, and an engaging, vibrant personality. Extensively seasoned by travel, he knew virtually every important public leader and was a marvelous guest and companion. He, and sometimes his wife with him, became regular visitors in both Edward and Austin Dickinson’s homes from 1858 onward. Thirty-five of Dickinson’s letters to Bowles survive, and they show her deep attachment to—perhaps even love for—him, even though she knew that he was out of her reach in every way—just as her poetry was out of his, since his taste in literature was wholly conventional. In April, 1862, Bowles left for a long European stay. Shortly thereafter, Emily wrote him, “I have the errand from my heart—I might forget to tell it. Would you please come home?” Then, in a second letter, “[I]t is a suffering to have a sea . . . between your soul and you.” That November, the returned Bowles called at Amherst. Dickinson chose to remain in her room, sending him a note instead of encountering him.
The turning point in Dickinson’s career as a poet, and hence in her life, came in her late twenties. Before 1858, her writing consisted of letters and desultory, sentimental verses; thereafter, particularly from 1858 to 1863, poetry became her primary activity. As far as scholars can ascertain, she wrote one hundred in 1859, sixty-five in 1860, at least eighty in 1861, and in 1862—her annus mirabilis—perhaps as many as 366, of a prosodic skill far superior to her previous achievement. What caused such a flood of creativity? Most—but not all—biographers attribute it to her unfulfilled love for the Reverend Mr. Charles Wadsworth (1814-1882).
Dickinson and Lavinia visited their father in Washington, D.C., during April, 1854, when he was serving his congressional term. On their return trip, they stopped over in Philadelphia as guests of a friend from school days and heard Wadsworth preach in the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, whose pastor he was from 1850 to April, 1862. Married and middle-aged, of rocklike rectitude, shy and reserved, Wadsworth nevertheless made an indelible impression as a “Man of sorrow” on Dickinson. He was generally regarded as second only to Henry Ward Beecher among the pulpit orators of his time. A contemporary newspaper profile described him in these terms:
His person is slender, and his dark eyes, hair and complexion have decidedly a Jewish cast. The elements of his popularity are somewhat like those of the gifted Summerfield—a sweet touching voice, warmth of manner, and lively imagination. But Wadsworth’s style, it is said, is vastly bolder, his fancy more vivid, and his action more violent.
It is presumed that Dickinson must have talked with Wadsworth during her Philadelphia visit. Few other facts are known: He called on her in Amherst in the spring of 1860, and again in the summer of 1880. She requested his and his children’s pictures from his closest friend. In April, 1862, Wadsworth moved to San Francisco, becoming minister to the Calvary Presbyterian Society. Dickinson found this departure traumatic: She used “Calvary” ten times in poems of 1862 and 1863; she spoke of herself as “Empress of Calvary,” and began one 1863 poem with the words, “Where Thou art—that is Home/Cashmere or Calvary—the Same . . ./ So I may come.” With probable reference to her inner “Calvary” drama of loss and renunciation, she began at this time to dress entirely in white. By 1870, and until his death, Wadsworth was back in Philadelphia in another pastorate, but the anguished crisis he had caused her had ended by then.
After Dickinson’s death, three long love letters were found in draft form among her papers, in her handwriting of the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. They address a “Master,” and have therefore come to be called the “Master Letters.” Their tone is urgent, their style, nervous and staccato. In the second of them, “Daisy” tells her “Master”: “I want to see you more—Sir—than all I wish for in this world—and the wish—altered a little—will be my only one—for the skies.” She invites him to come to Amherst and pledges not to disappoint him. Yet the final letter shows the agony of a rejected lover, amounting to an almost incoherent cry of despair. For whom were these letters intended? Thomas Johnson and most other biographers designate Wadsworth. Richard Sewall, however, argues for Bowles, on the internal evidence that some of the images in the unsent letters parallel images in poems that Dickinson did send Bowles.
In 1861, Dickinson composed the most openly erotic of her poems, #249, with the sea the element in which the speaker moors herself:
Wild Nights—Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
Is this poem derived from autobiographical experience—or, at least, intense longing for such experience—or is the first-person perspective no more than that of the poem’s persona or speaker? Again, Dickinsonians divide on this question.
On April 15, 1862, having liked an article by Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson sent him four of her poems and a diffident note, asking him if he thought her verses were “alive” and “breathed.” Trained as a minister, Higginson had held a Unitarian pulpit in Newburyport, Massachusetts, then resigned it to devote himself to social reforms, chief of which was abolitionism. He had made a reputation as a representative, influential mid-century literary critic, with particular interest in the work of female writers. The four poems Dickinson mailed him were among her best to date; in his evaluative replies, however, he showed an obtuse misunderstanding of them, as well as of her subsequent submissions, which were to total one hundred.
