Friday, March 25, 2005

Emily Dickinson.

As a young woman the intensely retiring Emily Dickinson sought her education at Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She began to write in the 1850s and her earliest poems were simple in form and sentiment with a sense of whimsy while her later poems became more complex and experimental. Her efforts toward concision often meant stripping her lines and sentences to their most basic form.

Experimenting to a large degree with off rhyme or near rhyme, the majority of her poems were not published until after her death. Not knowing her motives, editors significantly "corrected," her works by adding punctuation -- mistakes that still haunt many published editions of her poems. An authoritative variorum edition of her poems was not published until Thomas H. Johnson did so in 1955 -- nearly 70 years after Dickinson's death. Dickinson in died 1886 with over 1700 poems unpublished; shortly thereafter, between 1890-1891, her friends Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel L. Todd began a tradition of publishing her poetry in heavily edited, conventionalized form. Fearful of public reaction, the editors altered her meter and rhyme schemes, metaphors, and syntax, gutting her poetry of much that later generations would appreciate as original.

Heavily influenced by her Puritan upbringing and the Book of Revelation her metaphor and imagery were taken from a sharp observation of nature, as well as playful thought and witty expression like those of the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England. She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats. Rumored as being disgraceful Emily was dissuaded from reading the verse of her contemporary Walt Whitman, the two poets are now connected by the distinguished place they hold as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice.

Although Thomas Higginson recognized her genius and became her lifelong friend correspondent and literary mentor, it was Helen Jackson who tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to publish a collection of her poetry. After Dickinson's death nearly 2000 poems, many fragmentary were found among her papers and it was from this mass that Higginson and Todd edited the first published selection of her work, Poems (1890). Todd never spoke to Emily but glimpsed her once through a passageway flitting by in white, the only color Emily wore in her later years. The Copyright Notice by the University of Toronto Press notes:

She never married, however, in recent years research hints that Emily had two great loves. She wrote about her first love in the late 1850's and may have been a married Philadelphian clergyman by the name of Charles Wadsworth. Several of her poems apparently reflect this love and her personal struggle to transcend its disappointment. Around 1878 she fell in love with Otis P. Lord of Salem, Massachusetts, a close friend of her father; Lord's death in 1884 ended the relationship.

Mystical directness in her universal themes and expressions of intense personal feelings is comparable to the work found in British poet William Blake. Dickenson's poetry, consolidated into short stanza form, are most often composed in a few different combinations or more accurately versification of trimeter lines and iambic tetrameter. By using simple rhyming schemes and varying the effects of theses schemes with partial rhyming for example, tune with pain , a common device among many of her contemporaries. Using common words she draws remarkable implications by the suggestion of a meaning by a word apart from the thing it explicitly names at times with almost pedantic exactness. The titles of her posthumously published works are:

  • Poems: Second Series (1891)
  • Poems: Third Series (1891)
  • The Single Hound (1914)
  • Letters of Emily Dickinson (1931)

The copyright situation pertaining to the poetry of Emily Dickinson is very confusing because almost all of her poems were published after her death and circumstances around the first publications resulted in versions of the poetry that were often far different than the form of the poems as written by Emily Dickinson. If they are not in public domain please let me know so I may remove them.

Emily Dickinson created a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual edges by pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a "sheltered" woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in hesitations and humility. Dickinson died in 1886 on May 15th.


Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Selected Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

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