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Emily Dickinson Essay, Research Paper

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, the second of three children of Edward and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson. Samuel Fowler Dickinson, her grandfather, had been one of the founders of Amherst College, and had built a mansion on Main Street, reputed to be the first brick house in Amherst, which became known in the family as the Homestead. (Godden, 7) Her father was, like his father before him, a lawyer. Emily’s older brother Austin would be a lawyer as well. Treasurer of Amherst College for twenty years and in later life a pillar of the Congregationalist Church, Edward Dickinson appears to have been as limited emotionally as his wife was intellectually. Neither of them was equipped to deal with a genius in the family, especially a female genius. (About.com, n.pag.) Her brother, Austin, was bossy but ineffective. Her sister, Lavinia, who never married and lived with Emily, was protective of the much shyer sister. (Enigma, n.pag.)

After several years of primary school, Emily attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From September 1847 to August 1848, she was a student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts. (Encarta, n.pag.) Despite her interest in her studies, especially chemistry, her father decided not to send her to Mount Holyoke for an additional year, and thus her formal education came to an end. (Enigma, n.pag)

Her close friend, Susan Huntington, later married Emily’s brother Austin, and Susan and Austin Dickinson moved to a home next door. Emily and Susan exchanged ardent and passionate letters over many years. (Scholars are divided today on the nature of the relationship. Some say that the passionate language between women was simply an acceptable norm between friends in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; others find evidence that the Emily/Susan friendship was a lesbian relationship). (Narth, n.pag.)

In all outward respects, Emily Dickinson was, in these years, indistinguishable from the other young people of Amherst. As a lively and engaging young woman, with her younger sister Lavinia, she participated in local social events with a circle of friends of both sexes. (About.com, n.pag.) ?At school she was a wit, especially in writing valentines, and she often sent gay, small, in those days, frequently sentimental notes and especially wry letters to her friends. As she grew up, she went to all functions of Amherst; evening parties and candlelight suppers; flower-picking excursions in the hills; in winter, ?sugaring off? parties with bonfires in the snow.? (Godden, 8) With Lavinia, she would visit Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. in 1854 and 1855. (About.com, n.pag.) One friendship in particular would be crucial to her as she began to write poetry as a teenager; Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young clerk in her father’s law office. He helped to guide her in the development of her literary taste and her independent-minded spiritual sensibility. Newton was also the first to recognize her talent and encourage her poetic aspirations. Even after he married and moved away from Amherst, they continued to write to one another. His death in 1853 at the age of thirty-two was the first of many bereavements that she would endure, of which the cruelest was the death in 1883 of her beloved nephew Gilbert, Austin’s eight-year-old son. (Editing, n.pag.)

With the passing of time, Dickinson’s social life began to be carried on less through personal contact and more through correspondence. Her letters, like her poems, display a witty and constantly stimulated mind expressing itself in effortlessly fresh and inventive turns of phrase. As she matured, she became increasingly aware of the gap between herself and her family in intellectual and religious attitudes. Hers was a profoundly religious sensibility, but not at all a conventional one. (Enigma, n.pag.) She caused something of a stir as a young woman by her refusal to accept the God of her parents. Accepting things as they were, or as the majority of people saw them, was never quite her style. It was unthinkable in nineteenth-century New England for a well-bred, unmarried young woman to live on her own, so in effect the only direction in which Emily could move was inward. Luckily for her, the New England tradition, however rigid it might be in many ways, had at its best always included a healthy tolerance for personal eccentricity, and her parents, although largely uncomprehending, were quite indulgent toward their “peculiar” daughter. When young, she regarded them with affectionate bemusement; in her maturity, she came to appreciate and to sympathize with the sadness inherent in their constrained lives. (About.com, n.pag.)

