Emily Dickinson, the reclused poet

Emiliy Dickinson (1830-1886)
   Emily Dickinson is often regarded as the finest woman poet in American literary history. Although she seldom left her home and saw few people, she recorded in her poetry "each ecstatic instant" of the life of her imagination. Her poems are short, often witty, and highly original in thought and technique. Their unconventional grammar and rhymes and their ability to capture subtleties and intensities of mood have greatly influenced modern poetry.

   The Dickinson family was dominated by the strong personality of Em­ily's father, who was a prominent lawyer, a Congressman, and the treasurer of Amherst College. Neither Emily nor her sister married. Both devoted themselves to caring for their father and, after his death, for their invalid mother. Emily had more than the usual for­mal education for a girl of her day, studying at Amherst Academy and, for a year, at South Hadley Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College).

   In 1854, Miss Dickinson visited Washington and, on her way home, stopped in Philadelphia. There she met a minister, Charles Wadsworth, about whom she probably wrote her love poetry. However, he was happily married, and it seems unlikely that he returned her love. She went back to Amherst and gradually withdrew almost completely from society. The rest of her life was spent in caring for her home and garden and writing poetry.

   Only seven of Miss Dickinson's poems were pub­lished during her lifetime, none of them with her permission. Since she insisted on complete privacy, her family was unaware of the great number of poems she was writing. About 900 poems were discovered immediately after her death, and despite her request that they be destroyed, half of them were published between 1890 and 1896. Other discoveries followed, but a comprehensive edition of 1,775 poems and fragments was not published until 1955. Miss Dickinson is especially noted for her skill in writing short poems. In several of her poems, she wrote of the joys of solitude and contemplation. However, Miss Dickinson also dealt with the greatest themes of poetry and philosophy; love, nature, death, and faith. Although her life was confined and uneventful, Miss Dickinson's poems reveal a free, inventive, and profound spirit.