Emily Dickinson Biography

Emily Dickinson Biography

Emily Dickinson, known as “The Belle of Amherst,” is widely considered one of the most original American poets of the nineteenth century. She wrote hundreds of poems—most of which were not published until her death in 1886—in an unconventional style that revolutionized the genre and continues to challenge readers. Instead of traditional rhyme schemes and punctuation, Dickinson used broken meter, seemingly random capitalization, and numerous dashes to convey complex thoughts and emotions. And in a final break with poetic convention, the majority of her poems were untitled, although quite a few have become well-known by their first lines: “Because I could not stop for death,” “A narrow fellow in the grass,” and “Hope is the thing with feathers.” The subjects of her poems ranged from the inevitability of death to the simple joys of the natural world, and their tone reflected what must have been Dickinson’s own complex emotional range: brooding and joyous, witty and sarcastic, morose and hopeful.

Facts and Trivia

  • Dickinson’s bedroom window faced a local cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts. As a young girl, she observed burials on almost a daily basis.
  • Dickinson attended a female seminary but left after one year. Speculations about the reasons for her departure include homesickness, poor health, and perhaps a refusal to sign a public confession of her faith in Christ.
  • In 1864, Dickinson visited a doctor in Boston because of an eye condition. He forbade her to read or write. She would never again leave Amherst, but she did begin writing her first poems alone in her room at home.
  • Both her father and grandfather were successful politicians in Massachusetts, and the Dickinson home frequently welcomed some of the most influential thinkers of the era, including Ralph Waldo Emerson.
  • Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of unpublished poems after Emily died. Lavinia hired editors to chronologically arrange and publish the work.


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

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.

Early Life

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

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.

Life’s Work

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
Our luxury!
Futile—the Winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden—
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor—Tonight—
In Thee!

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.

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, the second daughter of Edward and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson. Her...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

One can fully appreciate Dickinson’s originality only by placing her verse against that of her poet contemporaries. She is certainly more mystical—and is a better poet—than Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Her poetic works have greater substance than those of Edgar Allan Poe. She writes poems far richer in content than the school poets: James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The only American poet of her century with whom she is comparable is Walt Whitman.

In the nineteenth century, women generally wrote only domestic verse-material suitable for ladies’ magazines—or wrote under male pseudonyms. Higginson’s advice that Dickinson avoid publication makes most modern readers of Dickinson angry, as do the alterations made by Dickinson’s early editors. One can be grateful that Dickinson’s creative energy remained undiminished.

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

“Renunciation is a piercing virtue,” wrote Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, and her life can be seen as a series of renunciations. Born in 1830 of a prominent Amherst family, she rarely left the town, except for time spent in Boston and trips to Washington and Philadelphia. She attended the Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Although she was witty and popular, she set herself apart from the other girls by her refusal to be converted to the conventional Christianity of the town. Her life was marked by a circle of close friends and of family: a stern and humorless father, a mother who suffered a long period of illness and whom Emily took care of; her sister Lavinia, who likewise never married and remained in the family home; and her brother Austin, who married Sue Gilbert Dickinson and whose forceful personality, like that of his wife, affected the family while Emily Dickinson lived, and whose affair with Mabel Todd, the editor of the poems, precipitated family squabbles that affected their publication.

Additionally, there was a series of men—for it almost seems that Dickinson took what she called her “preceptors” one at a time—who formed a sort of emotional resource for her. The first of these was Samuel Bowles, the editor of the neighboring Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican, which published some of her poetry. Charles Wadsworth was the minister of a Philadelphia church; a preacher famous for his eloquence, he preached one Sunday when Dickinson was in Philadelphia, and afterward they corresponded for several years. In 1862, however, he and his family moved from Philadelphia to the West Coast. Dickinson immediately sent four of her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, at The Atlantic Monthly, for his advice, and they began a long friendship; although Higginson was never convinced that Dickinson was a finished poet, he was a continuing mentor. Finally, late in life, Dickinson met Judge Otis Lord, and for a time it seemed as if they were to be married; this was her one explicitly romantic friendship, but the marriage never took place. There were also less intense friendships with women, particularly Mabel Todd, who, despite her important role in Dickinson’s life, never actually met her, and with the writer Helen Hunt Jackson, one of the few to accept Dickinson’s poetry as it was written.

