A poet of the late 19th century. She wasn't known well in her time because she was shy and didn't seek attention. Her writings were published posthumously.

Her poems tend to conform very strictly to a pattern; a favorite pattern of hers was the meter used in Protestant hymns. As a result, most of her poems can be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Though most of her poems involve nature, many of them address other topics metaphysical and concrete. My favorite is The Lost Thought.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century, yet only a few of her poems were published in her lifetime. Her poems are short and often elusive in their meaning, but are filled with evocative language. Dickinson's poems contain few topical references to her time and place--instead they are insightful meditations on such universal themes as love, death, and nature. This makes them as fresh and vibrant today as when they were written.

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts and lived almost all her life there, except for a year at college and a few months in Boston. Her father was a successful attorney and legislator. Emily grew up in a large house ("The Homestead") with her younger sister Lavinia and older brother Austin. Neither Emily nor Lavinia ever married. Austin married Emily's friend Susan Gilbert and built a house next door to the Homestead. Susan's house became a kind of salon in Amherst, attracting visitors such as Emerson. Susan and Emily were very close.

Emily was famous in Amherst for her reclusiveness. She did not leave the grounds of the Homestead from around the age of thirty. She accepted few visitors. Instead, Emily worked at home, cooking and running the household. She was not isolated--she was close to her family, and wrote hundreds of letters to friends and family. (I think Emily would have loved the Internet.) This kind of life left Emily plenty of time for her real passion: the poems.

Few people appreciated the full extent of what Emily Dickinson was up to at the little writing desk in her room. At the height of her most prolific period, 1860-1865, Emily finished almost one poem a day. Lightning struck many times during those years. Some of the poems were sent next door to Susan for comment. Many of Emily's letters contained a poem or two. But most remained unseen by anyone but Emily herself while she lived.

The closest that Emily came to seeking publication was to send several of her poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor of the Atlantic Monthly. She wanted to know if they were "alive." Higginson responded enthusiastically, and remained a lifelong friend and correspondent, but felt the poems were not suitable for publication. They were not at all the kind of fluffiness that female poets were supposed to write in those days. For whatever reason, Emily made no serious attempt at publication ever again.

Thus matters remained. Emily continued working until her death. A few days later, her sister Lavinia went to Emily's room to take away her things. To her astonishment, she found nearly forty hand-sewn booklets of poems written in longhand (the "fascicles"). As Emily had completed each poem to her satisfaction, she had copied it onto stationery, and when enough pages had accumulated, had sewn the pages into a booklet.

Lavinia gave some of the poems to her brother Austin, and some to Susan. Austin's mistress Mabel Loomis Todd worked with Higginson to prepare a selection of the poems for publication. The first collection was an immediate national success, and was followed by two more collections in the next few years. The rest of the 1775 poems were eventually published, some not until Thomas Johnson's complete edition of 1955.

Dickinson's first editors were unkind to her work. They "corrected" her unorthodox spelling and punctuation, and "fixed" Dickinson's characteristic off-rhymes. These are the versions of the Poems that are now in the public domain. Johnson was the first editor to return to the original manuscripts in an attempt to reproduce Dickinson's intentions as closely as possible. His edition is still copyrighted by Harvard University Press, which makes it difficult to publish Dickinson's poems on the Net. A new variorum edition was published in 1998 by Ralph Franklin, fixing some of Johnson's mistakes, giving all the variations of the poems where different versions are known to exist, and most interestingly, attempting to put the poems into the order in which they were written.

The full details of Emily Dickinson's life will never be known. She preferred to keep her private life to herself. Emily destroyed all the letters that were written to her before she died. Even when her poems seem confessional, we never know for sure if it's the "real Emily" or whether she's just playing with us. Emily Dickinson preferred mystery.

As a young woman Emily Dickinson sought her education at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She began to write in the 1850s and her earliest poems were simple in form and sentiment with a sense of whimsy while her later poems became more complex and experimental. Her efforts toward concision often meant stripping her lines and sentences to their most basic form.

Experimenting to a large degree with off rhyme or near rhyme, the majority of her poems were not published until after her death. Not knowing her motives, editors significantly "corrected ," her works by adding punctuation -- mistakes that still haunt many published editions of her poems today. An authoritative variorum edition of her poems was not published until Thomas H. Johnson did so in 1955 -- nearly 70 years after Dickinson's death. Dickinson in died 1886 with over 1700 poems unpublished; shortly thereafter, between 1890-1891, her friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel L. Todd began a tradition of publishing her poetry in heavily edited, conventionalized form. Fearful of public reaction, the editors altered her meter and rhyme schemes, metaphors, and syntax, gutting her poetry of much that later generations would appreciate as original.

Heavily influenced by her Puritan upbringing and the Book of Revelation her metaphor and imagery were taken from a sharp observation of nature, as well as playful thought and witty expression like those of the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England. She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as, John Keats. Rumored as being disgraceful Emily was dissuaded from reading the verse of her contemporary Walt Whitman, even so the two poets are now connected by the distinguished place they hold as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice.

