Emily Dickinson facts for kids

Kids Encyclopedia Facts
Emily Dickinson
Photograph of Emily Dickinson, seated, at the age of 16
This daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke, December 1846 or early 1847 is the only authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood. The original is held by Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
(1830-12-10)December 10, 1830
Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died May 15, 1886(1886-05-15) (aged 55)
Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.
Occupation Poet
Alma mater Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
Notable work(s) List of Emily Dickinson poems

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet.

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in reclusive isolation. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. Dickinson was a recluse for the later years of her life.

While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson's acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Dickinson's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955.

Life

Family and early childhood

Dickinson children painting
The Dickinson children (Emily on the left), ca. 1840. From the Dickinson Room at Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born at the family's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not wealthy, family. Her father, Edward Dickinson was a prominent lawyer in Amherst and a well respected trustee of Amherst College. Two hundred years earlier, her patrilineal ancestors had arrived in the New World—in the Puritan Great Migration—where they prospered. Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, had almost single-handedly founded Amherst College. In 1813, he built the Homestead, a large mansion on the town's Main Street, that became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Samuel Dickinson's eldest son, Edward, was treasurer of Amherst College for nearly forty years, served numerous terms as a State Legislator, and represented the Hampshire district in the United States Congress. On May 6, 1828, he married Emily Norcross from Monson. They had three children:

  • William Austin (1829–1895), known as Austin, Aust or Awe
  • Emily Elizabeth
  • Lavinia Norcross (1833–1899), known as Lavinia or Vinnie

By all accounts, young Emily was a well-behaved girl. On an extended visit to Monson when she was two, Emily's Aunt Lavinia described Emily as "perfectly well & contented—She is a very good child & but little trouble." Emily's aunt also noted the girl's affinity for music and her particular talent for the piano, which she called "the moosic".

Dickinson attended primary school in a two-story building on Pleasant Street. Her education was "ambitiously classical for a Victorian girl". Her father wanted his children well-educated and he followed their progress even while away on business. When Emily was seven, he wrote home, reminding his children to "keep school, and learn, so as to tell me, when I come home, how many new things you have learned". While Emily consistently described her father in a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was regularly cold and aloof. In a letter to a confidante, Emily wrote she "always ran Home to Awe [Austin] when a child, if anything befell me. He was an awful Mother, but I liked him better than none."

On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started together at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time, her father purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Emily's brother Austin later described this large new home as the "mansion" over which he and Emily presided as "lord and lady" while their parents were absent. The house overlooked Amherst's burial ground, described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding".

Teenage years

They shut me up in Prose –
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet –
Because they liked me "still" –

Still! Could themself have peeped –
And seen my Brain – go round –
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason – in the Pound –

Emily Dickinson, c. 1862

Dickinson spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, "mental philosophy," and arithmetic. Daniel Taggart Fiske, the school's principal at the time, would later recall that Dickinson was "very bright" and "an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties". Although she had a few terms off due to illness—the longest of which was in 1845–1846, when she was enrolled for only eleven weeks—she enjoyed her strenuous studies, writing to a friend that the Academy was "a very fine school".

Dickinson was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April 1844, Emily was traumatized. Recalling the incident two years later, Emily wrote that "it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face." She became so melancholic that her parents sent her to stay with family in Boston to recover. With her health and spirits restored, she soon returned to Amherst Academy to continue her studies. During this period, she first met people who were to become lifelong friends and correspondents, such as Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert (who later married Emily's brother Austin).

In 1845, a religious revival took place in Amherst, resulting in 46 confessions of faith among Dickinson's peers. Dickinson wrote to a friend the following year: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior." She went on to say that it was her "greatest pleasure to commune alone with the great God & to feel that he would listen to my prayers." The experience did not last: Dickinson never made a formal declaration of faith and attended services regularly for only a few years. After her church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home".

During the last year of her stay at the Academy, Emily became friendly with Leonard Humphrey, its popular new young principal. After finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which later became Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst. She was at the seminary for only ten months. Although she liked the girls at Holyoke, Dickinson made no lasting friendships there. The explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ considerably: either she was in poor health, her father wanted to have her at home, she rebelled against the evangelical fervor present at the school, she disliked the discipline-minded teachers, or she was simply homesick. Whatever the specific reason for leaving Holyoke, her brother Austin appeared on March 25, 1848, to "bring [her] home at all events". Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities. She took up baking for the family and enjoyed attending local events and activities in the budding college town.

