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.
“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...
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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...
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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...
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