Guest Classic Author: Emily Dickinson
As most Fridays, I bring you a guest author. This time is a classic, Emily Dickinson. I studied at Mount Holyoke (where famously Emily spent a year) and lived in the building named after her (that housed the Women’ Studies Department). I also visited her house in Amherst, a beautiful town and fascinating place. So although I was aware of her before, the proximity made me look into her work more closely. And I wanted to share it with you. As usual I’ll include a brief biography (Emily was a fairly reclusive character) and links and examples of her work. Also links where you can find more detailed information.
Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was born in Amherst (Massachusetts) of a family descending from the pilgrims’ times. Her paternal grandfather was one (the main) of the founders of Amherst College; her father was one of its treasurers and also served as State Legislator and representative of Hampshire district in Congress.
She had an older brother and a younger sister and her education was extensive for a girl of her time, attending Amherst Academy (for 7 years, somewhat interrupted due to ill health) and then Mount Holyoke College (briefly). She was described as a gifted musician and she had a good relationship with her father although not so good with her mother.
She seems to have been concerned and preoccupied by the deaths of those around her, including a female cousin, since she was fairly young, and that preoccupation accompanied her for the rest of her life.
A young lawyer who stayed with her family, Benjamin Franklin Newton, introduced her to the work of a variety of writers, including Wordsworth and Emerson, and he always thought of her as a poet. She was also influenced by Longfellow, Lydia Maria Child’s Letters from New York and Charlotte Brönte’s Jane Eyre.
She was very affected when the principal of Amherst Academy, and good friend, Leonard Humphrey, died at 25.
She was also good friends with Susan Gilbert, who later married her brother Austin, and who was her main correspondent.
In 1855 she visited Washington and Philadelphia with her mother, who later became bedridden, and Emily hardly left the house after that. In the late 1950s the family met Samuel Bowles, owner and editor of the Springfield Republican and he would later publish some of her poems and letters.
In the early 1860s she was very prolific and appears to have considered publication, but eventually did not come to pass. From 1866 she wrote far less and her behaviour started to change, hardly ever leaving the house. From 1867 she would talk to visitors through the door, although she continued to exchange letters and had good relationship with children. In the few occasions when she ventured outside of her house she dressed in white.
She studied botany and she was well known for her collection of plants.
Although she continued to write, she did not edit her work. The 1880s proved difficult, with her brother’s marriage breaking, her youngest nephew’s death and the death of her mother. In summer of 1884 she fainted while baking and did not recover for many hours. After that she was ill for weeks and never went back to health. In November 1885 she took to bed for several months and eventually on the 15th May 1886 she died of what was diagnosed as Bright’s disease (that the physician thought she had been suffering from for at least two and a half years).
Fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her life and it was her sister who discovered her poems and got them published for the first time four years after her death.
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away,
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry.
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll;
How frugal is the chariot
That bears a human soul!
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ’tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
In poets’ organisation:
Her electronic archive:
The Poetry Foundation:
The Emily Dickinson International Society:
Links to her work:
Poems Series 1
Poems Series 2
Poems Series 3
And the three series in one:
- Complete Emily Dickinson online archive goes live (telegraph.co.uk)
- Monday Inspiration – Victorian Women Writers (susanmacatee.wordpress.com)
- Writing Heroes: Emily Dickinson (wonderly.com)
- The Online Emily Dickinson Archive Makes Thousands of the Poet’s Manuscripts Freely Available (openculture.com)
- Book News: Emily Dickinson Papers Go Online, Deepening Harvard-Amherst Feud (npr.org)
- Emily Dickinson, or the Rivalry of Harvard and Amherst (archivesmouse.wordpress.com)