What some consider the most significant emotional occurrence in her life is an event totally lost to history, if it took place at all. She is assumed to have undergone a crisis in the early 1860s, culminating in 1862, in which single year she wrote the phenomenal total of 366 poems. (About.com, n.pag.) This crisis is usually ascribed to a failed romantic relationship. Speculation has centered on several married men of her acquaintance, including the Reverend Charles Wadsworth and Judge Otis Lord, but no conclusive evidence exists to support any of these claims. (Enigma, n.pag.) Popular depictions of Dickinson, as in the play The Belle of Amherst (1976), have perpetuated a belief that she always dressed in white, was sensitive and reclusive in nature, and had an unrequited or secret love. Although she never married and certainly became more selective over the years about the company she kept, Dickinson was far more sociable than most descriptions would have us believe. She frequently entertained guests at her home and at the home of her brother and sister-in-law during her twenties and thirties. One friend commented that Dickinson was so surrounded by friends at a party that she had no chance to talk with her. (Encarta, n.pag.) In recent years, there has been a movement away from these essentially fruitless biographical musings to a more direct focus on the poetry itself. (Editing, n.pag.)

The first thing that any reader notices about Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the uniqueness of its style, not only the surface oddities but also the profoundly personal and highly evocative way in which she uses language. Because of these features, and because of the fact that they make her a frequently difficult and at times an obscure writer, much of the commentary on her work has taken a formalist approach. Seeking to explicate the meanings of her texts, as well as to analyze the ways in which her stylistic strategies contain and communicate those meanings. (Overview, n.pag.)

Dickinson often used variations of meters common in hymn writing, especially iambic tetrameter (eight syllables per line, with every second syllable being stressed). She frequently employed off rhymes.

Examples of off rhymes include ocean with noon and seam with swim

in the lines “Than Oars divide the Ocean, / Too silver for a seam ? /

Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon / Leap, plashless as they swim” from

the poem “A Bird came down the Walk.” Dickinson used common language

in startling ways; a strategy called defamiliarization. This technique would,

as she put it, “distill amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings” and from

“familiar species.” Her poem “A Bird came down the Walk” also illustrates

her use of defamiliarization: “A Bird came down the Walk? /…drank a

Dew /…stirred his Velvet Head” and then “unrolled his feathers / And rowed

him softer home” while “Butterflies” leap “off Banks of Noon.” Dickinson’s

short poetic lines, condensed by using intense metaphors and by extensive

use of ellipsis (the omission of words understood to be there) contrasted

sharply with the style of her contemporary Walt Whitman, who used long lines,

little rhyme, and irregular rhythm in his poetry.? (Editing, n.pag.)

In the early stages of her career, Dickinson’s handwritten lyrics imitated the formalities of print, and her poetic techniques were conventional, but she later began to attend to the visual aspects of her work. (About.com, n.pag.) For example, she arranged and broke lines of verse in highly unusual ways to underscore meaning and she created extravagantly shaped letters of the alphabet to emphasize or play with a poem’s sense. She also incorporated cutouts from novels, magazines, and even the Bible to augment her own use of language. (Enigma, n.pag.)

Although few of Dickinson’s poems were formally published during her lifetime, she herself “published” by sending out at least one-third of her poems in the more than 1,000 letters she wrote to at least 100 different correspondents. (History, n.pag.) The recipients included writer Helen Hunt Jackson, who later published Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest” in the volume A Masque of Poets (1878), and Elizabeth Holland, whose husband was an editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, a prominent publishing company. (?E. Dickinson,? n.pag.) Dickinson’s method of binding about 800 of her poems into 40 manuscript books and distributing several hundred of them in letters are now widely recognized as her particular form of self-publication. She also read her poems aloud to several people, including her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross, over a period of three decades. (Bloom, p.75)

The last years of Dickinson’s life saw the deaths of many of the people close to her–her mother and Reverend Wadsworth in 1882, Judge Lord in 1884, and Helen Hunt Jackson in 1885. Her own death, from kidney disease, came on May 15, 1886, when she was fifty-five years old. (About.com, n.pag.) The first volume of her poetry was published in 1890, with two further selections appearing in 1891 and 1896, although it would take until 1945 for all of her poetry to find its way into print. From the beginning, her work received wide notice and enthusiastic response. Willis J. Buckingham’s Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (1989) reprints nearly six hundred references, a great many of them strongly positive. (Knowledge, n.pag.)