The nature of the relationships with the “preceptors” and their effect on the poetry is a matter of much controversy. It is complicated by three famous and emotional “Master” letters that Dickinson wrote between 1858 and 1862 (the dates are partly conjectural). Who the master was, is uncertain. For Johnson, Dickinson’s editor, the great influence was Wadsworth, and although their relationship was always geographically distant, it was he who was the great love, his moving to California the emotional crisis that occasioned the great flood-years of poetry—366 poems in 1862 alone, according to Johnson. For Richard B. Sewall, author of the standard biography, Bowles was the master.

Whatever the case, it is true that after 1862, Dickinson rarely left her house, except for a necessary visit to Boston where she was treated for eye trouble. She wore white dresses and with more and more frequency refused to see visitors, usually remaining upstairs, listening to the conversations and entering, if at all, by calling down the stairs or by sending in poems or other tokens of her participation. She became known as the “Myth of Amherst,” and from this image is drawn the popular notion of the eccentric old maid that persists in the imagination of many of her readers today. However, it is clear that whatever the limits of her actual experience, Dickinson lived life on the emotional level with great intensity. Her poetry is dense with vividly rendered emotions and observations, and she transformed the paucity of her outward life into the richness of her inner life.

Richard Wilbur has suggested that Dickinson suffered three great deprivations in her life: of a lover, of publication and fame, and of a God in whom she could believe. Although she often questioned a world in which such deprivations were necessary, she more frequently compensated, as Wilbur believes, by calling her “privation good, rendering it positive by renunciation.” That she lived in a world of distances, solitude, and renunciation, her biography makes clear; that she turned that absence into beauty is the testimony of her poetry.

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, was the daughter of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her father, a graduate of Yale College, practiced law in Amherst, engaged in politics, and was treasurer of Amherst College for thirty-seven years. After graduation from Amherst College and Harvard Law School, her brother, William Austin Dickinson, eldest of the three children, took up the practice of law in Amherst and succeeded his father in 1872 as college treasurer. At the time of Austin’s marriage in 1856 to Susan Gilbert, his father built the couple a house on land adjoining the family homestead. Both Emily Dickinson and her younger sister, Lavinia, remained single, living in the family home all their lives. A year after Edward Dickinson’s death in 1874, Emily Norcross Dickinson became paralyzed, and the sisters shared the task of caring for their invalid mother until her death in 1882. Thus Emily Dickinson throughout her life was intimately a part of the daily routines of all members of her family. The closeness of ties regulated the poet’s domestic existence.

Small in stature, with chestnut hair and brown eyes, Dickinson was remembered for her vivacity. Even as a girl her droll wit gave her singularity, and all her life she maintained an eager interest in people and books. During her youth on one or two occasions she visited relatives in Boston, and her letters home report events with sprightly detail. Having completed her preparatory training at Amherst Academy, at sixteen she was admitted to the second-year class at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in September, 1847. Though Dickinson was enthusiastic about her new life there, at least during the first months, and completed the year creditably, she did not return to graduate. Early in 1855 she and Lavinia spent a month in Washington, D.C., with their father, then a member of Congress. During the years 1864 and 1865 she was compelled to stay for several months in Cambridge and Boston to undergo treatment for an eye affliction. Other than these early sojourns, the poet remained at home, tending to her domestic duties and to her art.

