Biography of Emily Dickinson, American Poet

Famously reclusive and experimental in poetic form

Portrait of Emily Dickinson
Portrait of Emily Dickinson, American poet, circa 1846.

Culture Club / Getty Images 

Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) was an American poet best known for her eccentric personality and her frequent themes of death and mortality. Although she was a prolific writer, only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Despite being mostly unknown while she was alive, her poetry—nearly 1,800 poems altogether—has become a staple of the American literary canon, and scholars and readers alike have long held a fascination with her unusual life.

Fast Facts: Emily Dickinson

  • Full Name: Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
  • Known For: American poet
  • Born: December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Died: May 15, 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Parents: Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson
  • Education: Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
  • Published Works: Poems (1890), Poems: Second Series (1891), Poems: Third Series (1896)
  • Notable Quote: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry."

Early Life

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer, a politician, and a trustee of Amherst College, of which his father, Samuel Dickinson, was a founder. He and his wife Emily (nee Norcross) had three children; Emily Dickinson was the second child and eldest daughter, and she had an older brother, William Austin (who generally went by his middle name), and a younger sister, Lavinia. By all accounts, Dickinson was a pleasant, well-behaved child who particularly loved music.

Because Dickinson’s father was adamant that his children be well-educated, Dickinson received a more rigorous and more classical education than many other girls of her era. When she was ten, she and her sister began attending Amherst Academy, a former academy for boys that had just begun accepting female students two years earlier. Dickinson continued to excel at her studies, despite their rigorous and challenging nature, and studied literature, the sciences, history, philosophy, and Latin. Occasionally, she did have to take time off from school due to repeated illnesses.

The three Dickinson siblings as children
Portrait of (from left) Emily, Austin, and Lavinia Dickinson, circa 1840.  Culture Club / Getty Images

Dickinson’s preoccupation with death began at this young age as well. At the age of fourteen, she suffered her first major loss when her friend and cousin Sophia Holland died of typhus. Holland’s death sent her into such a melancholy spiral that she was sent away to Boston to recover. Upon her recovery, she returned to Amherst, continuing her studies alongside some of the people who would be her lifelong friends, including her future sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert.

After completing her education at Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She spent less than a year there, but explanations for her early departure vary depending on the source: her family wanted her to return home, she disliked the intense, evangelical religious atmosphere, she was lonely, she didn’t like the teaching style. In any case, she returned home by the time she was 18 years old.

Reading, Loss, and Love

A family friend, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton, became a friend and mentor to Dickinson. It was most likely him who introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which later influenced and inspired her own poetry. Dickinson read extensively, helped by friends and family who brought her more books; among her most formative influences was the work of William Shakespeare, as well as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

Dickinson was in good spirits in the early 1850s, but it did not last. Once again, people near to her died, and she was devastated. Her friend and mentor Newton died of tuberculosis, writing to Dickinson before he died to say he wished he could live to see her achieve greatness. Another friend, the Amherst Academy principal Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly at only 25 years old in 1850. Her letters and writings at the time are filled with the depth of her melancholy moods.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson
Portrait of Emily Dickinson, circa 1850.  Three Lions / Getty Images

During this time, Dickinson’s old friend Susan Gilbert was her closest confidante. Beginning in 1852, Gilbert was courted by Dickinson’s brother Austin, and they married in 1856, although it was a generally unhappy marriage. Gilbert was much closer to Dickinson, with whom she shared a passionate and intense correspondence and friendship. In the view of many contemporary scholars, the relationship between the two women was, very likely, a romantic one, and possibly the most important relationship of either of their lives. Aside from her personal role in Dickinson’s life, Gilbert also served as a quasi-editor and advisor to Dickinson during her writing career.

Dickinson did not travel much outside of Amherst, slowly developing the later reputation for being reclusive and eccentric. She cared for her mother, who was essentially homebound with chronic illnesses from the 1850s onward. As she became more and more cut off from the outside world, however, Dickinson leaned more into her inner world and thus into her creative output.