Dickinson undoubtedly felt a strong need for another “preceptor”—Wadsworth had just departed for San Francisco—and especially for a literary rather than romantic confidant. Higginson was to prove her “safest friend” for the remainder of her life. A warm, courteous, sympathetic man, he regarded her with mystified admiration. After their correspondence had been under way for several months, he asked her to send him a photograph. Her response was, “I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur, and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves.” After Higginson had met her eight years later, he confirmed this self-portrait and added to it that Dickinson was a “plain, shy little person, the face without a single good feature.”
Dickinson’s poetry, unfortunately for both of them, was simply beyond Higginson’s grasp. He immediately and consistently advised her not to seek its publication because it was “not strong enough.” His critical judgments were invariably fatuous, showing deaf ears and blind eyes to her original language, syntax, meter, and rhyme. She resigned herself to his recommendation against publication but gently yet firmly ignored his strictures concerning her poems’ construction. Thomas Johnson summarizes the relationship as “one of the most eventful, and at the same time elusive and insubstantial friendships in the annals of American literature.”
In the late 1870’s, nearing her fiftieth year, Dickinson fell in love with Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). He was a distinguished lawyer who, from 1875 to 1882, served as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He answered Dickinson’s constant need for a settled, senior friend-tutor, intellectually gifted and personally impressive; he became her last “preceptor.” She had first known Judge Lord when he had called on Edward Dickinson; like her father, he was vigorous, conscientious, commanding, and highly disciplined. Their affection developed after December, 1877, when Lord’s wife died. Fifteen of her letters to him survive and indicate that, over the objection of his nieces, Lord apparently offered to marry her. With her father and Bowles now dead and her mother an invalid requiring many hours of her time each week, Dickinson found considerable solace in their correspondence. Yet she also knew that her reclusive life was too rigidly established for her to adapt to the major changes that marriage would require of her.
On April 1, 1882, Wadsworth, the man she had called “my closest earthly friend,” died. On May 1 of that year, Lord suffered a stroke; on May 14, Dickinson wrote him a fervent letter of joy at his (temporary) recovery, assuring him of her “rapture” at his reprieve from impending death; on October 5 came news of her beloved nephew Gilbert’s death; on November 14, her mother finally died, after years of serious illness. It is not surprising that Dickinson then underwent a “nervous prostration” that impaired her faculties for many weeks.
After an 1864 visit to Boston for eye treatment, Dickinson did not leave Amherst for the remainder of her life. Her withdrawal from society became gradually more marked. By 1870, she did not venture beyond her house and garden, preferring to socialize by sending brief letters, some of them accompanied by poems, flowers, or fruit. She retreated upstairs when most visitors came to call, sometimes lurking on an upper landing or around corners. While strangers regarded her eccentricities as unnatural, her friends and family accepted them as the price of her retreat into the intensity of her poetry. Perhaps her most self-revealing poem is #303, whose first stanza declares,
The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—
To her divine Majority—
Present no more—
Emily Dickinson died of nephritis on May 15, 1886.
Emily Dickinson’s nearly eighteen hundred poems, only seven of which saw print during her lifetime, constitute her “Letter to the World” (#441), her real life. They establish her, along with Walt Whitman, as one of this nation’s two most seminal poets. Her sharp intellectual wit, her playfulness, and her love of ambiguity, paradox, and irony liken her poetry to the seventeenth century metaphysical achievements of England’s John Donne and George Herbert and New England’s Edward Taylor. Yet her language and rhythm are often uniquely individual, with a tumultuous rhetoric that sharply probes homely details for universal essence. She is a writer who defies boundaries and labels, standing alone as a contemporary not only of Herman Melville and Nathaniel Hawthorne but also, in the poetic sense, of T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Robert Frost, Robert Lowell, and Sylvia Plath. Her work ranks with the most original in poetic history.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960. The text of the three-volume edition with the variant readings omitted.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. The definitive editions of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. They have been arranged in the most accurate chronological order possible and numbered. In 1890, the first collection of Dickinson’s poems was brought out by Mabel Loomis Todd and Higginson, with two more volumes in 1891 and 1896, all in disorderly, random selections, with gross editorial violations of the poet’s spelling and syntax. Johnson has therefore done an invaluable service to American literary scholarship by taking Dickinson’s jottings, scribbles, and semifinal drafts and sorting them out. Even so, his choices of alternative language have sometimes been questioned by other Dickinson specialists.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. “Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts.”
Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1976. A gracefully written, authoritative critical biography by the dean of contemporary Dickinson scholars. It is the first that discusses in detail Higginson’s significance in Dickinson’s life and career.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. By far the most comprehensive Dickinson interpretive biography. Sewall devotes his first volume to Dickinson’s family, his second to her friends, and intertwines her life with both circles with great tact, sympathetic understanding, and impressive learning. The prose is clear and often eloquent. One of the most admirable modern literary biographies.
Sewall, Richard B., ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A rich and diverse collection of critical essays, displaying an almost bewildering range of interpretive views. Such important critics and scholars as Charles Anderson, R. P. Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and George Whicher are represented.