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Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was a prolific American poet. Though she wrote more than 1,700 poems, only a few were published during her lifetime. She is still something of a mystery, which fuels the continued fascination with her work and life.
“Tell all the Truth but tell it slant — ” is one of her famous lines, and the truths revealed in her poetic works are as individual as the person who reads them.
Dickinson grew up in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was born, lived, and died in the same house, rarely forming relationships with anyone outside her immediate family. Her father, a prominent lawyer, ensured that the family had a notable standing in the community. The family included her mother as well as sister Lavinia, and brother Austen As a child, she studied at Amherst Academy as did Lavinia and Austin, growing up in a somewhat Puritan milieu.
Mixed messages on education
Though Emily Dickinson’s father believed in education for women, he also felt that this education shouldn’t be used toward any pursuits other than caring for the home, husband, and children. She said of him, “He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they upset the mind.” Perhaps that was the start of a lifelong pattern of asking men for advice, and then spurning it.
Developing identity as a poet
During the Civil War Dickinson developed her identity as a poet. Between the late 1850’s and the early 1860’s, she moved back in with her family where she spent time with her close friend Susan Huntington Gilbert and her brother whom Susan married. Emily built her own conservatory on the Homestead where she gardened and wrote.
“Deepening menace” of death
Dickinson was haunted by a “deepening menace” of death from a young age and was traumatized by the death of her loved ones. She describes this effecting her as “The Crisis of the sorrow of so many years is all that tires me.”
Religion provided solace and the theme of loss inspired her writing. She did not produce work to publish, make money or gain fame; she cared only to share her thoughts and writings with those close to her. Most of Dickinson’s poetry was private, although she wrote around 250 for her sister-in-law Susan and sent 100 to the Atlantic Monthly which featured poems by young people.
After living in Cambridge, MA for a short time to receive an eye treatment, Emily moved back to her homestead permanently, where she began writing manuscripts. Despite living a rather secluded life, her poetry reveals a deep understanding of love, loneliness, the natural world, and human nature in all its glory and sadness. Dickinson was inspired academically by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Reverend Charles Wadsworth, John Keats and Walt Whitman.
Discovering a trove of poems after death
On May 15, 1886, after several days of illness, Emily Dickinson died in her home. She was 55. After her death, around 1,800 poems were discovered by her younger sister Lavinia, a lifelong companion of Emily’s who lived a similar lifestyle. The poems were edited and published to fit the conventional rules of the era. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that Dickinson was given her due as a great poet. Today, it’s hard to argue that she is also one of the most beloved.
See also: 10 Well-Loved Poems by Emily Dickinson
More about Emily Dickinson on this site
Visit Emily Dickinson’s birthplace and home
- The Emily Dickinson Museum – Amherst, MA
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