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Best Things dwell out of Sight (#998) describes one of America s greatest poets. She dwelled out of sight for most of her life and her poems, with the exception of seven published anonymously, remained out of sight until well after her death. Many literary scholars have attempted a biography on this mysterious woman and poet and yet none are conclusive. Dickinson remains an enigma even today but biographical speculation allows us to analyze some of her poetry even though we may be completely inaccurate about what we presuppose.
There are some facts about Emily Elizabeth Dickinson that we know for certain. She was born on December 10, 1830 and is recognized as one of America s greatest poets. She had an older brother, William Austin Dickinson, born on April 16, 1829, and a younger sister, Lavinia Norcross Dickinson, born on February 28, 1833. She was raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, which was a small and tradition-bound town in the nineteenth century.
Emily s father, Edward Dickinson, was a grand figure in Amherst. In his letters, he comes across as a remarkably ambitious man a typical success-oriented, work-oriented citizen of expansionist America, in Richard Sewall s characterization. Educated at Amherst College and Yale, he soon became the leading lawyer in town. For thirty-seven years he was the treasurer of the college that his father helped establish in 1821. Besides this, Edward had accomplished much success in his life but biographers of Emily s life believe that he paid for his public success through his emotional destitution. Emily s father was a rigorous Calvinist and dominated the Dickinson family. His concept of life was rigid religious observance and obedience to God s law as stated in the Bible. He prompted his children to read the Bible and attend church every Sunday. People who knew the Dickinsons referred to Edward as a severe, latter-day Puritan, a power minded tyrant (Sewall: 8). However it seems that as ignorant as critics made him sound, Edward was modern-minded enough to educate all his children.
Edward Dickinson adamantly believed that women should be educated, and sent his daughters to prominent schools. Emily attended Amherst Academy where she graduated in 1847 and later attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year. Her parents withdrew her because of ill health but there is speculation that she returned home because she did not like the religious environment. After leaving school she returned home and spent the remainder of her life there. She took occasional trips but always returned home to her sanctuary and eventually stopped travelling and even leaving her house completely. She corresponded with her confidantes and friends through letters, rarely seeing them.
The men she corresponded with during her life include Benjamin Newton, a law student; Reverend Charles Wadsworth, a Philadelphia minister; Thomas Higginson, a literary critic and Civil War hero, and Otis Lord, a judge who had been her father s closest friend. She regarded these men as intellectual advisers as well as friends. Although many of them found her poetry to be fascinating, none advised her to publish them.
Dickinson wrote the majority of her poetry during the 1860 s at which time she had become increasingly reclusive. She began wearing only white dresses and she hardly left her home, let alone Amherst. Although she occasionally visited friends, by the time she was forty years of age, she refused invitations to leave home and spent the remainder of her life taking care of her parents until they died (her father died in 1847, her mother died in 1882). Emily herself became bedridden during the last year of her life and her sister, Lavinia, nursed her until her death on May 15, 1886.
Although there is much biographical information about Dickinson, it seems that the key details are missing. What is the connection between the events in Dickinson s life and her poems? The majority of her poems are about love, death, and religion. There are many explications of her biography through her poems but they are by no means factual. Critics also believe that she became obsessed with death at an early age when one of her dearest childhood friends, Sophia Holland, died in 1844. As an adult, Dickinson endured the pain of mourning for many dear friends and family members throughout her life.
Dickinson s poems are sometimes so obscure that it s difficult to be certain of what she s describing. When she uses the word he she could be describing God, a lover, the cosmos, or even death. For example, the poem He fumbles at your Soul (#315) is ambiguous. We are never given an implication of what the poem is veering towards but then again that may be Dickinson s intention. Nevertheless, Dickinson s poetry is rich in rhetoric and creativity. Her poetry is just as mysterious as her life was and perhaps Dickinson wanted things to turn out the way they did. It seems that even her romantic life was just as ambiguous as her poetry.
Many critics believe that Dickinson was in love with Susan Gilbert, her best friend who later became her brother s wife. There are many poems that Dickinson wrote which biographers believe to be distinctly about Susan.
