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Definition: Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth from Philip's Encyclopedia

US poet. From the age of 30 she lived in almost total seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts. Dickinson wrote 1775 short lyrics, only seven of which were published in her lifetime. Poems by Emily Dickinson appeared in 1890, and her collected works were not published until 1955. They rank among the greatest works in American literature. Her rich verse explores the world of emotion and the beauty of simple things.


Summary Article: Dickinson, Emily 1830 - 1886 from The Cambridge Guide to Women's Writing in English

American poet. One of the great lyric poets of the English language, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, a New England college town where her father was a prominent local lawyer. Highly educated for a woman of her era, Dickinson studied a modern curriculum of English and the sciences at Amherst Academy, then attended newly founded Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later Mount Holyoke College) for a year before returning to Amherst, where she lived for the rest of her life, aside from short journeys. The informed, questioning intelligence and fearless emotional analysis of Dickinson's poetry contrast with a personal reticence that became reclusiveness: 'The Soul selects – her own Society' (c. 1862).

In the 1850s, New England culture had largely turned from Puritanism to the idealist Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Margaret Fuller. Dickinson loathed the 'magic prison' of Puritan belief, though some poems ambivalently long for heaven. She sometimes adopts Emerson's tropes of nature as transcendent 'Certainties of Sun – ', but other poems focus closely on the individual, often humble, object or act: a weed, a flower, the moment of death. Her pursuit of revelatory truth in object and act looks back to 17th-century metaphysical poets such as George Herbert, to Francis Quarles's Emblems, Anne Bradstreet and Edward Taylor. Like Shakespeare (a profound influence), she generated meaning through complex image clusters. Dickinson's short poems derived from ballad metre and the rhymed quatrain also link her poetics with hymnists such as Isaac Watts, and with children's poetry. When Dickinson fearfully asked Thomas Wentworth Higginson 'if my Verse is alive' in 1862, she was pushing out almost a poem a day, but knew that 'Civilization – spurns – the Leopard!' (the unconventional). Acknowledging her creative debt to female 'Tomes of solid witchcraft', Dickinson also identified strongly with contemporary women writers such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters and George Sand.

Although she never married, Dickinson had passionately felt relationships with both men and women. To bring her beloved friend Susan Gilbert closer, she urged her older brother Austin into his unhappy marriage with 'sister Sue'. Dickinson wrote poems of passion, poems whose speaker is bride or wife (she often wore an emblematic white dress). More depict anguish, loss, death: 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'; 'I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – '. The abject desire of her early 1860s 'Master' letters may have been addressed to the Revd Charles Wadsworth or the editor Samuel Bowles, but as Dickinson warned Higginson, 'when I state myself' as lyric speaker, it 'does not mean – me – but a supposed person'. Dickinson's broken or etiolated speaker (sometimes persona) acts as agency for the poems' drive toward pragmatic truths or paradoxes, their tone bitter, morbid, ironic, witty, playful or riddling.

Of Dickinson's 1,775 recorded poems, fewer than 20 were published during her lifetime. Abandoning the 'Auction' of publishing, she sent hundreds of poems to literary friends and family and also self-published, copying groups of poems into booklets or 'fascicles'. A posthumous poem selection by Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd led to others, including her sparkling letters, but only since Thomas H. Johnson's 1955 edition of Dickinson's Complete Poems and his 1958 Complete Letters (with Theodora Ward), has her writing been fully available as she wrote it. Reading Dickinson is thus a modern act. Dickinson's condensed, image-studded line anticipates 20th-century imagist poetry, though her range is greater. Her terse ambiguities are inexorably 'modern', and her work, now widely read, has impacted powerfully on women poets such as Sylvia Plath and Adrienne Rich.

-Helen Mcneil: Independent scholar/University of East Anglia

© Cambridge University Press 1999

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