The reclusive Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 2,000 poems, covering the themes of life and death, immortality and the grave, solitude and society, nature and mankind, isolation and election. One of America’s great poets, her work has been set by scores of composers.
Emily Dickinson selected her own society, and it was rarely that of other people. She preferred the solitude of her white-washed poet's room, or the birds, bees, and flowers of her garden, to the visitations of family and friends. But for three occasions in her life she never left her native Amherst, Massachusetts; for the last 20 of her 56 years, she rarely left her house. And yet her reclusive existence in no way restricted her abundant life of the imagination. Her letters and poems reveal her to be an inspired visionary and a true original of American literature.
Belle of Amherst
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born to a prominent Amherst family on December 10, 1830. A successful lawyer and later Congressman and judge, Dickinson’s father had been a founder of Amherst College. Dickinson's girlhood was spent in the usual flurry of feminine activities of the day. She enjoyed a reputation as the witty Belle of Amherst for a time, and she spent a year away from home at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, from 1847 to 1848.
Somewhere in her late teens, however, Dickinson began to sense her "otherness." At Holyoke she refused to confess her Congregationalist faith. After her return home, she began to write her first serious poems, though she kept these jealously guarded to herself. In 1856, her adored older brother Austin married Susan Gilbert, and came to live next door to the paternal homestead. Susan offered the poet support, friendship, and understanding throughout their lives, and it was to Susan that Emily confided a few of her poems.
The early 1860's saw Dickinson withdraw even deeper into herself, perhaps as the result of an emotional crisis whose origins elude biographers. She seemed to prefer distance to social intercourse--she would decline an invitation to her brother's house in an exquisitely crafted poem, for example--and she was far more comfortable in literary relationships, maintaining an active, intimate, even passionate correspondence with literary and religious figures from the outside world such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who visited her twice in Amherst, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, which had published a few of her verses.
After Emily's death in 1886, Mabel Loomis Todd, a cultured and beautiful socialite, who was also her brother Austin's mistress, sought Higginson's assistance in publishing three editions of Emily's poems and two volumes of her letters, which initially won Dickinson recognition as a minor eccentric poet. Her true genius has only been acknowledged more recently, as her cryptic language, dense symbols, fragmentary thought, and punctuation have been decoded to reveal a voice of mystic clarity and fiery individuality. Her work charts the landscape of a human soul, whose self-imposed confines conversely became agents of imaginative transformation.
To the tiny New England graveyard, across the fields where in girlhood Emily Dickinson had watched the funeral cortèges wend their way, a solemn procession carried the white-robed remains of the poet, who died in her home on May 15, 1886. The epitaph her sister Lavinia later had inscribed on her tombstone--"E.D. Called Back"--tersely reminds visitors of a life lived in realms beyond the temporal.
--Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Photo: Academy of American Poets