Emily Dickinson

Princess of Paradox - Outspoken and reclusive, forthright and shy

Emily Dickinson daguerrotype, c. 1847
Original is in the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College

Only a very few of her nearly 1800 poems was published in her lifetime, appearing in newspapers and journals likely without her knowledge or consent, but Emily Dickinson is now recognized among the very best and most influential of American poets. Her personal life was a cloistered one, but she is known today as “the Belle of Amherst,” celebrated for her forthright, brilliantly outspoken poetic voice.

Dickinson’s Life:
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830 and lived almost all of her short life as a recluse in her family home there. Her ancestors had come to America 200 years before and the Dickinson family was prominent in the life of Amherst and New England. In her youth, she left home for only one year to study at Mount Holyoke; during the years after her return to Amherst she made only a few trips away from home. She never married, and spent her life at home, under the wing of her brother Austin and her younger sister Lavinia, writing poems (which she bound into fascicles—even as a private silence she was a book person) and letters (many of which included poems), and receiving only a very few visitors. The only authenticated photograph taken of Emily Dickinson in her lifetime was made in 1847, when she was only 16, and its aspect of pale, virginal, delicate youth is surely the source of our present-day image of Miss Emily as the shy homebody in white lace—yet take note of the clarity and directness of the poet’s gaze in this photograph.

Dickinson’s Poems:
Emily was a shy and introspective person, but her poetic voice is masterful. Only eight (some say ten, or at most a dozen) of her poems were published during her lifetime, but she wrote in so powerful and so individual a voice that she pierces the veil of her cloistered, enigmatic life and speaks directly into the ears of her thousands of readers today.

She and Walt Whitman, at opposite ends of the spectra of “poet” and “personality,” are the two great poetic voices of 19th century America. Her poems appeared slowly in public, with a heap of editing to smooth them out—as written they are full of abrupt dashes and bumpy wordplay. No titles for her, thank you.

Dickinson’s Muse:
As for who her “Master” was, many scholars have moved on from Samuel Bowles (editor of a prominent local newspaper) to Judge Otis Lorde, and settle now on the person who most affected her life and her work: Susan Gilbert—friend, eventual sister-in-law (she married Emily’s brother Austin), and Emily’s passionate love. Emily wrote her hundreds of poems, three times more than any of her other friends.

Dickinson’s Editors:
After her death, Dickinson’s sister Lavinia asked a close friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, to edit the manuscripts Evily had left and see them published. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an editor at Atlantic Monthly who had carried on a long literary correspondence with Emily, worked with Todd on the editing. They removed the irregularities of her spelling and punctuation, and it was not until the late 1950s that Thomas Johnson published Dickinson’s poems as she wrote them, having gone back to the original letters and fascicles.

Emily “The Virgin” Dickinson, “Survivor poet”:
One of the tribe of eight poets in our 2001 Survivor Poet game here at About Poetry, she was the single final survivor left standing at the end by vote of our readers.