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Emily Dickinson is regarded by many as one of the greatest American poets. Although very few of her poems were published during her lifetime and her work drew harsh criticism when it first appeared, many of her short lyrics on the subjects of nature, love, death, and immortality are now considered among the most emotionally and intellectually profound in the English language.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Puritanism Fails to Provoke Religious Awakening
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she lived her entire life. Dickinson’s father, Edward Dickinson, was a prosperous lawyer who served as treasurer of Amherst College and also held various political offices. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, has been described as a quiet and frail woman, though her disposition is a subject of debate amongst scholars. Dickinson’s formal education began in 1835, with four years of primary school. She then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her studies, which included courses in the sciences, literature, history, and philosophy, were largely informed by New England Puritanism, with its doctrines of a sovereign God, predestination, and the necessity for personal salvation. Dickinson, however, was unable to accept even the fairly liberal teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and, despite her desire to experience a religious awakening, remained agnostic throughout her life.
Withdrawal from Society
Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister, Lavinia, while her older brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, lived next door. Although some details of her life are unclear, scholars believe that Dickinson first began writing poetry seriously in the early 1850s. Her otherwise quiet life was punctuated by brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia in the years from 1851 to 1855. Biographers speculate that during one stay in Philadelphia Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment in love and the lack of a married life triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. While this and other suggestions of tragic romantic attachments are largely conjecture, it is known that Dickinson became increasingly reclusive in the following years, spending her time primarily engaged in domestic routine—which she despised—and long solitary walks.
Emotional Crisis Catalyzes Literary Productivity
Biographers generally agree that Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. In the same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Tomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly. During the course of their lengthy exchange, Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism. While Higginson had little influence on her writing, he was important to her as a sympathetic adviser and confidant. Dickinson’s reclusiveness intensified during 1869, and her refusal to leave her home or to meet visitors, her enigmatic remarks, and her habit of always wearing white garments earned her a reputation for eccentricity among her neighbors. Her isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and she was left with the care of her invalid mother. The death of her mother in 1882, followed two years later by the death of Judge Otis P. Lord, a close family friend and Dickinson’s most satisfying romantic attachment, contributed to the onset of what Dickinson described as an ”attack of nerves.” Later, in 1886, she was diagnosed as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poetry
Only seven of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime, all anonymously and some apparently without her consent. The editors of the periodicals in which her lyrics appeared made significant alterations to them in an attempt to regularize the meter and grammar, thereby discouraging Dickinson from seeking further publication of her verse. Subsequently, her poems found only a private audience among her correspondents, family, and old school friends. Her family, however, was unaware of the enormous quantity of verse that she composed. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia was astounded to discover hundreds of poems among her possessions. Many were copied into ”fascicles,” booklets formed from sheets of paper stitched together, but a large number of the poems appeared to be mere jottings recorded on scraps of paper. In many instances Dickinson abandoned poems in an unfinished state, leaving no indication of her final choice between alternative words, phrases, or forms.
Despite the disordered state of the manuscripts, Lavinia Dickinson resolved to publish her sister’s poetry and turned to Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, a friend of the Dickinson family, for assistance. In 1890, Poems of Emily Dickinson appeared and, even though most initial reviews were highly unfavorable, the work went through eleven editions in two years. Encouraged by the popular acceptance of Poems, Todd edited and published two subsequent collections of Dickinson’s verse in the 1890s as well as a two-volume selection of her letters. Family disputes over possession of manuscripts hindered the publication of further materials, yet over the next fifty years, previously unprinted poems were introduced to the public in new collections. It was not until 1955, with the appearance of Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of her verse, that Dickinson’s complete poems were collected and published together by the Harvard University Press, in an authoritative text.
Works in Literary Context
Drawing on imagery from biblical sources, particularly from the Book of Revelation, and from the works of William Shakespeare, John Keats, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. Her tone in the poems ranges widely, from wry, laconic humor to anguished self-examination, and from flirtatious riddling to childlike naivete. Dickinson’s diction is similarly diverse, incorporating New England vernacular, theological and scientific terminology, and archaisms. The meters of her poems are characteristically adapted from the rhythms of English hymns or nursery rhymes. Dickinson’s stylistic experimentation, with techniques such as assonance (repetition of vowel sounds), consonance (repetition of consonant sounds), and half rhyme, defied the poetic conventions of her day. So did her idiosyncratic capitalization and punctuation, especially her use of dashes for emphasis or in place of commas. The terse, elliptical aspects of Dickinson’s style further distinguish her poetry from the main stream of nineteenth-century American verse.