After a four-year break, Dickinson began to write poetry once again in 1858 with three principle themes: death, nature and Susan, about whom she wrote about ten of approximately fifty poems written in this year. With one exception, One sister have I, the poems Dickinson wrote about her sister-in-law are sullen and perplexed. Critics believe that Dickinson was feeling empty after Susan s marriage to Austin, as though she lost a lover. In 1858 she describes her heart as a coffin in It did not surprise me (# 39):
It did not surprise me
So I said or thought
She will stir her pinions
And the nest forgot,
Traverse broader forests
Build in gayer boughs,
Breathe in Ear more modern
God s old fashioned vows
This was but a Birdling
What and if it be
One within my bosom
Had departed me?
This was but a story
What and if indeed
There were just such a coffin
In the heart instead?
Paula Bennett believes that this is not an efficient poem but still helps establish how closely Dickinson s feelings for Susan were fixed into the first stages of her poetic maturation. It seems that Dickinson connected the loss of Susan with the idea of death from the start. In I never told the buried gold, (#11) which Dickinson sent to Susan, she creates an obscure comparison between her brother Austin and the pirate captain Kidd, implying that he abducted Susan. It seems that Austin is depicted as a pirate-sun who cowers over and hoards his prize. Dickinson hints that he neither won nor deserved the prize he acquired. Only the speaker appreciates the gold at its true value. The sex and sexuality of the gold , Bennett states, are presumably established in the poem s third stanza. But the speaker does not dare reveal her knowledge because she is too close to the sun . (Bennett; 51-2)
He stood as near
As stood you her
A pace had been between
And also because she fears his phallic might;
Did but a snake bisect the brake
My life had forfeit been.
If Bennett s theory is correct, I never told the buried gold confirms that six years later this belief didn t subside. It seems that despite the union of Susan and Austin, and in spite of Dickinson s long period of depression and recluse, she was still in love with Susan and mortified by her loss. Even in 1862, Dickinson dealt with her feelings of having lost Susan indirectly through her poetry. The similarities between The Malay took the Pearl (#452) and I never told the buried gold are evident. In both poems, a treasure (a Pearl and gold) has been carried off by a man who cannot appreciate it and the speaker s own anxieties and inhibitions keep her from getting involved as she stands by helplessly watching her rival carry away his prize. Not being able to contend openly, she never lets on that she wooed it too. (Bennett: 53)
Dickinson openly dedicated one poem, Your Riches taught me Poverty (#299) to Susan. Bennett believes that this poem clearly attempts to evoke the wealth and exotic beauty Dickinson believed Susan possessed. (Bennett: 53) I agree with this speculation because this poem echoes the treasures of the other two poems mentioned. In the seventh verse, That there exists a Gold , and in the final verse, And estimates the Pearl . Both treasures are mentioned and capitalized. It seems that Susan was a treasure always yearned for by Dickinson, but it is not known for certain.
It is believed that Dickinson had a passionate relationship with Susan Gilbert. She wrote three times more poems to Susan than to anyone else. They became close friends and shared many interests. Their relationship soured when Susan became engaged to Austin and remained that way for two years. Susan and Austin then moved in next door to Dickinson and their relationship was rekindled given that Dickinson would send Susan (love) letters and poems. Feminist scholars who have examined these letters and poems tend to believe that the two shared more than just friendship, that in fact they shared a blatant, passionate relationship. No one knows how Susan responded to Dickinson s letters and poems. When Dickinson died, all of her letters from Susan were destroyed, so it will never be confirmed nor denied that they had a love affair. Dickinson s poems could suggest an eroticism that could be intentional, subconscious or perhaps even coincidental.
Just as in her poems of love, the separation she so often writes about often deals with a permanent separation: death. Death was only one more thing that Dickinson knew of which kept people apart. The death of her friends and family forced her to acknowledge the loneliness and separateness of this world. Dickinson s preoccupation with death began when she was a young child and continued throughout her life. (Wolff: 84) She was a meditative child, sensitive and serious, and began to marvel over the mystery of death and new birth at a very early age. It was Dickinson s belief that after death, life on earth was over in all aspects and people lost all connections with previous lives and gained morbid equality.
