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Who is Emily Dickinson?

Kathy Hawkins
Kathy Hawkins

Emily Dickinson is one of America's most famous poets, known for her innovative use of free verse and her insights into subjects like the natural world, spirituality, death, and solitude.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent her entire life in her childhood home. Dickinson came from a wealthy, educated family; her father was a state Senator and later a member of the United States House of Representatives.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Dickinson attended an exclusive private school, Amherst Academy, and went to college at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now called Mount Holyoke College. After finishing her education, however, Emily Dickinson became reclusive, and rarely left her Amherst home. She died at the age of 55, of a kidney disease called nephritis.

During Emily Dickinson's lifetime, she was completely unknown as a poet. Only ten of her poems were published while she was alive. After Dickinson's death, however, her family discovered a collection of hand-bound volumes containing more than 1,700 poems.

A literary critic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Mabel Loomis Todd, a friend of the Dickinson family, recognized Emily Dickinson's brilliance with language. They compiled and edited a series of posthumous collections. Unfortunately, their editing work detracted from Dickinson's poems. They adapted each poem to the standards of the time, getting rid of the idiosyncratic grammar and punctuation that Emily Dickinson's work is now famous for. Though the edited manuscripts drew wide acclaim, Dickinson's work was not published in its original form until 1955.

Today, Emily Dickinson's poems are commonly taught in high school and university courses. None of her poems are titled, and so they are referred to by number or by their first line. One of Dickinson's most famous poems is called "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died." In the poem, the speaker is hovering between life and death; the fly is the final, haunting image of her life.

Emily Dickinson's poetry is also notable for its sense of musicality. Although Dickinson did not write in rhyming verse, as did most poets of her time, each of her poems have a sense of meter, and can easily be set to music.

Though Emily Dickinson rarely left the house after her formative years, she wrote thousands of letters to friends and acquaintances throughout her lifetime. Her most frequent correspondent was Susan Gilbert, who was married to Emily's brother, Austin. Many biographers have speculated that Emily was in love with Susan; however, there is no evidence that they had a sexual relationship.

Emily Dickinson's work has had a tremendous influence on contemporary American poetry. She and her contemporary, Walt Whitman, were primarily responsible for the shift from formal, rhyming poetry to free verse. Dickinson's work was also innovative for its use of capitalization and dashes, as well as its subject matter. Her emotional, often dark, subject matter paved the way for modern female poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Discussion Comments


Why was Emily Dickinson so upset when she died?


@alex94: Emily Dickinson’s reclusiveness began during her childhood. Her father was overprotective with his wife and daughter to the extreme. Her dad ruled the household with a looming presence and was often away on legal, political and business affairs that never enhanced his effectiveness in in local Amherst or Massachusetts society. Her mother was a traditional housewife and was gentle and soft-spoken, but was neurasthenic.

As a child, her bedroom window overlooked a cemetery. This left her with themes of death, graveyards, and tombs which made an early impression on her.

In later life Emily chose a life of solitary and it showed through her poetry. She suffered from anorexia, bipolarism and agoraphobia to seasonal affective disorder. Her reclusion was a choice against the vanity and oppression of the society she sought to eschew.


Why was Emily Dickinson a recluse?



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