Dickinson has been hailed by critics as one of the most important and original poets to emerge from the American literary tradition. However, the poet received none of this critical acclaim during her lifetime. The few editors who actually appraised Dickinson's verse faulted her language as too unsentimental and plain to suit contemporary tastes. Further, the structure of her poems was not as polished as the conventional romantic verse that was published in the leading periodicals of the day. Modern critics have come to recognize that Dickinson's poetic style was in fact decades ahead of its time and that she anticipated the modern poetry movement of the twentieth century by using simple words and images to meditate on such profound universal concepts as nature, death, and immortality. Feminist scholars have examined Dickinson's poems and letters in an effort to gain some insight into how the poet responded to the gender-restrictive values of the mid-nineteenth-century patriarchal society. These critics have concluded that while as a person Dickinson succumbed to a life of social marginality and seclusion, as a poet she opened a new frontier of feminine power and assertiveness through her transcendent and imaginative verse.
Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the eldest child of Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer, politician, and treasurer of Amherst College, and Emily Norcross Dickinson. The Dickinsons were a close-knit family governed by her father, a demanding, family-oriented patriarch. Indeed, Emily and her younger sister Lavinia never married, devoting their lives to the domestic obligations and care of the other members of the Dickinson family. Emily's brother, Austin, followed in his father's footsteps by becoming a partner in the family law practice and by succeeding his father as treasurer of Amherst College. Austin also built a house next to the Dickinson family homestead. As a youth, Emily received a formal education befitting a member of a prosperous New England family. She attended primary school for four years beginning in 1835; she then matriculated at Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. Upon graduating from the Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled in Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year from 1847 to 1848. Electing not to continue her studies at Mount Holyoke after her first year, Dickinson settled down in Amherst and resumed her domestic and familial obligations. During this time, she became acquainted with a number of prominent religious, political, and literary figures who paid visits to her father at Amherst. Among these visitors was Samuel Bowles, the owner and editor of the Springfield Republican, from whom Dickinson would seek advice and send poems in the hope of being recognized as a serious poet. Failing to recognize her talent, Bowles refused to publish Dickinson's poems in his periodical and even discouraged her from writing more verses.
In 1854 Dickinson traveled with her mother to Washington, D.C., to visit Edward, who was at the time serving a term as a representative to the United States Congress. On their return trip to Amherst, the Dickinsons visited a family friend in Philadelphia. Several biographers have speculated that while in Philadelphia, Dickinson met and fell in love with a married minister who begged her to elope with him. These scholars have further contended that this love affair and Dickinson's decision to end it precipitated her withdrawal into seclusion and her increasingly eccentric behavior. It is important to note that apart from one family account of this affair there is no evidence to substantiate the claim that it ever occurred. Nevertheless, not long after this trip Dickinson did become more reclusive and eccentric. She withdrew to the family homestead in Amherst, refusing even to venture to her brother's house next door. Whereas she had previously received and entertained numerous guests at the homestead, Dickinson now refused all visitors. She began to dress in only white attire, an act which some scholars have argued was a symbolic attempt to present herself as a nun, a virgin, a poet, or some combination of the three. Her few companions during this time included Lavinia and Austin. Dickinson's attachment to Austin's children and his wife, Susan, was especially close.
Biographers have generally agreed that Dickinson experienced a grave emotional crisis in the early 1860s. Although no evidence has been discovered to shed light onto the nature of this crisis, some scholars have pointed out that this time frame coincides with Bowles's public rejection of Dickinson's unsentimental brand of poetry in the Springfield Republican, although he did not specifically identify her as the offender. At about the same time, Dickinson's poetry output surged; in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. After her rift with Bowles, Dickinson sought out a new patron who would recognize the value of her poetry. She initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly, sending him some of her poems and soliciting his advice on their merit. Like Bowles, Higginson never published any of Dickinson's verse in his periodical, but he did serve as a sympathetic advisor to her literary endeavors. Throughout this period, Dickinson remained in seclusion at Amherst, except for brief trips to Boston in 1864 and 1865 to receive medical care for an eye condition. Whatever familial security Dickinson felt ended abruptly in 1874 when her father died unexpectedly. Not long after Edward's death, Dickinson's mother became an invalid, relying on her children for complete care until her own death in 1882. Dickinson herself died two years later on May 15, 1886, after a prolonged battle with a kidney disorder known as Bright's disease.