Though none of Dickinson’s early poetry survives, the supposition is that she began writing verse in her early twenties. Benjamin Newton, a young law student in her father’s office, encouraged this pursuit but died in 1853. His importance is reflected in the poet’s continued references to him as her earliest guide. She seems to have experienced seven or eight years of great poetic creativity, commencing in 1858. In that year she began collecting into “volumes” the brief, neatly transcribed lyrics which for the most part were known only to a few people during her lifetime. These packets each consist of a few sheets of folded stationery, loosely threaded at the spine. By 1862 Dickinson clearly felt enough assurance in the quality of her verse to respond to Thomas Higginson’s Atlantic Monthly article “Letter to a Young Contributor.” She enclosed with her letter four poems, asking, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Thinking the poet wished to publish (according to the poet, something she never intended), Higginson apparently responded by describing her original approach to metric and rhyme patterns as “spasmodic” and “uncontrolled” and by suggesting that she defer publishing. Although Dickinson never took Higginson’s conventional advice, she counted him among her closest friends, and they maintained a correspondence until the poet’s death.

In fact, after 1870, letters became almost Dickinson’s sole way of maintaining association with her large number of friends. It is in this manner that she “published” many of her poems, either incorporating a poem into the text of her missive or enclosing it with the letter. Over the years many friends thus came to know her work. Along with Higginson, these included her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson; Samuel Bowles, publisher of the Springfield Republican; Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, Bowles’s associates and founders of Scribner’s Monthly; and the poet and novelist Helen Hunt Jackson. Fewer than a dozen poems are known to have been published in Dickinson’s lifetime, all anonymously, and most of them surreptitiously by friends who wished to see them in print.

A source of conflict in Dickinson studies centers on several draft letters, very passionate and sensual but addressed only to “Master.” For decades, scholars tried to identify this correspondent and connect this person with both the poet’s reclusive behavior and her poetry. A popular reading suggested that Dickinson lived at home and wrote poetry because of a broken heart. Beginning especially in the 1980’s, feminist scholars and cultural studies have focused instead on the limited possibilities open for women at that time. Too, feminist scholars have defined the poet’s reclusion as a strategic retreat, her method of giving herself the time and space needed in order to write the 1,775 poems that compose her opus.

Dickinson died May 15, 1886, of complications arising from Bright’s disease. After her death, Lavinia Dickinson discovered the many hundred manuscript poems, and she persuaded Mabel Loomis Todd, who in turn persuaded Higginson, to edit a slender volume: Poems (1890). Though the reviews were somewhat discouraging, the demand for the volume was heartening, and in the following year the two editors brought out Poems: Second Series. Todd edited two volumes of Dickinson’s letters in 1894, and two years later a further selection of verses: Poems: Third Series. No more appeared until Emily Dickinson’s niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi issued The Single Hound in 1914, followed by Further Poems in 1929 and Unpublished Poems in 1936. In 1945 Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham brought out Bolts of Melody; with its appearance, virtually all the Dickinson poems were finally in print.

The distinguishing nature of Dickinson’s revolutionary poetry is its conciseness and intensity. The lyrics are brief, unlike the loquacious poems of Walt Whitman, her contemporary who also eschewed the conventions of the day reflected in such works as those by the popular “fireside poets.” Dickinson’s poems are often described as being concerned with such “flood subjects” as the phenomena of nature, the themes of love, death, and immortality. Her prosodic patterns all stem from meters familiar to her in hymn books, but her skill at introducing new rhymes, metric forms, and varying poetic feet—often within a single poem—are originalities that have given added richness to versification and in many ways set the stage for the modern poets. Never commonplace, her language draws upon the homely phrases native to her speech. Her diction is laconic, stripped to the fewest words in order to gain power. She delighted, like the seventeenth century metaphysical poets, in the paradox: in balancing side by side the concrete and the abstract, the minute and the transcendent, the serious and the comic, the usual and the least expected. The unconventionality of her style no longer offends, as it appears to have done before the public was awakened to her true inventiveness, for it is now recognized as the manner by which her startling paradoxes are quickened and given their immediacy.

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second of three children to respectable,...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Like Shakespeare, whose poetry has become an integral part of world literature but whose personal life remains very much a matter of...

(The entire section is 590 words.)

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, the elder daughter of lawyer Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Dickinson was the second of three children, a year younger than her brother, William, and three years older than her sister, Lavinia. She was born in a large house built by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson; except for absences of about a year for her schooling and seven months in Boston, she lived in it all of her life and died there at precisely 6:00 p.m. on May 15, 1886.

