On Tuesday the 20th of February, Ann Rochford led a Spiritual Reading Group at the Carmelite Library on the poet Emily Dickinson. Here is Ann’s introductory paper.
Emily Dickinson is one of America’s greatest literary figures. In her lifetime she was considered a recluse and was better know as a botanist. Her Herbarium collection of pressed plants, which runs to 66 pages, has long been owned as part of the Harvard University collection. In her lifetime only ten of her poems were published. Her brilliance was not recognized. (She has left us a chest of 1775 poems)
Emily Dickinson was born on the 10th of December 1830 in Amherst Massachusetts. Her family home was built by her grandfather Samuel Fowler Dickinson. He was a founder of the Amherst Academy and Amherst College. Like his male descendents, he was an attorney with an interest in politics and public issues. Emily’s father,
Edward, was a member of the Senate. The Dickinsons were well known, middle class and very respectable.
Emily was the second of three children. She had a loving and close relationship with her older brother, Austin and her younger sister Lavinia (Vinnie). She was also very close to Austin’s first wife,
Susan Gilbert, who had been her best friend from childhood.
Emily was considered an exceptional student and an original thinker.
She attended Amherst Academy, and then spent an unhappy year at Mt Holyoke Female Seminary, a college for girls. Here for the first time she came into conflict with contemporary society, because she would not formally or publicly express her religious beliefs. She did believe in God---she just did not see the need to formally worship in church. (After the age of 30 she never attended church although she befriended a number of ministers.)
After 1848, at the age of 18, Emily returned to the family home from Mt Holyoke, and rarely left it. She said she preferred solitude to society and spoke about “The Infinite Power of Home.” She nursed her ailing mother (who managed to be an invalid for 25 years!), tended the house and her wonderful garden; kept up an enormous correspondence with friends, and wrote her poetry.
She scribbled poetry all through the day, as ideas came to her. She used the back of envelopes, old receipts, anything that came to hand, then it would go into her apron pocket and be reworked later in the evening. She would work into the small hours getting her poetry just right, for the thoughts she wished to express.
Her reclusiveness was balanced by the wide correspondence she kept up throughout her life. She was a very demanding pen friend, chastising her friends if they did not reply promptly to her letters. Most of her dearest friends were people she wrote to, but had never met. As she was dying, she asked her sister to burn her letters, so we have no trace of the incoming correspondence she received, only that which her friends received and kept.
By 1860, Emily had withdrawn from social life. By 1867 she would not open the door to visitors, but spoke to them behind it. She began to only wear white. She would exchange messages with locals but never speak to them in person. In 1874 her father died and was buried from the foyer of the family home. She did not go down to the service but listened to it from the open door of her bedroom. Her family accepted, and was protective, of her desire to be reclusive.
Dickinson loved poetry and writing, and was very familiar with the works of Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Wordsworth, and the Bronte’s. She was well versed in Shakespeare. She understood the conventions of writing poetry in the literary style of her day. However, she never sought to emulate it. She had her own style, which is impossible to categorize. Her poems have no titles. Every word is measured, no excess word is used. Every comma, dash (of which there are many) and strange capitalization is integral to her sense of her work.
Her imagery ranges widely from domestic and garden metaphors, to scientific references and literary illusions. It is thought that reflections on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ were an inspiration for some of her writings on death and ‘Pride and Prejudice’ clearly influences her sharp observations about the role of women in her society. Her poetry has many voices: the child, the nobleman, the mad woman, and possibly most famously, the corpse. Death and immortality are recurring themes that seem to fascinate her. She wrote to her friends about “the deepening menace of death” and speaks about going through periods of long depression over the death of a family member or friend. She often writes in the common meter (4 beats followed by 3.) If you take “Because I could not wait for death” it is possible to sing it to the tune of the theme song of ‘Gilligan’s Island’, which is also written in common meter.
Dickinson’s writing was at its most active in the early 1860’s. This is the time of the great slavery debates and the carnage of the American Civil War. Not a word of this is mentioned in her poetry. Dickinson is an inward poet, focusing only on those things that inhabited the small world she had created for herself and her own inner observations.
Those of her poems that were published in her lifetime, were “fixed up” by editors. They changed her punctuation, they put in commas, they fixed her capitalizations. In Dickinson’s view this destroyed the meaning of her work. She was dismayed and reluctant to publish others. She was also not encouraged to publish her work. She had a long time mentor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was a well-known literary critic. She initially sent work to him and asked him to tell her “if it breathed”. They corresponded over many years and she shared a great deal of her writing with him. He eventually came to meet her for the first and only time, a few years before her death. He did edit the first little volume of her work that was published after her death, but is forever known as the man who overlooked a genius.
Some of her friends did recognize her literary gifts. Her former school friend, Helen Hunt Jackson, who was a publisher, volunteered to be her literary executor “because you are a great poet and it is wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud.”
Emily Dickinson died of Brights disease, on the 15th of May 1886, aged 55. She was not buried in the manner described in her most famous poem, but at her request was carried to her grave, in a white coffin, through fields of buttercups.
Upon her death a trove of 1775 poems were discovered. Very soon after her death, both her sister and her brother’s second wife began to put out pieces of her work – she was quickly recognized as a significant poet and her fame grew and grew. By 1891 critics said her work had a strange mixture of individuality and originality. By the early 1920s she was considered essentially modern. She was hailed as a great female poet. By the 1930s she was a post modernist. It was not until 1955, that a complete volume of all of her poetry was published. (It was unedited) She is now a thriving industry in her hometown of Amherst . Her family home is a museum. Her work has never been out of print.