Early influences and writing

When she was eighteen, Dickinson's family befriended a young attorney by the name of Benjamin Franklin Newton. According to a letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family." Although their relationship was probably not romantic, Newton was a formative influence and would become the second in a series of older men (after Humphrey) that Dickinson referred to, variously, as her tutor, preceptor or master.

Newton likely introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth, and his gift to her of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first book of collected poems had a liberating effect. She wrote later that he, "whose name my Father's Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring". Newton held her in high regard, believing in and recognizing her as a poet. When he was dying of tuberculosis, he wrote to her, saying that he would like to live until she achieved the greatness he foresaw. Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to Newton.

Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible but also with contemporary popular literature. She was probably influenced by Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New York, another gift from Newton (after reading it, she gushed "This then is a book! And there are more of them!"). Her brother smuggled a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Kavanagh into the house for her (because her father might disapprove) and a friend lent her Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in late 1849. Jane Eyre's influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog. William Shakespeare was also a potent influence in her life. Referring to his plays, she wrote to one friend "Why clasp any hand but this?" and to another, "Why is any other book needed?"

Adulthood and seclusion

Emily Dickinson Homestead, Amherst, Massachusetts (from left)
The Evergreens, built by Edward Dickinson, was the home of Austin and Susan's family

During the 1850s, Emily's strongest and most affectionate relationship was with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. Emily eventually sent her over three hundred letters, more than to any other correspondent, over the course of their friendship. Susan was supportive of the poet, playing the role of "most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser" whose editorial suggestions Dickinson sometimes followed, Sue played a primary role in Emily's creative processes." Sue married Austin in 1856 after a four-year courtship, though their marriage was not a happy one. Edward Dickinson built a house for Austin and Sue naming it the Evergreens, a stand of which was located on the west side of the Homestead.

Until 1855, Dickinson had not strayed far from Amherst. That spring, accompanied by her mother and sister, she took one of her longest and farthest trips away from home. First, they spent three weeks in Washington, where her father was representing Massachusetts in Congress. Then they went to Philadelphia for two weeks to visit family. In Philadelphia, she met Charles Wadsworth, a famous minister of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church, with whom she forged a strong friendship which lasted until his death in 1882. Despite seeing him only twice after 1855 (he moved to San Francisco in 1862), she variously referred to him as "my Philadelphia", "my Clergyman", "my dearest earthly friend" and "my Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood".

Dickinson and Turner 1859 (cleaned)
In September 2012, the Amherst College Archives and Special Collections unveiled this daguerreotype, proposing it to be Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner (ca. 1859); it has not been authenticated.

Withdrawing more and more from the outside world, Emily began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books. The forty fascicles she created from 1858 through 1865 eventually held nearly eight hundred poems. No one was aware of the existence of these books until after her death.

The first half of the 1860s, after she had largely withdrawn from social life, proved to be Dickinson's most productive writing period. Modern scholars and researchers are divided as to the cause for Dickinson's withdrawal and extreme seclusion. While she was diagnosed as having "nervous prostration" by a physician during her lifetime, some today believe she may have suffered from illnesses as various as agoraphobia and epilepsy.

The woman in white

In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote fewer poems in 1866. Beset with personal loss as well as loss of domestic help, Dickinson may have been too overcome to keep up her previous level of writing. Carlo died during this time after providing sixteen years of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog. Although the household servant of nine years, Margaret O Brien, had married and left the Homestead that same year, it was not until 1869 that her family brought in a permanent household servant, Margaret Maher, to replace the old one. Emily once again was responsible for chores, including the baking, at which she excelled.

A solemn thing – it was – I said –
A Woman – White – to be –
And wear – if God should count me fit –
Her blameless mystery –

Emily Dickinson, c. 1861

Around this time, Dickinson's behavior began to change. She did not leave the Homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face. She acquired local notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878–1882. Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person. Austin and his family began to protect Emily's privacy, deciding that she was not to be a subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters. When visitors came to either the Homestead or the Evergreens, she would often leave or send over small gifts of poems or flowers. Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence." MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote a short article in 1891 called "A Child's Recollection of Emily Dickinson", thought of her as always offering support to the neighborhood children.

When Higginson urged her to come to Boston in 1868 so that they could formally meet for the first time, she declined, writing: "Could it please your convenience to come so far as Amherst I should be very glad, but I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town". It was not until he came to Amherst in 1870 that they met. Later he referred to her, in the most detailed and vivid physical account of her on record, as "a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair ... in a very plain & exquisitely clean white piqué & a blue net worsted shawl." He also felt that he never was "with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her."