It is paradoxical that a woman who led such a circumscribed and apparently uneventful life managed to acquire the rich perceptions that enabled her to write 1,775 poems unlike any others in the English language. Every one is recognizably her own, and many are masterpieces. The circumstances of her life, therefore, hold a special fascination for readers of her verse.

Dickinson’s sharp perceptions and brilliant inner life arise primarily from her background. Her paternal grandfather, whom she never knew, remained an unseen presence in her family. A Trinitarian deacon educated at Dartmouth College, he became moderately prosperous through his legal practice, investments, and a number of appointive and elective government positions; he was also a visionary. His religious zeal led him to use his entire fortune to found two Trinitarian educational institutions: Amherst Academy (1814) and Amherst College (1821). It was he who built “the homestead” in 1813, the great brick house that defined the daily life of his poet granddaughter.

Having spent thousands of dollars in the cause of education, he had become insolvent by early 1833. On May 22, 1833, he was even forced to sell the homestead. He moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he did church-related work, then Hudson, Ohio, where he died of pneumonia on April 22, 1838.

His son Edward, the poet’s father, succeeded where the elder Dickinson had failed. Edward continued in his father’s position as trustee of the Amherst institutions. By the end of his term in 1873, Amherst College had assets of more than a million dollars. By March, 1855, he had repurchased the house his father had built and lost. Educated at Yale University, he managed to combine religious zeal with practical business ability. His daughter would remember his long absences—as representative to the Massachusetts state legislature, as chief financial officer of Amherst College, as land speculator with holdings in northern New England—but she clearly loved him in a way she never did her mother.

Edward was an undemonstrative man; he had struggled through Yale University with only the barest financial support of a father who ironically had directed all of his resources to the support of Amherst College. The elder Dickinson believed, in characteristic Puritan spirit, that he owed the most support to the greatest number, even though this meant stinting a member of his own family.

Edward was, consequently, a man who had needed to stifle external emotions so many times that he had trouble expressing them at all. Many of the courtship letters he wrote to Emily Norcross Dickinson (the poet’s mother) survive, but even during the emotionally charged period before marriage Dickinson found it possible to describe, entirely impersonally, what he considered the characteristics of an ideal wife. Edward also had found it disconcerting that he had to sacrifice an independent career, in effect, to redeem his father’s good name. Despite his withdrawn nature and his long absences from home, he remained a primary figure in his daughter’s life and poetry.

Dickinson did not have the same close relationship with her mother. Emily Norcross was not intellectual by nature—she barely understood much of her daughter’s poetry—and was at least as undemonstrative as Edward. Many stories about the strange relationship of withdrawn mother and poet daughter are embellishments of the apparently cruel comments the younger Emily made in letters. Others follow from stories told by the relatively small number of persons admitted to the Dickinson circle. Most likely, the antagonism between mother and daughter arose from their different temperaments: the mother lonely and nonliterary, the daughter keenly intellectual and entrusted by her father with many of the household responsibilities that properly should have been her mother’s.

Still, it would be wrong to assume that Dickinson’s relations with her mother were filled with petty arguments. After her father’s sudden death in 1874, during his first term in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, Dickinson and her mother grew closer. She nursed her mother faithfully, from 1875 to 1882, through the paralysis which ultimately took her life.

Dickinson’s early relations with her only brother were competitive. In many ways they were alike; both were intellectual and ambitious. Though Dickinson’s education was excellent for a woman of the mid-nineteenth century—coeducational training at Amherst Academy, from 1840 to 1845, and slightly more than a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, in 1847 and 1848—it is likely that she envied her brother’s ability to circulate in the larger world. They were always friendly rivals.

Dickinson’s sister had a personality much like that of her mother, though there is no indication of antagonism between Emily and Lavinia. Indeed, were it not for her sister’s efforts after Dickinson’s death it is likely that a first collection of her poems would never have appeared. With Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, Lavinia sorted out the nearly eighteen hundred poems, some of which were written on billheads, envelopes, and odd scraps of paper. They deciphered Dickinson’s cramped handwriting and “corrected” and standardized her punctuation.

