The collected poems of Emily Dickinson

EMILY DICKINSON

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second child of Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson. Emily’s family was prosperous and well established in Amherst society: Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was the founder of the prestigious Amherst Academy and a cofounder of Amherst College; her father, Edward, a lawyer and politician, was treasurer of Amherst College. The family lived in Amherst’s first brick building, the Homestead, built by Emily’s grandfather in 1813. Dickinson grew up in a strict religious household governed mainly by her father, who often censored her reading choices.

She attended Amherst Academy until she was seventeen, and then spent a year at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). She studied a diversity of subjects, including botany and horticulture, which would become lifelong interests. Among writers she studied, she was particularly inspired by the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning and the novelist George Eliot. It was during her year at Mount Holyoke that she began to question, and even to voice dissension from, her father’s strict religious views.

In 1848, when she was eighteen years old, Dickinson left college and returned to the Homestead, where she lived for the rest of her life. She left home for only a few brief trips to Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Boston. It was during a trip to Philadelphia that she met her lifelong friend the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. In 1856 her brother, Austin, married Susan Huntington Gilbert, who would become one of Dickinson’s closest friends. The couple moved next door to the Homestead into a house built by Dickinson’s father, the Evergreens. At the Evergreens, Dickinson met and began a correspondence with Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

Dickinson wrote the bulk of her nearly 1,800 poems during her years at the Homestead. Five of her poems were printed in the Springfield Republican, but Dickinson herself made only one serious attempt at further publication, sending four poems in 1862 to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, poetry editor of the Atlantic Monthly. Higginson advised her against publication, saying that the style of her poetry—its unusual rhythm and rhyming—was not commercial. The two continued to correspond, however, and became close friends.

Following the death of her father in 1874, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive, corresponding with friends mainly through letters. She continued writing poetry, and she and her sister, Lavinia, nursed their bedridden mother. Over the next ten years, many of her close friends and family died, including Samuel Bowles, Charles Wadsworth, her mother, and her nephew. In 1884 Dickinson was diagnosed with Bright’s disease, a serious kidney disorder. She died from complications of the disease on May 15, 1886.

After Dickinson’s death, Lavinia discovered her sister’s poems, arranged into little packets bundled with string. She gave them to Higginson and her friend Mabel Loomis Todd for editing. The first of three volumes, titled Poems, came out in 1890. A revival of interest in Dickinson’s life and poetry occurred in the late 1950s, when Thomas H. Johnson published the first complete edition of Dickinson’s poems that was faithful in wording and punctuation to her original manuscripts.

THE WORLD OF EMILY DICKINSON AND HER POETRY

1630 Nathaniel Dickinson, the first of Emily Dickinson’s family to arrive in America, settles in New England.

1813 Dickinson’s grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, builds the Homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts; the town’s first brick house, it will be Dickinson’s home for most of her life.

1814 Samuel Fowler Dickinson founds Amherst Academy, which quickly becomes a leading preparatory school in western Massachusetts.

1821 He cofounds the Amherst Collegiate Institution, renamed Amherst College in 1825.

1830 Emily Elizabeth Dickinson is born on December 10, the second child