Love, Nature, Time, and Eternity
Nearly eighteen hundred poems by Dickinson are known to exist, all of them in the form of brief lyrics (often of only one or two quatrains), and few of them titled. In her verse, Dickinson explores various subjects: nature, her preoccupation with death, her skepticism about immortality, her experience of love and loss, the importance of poetic vocation, and her attitude toward fame. Dickinson’s forthright examination of her philosophical and religious skepticism, her unorthodox attitude toward her gender, and her distinctive style—characterized by elliptical, com pressed expression, striking imagery, and innovative poetic structure—have earned widespread acclaim, and, in addition, her poems have become some of the best loved in American literature.
Although Dickinson engendered no particular school of poetry, poets as diverse as Amy Lowell, Hart Crane, and Adrienne Rich have acknowledged her verse as an influence on their writings. Dickinson has continued to elicit fascination for both readers and scholars. For her originality, range, and emotional depth, Dickinson is now among the most universally admired and extensively studied figures in English literature. As Joyce Carol Oates has written, ”Here is an American artist of words as inexhaustible as Shakespeare, as vigorously skillful in her craft as Yeats, a poet whom we can set with confidence beside the greatest poets of modern times.”
Works in Critical Context
Most nineteenth-century critics viewed Dickinson’s poetry with a combination of disapproval and bewilderment, objecting to her disregard for conventional meter and rhyme, her unusual imagery, and her apparent grammatical errors. One of the exceptions to the harsh criticism voiced during her lifetime was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her mentor. Commenting on the value of her work he writes, ”the main quality of [her] poems is that of extraordinary grasp and insight, uttered with an uneven vigor, sometimes exasperating, seemingly wayward, but really unsought and inevitable.” By the turn of the century, Dickinson had acquired an enthusiastic popular following, but she was still regarded as a sentimental poet of minor importance. Inter est in her eccentric lifestyle and alleged love affairs was the main focus of Dickinson scholarship over the next several decades, but there were also some serious critical assessments, especially by the New Critics, who concentrated on the technical aspects of her poetry.
The single most important development in Dickinsonian scholarship was Johnson’s 1955 edition of the complete poems. Numerous studies of her works have followed, utilizing linguistic, psychological, philosophical, historical, and feminist approaches. Studies of Dickinson’s language and style often center on the complex interplay of her diction and imagery with her innovative meter and rhyme. Her adept use of images drawn from nature and literature has also been widely examined. Dickinson’s unorthodox religious beliefs, her relation to the Romantic and Transcendental movements, and her personal philosophy of skepticism as expressed in her poems have been the main concerns of other research. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist critics have explored such issues as the difficulties Dickinson encountered as a woman poet, the significance of her decision to withdraw from society, her use of language as a means of rebellion, and her importance to contemporary women writers.
Mixed Reaction to ”Because I Could Not Stop for Death”
”Because I Could Not Stop for Death” is the most famous of Dickinson’s many works concerning the subject of death and immortality. It has also been printed under the title ”The Chariot.” Renowned American literary critic Allen Tate, writing in his book On the Limits of Poetry: Selected Essays, 1928-1948 (1948), praises the poem as ”one of the greatest in the English language.” Other critics disagree. Yvor Winters, writing in his In Defense of Reason (1947), disagrees that the work is one of Dickinson’s best, judging it to be unconvincing and ”fraudulent.” In response to the praise offered by Allen Tate, Winters comments that Tate ”appears to praise [the poem] for its defects.”
Today an ample and increasing number of studies from diverse critical viewpoints are devoted to her life and works, thus securing Dickinson’s status as a major poet.
- Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.
- Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.
- Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955.
- Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. (2 volumes.) New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.
- Loving, Jerome. Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
- Mossberg, Barbara. Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1982.
- Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. (2 volumes.) New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974.
- Whicher, George. This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson. New York: Scribner’s, 1938.
- Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Knopf, 1986.
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