19th Century Poet
By Anne Adams
It is rare to find published poetry today, but in the 1800s poetry was everywhere, not just in books and magazines but even the daily newspaper. The poetic style of the period was flowery, emotional and effusively dramatic, but there was one poet whose short, succinct and innovative verses were very much a contrast to the accepted style.
However, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, like much about the woman herself, would remain hidden and mysterious until after her death. Only then would be published the poetry of a woman who spent many of her years as a recluse confined to her home. And only then would the woman who wrote “I’m nobody/Who are you? /Are you nobody, too?” attract the fame and admiration she probably never sought and definitely avoided during her lifetime.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a town where she lived all her life. Her family was active in local community affairs, politics and with nearby Amherst College, founded by her grandfather. Her father Edward, a prominent local attorney who served in the Massachusetts legislature as well as Congress, was a firm, deeply religious and controlling father. In contrast Emily’s mother Emily Norcross was a subdued, unassuming and non-intellectual woman. Though Emily wrote that her mother “trembled, obeyed and was silent” when her husband spoke, Mrs. Dickinson was a devoted homemaker, winning honors in cooking and gardening.
Emily’s early life was not much different than that of any other young woman of her class and position, and certainly gave no clue as to her later becoming a home-bound recluse. Because of her father’s prominence and position Emily received an extensive education as she attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 then later spent one term at age 17 in 1847 at South Hadley Female Seminary (now Mt. Holyoke College).
Until age 23 Emily enjoyed an active social life, participating in school, church and community events, as well as out of town journeys such as when she and her sister visited their father in Washington when he was in Congress. However, it was about this time that Emily began to wear white, as she would all her life and to begin her self-imposed home confinement. Until her death at age 56 in 1886 she remained in her Amherst home or on the grounds, accessible to very few friends and neighbors. Though it was not unusual for adult unmarried women to remain at home, Emily’s seclusion was unusual since she would not leave her home, and declined most adult visitors. However, that did not include the neighborhood children. She shared their games as well as sharing baked treats with them by lowering them in a basket from her window.
Still, within the confines of her home Emily was not lonely as she kept occupied with a voluminous correspondence, the few visitors and of course her poetry. Scholars have detected from her letters and her poetry a genius that was enhanced with her wide reading and deep contemplation Also, her poetry reveals a humorous and lively personality that she hid behind a shyness except with very close friends or family.
Perhaps her closest friend was Susan Dickinson, wife of her brother Austin. Susan and Austin lived in a house adjacent to Emily’s. However, even though Susan was “only a lawn away” as Emily put it the two rarely visited. Instead, they conducted a lifelong correspondence. This may seem unusual, but there was one ultimate advantage because along with her letters Emily shared her poems with Susan, and eventually a daughter of Susan’s would edit and publish them some years later.
Though Emily remained an unmarried recluse for the rest of her life, she may indeed have felt a romantic love for one or more men. Because so much of her feelings are unknown and scholars have only her poetry and letters as resources there is really no way to know for sure but several of her associates have been considered.
Emily met Rev. Charles Wordsworth in 1855 in Philadelphia on a rare out of town visit, and though he would only come to Amherst twice, in 1860 and 1880, they maintained a steady correspondence. The man Emily called her “dearest earthly friend” was happily married and a father, but some scholars believed some of poetical love lyrics were inspired by their friendship. He died in 1882, two years before she did.
Samuel Bowles was the editor of a Massachusetts newspaper and a friend of Emily’s brother. Bowles was married and from the few of her letters to him that have survived some have speculated that any feelings between them may have been on Emily’s side only. Though he apparently did not return her affection and may have even seemed indifferent there are indications that she not only loved Bowles but continued to do so even until her death. However, he did publish several of her poems during her lifetime, though without her permission.
If Emily’s feelings for Wordsworth and Bowles are uncertain scholars are more confident about her feelings for Judge Otis Phillips Lord. There is some implication from her letters that he proposed marriage after the death of his wife and that she seriously considered accepting. Lord was a prominent attorney and judge as well as serving on the Massachusetts Supreme Court. He and his wife had been regular visitors to the Dickinson household, then after Mrs. Lord died in 1877 Emily’s feelings may have intensified. Their 1878 correspondence revealed a mutual affection, and in fact that summer she clearly stated “I confess that I love him – I rejoice that I love him.” Their relationship continued but through letters. Emily remained unmarried and a recluse, but while her reasons for not marrying remain mysterious as much of her life what is known is that she constantly wore a ring engraved with his name. He died in 1884.
Another male friend who may have had a more literary than personal association was Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was a clergyman and editor of the influential publication “The Atlantic Monthly.” In the early 1860s Emily had responded to his request for material from unknown poets. While he did not publish her work he did offer advice on possible improvements and apparently suggested she drop her own individual style and follow the popular poetic fashion. While Emily did not follow his advice they did continue their correspondence and he even traveled to Amherst to visit several times. It was Higginson who would help publish her poetry after her death.
In June 1884 Emily suffered her first attack of Bright ’s disease, a kidney ailment that would prove terminal. She was confined to her bed and nursed by her sister Lavinia until her death in May, 1886 at age 56. Following her instructions, her family did not conduct a traditional church funeral but substituted a gathering for those close to her.
When Lavinia Dickinson went through Emily’s room after her death she found nearly 1800 poems tied up in small packets in a dresser drawer. There were many uncompleted and many written on just scraps of paper. While her family knew she wrote poetry they were apparently unaware of how devoted she was to her creative craft. When Lavinia sought help in publishing them she first asked Susan Dickinson, but when there was no response she turned to her brother’s associate Mabel Loomis Todd and Emily’s friend Higginson. They prepared the poems for publication but instead of merely making minor corrections they edited the works to more carefully fit the poetic standards of the day. The first book of poetry was issued in 1890, with other volumes to follow in 1891, 1894 and 1896.
Then in the 1920s and 1930s Martha Dickinson Bianchi, daughter of Susan Dickinson, collected, edited and published the 300 poems Emily had left to her mother. Finally Harvard University acquired as many manuscripts as possible, and in 1955 issued a new compilation, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and restoring many of the poems to their original format.
While we cannot be sure if Emily declined publication during her life because she knew her work was unconventional for the time or because of her desire for seclusion, she remained a unique creative artist. And from her confined reclusively emerged poems that would intrigue and speak to readers around the world.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).
A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”