There was a little figure plump
For every little knoll
Busy needles, and spools of thread
And trudging feet from school
Playmates, and holidays, and nuts
And visions vast and small
Strange that the feet so precious charged
Should reach so small a goal!(#25)
It is interpreted that the cemetery is filled with the dead and under every little knoll there lies someone who was at one time a little child carrying on and pursuing its dreams. But all of them are now equally dead and far away from life s pleasures. The thing that frightened yet fascinated Dickinson the most about death was the gradual isolation of an increasingly helpless self moving toward the horror of the utterly unknown (Wolff; 221). By 1884, Dickinson experienced the anguish of losing four people who were dear to her heart, her mother, her nephew Gilbert, and her close friends, J.G. Holland and Charles Wadsworth. It was in 1884 that she wrote a poem which exemplified her own collapse that very year;
So give me back to Death
The death I never feared
Except that it deprived of thee
And now, by Life deprived,
In my own Grave I breathe
And estimate its size
Its size is all that Hell can guess
And all that Heaven surmise
This is Dickinson s personal confrontation with loss through death and death itself. It seems that Dickinson is assessing the measure of death, looking at it from a distance, finding meaning and understanding in it, and having no fear of it. Just as death fascinated Dickinson, religion also played a perplexing part in her life and poetry.
Dickinson may be represented as an agnostic, a heretic, a skeptic, and a Christian. She grew up in a Christian family, but she was not devoted to religion. As a schoolgirl, she resisted the religious stirrings of her circle. Throughout her life, it seems there were moments in which she yearned for faith. In a late poem Those dying then (#1551) she wrote;
Those dying then,
Knew where they went
They went to God s Right Hand
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all
Dickinson seems to have thought of religious faith as an enforced choice. It was as though she believed that one must choose between God and man. Critics argue that for Dickinson, religion was no more than a book of metaphors. It was as if she read the Bible as though it were a rhetorical manual. Perhaps because her father was an austere religious man who enforced his religious beliefs on her that Dickinson resisted conformity.
Dickinson was a true product of New England Puritanism. Her vision of the Godhead never entirely surpasses the gross facts of experience and never entirely evades the interference of ideas. Believing that there is a God only gave her something solid to forsake. But it was only after she had achieved complete poetic independence that Dickinson was able to confidently write in open defiance of God (#569):
I reckon when I count at all
First Poets Then the Sun
Then Summer Then the Heaven of God
And then the List is done
But, looking back the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole
The Others look a needless Show
So I write Poets All
Their Summer lasts a Solid Year
They can afford a Sun
The East would deem extravagant
And if the Further Heaven
Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them
It is too difficult a Grace
To justify the Dream
Critics argue that Dickinson s doubts tempted her to rebel against God, but her needs drove her toward faith in Him. These religious doubts she suppressed in her mind and so often expressed through her poetry, as in I Heard a Fly Buzz when I died (#465), led many to view her as having renounced her faith. But eventually Dickinson did find Heaven, and the relationship with God that she wrote about sounds like a relationship of two people. This is why many of her poems read as religious may also be interpreted as poems of love. For example My River runs to thee , could be interpreted as her need to be accepted by God, as well as a love poem expressing her longing for human companionship. This is also the reason for why Dickinson cannot be viewed in any specific religious genre, she was too complex for the assumptions of a specific religion.
Some critics say that Dickinson turned toward the Catholic religion but there is no evidence to support this claim. As far as anyone knows, Dickinson s poetry, even Dickinson s beliefs take ideas from Calvinism, Romanticism, Transcendentalism, Stoicism, and Gnosticism. Her frustration with religion inspired her dreams of the royal estate of the future (#442);
God made a little gentian;
It tried to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature
That ravished all the hill;
And the summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come
Until the North evoked it.
Creator! Shall I bloom?
Dickinson s eschatological state of mind, which is basically a separation from New England Puritanism, was completely a personal vision of life and holds no direct historical or social implications. Perhaps this poem is an indirect autobiography about the poet who attempts to bloom into a flower, gets mocked, but becomes immortal through her poems. If this is the case, then Dickinson may be applying herself to her poetry in terms of nature. Whatever Dickinson s beliefs may have been, God had a profound impact on both her life and her poetry.
Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886 and left behind a whirlwind of questions. By choosing to live as a recluse, no one is able to give a factual biography of her life. She will remain a mystery forever and so will her poetry. We will never discover for certain what motivated many of her poems. That fact that she decided to remain alone is probably what allowed her to delve into the roots of her mind and soul granting her complete freedom to tune into herself and write freely. Dickinson s has written many poems, approximately 1775, and I have only managed to scratch the surface of what her poems entail, but of course that is to be expected considering it has taken Dickinson a lifetime to write her poems. The subjects of love, death and religion are dominant in Dickinson s work but so are nature and life. She is truly an enigma and although literary critics are scrambling to figure out what made her tick, I think the fact that we ll never know gives her poems much more personality.