Emily Dickinson: Biography, Works & Influences

Instructor: Joe Ricker
Emily Dickinson's reclusive nature kept the extent of her poetry prowess a secret. Read on to discover how influential this shut-in was to the world of poetry.

A Legacy Unknown Until After Death

If you've ever wanted to shut the world out and surround yourself with a secret passion, you might have an idea of how Emily Dickinson became one of the most prominent figures in American poetry.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died on her family homestead in Amherst in 1886. It was only after her death that a discovery by her sister made Dickinson one of the most prominent poets in American literature. Let's take a look at her life in more detail.

Emily Dickinson

Early Life

As a young girl, Dickinson was a gifted student, excelling in subjects such as English, Latin and classical literature. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College in Massachusetts, and her father was a state senator.

Dickinson's reclusive nature and mysteriousness started when she left the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary abruptly when she was 18-years-old. The reason isn't entirely known, but she may have been ill, homesick, beckoned by her father to take care of the home or rebelling against the religious atmosphere at Holyoke. She returned to her family homestead and eventually became the primary caretaker (along with her sister Lavina) of their ill mother.

Her life was no shortage of sadness, which might have triggered her reclusive nature. She suffered losses of family and close friends, including the school principal at Amherst Academy for whom she was very fond. Death was something all too familiar to Dickinson, and perhaps the reason for this thematic influence in her poetry. After Carlo, her dog, died around 1866, everything began to diminish for Dickinson, including her writing and her willingness to accept company.

While she was caring for her mother, she was typically seen wearing all white, which inspired gossip among the townspeople because she was rarely seen. Wearing all white made her seem more ghost-like. After her mother's death in 1882, Dickinson became even more reclusive, and it's thought that she suffered from agoraphobia, which is an irrational fear that the outside world might cause anxiety or embarrassment.

Despite her reclusive nature, Dickinson was a prolific writer. While the extent of her poetical prowess wasn't discovered until after her death, she wrote correspondence to many of the people who influenced her life in some manner.

Among them were Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a minister and soldier; and Susan Gilbert, her sister-in-law, to whom Dickinson wrote over 300 letters. Higginson might have been the most significant driving force behind Dickinson's writing after he published a 'A Letter to a Young Poet' in The Atlantic Monthly. After reading this, Dickinson contacted Higginson and he became a source of inspiration to her.

The Poems of Emily Dickinson

Dickinson gave explicit instructions to Lavina to burn her papers after her death. In honoring her sister's wishes, Lavina discovered Emily's cache of poetry. While it wasn't a complete secret that Emily wrote poetry (a few of her poems were published while she was alive, but typically anonymously) the extent of her prowess was awing.

In her time as a recluse, which was often spent in her room, Dickinson wrote over 1800 poems, most of which were written between 1858 and 1865, Dickinson's most prolific period, which was around the same time that her mother became bedridden. Many of them were untitled, and her use of capitalization and slant rhyme were greatly altered in her collection's first publication in 1890.

In 1955, however, Dickinson's work was published in its original formatting in The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Then in 1981 The Manuscript Poems of Emily Dickinson was published, which honored both the formatting, and the order that her poems were written. Dickinson rarely titled her poems, opting to number them in order that they were written.

The vast majority of her work was themed around death and immortality. For example:

''Because I could not stop for Death -/He kindly stopped for me -/The Carriage held but just Ourselves -/And Immortality.''

She was inspired by Charlotte Brontë (especially the novel Jane Eyre) and particularly influenced by the works of poet Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was introduced to her by a young attorney she'd befriended.

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