At a Glance
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- Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of unpublished poems after Emily died.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.
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...
(The entire section is 5,255 words.)