Emily Elizabeth Dickinson 1830-1886
This essay was written by Janette Lloyd in October 2011.
Emily Dickinson was born into an important family in the small New England town of Amherst which was a hard working and puritanical community. However Amherst College, founded by her grandfather, gave it an intellectual vibrancy which tempered the importance of restraint and hard work. Her father was a lawyer and she was especially close to her younger sister Lavinia and later to Susan, her sister in law. She attended school and was a bright pupil, well read and with many friends. She was much influenced by the hymns and the Biblical language used in church despite never being a full member.
But by the time she left school at 18 she had already seen the death of some close contemporaries which had a profound effect on her. Benjamin Newton, a young legal pupil of her father’s, was also a good friend and was influential in her choice of literature. When he died of TB not long afterwards it was a hard blow. In 1850 her mother was seriously ill. She remained a bedridden invalid for many years after. Emily elected to stay in the house to look after her and it is thought that this was the beginning of her increasing reluctance to go out. By the age of 30, having always been regarded as rather nervous and delicate, she was becoming a recluse. Various maladies such as agoraphobia and even epilepsy have been suggested as the cause. But what is incontrovertible is that her immensely dramatic inner life was played out against a domestic round of cooking, gardening and botany.
There are few images of her. A family portrait made when she was about ten years old shows her striking colouring. The early photograph of her at 17 is of a serious and thoughtful young woman. In her early thirties she described herself thus: ‘I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.”’
She wrote from an early age. Her surviving letters to friends show her to be quick minded and witty. In great contrast her poetry is both universal in its coverage of all human nature but it is quite spare and almost mystical in form. She flouted the contemporary conventions of spelling and of rhyme which meant that it was only in the mid twentieth century that she was truly appreciated. Writing to Thomas Higginson, her principal mentor from her early 30s to her death, she comments on her ideas :’there seems a spectral power in thought that walks alone’ and feels herself different from her neighbours: ’insanity to the sane seems so unnecessary.’
While she was still able to travel, she heard the Reverend Charles Wadsworth preach once in Philadelphia. He was 40 and married. She was in her mid 20s. Nothing of a romantic nature seems to have happened; indeed they met but twice in her life as he moved to San Francisco when she was 32. He did not return until 20 years later. For her it was however a profound encounter. In the intervening time many letters must have passed between them but his did not survive. He was far more able to support her and encourage her writing than was Thomas Higginson who although he was a writer was lacking the necessary intellectual sympathy and understanding.
Whatever happened in reality between her and the men who influenced her there seems to have been an outpouring of poems in her mid thirties. She wrote 366 poems in 1862 alone. Many of these are of a passionate nature representing what James Reeves (1959) has called ’love frozen by the supreme act of renunciation in a moment of ecstasy’. The mystery lies in precisely what it was that she was renouncing. The paradox is that she was increasingly timid and self effacing in person but bold in her writing. Allen Tate (1948) comments that she ‘mastered life by rejecting it’ and that she should not be the object of our pity since she was a ‘wholly dedicated and fulfilled poet’. In many of her works it is possible to trace the idea of a figure who has been dubbed the mysterious ‘Master’. She left several letters addressed to him. It has been suggested that this could be an unattainable and composite being, possibly representing a kind of Christian Muse. It is debateable whether or not any of the men whom she knew could be directly related to this figure.
In her late thirties her reclusive nature intensified. She was rarely seen outside. She preferred to speak to callers from the other side of a door rather than face to face. She took to dressing in white. She did however keep up her correspondence and would send small verses and bunches of flowers to visitors.
In the ensuing years there were many sad events: the deaths of her father, whom she greatly loved, of her mother of whom she became fond only after she became dependent after a stroke and of her favourite nephew, of typhoid. In 1877 she became friendly with Otis Lord, a widower and retired judge. They corresponded every week and shared the same literary interests. In the early 1880s, his death and that of Charles Wadsworth coupled with her brother’s marital infidelity gave her great unhappiness: ‘The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come’.
In the summer of 1885 she herself fainted while cooking in the kitchen. She was unconscious for several hours and her health steadily deteriorated after that. By November she was giving her brother great cause for concern. Still unwell in the following spring, she wrote what is believed to be her last brief letter, to her cousins: “Little Cousins, Called Back. Emily”. She died on 15th May 1886. The cause of death was given as Bright’s Disease, now recognised as kidney failure.
Very few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Her sister Lavinia had promised to burn all her papers after her death but had not realised that among them were nearly eighteen hundred poems. In 1890 a first volume of poems came out but it was not until the mid twentieth century that an unedited collection was published.
Copyright Janette Lloyd