Conventional Poetry (1850s – 1861)

I'm Nobody! Who are you? (1891)

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise — you know.
How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one's name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

It’s unclear when, exactly, Dickinson began writing her poems, though it can be assumed that she was writing for some time before any of them were ever revealed to the public or published. Thomas H. Johnson, who was behind the collection The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was able to definitely date only five of Dickinson's poems to the period before 1858. In that early period, her poetry was marked by an adherence to the conventions of the time.

Two of her five earliest poems are actually satirical, done in the style of witty, “mock” valentine poems with deliberately flowery and overwrought language. Two more of them reflect the more melancholy tone she would be better known for. One of those is about her brother Austin and how much she missed him, while the other, known by its first line “I have a Bird in spring,” was written for Gilbert and was a lament about the grief of fearing the loss of friendship.

A few of Dickinson’s poems were published in the Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868; she was friends with its editor, journalist Samuel Bowles, and his wife Mary. All of those poems were published anonymously, and they were heavily edited, removing much of Dickinson’s signature stylization, syntax, and punctuation. The first poem published, "Nobody knows this little rose,” may have actually been published without Dickinson’s permission. Another poem, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” was retitled and published as “The Sleeping.” By 1858, Dickinson had begun organizing her poems, even as she wrote more of them. She reviewed and made fresh copies of her poetry, putting together manuscript books. Between 1858 and 1865, she produced 40 manuscripts, comprising just under 800 poems.

During this time period, Dickinson also drafted a trio of letters which were later referred to as the “Master Letters.” They were never sent and were discovered as drafts among her papers. Addressed to an unknown man she only calls “Master,” they’re poetic in a strange way that has eluded understanding even by the most educated of scholars. They may not have even been intended for a real person at all; they remain one of the major mysteries of Dickinson’s life and writings.

Prolific Poet (1861 – 1865)

“Hope” is the thing with feathers (1891)

"Hope" is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all
And sweetest in the Gale is heard
And sore must be the storm —
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm —
I've heard it in the chillest land —
And on the strangest Sea —
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of Me.

Dickinson’s early 30s were by far the most prolific writing period of her life. For the most part, she withdrew almost completely from society and from interactions with locals and neighbors (though she still wrote many letters), and at the same time, she began writing more and more.

Her poems from this period were, eventually, the gold standard for her creative work. She developed her unique style of writing, with unusual and specific syntax, line breaks, and punctuation. It was during this time that the themes of mortality that she was best known for began to appear in her poems more often. While her earlier works had occasionally touched on themes of grief, fear, or loss, it wasn’t until this most prolific era that she fully leaned into the themes that would define her work and her legacy.

Cover of
Cover of an 1890 first edition of "Poems".  Archive.org / Wikimedia Commons

It is estimated that Dickinson wrote more than 700 poems between 1861 and 1865. She also corresponded with literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became one of her close friends and lifelong correspondents. Dickinson’s writing from the time seemed to embrace a little bit of melodrama, alongside deeply felt and genuine sentiments and observations.

Later work (1866 – 1870s)

Because I could not stop for Death (1890)

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.
We slowly drove—He knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
We passed the School, where Children strove
At recess—in the ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—
Or rather—He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—'tis centuries— and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity—

By 1866, Dickinson’s productivity began tapering off. She had suffered personal losses, including that of her beloved dog Carlo, and her trusted household servant got married and left her household in 1866. Most estimates suggest that she wrote about one third of her body of work after 1866.

Around 1867, Dickinson’s reclusive tendencies became more and more extreme. She began refusing to see visitors, only speaking to them from the other side of a door, and rarely went out in public. On the rare occasions she did leave the house, she always wore white, gaining notoriety as “the woman in white.” Despite this avoidance of physical socialization, Dickinson was a lively correspondent; around two-thirds of her surviving correspondence was written between 1866 and her death, 20 years later.

