Emily Dickinson: Biography • Born the second of three children in Amherst, Massachusetts • Father was a lawyer and one of the wealthiest and most respected citizens in the town, as well as a conservative leader of the church • Dickinson grew up regularly attending services at the Congregational First Church of Christ (Congregational churches essentially followed the New England Puritan tradition) • She attended Amherst Academy, where she studied a modern curriculum of English and the sciences, as well as Latin, botany and mathematics
Dickinson seldom left Amherst • Her one lengthy absence was a year at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary (1847-48), in South Hadley, ten long miles away, where she was intensely homesick for her “own DEAR HOME.” • Dickinson declared home to be holy, “the definition of God,” a place of “Infinite power.” • She admired Ralph Waldo Emerson and his ideas, but did not go next door to meet him when he stayed there during a lecture tour in 1857.
Religion played an important role in her life. • Dickinson was terrorized by old-fashioned sermons about damnation and by the frequency of death in that age of high infant and childhood mortality. • As her friends moved away and got married, she gradually became estranged from the religious beliefs of her community.
Emily Dickinson: Biography • She spent sociable evenings with guests such as Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Daily Republican • She also enjoyed dancing, buggy rides, parlor games, and other forms of entertainment until she began to seclude herself • Around 1860, she stopped visiting with other people and became a recluse • In 1862, her poem “Safe in their alabaster chambers” appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican
While becoming more reclusive, Dickinson intensified correspondence with friends and output of poetry • She suffered from eye-trouble in 1864 and 1865 • The last 12 years she spent in self-imposed isolation in her parents’ home • Allegedly, Dickinson dressed entirely in white and communicated only indirectly with visitors and friends, from behind a folding screen or via notes and gifts in a basket she let down from her window into the garden • Her most productive period coincided with the civil war, during which she wrote about 800 poems
Literary Influences • She knew the poetry of Longfellow, Holmes, and Lowell. • She identified with Hawthorne’s isolated, gnarled, idiosyncratic characters. • Emerson was an enduring favorite. • She loved Thoreau, recognizing a kindred spirit in the independent, nature-loving man who delighted in being the village crank of Concord.
Other Influences • The Bible • Dead and living British writers • Her knowledge of Shakespeare was minute and extremely personal.
Dickinson’s Style Short Meter (188.8.131.52)--Dickinson found poetic freedom within the confines of this meter. A narrow Fellow in the Grass Occasionally rides-- You may have met him--did you not His notice sudden is--
Slant Rhyme Within the structure form of short meter, she multiplied possibilities by substituting consonance and assonance for rhyme. . . . Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash Upbraiding in the Sun When stopping to secure it It wrinkled and was gone-- Several of Nature’s People I know, and they know me-- I feel for them a transport Of cordiality--
Themes Dickinson often brought dazzling originality to overwrought topics. Life Love, including Marriage and the position of women in society. Nature--she was well-schooled in contemporary science. Time and Eternity Death and Mourning Religion and Faith Isolation and Depression Poetry and Language