Her literary legacy is immense. She is, with Walt Whitman, one of the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century. In many ways they are opposites: his long (at times long-winded) lines, social inclusiveness, and democratic optimism contrast sharply with her compressed and elliptical structures, unique perspective, and chill appraisal of human isolation and vulnerability. But, in their very different ways, both are bold thematic and technical innovators, not only saying new things but also devising new ways in which to say them. Dickinson’s work began to appear at just the right historical moment, when the careers of the great nineteenth-century poets were ended and the traditions they represented were exhausted. When it was clear that some new direction was needed–and just such a direction was provided by the exciting experiments in sound and in sensibility of a stubborn, isolated, brilliant poet from Amherst, Massachusetts. (Overview, n.pag.)

After her death on May 15, 1886, 1775 poems, which she bound into fascicles (small volumes), were discovered. (Bloom, 75) The fame of her poetry has spread until now, even though she was never awarded with her ingenious portrayals of life. (Selander, n.pag.) Her place in the history of American literature is secure, even if the mysteries of her life are still mysterious. (Editing, n.pag.)


Works Sited

Bloom, Harold. Bloom?s Major Poets: Emily Dickinson. Broomall, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

?Critical Overview.? 2000 ad: n.pag. On-line. About.com, Inc. April 20, 2000. Available: http://www.womenshistory.about.com/gi/dynamics/offsite.htm?site=http://longman.awl.com/kennedy/dickinson/criticalArchive.html. (Overview)

?Emily Dickinson,? April 1, 2000: n.pag. On-line. March 25, 2000. Available: http://www.poets.org/LIT/poet/edickins.htm. (E. Dickinson)

?Emily Dickinson: A Brief Publishing History.? 2000 ad: n.pag. On-line. March 25, 2000. Available: http://www.uta.edu/english/tim/poetry/ed/pub.html. (History)

?Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma.? 2000 ad: n.pag. On-line. About.com, Inc. April 17, 2000. Available: http://womenshistory.about.com/library/weekly/aa041299.htm. (Enigma)

?Emily Dickinson: Editing Emily.? 2000 ad: n.pag. On-line. About.com, Inc. April 20, 2000. Available: http://www.about.com/education/womenshistory/library/misc/bl041299b.htm. (Editing)

?Emily Dickinson: The Solitary Poet.? 1998: n.pag. On-line. Knowledge Adventure, Inc. March 25, 2000. Available: http://letsfindout.com/subjects/people/emily-dickinson.html. (Knowledge)

Godden, Rumer, Introduction. A Letter to the World. By Emily Dickinson. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1968.

?Literary Career.? 2000 ad: n.pag. On-line. About.com, Inc. April 17, 2000. Available: http://www.womenshistory.about.com/gi/dynamics/offsite.htm?site=http://longman.awl.com/kennedy/dickinson/bibliography.html. (About.com)

Microsoft O Encarta O Online Encyclopedia 2000 ?Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth.? 1997-2000: n.pag. On-line. May 1, 2000. Available: http://encarta.msn.com. (Encarta)

Narth, Alexandria. ?Emily Dickinson 1830 ? 1886.? 1995: n.pag. On-line. Lesbian Poetry @ sappho.com. March 20, 2000. Available: http://www.sappho.com/poetry/historical/e_dickin.html#biography

Selander, Kris, and Paul E. Black. ?Emily Dickinson.? February 3, 1995: n.pag. On-line. March 5, 2000. Available: http://userweb.interactive/~krisxlee/emily/

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