Variations of this first edition, which first appeared in 1890, four years after the poet’s death from kidney disease, remained substantially the only printed texts of Dickinson’s verse until Thomas H. Johnson numbered and restored their original readings in his 1955 major edition. Dickinson had only eleven poems published during her lifetime.

The poet’s surviving family members share some of the responsibility for creating the image of “the white nun of Amherst.” This epithet refers to her habit of dressing exclusively in white after 1861. That she did this out of despair from some impossible love, either for young Ben Newton (her father’s law clerk) or for Charles Wadsworth, a married Philadelphia minister with a family, is unlikely.

It is possible, as has been suggested, that Wadsworth’s acceptance of a pastorate in San Francisco was an attempt to avoid temptation, but contemporary critics generally argue against the image of a Dickinson desolate because of a lost love. Johnson assigns most of Dickinson’s bridal poems to the 1860’s, based on this unhappy romance, but one can easily question the Johnson chronology. If correct, it would mean that Dickinson composed two-thirds of her entire output of verse in eight years and an astonishing number (681) in the years from 1862 to 1864.

Dickinson family members recalled, destroyed, and sometimes severely edited much of the poet’s personal correspondence. “The belle” or “queen recluse” personae they created by default were infinitely preferable at the close of the nineteenth century to the rebellious, unconventional, but thwarted genius that she actually was. Dickinson had close relationships with several men her own age, particularly with Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield, Massachusetts, Daily Republican. Newton, a clerk in her father’s law office, was a friendly critic of her verse. It is difficult, and mostly unnecessary, to speculate about whether these were romantic attachments.

Contrary to the widely accepted myth, Dickinson’s literary friendships actually broadened during the last ten years of her life. Higginson reintroduced her to a girlhood acquaintance, Helen Hunt Jackson, an acclaimed writer and crusader for the rights of American Indians (Jackson’s 1884 novel Ramona is her work most familiar to modern readers).

Another area of Dickinson’s life obscured in the nineteenth and early twentieth century accounts is the poet’s views on religion, and this directly affects the interpretation of many of her poems. Dickinson was raised in the conservative Trinitarian tradition of Jonathan Edwards. This contrasts her background with that of the liberal Unitarians, whose most famous minister was, at the time, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dickinson remained, however, the only member of her family never to undergo a conversion experience. This was something of a disgrace given the heady zeal of Amherst, but Dickinson never compromised, though it meant being anathematized while in attendance at Mount Holyoke.

Some of her poems suggest science and empiricism as alternatives to unexamined belief; many others portray the particulars of church services against the need for reason. It is an indication of their tolerance that Dickinson’s family never pressed her in these matters. Indeed, Dickinson’s father provided his daughter with the kind of training that encouraged such inquiry. She was well read, particularly in the physical sciences, and she had ready access to her father’s and the Amherst College libraries. The men of the family had read many of the same works as Dickinson, but such readings had merely strengthened their religious convictions. Dickinson always maintained her belief in a supreme deity, but she doubted that human institutions provided a necessary link.

Except for the vision problem that plagued her periodically as early as 1862, Dickinson’s life was free of any medical incident until the uremic poisoning which ultimately took her life, swiftly and without pain, on May 15, 1886. Dickinson sought treatment for her severely blurred vision in Boston in 1864. Her stay there of seven months was the only period, aside from her year at Mount Holyoke, that she remained away from home, and her letters emphasize her desire to return home. The vision problem seems to have abated of its own accord in Dickinson’s later years, though it appears in her handwriting throughout the 1860’s.

The Dickinson that remains, once one disregards myth and apocrypha, is an immensely gifted woman born a century and a quarter too soon. Rebellious in matters of family and religion, she nevertheless remained dutiful to those who needed her. Far from being an active feminist (for this was nearly impossible during the Civil War period in conservative Amherst), she accepted the enclosed life of a well-born but unmarried New England woman. Had she lived more extensively in the larger world, her verse would probably not have resembled the legacy she left.

Emily Dickinson Biography

(Poetry for Students)

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and...

(The entire section is 339 words.)