Later life

On June 16, 1874, while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke and died. When the simple funeral was held in the Homestead's entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open. Neither did she attend the memorial service on June 28. She wrote to Higginson that her father's "Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists." A year later, on June 15, 1875, Emily's mother also suffered a stroke, which produced a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory. Lamenting her mother's increasing physical as well as mental demands, Emily wrote that "Home is so far from Home".

Though the great Waters sleep,
That they are still the Deep,
We cannot doubt –
No vacillating God
Ignited this Abode
To put it out –

Emily Dickinson, c. 1884

Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873 became an acquaintance of Dickinson's. After the death of Lord's wife in 1877, his friendship with Dickinson probably became a late-life romance, though as their letters were destroyed, this is surmised. Dickinson found a kindred soul in Lord, especially in terms of shared literary interests; the few letters which survived contain multiple quotations of Shakespeare's work, including the plays Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet and King Lear. In 1880 he gave her Cowden Clarke's Complete Concordance to Shakespeare (1877). Dickinson wrote that "While others go to Church, I go to mine, for are you not my Church, and have we not a Hymn that no one knows but us?" She referred to him as "My lovely Salem" and they wrote to each other religiously every Sunday. Dickinson looked forward to this day greatly; a surviving fragment of a letter written by her states that "Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day".

After being critically ill for several years, Judge Lord died in March 1884. Dickinson referred to him as "our latest Lost". Two years before this, on April 1, 1882, Dickinson's "Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood", Charles Wadsworth, also had died after a long illness.

Death

EmilyDickinsonGrave-color
Emily Dickinson's tombstone in the family plot

On May 15, 1886, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. Dickinson's chief physician gave the cause of death as Bright's disease and its duration as two and a half years.

Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady's Slipper orchid, and a "knot of blue field violets" placed about it. The funeral service, held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson, who had met her only twice, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine", a poem by Emily Brontë that had been a favorite of Dickinson's. At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.

Publication

Despite Dickinson's prolific writing, fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. After her younger sister Lavinia discovered the collection of nearly 1800 poems, Dickinson's first volume was published four years after her death. Until Thomas H. Johnson published Dickinson's Complete Poems in 1955, Dickinson's poems were considerably edited and altered from their manuscript versions. Since 1890 Dickinson has remained continuously in print.

Contemporary

Emilyrepublican
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –," titled "The Sleeping," as it was published in the Springfield Republican in 1862.

A few of Dickinson's poems appeared in Samuel Bowles' Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868. They were published anonymously and heavily edited, with conventionalized punctuation and formal titles. The first poem, "Nobody knows this little rose", may have been published without Dickinson's permission. The Republican also published "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" as "The Snake", "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –" as "The Sleeping", and "Blazing in the Gold and quenching in Purple" as "Sunset". The poem "I taste a liquor never brewed –" is an example of the edited versions; the last two lines in the first stanza were completely rewritten.

Original wording
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Republican version
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl!

In 1864, several poems were altered and published in Drum Beat, to raise funds for medical care for Union soldiers in the war. Another appeared in April 1864 in the Brooklyn Daily Union.

In the 1870s, Higginson showed Dickinson's poems to Helen Hunt Jackson, who had coincidentally been at the Academy with Dickinson when they were girls. Jackson was deeply involved in the publishing world, and managed to convince Dickinson to publish her poem "Success is counted sweetest" anonymously in a volume called A Masque of Poets. The poem, however, was altered to agree with contemporary taste. It was the last poem published during Dickinson's lifetime.

Posthumous

After Dickinson's death, Lavinia Dickinson kept her promise and burned most of the poet's correspondence. Significantly though, Dickinson had left no instructions about the 40 notebooks and loose sheets gathered in a locked chest. Lavinia recognized the poems' worth and became obsessed with seeing them published. She turned first to her brother's wife and then to Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother's mistress, for assistance. A feud ensued, with the manuscripts divided between the Todd and Dickinson houses, preventing complete publication of Dickinson's poetry for more than half a century.

Emily Dickinson Poems
Cover of the first edition of Poems, published in 1890

The first volume of Dickinson's Poems, edited jointly by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, appeared in November 1890. Although Todd claimed that only essential changes were made, the poems were extensively edited to match punctuation and capitalization to late 19th-century standards, with occasional rewordings to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. The first 115-poem volume was a critical and financial success, going through eleven printings in two years. Poems: Second Series followed in 1891, running to five editions by 1893; a third series appeared in 1896. One reviewer, in 1892, wrote: "The world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as literature, has been published".

