Emily Elizabeth Dickinson

(1830 - 1886)

Only about a dozen of her own poems were published during Emily Dickinson's lifetime, most of them anonymously and without her permission. Emily enjoyed word-play and riddles, and fittingly so since she herself is something of a riddle and a mystery. Her life is very much open to speculation, legend and myth simply because little is known about it. The single known existing photograph of her was taken when she was seventeen years old. Her over 1,700 short poems were created without any apparent pattern or progression, and they contain no titles or dates.

Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her mother was Emily Norcross, and her father Edward Dickinson was a prominent lawyer and businessman, and later a Representative in Congress. Emily had an older brother named Austin and a younger sister, Lavinia. The Dickinson family were firm believers in education, for women as well as men. Emily's grandfather had helped found Amherst College. Therefore, her parents made sure she was educated in excellent schools such as the Amherst Academy and later Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Dickinson has been described during her adolescent years as a shy, demure, neatly dressed young woman often wearing or bearing flowers.

Had we the first intimation of the Definition of Life, the calmest of us would be lunatics! ~ Dickinson in a letter to cousins ~

For unknown reasons, she left Holyoke after only one year, and soon began restricting most of her social interaction to members of her own family. Amherst at that time was a small town greatly influenced by the railroad, the college, and by religion. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, this area had the most ministers per capita in all of the U.S. As for Emily's own thoughts on religion, it is said that although she sometimes expressed doubts and seemed skeptical, she truly had strong religious feelings.

In the late 1850's Dickinson seemed to truly find her poetic voice in simple stanza ballad and hymn-like poems such as:

A thought went up my mind to-day
That I have had before,
But did not finish, some way back,
I could not fix the year,

Nor where it went, nor why it came
The second time to me,
Nor definitely, what it was,
Have I the Art to say.

But somewhere in my Soul, I know
I've met the Thing before;
It just reminded me--t'was all--
And came my way no more.

Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense, the starkest madness.
~ Emily Dickinson ~

It was around this time that Dickinson began sewing sheets of her written poetry into small booklets or packets, called fascicles. In the year 1862, Dickinson wrote a total of 366 poems, approximately one per day. It was also during this year that she first contacted Thomas Wentworth Higginson, after she read an article of his that encouraged unknown writers in their craft. Her correspondence with Higginson continued throughout her life, and she set him up as a mentor. When he finally met Emily Dickinson one night at her home, Higginson wrote to his wife: "I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."

Dickinson had many correspondences with prominent journalists, editors and writers of the time, but met or spoke with only a few. In her later years she would sometimes refuse to see visitors that came to her home, only talking to them from behind a door or shouting to them from upstairs. Her last known travels of any distance were visits to a Boston doctor in 1864 and 1865 for eye troubles. After the late 1860's, she never left the bounds of the family property, occupying herself with her poetry, letters, baking, and tending the family garden. The most prevalent speculation is that Emily Dickinson suffered from some form of agoraphobia or anxiety disorder.

Although she became known as an eccentric recluse and was called "the woman in white" (because she almost always wore a white dress) by the people in Amherst, Dickinson must have seemed more curious than terrifying. Local children enjoyed it when she lowered treats and snacks out her second-floor bedroom window inside a basket tied to a rope. Usually they would only glimpse her hands and arms, as she was careful not to show her face.

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get.
~ Dickinson on Nature ~

Over the years she continued her poetry and her correspondence. There is speculation that Emily had something of a love affair (through letters alone) with Judge Otis P. Lord of the Massachusetts Supreme Court, starting in about 1878. He died in 1884, and thereafter Dickinson herself seemed to grow obsessed with death.

Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Indicative that suns go down;
The notice to the startled grass
That darkness is about to pass.

Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886 at the age of 55, from what is described as "Bright's Disease" -- which is not truly a disease but a term that was used for a collection of medical symptoms including nephritis (kidney disease) and hypertension. Because she had requested it, her sister Lavinia destroyed most of Emily's letters. Fortunately, the plenteous sheets of poetry were preserved and eventually published, giving the gifted "eccentric recluse" of Amherst her ever-after posthumous fame.