Friday, October 7, 2011

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Although Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime.Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born at the family's homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, into a prominent, but not wealthy, family.

Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, had almost single-handedly founded Amherst College. In 1813 he built the homestead, a large mansion on the town's Main Street, that became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century. Samuel Dickinson's eldest son, Edward, was treasurer of Amherst College for nearly forty years, served numerous terms as a State Legislator, and represented the Hampshire district in the United States Congress. On May 6, 1828, he married Emily Norcross from Monson. They had three children: William Austin (1829–1895), known as Austin, Aust or Awe, Emily Elizabeth, Lavinia Norcross (1833–1899), known as Lavinia or Vinnie.

By all accounts, young Emily was a well-behaved girl. On an extended visit to Monson when she was two, Emily's Aunt Lavinia described Emily as "perfectly well but little trouble." Dickinson attended primary school in a two-story building on Pleasant Street. While Emily consistently described her father in a warm manner, her correspondence suggests that her mother was regularly cold and aloof. In a letter to a confidante, Emily wrote she "always ran Home to Awe [Austin] when a child, if anything befell me. On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister Lavinia started together at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time, her father purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Emily's brother Austin later described this large new home as the "mansion" over which he and Emily presided as "lord and lady" while their parents were absent. The house overlooked Amherst's burial ground, described by one local minister as treeless and "forbidding".

Dickinson spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, "mental philosophy," and arithmetic. Daniel Taggart Fiske, the school's principal at the time, would later recall that Dickinson was "very bright" and "an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties".Dickinson was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April, 1844, Emily was traumatized.In 1845, a religious revival took place in Amherst, resulting in 46 confessions of faith among Dickinson's peers. Dickinson wrote to a friend the following year: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior." After finishing her final term at the Academy on August 10, 1847, Dickinson began attending Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (which later became Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, about ten miles (16 km) from Amherst. Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities.According to a letter written by Dickinson after Newton's death, he had been "with my Father two years, before going to Worcester – in pursuing his studies, and was much in our family."  Biographers believe that Dickinson's statement of 1862—"When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned"—refers to Newton.

Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible but also with contemporary popular literature. Jane Eyre's influence cannot be measured, but when Dickinson acquired her first and only dog, a Newfoundland, she named him "Carlo" after the character St. John Rivers' dog.In early 1850 Dickinson wrote that "Amherst is alive with fun this winter ... Oh, a very great town this is!" The Amherst Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at age 25.During the 1850s, Emily's strongest and most affectionate relationship was with Susan Gilbert. Emily eventually sent her over three hundred letters, more than to any other correspondent, over the course of their friendship. Sue was supportive of the poet, playing the role of "most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser" whose editorial suggestions Dickinson sometimes followed, Susan played a primary role in Emily's creative processes." Edward Dickinson built a house for him and Sue called the Evergreens, which stood on the west side of the Homestead. There is controversy over how to view Emily's friendship with Sue; according to a point of view first promoted by Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin's longtime mistress, Emily's missives typically dealt with demands for Sue's affection and the fear of unrequited admiration. Until 1855, Dickinson had not strayed far from Amherst. From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became effectively bedridden with various chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. Writing to a friend in summer 1858, Emily said that she would visit if she could leave "home, or mother. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books. It was from 1858 to 1861 that Dickinson is believed to have written a trio of letters that have been called "The Master Letters".  Modern scholars and researchers are divided as to the cause for Dickinson's withdrawal and extreme seclusion.  Seeking literary guidance that no one close to her could provide, Dickinson sent him a letter which read in full:

Dickinson delighted in dramatic self-characterization and mystery in her letters to Higginson.Dickinson valued his advice, going from calling him "Mr. Higginson" to "Dear friend" as well as signing her letters, "Your Gnome" and "Your Scholar". His interest in her work certainly provided great moral support; many years later, Dickinson told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862. Dickinson's own ambivalence on the matter militated against the likelihood of publication.In direct opposition to the immense productivity that she displayed in the early 1860s, Dickinson wrote fewer poems in 1866. Carlo died during this time after providing sixteen years of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog. Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress, possibly sewn circa 1878–1882. Austin and his family began to protect Emily's privacy, deciding that she was not to be a subject of discussion with outsiders. Despite her physical seclusion, however, Dickinson was socially active and expressive through what makes up two-thirds of her surviving notes and letters.  Dickinson also had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence." MacGregor (Mac) Jenkins, the son of family friends who later wrote a short article in 1891 called "A Child's Recollection of Emily Dickinson", thought of her as always offering support to the neighborhood children.

Scholar Judith Farr notes that Dickinson, during her lifetime, "was known more widely as a gardener, perhaps, than as a poet". Dickinson studied botany from the age of nine and, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead.It has not survived, and Dickinson kept no garden notebooks or plant lists, but a clear impression can be formed from the letters and recollections of friends and family. Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached, but "they valued the posy more than the poetry".

On June 16, 1874, while in Boston, Edward Dickinson suffered a stroke and died. A year later, on June 15, 1875, Emily's mother also suffered a stroke, which produced a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory. Lamenting her mother's increasing physical as well as mental demands, Emily wrote that "Home is so far from Home".

Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court from Salem, in 1872 or 1873 became an acquaintance of Dickinson's. After the death of Lord's wife in 1877, his friendship with Dickinson probably became a late-life romance, though as their letters were destroyed, this is surmise. Dickinson found a kindred soul in Lord, especially in terms of shared literary interests; the few letters which survived contain multiple quotations of Shakespeare's work, including the plays Othello, Antony and Cleopatra, Hamlet and King Lear. Dickinson looked forward to this day greatly; a surviving fragment of a letter written by her states that "Tuesday is a deeply depressed Day".

Dickinson referred to him as "our latest Lost". Two years before this, on April 1, 1882, Dickinson's "Shepherd from 'Little Girl'hood", Charles Wadsworth, also had died after a long illness.

Although she continued to write in her last years, Dickinson stopped editing and organizing her poems.  Lavinia, who also never married, remained at the Homestead until her own death in 1899.

Todd never met Dickinson but was intrigued by her, referring to her as "a lady whom the people call the Myth". Dickinson's mother died on November 14, 1882. The next year, Austin and Sue's third and youngest child, Gilbert—Emily's favorite—died of typhoid fever.

As death succeeded death, Dickinson found her world upended. Emily". On May 15, 1886, after several days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. Dickinson's chief physician gave the cause of death as Bright's diseaseand its duration as two and a half years.

The funeral service, held in the Homestead's library, was simple and short; Higginson, who had only met her twice, read "No Coward Soul Is Mine", a poem byEmily Brontë that had been a favorite of Dickinson's. At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.

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