Although Thomas Higginson recognized her genius and became her lifelong friend correspondent and literary mentor, it was Helen Jackson who tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to publish a collection of her poetry. After Dickinson's death nearly 2000 poems, many fragmentary were found among her papers and it was from this mass that Higginson and Todd edited the first published selection of her work, Poems (1890). Todd never spoke to Emily but glimpsed her once through a passageway flitting by in white, the only color Emily wore in her later years. The Copyright Notice by the University of Toronto Press notes:

"The copyright situation pertaining to the poetry of Emily Dickinson is extremely complex since nearly all the poems were published after her death and the circumstances surrounding the earliest publication resulted in versions of the poetry that were in many cases significantly different than the form of the poems as penned by Emily Dickinson.... The following poems are in the public domain and we have no objection if you include the following poems on the Web-site nos.59 (A little east of Jordan), 77 ( I never hear the word "escape"), 185("Faith" is fine invention) , 249 ("Hope" is the thing with feathers), 254, 510 (It was not death, for I stood up), 1078 (The bustle in the house) (Melinda Koyanis, Manager of Copyright, Harvard University Press, personal correspondence to the editor, April 21, 1977).

Regrettably, permission has not been granted RPO to present the following poems in the way Dickinson wrote them.

These RPO poems are based on editions of Emily Dickinson's poetry in 1890, 1891, and 1896, published after her death. These texts, edited by her friends, evidently differ in minutiae (punctuation, lineation) as well as occasionally in wording from the originals on which they were based. Her friends numbered these poems under general thematic subsections (the names of which are omitted in this edition). The words of the existing manuscripts remain in copyright to Harvard University Press, evidently because they have only been published in the past 75 years. Any substantial variation from the existing manuscripts is noted in textual notes to these poems. Readers should pay careful attention to these changes.

Emily never married, however, in recent years research hints that Emily had two great loves. She wrote about her first love in the late 1850's and may have been a married Philadelphian clergyman by the name of Charles Wadsworth. Several of her poems apparently reflect this love and her personal struggle to transcend its disappointment. Around 1878 she fell in love with Otis P. Lord of Salem, Massachusetts, a close friend of her father; Lord's death in 1884 ended the relationship.

Mystical directness in her universal themes and expressions of intense personal feelings is comparable to the work found in British poet William Blake. Dickinson’s poetry, consolidated into short stanza form, are most often composed in a few different combinations or more accurately versification of trimeter lines and iambic tetrameter. By using simple rhyming schemes and varying the effects of theses schemes with partial rhyming for example, tune with pain , a common device among many of her contemporaries. Using common words she draws remarkable implications by the suggestion of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names at times with almost pedantic exactness. The titles of her posthumously published works are:

  • Poems: Second Series (1891)
  • Poems: Third Series (1891)
  • The Single Hound (1914)
  • Letters of Emily Dickinson (1931)

The copyright situation pertaining to the poetry of Emily Dickinson is very confusing because almost all of her poems were published after her death and circumstances around the first publications resulted in versions of the poetry that were often far different than the form of the poems as written by her. If they are not in public domain please let me know so I may remove them.

Emily Dickinson created a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual edges by pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a "sheltered" woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in hesitations and humility. Dickinson died in 1886 on May 15th.

Many of her poems and reactions to them have been written about here on E2. It appears to be customary to title them by the first line of the poem though some are less frequently referred to by a numerical sequence created as an attempt to organize her poetry for publication. I think it's reasonable to conclude that a majority of users would search the E2 database by the title and so I've hard linked what I've been able to find. Please /msg me if you find one or have a write up of one I may have missed and I'll be happy to add it.


Note to editors: Please know that the copyright issues about a number of Dickinson’s poems are controversial and these poems are less than 250 words and do comply with the current editorial standards. dem_bones comments after the posting of the E2 Copyright Changes policy in August 2003 were to “wait until the publisher comes down from the mountain” and asks us to remove these.


Sources:

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Emily Dickinson:
http://www.geocities.com/edickinson2002/

Emily Dickinson:
http://www.poetrypreviews.com/poets/poet-dickinson.html

Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):
http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poet94.html

Emily Dickinson's humor

This is an in-class writing assignment for my Literature 217 class.

  Emily Dickinson is often thought to be a writer of melancholy; a depressed woman. However, I read some humor into a lot of her poems. "I Started Early, Took My Dog" is a good example. There is whimsical and fantastical imagery (Mermaids in the Basement, Dandelion's Sleeve) that is meant to be lighthearted, and the entire poem seems very conversational.

   Also, "I'm Nobody! Who Are You?" is a good example of a humorous poem. It still makes a statement, however the premise is comedic. The entire premise is also somewhat satirical and thus at least somewhat humorous, even if you are the butt of the joke. It's almost like a modern-day parody. It uses the voice of a child, "Don't tell! they'd banish us, you know!" which is amusing in itself. When was the last time you chuckled at a child just for being the cute, innocent creature it is? The imagery of "Frog" and "Bog" could also be thought of as funny due to its comparison of "most people" to a frog in a bog.

  Perhaps Emily Dickinson was depressed. However, she had a very light and gay ( to use the archaic definition of the word ) disposition at times, enough to put it into her poetry. An aside: Try singing the words to her poems to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas." Since she went to church often in her young life, she often had a rhythm and meter that matched Protestant, or more specifically, Methodist,hymns, and that nowadays matches perfectly with that song.

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