(b. 1830, Amherst, Massachusetts; d. 1886, Amherst, Massachusetts)
Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most famous poets in the history of American literature. Though socially shy, she was outspoken and emotional in her lyric poetry (short poems with one speaker who expresses thought and feeling), defying the nineteenth-century expectation that women were to be demure and obedient to men. Her honest and uninhibited writing made her an early feminist voice, even as she maintained an outward appearance of submissiveness. Nearly two centuries after Dickinson’s birth, her witty and frequently subversive poems are widely read, taught, and studied.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a prominent family. Her Victorian upbringing included socializing with friends, doing domestic chores, and attending church. She spent her adolescent years studying locally at the Amherst Academy (1834–47) and at the Mount Holyoke Seminary (1847–48). Beginning at age 23, however, Dickinson began to withdraw from society and by the age of thirty, she became a relative recluse, spending most of her days indoors. She did not cut off her contact with others entirely, as she received certain guests, traveled within New England to visit relatives, and wrote letters to friends and family, most often her sister-in-law and closest friend, Susan Huntington Gilbert, with whom she often discussed her poetry. Dickinson’s seclusion allowed her to focus on developing her poetry. Her poems addressed emotional and psychological states such as loneliness, pain, happiness, and ecstasy; death, often personified; religion and morality; as well as love and love lost.
Dickinson’s poems have had a remarkable influence in American literature. Using original wordplay, unexpected rhymes, and abrupt line breaks, she bends literary conventions, demonstrating a deep and respectful understanding of formal poetic structure even as she seems to defy its restrictions. Among her poetic devices were dashes used as a pause and capitalization for emphasis. Just as Dickinson straddles a fine line between religious loyalty and dissent in her highly spiritual poems, her poetic structure finds a similar middle ground between the acceptance and rejection of established forms.
Although she was a prolific writer, the world would not realize Dickinson’s true artistic talent until after her death. She published only seven poems in her lifetime including her now well known “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1862. After her death in 1886, her sister Lavinia uncovered almost a thousand of Dickinson’s poems bound with thread into numerous booklets. In 1890, 1891, and later in 1896, the poems were heavily edited, with regularized punctuation and capitalization, and published in three volumes Poems; Poems: Second Series; and Poems: Third Series, by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a literary critic who Dickinson previously sought advice from. The works were very popular, and the full extent of Dickinson’s genius was finally revealed. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, Dickinson’s niece, published additional poems, including the collection Bolts of Melody, in 1945. In 1955, another edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published by Thomas H. Johnson as a more complete and accurate text, closer to Dickinson’s originals.
In the following poem, first published in Complete Poems, 1924, Dickinson writes of her work:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me
(Dickinson, Complete Poems, 211)
Emily Dickinson at The Dinner Party
Emily Dickinson’s place setting represents the striking contrast between her reclusive, introverted nature and the dynamic mind revealed through her poems. It also represents the austere Victorian world Dickinson attempted to break free of through her writing.
Chicago was particularly inspired by the following Dickinson poem, first published in the collection Complete Poems, 1924:
I HIDE myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.
(Dickinson, Complete Poems, 427)
The plate, which sits atop a mid-nineteenth century collar, has a “strong though delicate center imprisoned within layers of immobile lace” (Chicago, The Dinner Party, 136). The center of the plate appears solid, and yet suffocated by the surrounding gathered lace layers. These frilly layers were made using a process called lace draping, in which lace is saturated with porcelain slip and fired, converting it into porcelain. Lace draping was used to make porcelain dolls, and it suggests the restrictions the Victorian era imposed on Dickinson’s life and writing.
The runner is constructed of lace and netting stained with tea and coffee to make it appear aged. It includes sewing techniques typical of the Victorian era, such as ribbon work—floral embroidery done in silk ribbon—a domestic skill from the early 19th century that was deemed an appropriate pastime for women. Ribbon work extends throughout the runner and surrounds the capital letter in Dickinson’s name, representing the stereotypically “feminine” activities of the time and, as such, the restrictive world in which this powerful literary figure was hidden.
The manuscripts of Emily Dickinson. Archived at Jones Library Special Collections, Amherst, Massachusetts.
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Franklin, R. W., ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1981.
––––––. Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Amherst: Amherst College Press, 1986.
Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, eds. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2005.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, 1985.
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Pollack, Vivian R. Dickinson: The Anxiety of Gender. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1984.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 1974; reprint edition, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
Place Setting Images
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The Academy of American Poets : Emily Dickinson
Dickinson Electronic Archives
The official website for the Emily Dickinson Museum
The Emily Dickinson Collection at The Jones Library, Amherst, MA