Poets have a reputation for being introverted and reclusive, and that stereotype may have begun with Emily Dickinson. This woman was truly ahead of her time when it came to writing. Her poems still hold up today as some of the greatest ever written.
Most of Dickinson’s poems were not actually published during her lifetime. They may have also been edited to protect Emily’s image. The real Emily Dickinson may not have lived such a solitary life. Keep reading to find out more about what was redacted.
The Early Years
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830. Her family was well known in Massachusetts, but they weren’t very wealthy. He father was a lawyer and her grandfather was actually one of the founders of Amherst College.
Emily had an older brother, William Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia. Emily’s aunt noted that young Emily was “perfectly well & contented—She is a very good child & but little trouble.”
To say that Emily Dickinson was smart would be an understatement. She took classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy,” and arithmetic.
Dickinson was always preoccupied with the concept of death, especially with the deaths of those who were close to her. Emily was left traumatized when her second cousin died from typhus. When she wrote about the incident two years later, Emily explained, “it seemed to me I should die too if I could not be permitted to watch over her or even look at her face.”
The Writers Who Influenced Her Work
Emily Dickinson found mentors who introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Dickinson was particularly drawn to Emerson’s work and later wrote that he “has touched the secret Spring.”
She also read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. She liked that book so much that she got a Newfoundland dog and named him Carlo after the character St. John River’s dog. The poems and plays of William Shakespeare also strongly resonated with her.
Read on to learn more about the place Emily lived for her whole life.
A Unique Style
Dickinson’s poetry blends Emerson’s brand of Transcendentalism with her own penchant for puns, irony, and satire. Dickinson wrote about flowers and gardens quite often. Her preoccupation with death often appears in her poems as well.
Her most famous poem, “Because I could not stop for Death” exemplifies Dickinson’s unique relationship with whatever exists beyond this current existence. Emily was a Christian and she also addressed many of her poems to Jesus Christ.
She Had Vision Problems As An Adult
In 1863, when Dickinson was around 30 years old, she began having trouble with her eyesight. Bright light caused her pain and her eyes started to ache whenever she tried to write, which is a huge problem for a poet.
In 1864, she went to see an ophthalmologist in Boston— a man named Dr, Henry Willard Williams. We still don’t know what Williams diagnosed her with, but historians think that Dickinson probably had iritis, which is basically inflammation of the eye. Luckily, in 1865, Emily’s symptoms went away.
She Lived Near Her Family Her Whole Life
Dickinson spent most of her adult life in isolation. She didn’t enjoy socializing, although she did maintain close relationships with her brother and sister.
Her brother, Austin, got married and had three children. His family lived next door to Emily. Emily became very close to Austin’s wife, Susan, and they often exchanged letters. Some of Dickinson’s best poems were actually addressed to Susan. Some scholars believe that Dickinson was harboring secret romantic feelings for her brother’s wife.
Keep reading to learn about Emily’s undiagnosed mental illness.
She May Have Loved A Mystery Man
Emily Dickinson didn’t just address poems and letters to Susan. She also addressed letters to a mystery man she referred to as “Master.” Dickinson seemed to be in love with this man. These letters were written between 1858 and 1862.
Scholars have different theories as to who this man could be. Some have suggested that this “Master” may have been Emily’s mentor, a newspaper editor, a reverend, a fellow student, God, or a fictional muse.
She Wasn’t The Marrying Type
Many people think of Emily Dickinson as a spinster who never had a romantic relationship with a man, but nearly two decades after she wrote those “Master” letters, Dickinson started a relationship with Judge Otis Lord, a widower who was a friend of her father.
In 1883, Otis Lord proposed to Emily Dickinson, but he never got an answer. I guess Emily just wasn’t the marrying type. She actually died a few years later in 1886.
Keep reading to find out how Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55.
She Suffered From An Anxiety Disorder
Anybody who spends most of their time alone probably has a good reason for doing so. As a young adult, Dickinson withdrew from the rest of the world. While some scholars think that she was just an introvert who wanted to focus on her poetry, others believed that she was suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Dickinson’s mother had episodes of severe depression during her life, so Emily may have inherited the condition. In 1862, Dickinson wrote in a letter that she experienced “a terror” that she couldn’t explain to anyone.
Read on to learn more about what went on at Dickinson’s funeral.
It’s A Myth That She Only Wore White
Because Emily Dickinson was quite a mysterious character, rumors began to spread about her personality and eccentricities. Before she died, Dickinson often wore a white dress. She told her family that when she died, she wanted to be buried in a white coffin wearing a white robe. This led people to conclude that Emily was just a weird person who always wore white, but that’s not at all the case.
