12 August 2009

Emily Dickinson: Victorian Poetess, Agoraphobe, Fanatic, Social Commentator, and/or Lesbian?

I came across a high school term paper I wrote during the second semester of my junior year in high school (the beginning of 2003). Even then, I was fascinated by the "mystery" surrounding the illusory character that is Emily Dickinson; since writing this paper, I've read multiple biographies and "based on a true story" fictional accounts about her fantastical life. So, allow me to share...

Most every poet, young or old, has probably come across the name of the celebrated Emily Dickinson. The question is: Who is Emily Dickinson and why did she become famous? Miss Dickinson was most likely one of the most enigmatic female poets that has ever lived. From her poems it is simple for one to tell when something in her life directly affected her writing. However, another question a reader must ask is: Did the problems and tragedies in society during her time affect her hidden mysterious lifestyle? By closely analysing her work, it may be possible to determine if she were influenced by the problems of an outside world such as the Civil War, politics, and racial conflicts.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born to Puritan parents on December 10, 1830 in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she remained for nearly all her life. Her younger sister Lavinia, older brother Austin, and she were forced to comply with the strict Christian beliefs of their tyrannical father. Thus, Emily’s writing often contains religious symbolism and refers to her undying faith. After attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, Miss Dickinson returned home out of homesickness. There, she kept herself busy tending her garden, baking up new and delightful recipes, and commencing in writing the first of her poetry.

After some time, Dickinson fell deeply in love for the well-respected and unfortunately married Reverend Charles Wadsworth. When he left for San Francisco in the early 1860’s, Miss Dickinson was compelled to let out her emotions with a stream of disheartening poetry. In the following years, she became increasingly more of a hermit, hardly seeing anyone except her closest family members. Soon she earned the nickname “eclectic recluse,” as she sent sweets and pastries down to children from her bedroom window on the second floor without showing her face. She also refused to meet old friends; instead, she wrote them letters, epigrams, and poetry acknowledging her presence. In 1862, Emily suffered a nervous breakdown, ending the most creatively productive time of her life. Finally at the age of 55, Bright’s disease took her life in 1886 in Amherst (The Academy of American Poets). After discovering 1700+ poems in a desk drawer, Miss Dickinson’s sister published her poetry posthumously. Her fame was spread nation-wide, and now she is considered to be one of the America’s best poets. Emily Dickinson’s lifestyle was definitely an explanation for what inspired her to write poetry, though there are many other reasons. The acme of her life took place during what was deemed to be this nation’s bloodiest war. Through analysing, one can discover how Dickinson dealt with the country’s calamity with words, phrases, and images.

The Civil War took place from 1861-1865 and although it was proclaimed to be “a gentleman’s war” in the beginning, it actually became one of America’s goriest and most horrifying wars. The Civil War itself is linked closely with wounding, connected on various, tangible and intangible, levels. Often the country, the families, the mind, the body, and the spirit were subject to violent ravaging. Any connection from Miss Dickinson to the Civil War is perhaps a bit more difficult to establish; indeed, several scholars have insisted that viewing Dickinson's poetry within the context of the Civil War is nonsense. These analysts prefer to see Emily’s poems as fundamentally isolated successive stanzas. However, in looking at her poetry, it becomes apparent that the work cannot be seen and understood detached from the time in which it was written or the occurring events that mark the period. When Miss Dickinson first viewed Matthew Brady’s photographs of a Civil War battlefield, her reaction was to write poetry. Also, Emily illustrated her deep mourning for soldiers through elegies, defined as “a poem or song composed especially as a lament for a deceased person.” An ode to deceased soldiers such as "It feels a shame to be alive," written the spring of 1863 shows Dickinson’s great concern for the society outside her own prison-like home during the terrible time or war (Susan Belasco).

However, being cooped up in solitude resulted in more than just elegies. Indeed, Emily Dickinson wrote over one thousand poetic masterpieces. Her poems express life, death, hopelessness, and nature, touching the reader with reflections in all aspects of existence.

For example, since most of her poetry was written when she was alone at home in Amherst, her poem about being named ‘Nobody’ was perhaps showing the fact that she was content being by herself and writing in privacy. She was satisfied that she was not a swaggering “frog” that bellowed out accomplishments to deaf or uncaring ears.

“I’m nobody! Who are you?/Are you nobody, too?/ Then there’s a pad of us—don’t tell!/They’d banish us, you know./ How dreary to be somebody!/How public, like a frog/To tell your name the livelong day/To an admiring bog!”


If you look at the poem that begins with "a surgeon must be very careful…," it shows that the worst things can happen from love; however, one must not forget that a surgeon can also perform surgeries to save a person. So in that way, Emily Dickinson could be supporting relationships.

