Dec 102015


Today is the birthday (1830) of poet Emily Elizabeth Dickinson. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and spent all of her life there. Although part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, Dickinson lived much of her life in seclusion. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by locals, she developed a noted penchant for white clothing and became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.


While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme (near rhyme) as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.

Although Dickinson’s acquaintances were most likely aware of her writing, it was not until after her death in 1886 — when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems — that the breadth of her work became apparent to the public. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though both heavily edited the content. A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry became available for the first time when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955. Despite some unfavorable reception and skepticism over the late 19th and early 20th centuries regarding her literary prowess, her work is more highly regarded nowadays.


When my son was 7 years old his teacher took his class on a field trip to Amherst, preceded by a lengthy series of talks about Dickinson and her poetry. He was captivated and learnt many of her poems by heart. Whilst in Amherst he visited famous sites and bought her complete works (which he pored over for months). I’ll have to find out if the love affair persists to this day. I, however, am less enthused. On the one hand I can see her place in the poetic world as transitional from classic Romanticism to modernism, and admire her for that. But, on the other, while her playfulness with rhyme, spelling, capitalization, and such, break the old rules, I don’t find it particularly interesting. Nor do her themes appeal much. I’m not enamored of Yankee culture in general, and don’t resonate in particular with the musings of a conscious social isolate. I can handle only so much first person poetry that seems largely devoid of human contact except when it comes to death. Its quirkiness seems almost entirely New England in spirit. I do readily admit that this is a matter of personal choice. You will at least, I hope, give me credit for celebrating her even though I care little for her work.

I’ll give you this sample to show I don’t dislike everything she wrote:

I MEANT to have but modest needs,    
Such as content, and heaven;    
Within my income these could lie,    
And life and I keep even.    
But since the last included both,            
It would suff