Nearly a dozen new editions of Dickinson's poetry, whether containing previously unpublished or newly edited poems, were published between 1914 and 1945. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the daughter of Susan and Edward Dickinson, published collections of her aunt's poetry based on the manuscripts held by her family, whereas Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, published collections based on the manuscripts held by her mother. These competing editions of Dickinson's poetry, often differing in order and structure, ensured that the poet's work was in the public's eye.

The first scholarly publication came in 1955 with a complete new three-volume set edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Forming the basis of later Dickinson scholarship, Johnson's variorum brought all of Dickinson's known poems together for the first time. Johnson's goal was to present the poems very nearly as Dickinson had left them in her manuscripts. They were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and often extremely elliptical in their language. Three years later, Johnson edited and published, along with Theodora Ward, a complete collection of Dickinson's letters, also presented in three volumes.

In 1981, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson was published. Using the physical evidence of the original papers, the poems were intended to be published in their original order for the first time. Editor Ralph W. Franklin relied on smudge marks, needle punctures and other clues to reassemble the poet's packets. Since then, many critics have argued for thematic unity in these small collections, believing the ordering of the poems to be more than chronological or convenient.

Dickinson biographer Alfred Habegger wrote in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2001) that "The consequences of the poet's failure to disseminate her work in a faithful and orderly manner are still very much with us".

Poetry

Dickinson's poems generally fall into three distinct periods, the works in each period having certain general characters in common.

  • Pre-1861. These are often conventional and sentimental in nature. Thomas H. Johnson, who later published The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was able to date only five of Dickinson's poems before 1858. Two of these are mock valentines done in an ornate and humorous style, and two others are conventional lyrics, one of which is about missing her brother Austin. The fifth poem, which begins "I have a Bird in spring", conveys her grief over the feared loss of friendship and was sent to her friend Sue Gilbert.
  • 1861–1865. This was her most creative period—these poems represent her most vigorous and creative work. Johnson estimated that she composed 86 poems in 1861, 366 in 1862, 141 in 1863, and 174 in 1864. He also believed that during this period, she fully developed her themes of life and mortality.
  • Post-1866. It is estimated that two-thirds of the entire body of her poetry was written before this year.

Major themes

Dickinson left no formal statement of her aesthetic intentions and, because of the variety of her themes, her work does not fit conveniently into any one genre. She has been regarded, alongside Emerson (whose poems Dickinson admired), as a Transcendentalist. Apart from the major themes below, Dickinson's poetry frequently uses humor, puns, irony and satire.

  • Flowers and garden
  • The Master poems
  • Morbidity
  • Gospel poems
  • The Undiscovered Continent

Legacy

In the early 20th century, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham kept the achievement of Emily Dickinson alive. Bianchi promoted Dickinson's poetic achievement. Bianchi inherited The Evergreens as well as the copyright for her aunt's poetry from her parents, publishing works such as Emily Dickinson Face to Face and Letters of Emily Dickinson, which stoked public curiosity about her aunt. Bianchi's books perpetrated legends about her aunt in the context of family tradition, personal recollection and correspondence. In contrast, Millicent Todd Bingham's took a more objective and realistic approach to the poet.

Emily Dickinson is now considered a powerful and persistent figure in American culture. Although much of the early reception concentrated on Dickinson's eccentric and secluded nature, she has become widely acknowledged as an innovative, proto-modernist poet. As early as 1891, William Dean Howells wrote that "If nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry, we should feel that in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world, and could not be left out of any record of it." Critic Harold Bloom has placed her alongside Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, T. S. Eliot, and Hart Crane as a major American poet, and in 1994 listed her among the 26 central writers of Western civilization.

Dickinson is taught in American literature and poetry classes in the United States from middle school to college. Her poetry is frequently anthologized and has been used as texts for art songs by composers such as Aaron Copland, Nick Peros, John Adams and Michael Tilson Thomas. Several schools have been established in her name; for example, Emily Dickinson Elementary Schools exist in Bozeman, Montana,Redmond, Washington., and New York City. A few literary journals—including The Emily Dickinson Journal, the official publication of the Emily Dickinson International Society—have been founded to examine her work. An 8-cent commemorative stamp in honor of Dickinson was issued by the United States Postal Service on August 28, 1971 as the second stamp in the "American Poet" series. A one-woman play titled The Belle of Amherst first appeared on Broadway in 1976, winning several awards; it was later adapted for television.

Images for kids


Emily Dickinson Facts for Kids. Kiddle Encyclopedia.