“Surgeons must be very careful/When they take the knife!/Underneath their fine incisions/Stirs the culprit, --Life!”


On the other hand, her poem about having lunch was the opposite. Her words showed that she didn’t have what it took to actually love because she felt “ill and odd.” So instead, she watched others and drew from that.

“I had been hungry all the years;/My noon had come to dine;/I, trembling, drew the table near,/And touched the curious wine./ Twas this on tables I had seen,/When turning, hungry, lone,/I looked in windows, for the wealth/I could not hope to own./ I did not know the ample bread,/’Twas so unlike the crumb/The birds and I had often shared/In Nature’s dining-room./ The plenty hurt me, ‘twas so new,--/Myself felt ill and odd,/As berry of a mountain bush/Transplanted to the road./ Nor was I hungry; so I found/That hunger was a way/Of persons outside windows/The entering takes away.”


Then, in the poem about the angels taking up her tattered heart, she discusses love like it could be something she already rightly experienced and failed in. It also shows her profound love and honour for God, who she deems a person that could save her from misery. That poem easily shows her puritan roots and strict upbringing to believe in God.

“A poor torn heart, a tattered heart,/That sat it down to rest,/Nor noticed that the ebbing day/Flowed silver to the west,/Nor noticed night did soft descend/Nor constellation burn/Intent upon the vision/of latitudes unknown./ The angels, happening that way,/This dusty heart espied;/Tenderly took it up from toil/And carried it to God./There,--sandals for the barefoot;/There,--gathered from the gales,/Do the blue havens by the hand/Lead the wandering sails.”


Also, it seems that Emily Dickinson must have had several opportunities to love, but failed to accept them. This is shown in her poem about the slamming door. It represents how she is too shy to accept an offer to the warmth and comfort of being in love with someone.

“A door just opened on a street—/I, lost, was passing by—/An instant’s width of warmth disclosed, /And wealth, and company./ The door as sudden shut, and I,/ I, lost, was passing by,—/ Lost doubly, but by contrast most,/Enlightening misery.”


Emily Dickinson’s poetry was heavily influenced by the way she lived her life. Even if she lived in seclusion for a good portion of her life, her acquaintances made in her younger years deeply changed her techniques of writing. One of her correspondents, and a close friend/role model in 1862, was the Unitarian clergyman Thomas Wentworth Higginson. After adding a message of advice and support to the young writers of America to the Atlantic Monthly, he received a letter from Miss Dickinson asking to “say if my verse is alive.” It was then that their friendship grew and became to be what is known as the “most provocative correspondence of American literature” (Robert N. Linscott, 3-27).

In her withdrawal from any association with friends or family, it seemed the society only had a minimal effect on Dickinson. Her elegies to honour dead soldiers were the only way she ‘contributed’ to the Civil War effort during the years of 1861-1865.

During her lifetime, Emily was often deemed to be an “eccentric poetess and was given the nickname of the 'Nun of Amherst' upon locking herself away after her father’s death in 1874” (Robert N. Linsworth, 3). Even posthumously she is thought to have been a bizarre and “reckless genius;” her thought process being so entirely different that it is nearly impossible for some to decipher her later work. (Galway Kinnell)

Other critical analysis of Emily Dickinson reveals that her sexual preference could have been for the female sex; consequently, she shut herself away from strangers and only allowed her closest family members to visit her occasionally. For several years, Miss Dickinson and her sister-in-law, Sue Gilbert, ardently wrote letters back and forth. Some historians insist that these letters were merely examples of writing during the Victorian Era. Nevertheless, others like Emily’s biographer Rebecca Patterson, maintained her belief that Emily Dickinson was homosexual. In a work published by Martha Dickinson Bianchi including letters from the correspondence between her aunt and mother, most of the personal conversations between the two were edited. One included this demand made by Emily: “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday, and be my own again, and kiss me as you used to?” This statement was edited by Bianchi to simply say: “Susie, will you indeed come home next Saturday?” (Tom and T.J.). As Dickinson lived alone, her intimate life will stay a riddle forever.

Recognized women poets of Emily Dickinson’s time are rare, thus making her one of the most celebrated poets of her gender and era. Her ability to reach the reader with sometimes overly exaggerated messages on life, nature, love, and death is indeed one of the most amazing traits about Miss Dickinson. Her outstanding, though at times quite disturbing, poetry and letters will live on in a daze of baffling reminders of Emily Dickinson’s secluded life.


+Academy of American Poets, The, website accessed 15 March, 2003.
+Belasco, Susan, website accessed 15 March, 2003.
+Linscott, Robert N. Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson, pages 3-27.
+Kinnell, Galway, website accessed 15 March 2003.
+Tom and T.J., website accessed 15 March, 2003.

Note: Some of these links do not work anymore- it has been more than six years since I accessed these websites.

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