Emily Dickinson 101
Emily Dickinson published very few poems in her lifetime, and nearly 1,800 of her poems of were discovered after her death, many of them neatly organized into small, hand-sewn booklets called fascicles. The first published book of Dickinson’s poetry appeared in 1890, four years after her death; it was a small selection, heavily edited to remove Dickinson’s unique syntax, spelling, and punctuation. A family feud led to dueling and competing volumes in subsequent years, and a complete, restored edition of Dickinson’s poetry did not appear until 1998, more than 100 years after the original publication.
Despite their complicated history, Dickinson’s poems are among the most read and beloved in the English language. Although Dickinson is often said to have been introverted and reclusive, her poems show both her internal struggles and her strong engagement with the natural and social worlds in which she lived.
School and Its Influence
A daughter of a lawyer-politician father and a highly educated mother, Dickinson enjoyed a childhood of learning and socializing. Between making frequent visits and house calls, she attended Amherst Academy, a school affiliated with Amherst College that opened to female students only two years prior to her arrival. There she engaged in a science-heavy curriculum that included the study of botany, an interest that continued throughout her life. She began to collect flowers and keep them in a herbarium, which grew to 66 pages and 424 species.
This education would have a strong impact on her poetry. Planets and nature make frequent appearances in Dickinson’s poems, such as the night-blooming jessamines in “Come slowly – Eden! (205)”. In “‘Arcturus’ is his other name – (117)”, Dickinson, referring to the brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere, writes, “I’d rather call him “Star”! / It’s very mean of Science / to go and interfere!” Other often-visited topics include medicine—“Surgeons must be very careful (156)”—and science. In “’Faith’ is fine invention (202)”, she declares, “‘Faith’ is a fine invention / For Gentlemen who see! /But Microscopes are prudent / In an Emergency!”
Dickinson was also a passionate reader of contemporary poetry and prose from both the United States and England. Her library included books by Longfellow, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Emerson as well as the Romantic poets, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, and the Brownings. The Brontës in particular had a profound effect. “All overgrown by cunning moss, (146)” was written to commemorate the death of Charlotte Brontë, and Dickinson requested that a poem by Emily Brontë be read at her own funeral.
Resisting Religious Fervor
Dickinson’s feelings about religion increasingly stood out. Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which she attended after Amherst Academy, organized students into three categories: those who were “established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Dickinson was among the latter. As a religious fervor swept Amherst in the years that followed, Dickinson was the only member of her family who did not become a member of the new church.
Despite her skepticism about traditional religious activities, Dickinson’s poems reveal her as a deeply spiritual person. In “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – (236)”, she talks of spending Sundays at home in her garden rather than at church, listening to the religious beauty of nature: “God preaches, a noted Clergyman – / And the sermon is never long”. The poem “I dwell in Possibility – (466)” is rich with religious language and imagery, as Dickinson writes of having “… for an everlasting Roof / The Gambrels of the Sky –” and “The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise –”. Many of her poems borrow the same syllabic form of Christian church hymns, creating a kind of alternative (and sometimes satirical) take on traditions and offering ways to worship not necessarily the divine but the world around us.
Poetry, Fame, and Publication
Though it’s true that Dickinson was almost completely unknown as a poet during her life, the popular notion of Emily Dickinson as an extremely solitary writer is not necessarily correct. Only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime—although anonymously, heavily edited, and often without her knowledge. But Dickinson had a social life and shared her work in letters with many friends, editors, and mentors.
In response to “Letter to a Young Contributor,” an article that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1862, Dickinson sent a selection of poems to its author, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, along with a letter asking, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” The two went on to have a long friendship via correspondence, but his initial response was not positive. There is debate about Dickinson’s intentions toward publishing, and some see this rejection as a major disappointment that led to a more hostile viewpoint. Indeed, the poem “Publication – is the Auction (788)” is highly critical of the industry and calls to “… reduce no Human Spirit / To Disgrace of Price –”.
Fame, which comes only through publication, was frequently on her mind. There are several poems on the topic, including “Fame is the one that does not stay — (1507)”, “Fame is a fickle food (1702)”, and the succinct “Fame is a bee. (1788)”: “Fame is a bee. / It has a song— / It has a sting— / Ah, too, it has a wing.”
Of the virtue of poetry, however, there was no doubt. In “There is no Frigate like a Book (1286)”, poetry is a means of escape and a vessel “That bears the Human Soul –”. Poets might die like anyone else, but as Dickinson explains in “The Poets light but Lamps — (930)”, their poetry, “If vital Light // Inhere as do the Suns —”.
From an early age, Dickinson encountered the death of friends, mentors, and family members with staggering regularity. It’s not surprising, then, that many of her most well-known poems dwell on mortality. From perhaps her most famous poem, “Because I could not stop for Death – (479)”, to a later, lesser-known poem such as “A not admitting of the wound (1188)”, Dickinson’s artistic approach ranged from the philosophical to the deeply personal. These poems also illustrate her evolving style, from the more ornate, lyrical language of the former to the more direct, personal language of the latter.
A Lasting Presence
Dickinson’s work continues to inspire new generations of poets and artists. Though it would be odd to mimic Dickinson’s unique language and punctuation, many poets have been deeply influenced by certain aspects of Dickinson’s style, such as her precise perception and attention to emotional details. Some notable names include Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, Gwendolyn Brooks, Pam Rehm, Richard Brautigan, Jorie Graham, and bell hooks. Among the books inspired by Dickinson’s life and work, Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson stands out as a defining hybrid of poetry and criticism. More recently, Rebecca Hazelton took first lines from Dickinson poems and used them as acrostics in her book Fair Copy. Artists such as Jen Bervin have translated the unusual composition methods evident in Dickinson’s poems and letters into stunning visual works—in Bervin’s case, embroidery based on the punctuation and variant markings.
A Note about Poetry Foundation Dickinson Texts
We are often asked about Dickinson’s style. Did she really spell upon as opon and use its where correct grammar calls for it’s and vice versa? The answer is yes. There are also many competing versions of Dickinson poems, either products of multiple drafts or from the odd and differing practices in which the poems have been edited over the past 110 years. Early publishers of Dickinson radically altered her words and punctuation, often added titles, and even “improved” rhymes where half rhymes were intentional, in an attempt to bring “clarity” to her poetry. It’s unfortunate that one of our most important and unconventional poets was rendered more “proper” than she ever wanted to be.
We have decided to use the versions of Dickinson’s poems that were included in R.W. Franklin’s critical edition The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition (published by Harvard University Press). Franklin’s edition provides the best restoration of Dickinson’s poems as she originally wrote them in manuscript and letter form. That partly explains our approach to titling the poems by including the first line and its corresponding number (or order) in Franklin’s edition.