Illustration of the Dickinson home in Amherst
Illustration of the Dickinson home in Amherst.  Culture Club / Getty Images

Dickinson’s personal life during this time was complicated as well. She lost her father to a stroke in 1874, but she refused to come out of her self-imposed seclusion for his memorial or funeral services. She also may have briefly had a romantic correspondence with Otis Phillips Lord, a judge and a widower who was a longtime friend. Very little of their correspondence survives, but what does survive shows that they wrote to each other like clockwork, every Sunday, and their letters were full of literary references and quotations. Lord died in 1884, two years after Dickinson’s old mentor, Charles Wadsworth, had died after a long illness.

Literary Style and Themes

Even a cursory glance at Dickinson’s poetry reveals some of the hallmarks of her style. Dickinson embraced highly unconventional use of punctuation, capitalization, and line breaks, which she insisted were crucial to the meaning of the poems. When her early poems were edited for publication, she was seriously displeased, arguing the edits to the stylization had altered the whole meaning. Her use of meter is also somewhat unconventional, as she avoids the popular pentameter for tetrameter or trimeter, and even then is irregular in her use of meter within a poem. In other ways, however, her poems stuck to some conventions; she often used ballad stanza forms and ABCB rhyme schemes.

The themes of Dickinson’s poetry vary widely. She’s perhaps most well known for her preoccupation with mortality and death, as exemplified in one of her most famous poems, “Because I did not stop for Death.” In some cases, this also stretched to her heavily Christian themes, with poems tied into the Christian Gospels and the life of Jesus Christ. Although her poems dealing with death are sometimes quite spiritual in nature, she also has a surprisingly colorful array of descriptions of death by various, sometimes violent means.

On the other hand, Dickinson’s poetry often embraces humor and even satire and irony to make her point; she’s not the dreary figure she is often portrayed as because of her more morbid themes. Many of her poems use garden and floral imagery, reflecting her lifelong passion for meticulous gardening and often using the “language of flowers” to symbolize themes such as youth, prudence, or even poetry itself. The images of nature also occasionally showed up as living creatures, as in her famous poem “Hope is the thing with feathers.”

Death

Dickinson reportedly kept writing until nearly the end of her life, but her lack of energy showed through when she no longer edited or organized her poems. Her family life became more complicated as her brother’s marriage to her beloved Susan fell apart and Austin instead turned to a mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who Dickinson never met. Her mother died in 1882, and her favorite nephew in 1883.

Through 1885, her health declined, and her family grew more concerned. Dickinson became extremely ill in May of 1886 and died on May 15, 1886. Her doctor declared the cause of death to be Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys. Susan Gilbert was asked to prepare her body for burial and to write her obituary, which she did with great care. Dickinson was buried in her family’s plot at West Cemetery in Amherst.

Emily Dickinson's tombstone behind an iron gate
Emily Dickinson's grave in her family's plot in Amherst. Midnightdreary / Wikimedia Commons 

Legacy

The great irony of Dickinson’s life is that she was largely unknown during her lifetime. In fact, she was probably better known as a talented gardener than as a poet. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were actually published for public consumption when she was alive. It wasn’t until after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered her manuscripts of over 1,800 poems, that her work was published in bulk. Since that first publication, in 1890, Dickinson’s poetry has never been out of print.

At first, the non-traditional style of her poetry led to her posthumous publications getting somewhat mixed receptions. At the time, her experimentation with style and form led to criticism over her skill and education, but decades later, those same qualities were praised as signifying her creativity and daring. In the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest and scholarship in Dickinson, particularly with regards to studying her as a female poet, not separating her gender from her work as earlier critics and scholars had.

While her eccentric nature and choice of a secluded life has occupied much of Dickinson’s image in popular culture, she is still regarded as a highly respected and highly influential American poet. Her work is consistently taught in high schools and colleges, is never out of print, and has served as the inspiration for countless artists, both in poetry and in other media. Feminist artists in particular have often found inspiration in Dickinson; both her life and her impressive body of work have provided inspiration to countless creative works.

Sources

  • Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.). The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.
  • Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.