Emily Dickinson, a profile of the secret poet

A profile of poet Emily Dickinson. (Also a feature of March 2011 Women’s History Month)

Although you’ve probably read about her in school and been forced to analyze her most popular poems, there’s a chance that you might not have read Emily Dickinson’s poetry as she actually wrote it down, depending on the copy of the text that you read from.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson is an American poet who is well-known for her unique poetry style as well as her eccentric behavior.

About Emily Dickinson

Emily was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had two siblings, a solid family foundation, and was well educated.  Emily attended school at the Amherst Academy and the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but returned to her home and the quiet comforts that it offered her and took joy in maintaining the home and garden for her family.

Emily was considered strange by the residents of her hometown as she took to wearing white clothing much of the time, and also for her reclusive nature.  She eventually refused to come downstairs to greet her guests and sometimes would only hold conversations through the closed door of her bedroom. Even so, Emily was not without friends and confidants, as she maintained many relationships through written letters.

Emily Dickinson wrote alone in her room and peppered her frequent correspondence with her friends with her unique, stilted poems about death, immortality, and the passage of time. Nearby friends and family would receive gifts of poetry and bouquets of flowers from the Dickinson garden from time to time.

Letters … Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd
Listed on Biblio by James Cummins, Bookseller

The secret poet

She was a prolific poet, but a secret one. She kept the true amount of her poetry to herself, and only a small handful of poems were ever published during her lifetime.  Even those few poems were heavily edited and altered to fit a more traditional poetical format.

Dickinson’s poetry tended to be untitled, they contained abrupt lines, used slant rhymes, and strange capitalization and punctuation. This style caused many of her peers to assume that she was ignorant and untalented and caused many years of mixed reviews from critics.

Here is an example of Emily Dickinson’s poetry format, an untitled poem likely inspired while working in the garden of her family home:

A Burdock—clawed my Gown—
Not Burdock’s—blame—
But mine—
Who went too near
The Burdock’s Den—

A Bog—affronts my shoe—
What else have Bogs—to do—
The only Trade they know—
The splashing Men!
Ah, pity—then!

‘Tis Minnows can despise!
The Elephant’s—calm eyes
Look further on!

Emily Dickinson suffered great emotional strife after a series of deaths in her family in the 1880s, losing both her Mother and her favored niece. “The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come.” Deeply wounded by these tragedies, Emily fell ill and was bedridden until November 30, 1886.

Just before she passed, Emily Dickinson stopped editing her poetry and made her sister Lavinia promise to burn her personal papers upon her death.  It was while enacting this promise that Lavinia who discovered her elder sister’s hidden collection of nearly eighteen hundred poems and realized the depth of her work.  She strove to see Emily’s poetry published, and this was accomplished in 1890.

Poems – Dickinson. Second Series. Edited by Two of Her Friends, T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Listed on Biblio by Raptis Rare Books.

Emily’s work is finally published…kind of.

This first publication of Emily’s poetry was made by her acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd in 1890.  The content of this work was edited and altered with a heavy hand.  Most subsequent printings of Emily’s poetry were also heavily edited to fit the standards of the era, even going so far as to change her wording to make the rhymes more true. For example:

Original wording
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Revised version
I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense
Such a delirious whirl!

In 1955, scholar Thomas H. Johnson edited and published a three-volume set called The Poems of Emily Dickinson, the first major collection of Dickinson’s poetry. These works were printed almost verbatim from her original manuscripts, and arranged by number as they were untitled and not in a chronological order.

The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson was published in 1981 by Ralph Franklin.  This project used the clues in the original manuscripts to restore her poetry to their original order.

Although many readers did not appreciate or understand Emily’s work from the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s, she is now considered a major American poet and is taught in most literature classes in public schools.

Learn more:

Emily Dickinson Museum:  This lovely museum comprises The Homestead, the place where poet Emily Dickinson was born and lived most of her life, and The Evergreens, home of the poet’s brother and his family. They share three beautiful acres of the original Dickinson property in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts.


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  • Beautifully created website, what fun to see the artful sites that housed the poet. I have a heavy inkling that Sylvia Plath was a later reincarnation of Emily Dickinson but that’s mystical reality now made impossible to explore seriously by scientific dogma. The soul of a great poet is a true hallowed mystery. Thanks for keeping her alive for us.

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