There are several photos of her wearing dark clothing and she talks about owning a brown dress in one of her letters.
How She Died
Emily’s mother died in 1882, and the next year, her brother Austin’s youngest son died. Emily felt extreme grief, and in 1884 she wrote that “The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.”
That summer she fainted while she was baking in the kitchen. Her health started to rapidly deteriorate and she was actually confined to a bed for several months. Her symptoms kept getting worse, and on May 15th, 1886, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55.
Her Family’s Response
The day Emily died, Austin wrote in his diary that “the day was awful … she ceased to breathe that terrible breathing just before the [afternoon] whistle sounded for six.” At the time, Emily’s doctor said that she died from Bright’s disease, which is a disease that involves chronic inflammation of the kidneys.
Lavinia and Austin asked Susan to wash Emily’s body. They also had Susan write Emily’s obituary. Susan ended the obituary with four lines from one of Emily’s poems: “Morns like these, we parted; Noons like these, she rose; Fluttering first, then firmer, To her fair repose.”
A Proper Burial
As per her request, Emily Dickinson was buried in a white coffin. She was buried with a vanilla-scented orchid and a “knot of blue field violets” placed about it.
Her friend, Higginson, who had met Emily only twice, read Dickinson’s favorite Emily Brontë poem, “No Coward Soul Is Mine” at the funeral. Also as per Dickinson’s request, her “coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups.” It was a small and intimate funeral.
How Her Poetry Was Finally Published
Dickinson didn’t really want any of her poetry to be published. In fact, she asked her sister, Lavinia, to burn all of her writings when she died. Lavinia kept her promise and burned most of Emily’s letters, but Emily didn’t give Lavinia any specific instructions about the 40 notebooks and loose sheets of paper in a locked chest.
Lavinia turned to Susan and then to her brother’s mistress for advice, which resulted in a family feud. Emily’s work did get published (obviously) but not without a lot of chaos.
The First Edition
The first volume of Dickinson’s Poems was edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, and T. W. Higginson. It was published in 1890. Although Todd claimed that only essential edits were made, the book was actually heavily edited to match the grammatical standards of the time. These edits erased much of Emily Dickinson’s unique and purposeful punctuation.
As the years went on, more faithful edits of Emily’s original manuscripts were published.
Emily And Mabel Never Actually Met
In 1883, Dickinson’s brother, Austin, started an affair with a writer named Mabel Loomis Todd. Todd and Emily wrote to each other, but they never met in person. That must have been rather awkward because Emily was quite good friends with Susan, Austin’s wife. Some might even say that Emily and Susan were more than friends.
After Emily died, Mabel became something of a Dickinson expert. She gave lectures on Emily’s poems and edited several books of her poems and letters.
Dickinson Had A Green Thumb
Emily Dickinson was a major gardener throughout her life. She grew hundreds of flowers on her family’s property, and she also planted and cared for vegetables, apple trees, cherry trees, and pear trees.
She also oversaw the greenhouse on the property which housed jasmine, gardenias, carnations, and ferns. Emily often wrote about plants and gardening in her poetry. Clearly, she found plants and gardening quite inspirational. You can still visit the gardens at the Dickinson house which have been restored by archaeologists.
Her Niece Added “Called Back” To Her Tombstone
Dickinson’s first tombstone only displayed her initials, E.E.D., for Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Emily’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, later gave her aunt a new headstone with Emily’s name on it, her birth and death dates, and the words “called back” which is a reference to an 1880 Hugh Conway novel that Emily enjoyed.
In the last letter that Dickinson wrote (to her cousins) before she died, she only wrote: “Called Back.”
She Never Published Under Her Own Name
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson’s friend and mentor, thought she was an excellent writer, but he discouraged her from publishing because he thought that the general public wouldn’t appreciate her work as it should be appreciated.
Between 1850 and 1878, 10 of Dickinson’s poems and one letter were published in newspapers and journals, but Emily didn’t actually submit those poems herself, nor were they published under her name. Emily did make her own little books of poems for her friends and family to read.
She Spent The Last 15 Years Of Her Life Locked In Her House
Historians have different theories about why Emily Dickinson spend so much of her life in isolation. Some think it’s because she did her best writing while she was alone, while others think that it was due to an undiagnosed anxiety disorder. We’re not exactly sure why Dickinson spent so much time alone.
Although Emily didn’t leave her house, she wasn’t entirely isolated. She communicated with friend through letters and her brother and sister came to visit her regularly.