Monday, March 3, 2014

Emily Dickinson Biography

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

v     Emily Dickinson is considered one of America’s greatest poets. She was an innovator, writing poems with irregular meters, punctuation, and words that didn’t always rhyme. She knew when to break the rules and why.

v     Emily wanted critics to help her with her work, so she sent poems to various magazines, including the Springfield Republican, and the Atlantic Monthly, a literary magazine that’s still popular today in America. The editor, Thomas Higginson encouraged her to keep writing and sending more poems.

v     Years later, Emily told Thomas that, by encouraging her, “You were not aware that you saved my life.”

v     Dickinson’s subjects were fear, frustration, death, God, friendship, love, and nature.

v     Emily didn’t become famous until after she died. Her poems were published posthumously (after she died), but they were always edited and reworded. It wasn’t until 1955 that a complete collection of her poems was published, unedited.

Personal Life:

Emily was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was a lawyer and a politician. She was very bright and well-behaved, but free-thinking. Later on, she criticized her parents, writing, “I have a brother and a sister; my mother does not care for thought; and father; too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.”
Emily’s life was filled with tragedy, and it didn’t help that she could see the cemetery, located across the street. She attended Amherst Academy, where she befriended the young principle Leonard Humphrey. Her best friend, Sophia Holland, died of Typhus. After high school, she went to Mount Holyoke Seminary, one of the first universities for women in America, but only stayed for ten months before returning home. No one knows why. Shortly after, another friend of hers died, Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young lawyer studying with her father. And then Leonard Humphrey died, at age 25. Emily wrote to a friend,

... some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey.”

The house where Emily Dickinson lived, in Amherst, MA

Emily was very reclusive, never marrying, and hardly ever leaving the mansion, which her grandfather had built. She spent much of her time caring for her mother, who was bedridden and ill, from around 1850 all the way to 1882 when she died. In 1874, her father died. When the funeral was held in the house’s entrance hall, Emily stayed in her room with the door cracked open. She didn’t attend the memorial service either. She wrote to Higginson that her father’s “Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.”

Emily was eccentric, often wearing white, and refusing to greet guests. She preferred writing to people, and if she had to, she’d speak to someone on the other side of a door. She would talk to her neighbours by leaving little poems for them, with a bouquet of flowers. She once wrote “The soul selects her own society, then shuts the door.”

It’s possible she may have started a romance later in life with a widowed judge, but it’s impossible to know because all their letters were burned at her request.

When she died of kidney failure, at 55, people were amazed at the number of poems she’d written, almost 1800! People had thought of her more as a gardener than a poet, since she spent so much time in her garden. In her will, she asked her sister to burn all her papers, including her poems. But Lavinia wanted the poems to be published.

First she sent half to her brother’s wife. Then she sent the other half to her brother, who was now living with another woman. So, since these two women hated each other, it took over fifty years to get all of Emily’s poems together in one published collection.

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