Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
Life and Career:
; “She has been perceived as agoraphobic, deeply afraid of her surroundings, and as an
eccentric spinster. At the same time, Dickinson is widely acknowledged as one of the
founders of American poetry, an innovative pre-modernist poet as well as a rebellious and
courageous woman.” (Wendy Martin, Introduction to Cambridge Companion).
; Grew up and lived most of her life in Amherst, Massachusetts
; Father was a dominant and domineering personality: “buys me many books, but begs me not
to read them.”
; Spent one year at Mount Holyoke – after that she left Amherst only 5 or 6 times
; Spent the last 20 years of her life rarely leaving her home or yard
o But she was not disconnected from the world or an isolated hermit. “The Soul selects her
own Society – / Then – shuts the door – ”
o She had friends and family nearby, wrote letters, read newspapers, books, periodicals.
o Had passionate (romantic) attachments – to Susan Gilbert Dickinson, men like Charles
Wadsworth, Otis Lord
; Published only 10 poems in her life, and never sought widespread publication ; Wrote to T.W. Higginson in 1861: “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”
Higginson is blown away by it, but also doesn’t know what to make of her unusual meter,
rhyme, punctuation, images
; Wrote letters and poems throughout her life, but no one knew how many; after her death, her
sister finds over 1200, bound up into booklets she made, called “fascicles”
Some Critical Issues and Opinions:
; Textual authority/editing: She did not seek publication and asked her sister to destroy the
poems upon her death. Instead, Lavinia sought to publish them, setting off a long battle over
control of the texts.
; Johnson (1960) and Franklin (1998, 1999) editions
; See Betsy Erkkila’s “The Emily Dickinson Wars” in Cambridge Companion to
; Form: Her unusual form adds to questions about editing – punctuation, line breaks, dashes,
word choices. Also, many poems are parts of letters, raising questions about the very nature
of poetry and boundaries between epistolary and poetic genres.
; Dickinson demands a lot of the reader: you must be willing to accept ambiguity, multiple
interpretations, shifting poetic personas. She is notoriously difficult to pin down on any one
; Religion: During a time of religious revival and wide-spread evangelicalism, Dickinson’s
religion was unorthodox. You can’t easily pin down her religious beliefs.
; She refused to think that the world had no pleasure in – that pleasure could only
be found in heaven.
; She refused to profess a sense of her own sin or believe that she deserved the
pain she experienced.
; She felt that attention to her own experience was the route to the infinite.