Literary scholars have discovered nearly eighteen hundred poems written by Dickinson. Some academics have posited that even more verses might be in existence as appendixes to Dickinson's voluminous correspondence with family, friends, and literary acquaintances, but that they have not yet been recognized by the letter recipients' inheritors. Those poems authoritatively attributed to Dickinson have been collected by scholars and each one assigned an identifying number since Dickinson did not give a title to most of her verses. Given the sheer number of Dickinson's poems, the poet afforded herself the opportunity to explore a wide variety of subjects, including the austerity and beauty of nature; experiences of love and loss; a skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality; and a morbid fascination with death. This last preoccupation is especially apparent in Poem 712 (also known as "Because I could not stop for Death—"), in which eternal rest is imagined as a carriage ride. Regardless of the subject, Dickinson's poetry represents an innovative formal technique that heralded the preeminent stylistic developments of the twentieth century: she developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons; she experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes; and she employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, including the liberal use of dashes. The result is a distinctive and revolutionary poetic style quite unlike that of her nineteenth-century contemporaries.
Feminist scholars have identified a number of Dickinson's poems which directly comment upon the role and experiences of women within a repressive patriarchal order. In addition, some of these critics have suggested that many more poems can be interpreted as the poet's opinion of gender issues if one were to assume that the speaker in each verse is a female. For example, Poem 271 ("A solemn thing—it was—I said—") presents the image of "a woman—white," which may be a reference to a bride, a novice nun, or a female poet. At the conclusion, the speaker of the poem finds satisfaction in her "'small' life," which some commentators have suggested is a rejection of conventional female roles in favor of pursuing those that she finds more fulfilling. A similar theme of empowerment has been detected in Poem 657 ("I dwell in Possibility—"), which many critics have maintained is a commentary on the ability of the female artist to subvert the oppressive limitations of the patriarchal order through the transcendental power of poetry. Though her poems were not grouped into published collections during her lifetime, Dickinson did sew certain poems into "fascicles," or small booklets, indicating that she viewed them as related meditations on a central theme. Her fascicle 22, which includes Poem 271, is one example. Scholars have focused on the poems in this fascicle—which reflect on such subjects as domestic life, liberty, human relationships, and spiritual redemption—as verses indicative of Dickinson's desire to defy the social and gender conventions of her day.
Just as literary editors failed to recognize Dickinson's literary talent during her lifetime, late-nineteenth-century critics dismissed her first posthumous collection of verses entitled Poems (1890). While these reviewers asserted that Dickinson's unconventional use of meter, rhyme, and imagery was technically defective and dispassionate, the poems found an eager and receptive public audience. In order to meet the popular demand for Dickinson's verses, her estate published a second series of Poems in 1891 and a third series in 1896. In the early twentieth century, Dickinson's oeuvre influenced the poets who belonged to the Imagist movement, particularly Amy Lowell. Members of this movement, which advocated the employment of free verse and the expression of concepts and feelings through simple, precise images, found in Dickinson's pioneering tropes and images the framework in which to express their own revolutionary ideas about poetry. Along with the popular and literary acceptance of Dickinson's poems in the twentieth century, scholars and critics began to recognize the profound achievement of creating such sophisticated and technically innovative verse without the of assistance of any literary antecedents. Commentators have since analyzed nearly every aspect of Dickinson's poems from a myriad of critical perspectives, including linguistic, stylistic, psychoanalytical, philosophical, and historical. In the late twentieth century, feminist critics began to study Dickinson's poems in an effort to understand how they were shaped by the poet's experiences within the socially and morally codified patriarchal climate of mid-nineteenth-century America. These scholars have examined, among other issues, the difficulties Dickinson faced in reconciling her gender with the vocation of poet, the significance of her decision to retire from society, her use of language as a means of rebellion, and her importance to later writers. In addition, some critics have focused on Dickinson's relationships with the women in her life and her creation of a female-centered poetry, while others have concentrated on her interactions with men and her struggle to publish poetry in a male-dominated literary environment. Once deemed as eccentric, both Dickinson's poems and her way of life are now more commonly recognized as an uncompromising commitment to artistic expression and, in the opinion of some critics, as an attempt to undermine the restrictive masculine culture of her time.