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 Dickinson in died 1886 with over 1700 poems unpublished; shortly thereafter, between 1890-1891, her friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel L. Todd began a tradition of publishing her poetry in heavily edited,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.
Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.
Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):