By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is one of the most original poets of the nineteenth century. If we set her work alongside that of her contemporaries, perhaps it is only Walt Whitman, who pioneered free verse, and, in Britain, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who opted for ‘sprung rhythm’ over more traditional metre in his poetry, who seem to ‘match’ Dickinson for distinctive vitality and freshness of approach.
Dickinson’s life was uneventful in the extreme – so uneventful, in fact, that it becomes, in its own way, strangely fascinating. And her work is compelling for its refusal to play by many of the ‘rules’ of nineteenth-century verse. Let’s take a look at the curious life and work of Emily Dickinson, told through ten interesting facts about her.
1. During her lifetime, Dickinson was far better-known as a gardener than as a poet.
Dickinson put together her own little booklets or ‘packets’ of her poetry – sixty in total, forty-six of them compiled between 1858 and 1865, when she wrote the majority of her poems. However, the vast majority of her poetry remained unpublished at her death in 1886.
But the poet who wrote ‘New feet within my garden go’ was a keen gardener throughout her life: she wrote in one letter, ‘My flowers are near and foreign, and I have but to cross the floor to stand in the Spice Isles’. Judith Farr points out that few people knew that Dickinson wrote poems, and she was far better-known for her gardening while she was alive.
2. She was known as ‘the Myth’ and ‘the character of Amherst’.
Born in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830, Emily Dickinson would spend virtually all of her life within the same town (she briefly studied at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary elsewhere in Massachusetts but returned home soon after).
She was a hermit and lived a reclusive existence at her father’s home in Amherst, earning the nicknames ‘the Myth’ and ‘the character’ because few people saw her outside of the family home.
3. Indeed, it’s possible (probable?) that she was afflicted with agoraphobia.
Dickinson suffered from severe anxiety, which manifested itself as an abnormal fear of leaving her father’s house. If Dickinson were alive today, she would most probably be diagnoses with a severe agoraphobic syndrome.
We should be wary of making confident anachronistic (and retrospective) diagnoses of nineteenth-century poets, of course, but many biographers and scholars believe Dickinson’s unusual reclusive lifestyle bears the hallmarks of agoraphobia: a fear of being outside in large, open spaces.
4. Just ten of her poems – and one letter – were published during her lifetime.
In April 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a lecturer and essayist living in Worcester, Massachusetts, enclosing four of her poems. Dickinson was 31 years old at the time, and this is the first time that she had put her poems ‘out there’ for consideration.
Higginson was sufficiently impressed to request to read more of her poems, and in 1891, five years after Dickinson’s death, he recorded the ‘new and original poetic genius’ present in her poetry.
But during her lifetime, only 10 of her poems would see print. Several of these were published in newspapers, such as the Springfield Daily Republican, and others appeared in Drum Beat, a Civil War newspaper.
5. Her only poem to be published in a book before she died was ‘Success is Counted Sweetest’.
In 1878, Dickinson’s popular poem beginning ‘Success is counted sweetest’ became the only known publication in a book while she was alive. This was published in the anthology A Masque of Poets (Boston: Roberts Bros.).
6. Her first published piece was a Valentine letter, published when she was still a teenager.
In February 1850, when Dickinson was still only nineteen years old, she had a valentine letter published in the Amherst College magazine, Indicator. This is usually known by the title ‘Magnum bonum, harem scarum’, and can be read here.
7. She was a prolific poet who wrote almost 1,800 poems.
Dickinson’s Complete Poems contains a staggering 1,775 poems, many of them short lyrics, and majority written in her preferred stanza form (the quatrain; often she loosely followed the ballad metre).
Death is a prevalent theme in her poetry, although she also wrote beautifully about love (despite never marrying or having what could be called a ‘relationship’ as such), fame, cats, snow, and a myriad other topics.
8. When her poems were initially published, editors tried to ‘tidy up’ her verse by removing the dashes and employing more conventional punctuation.
In her witty poem ‘Emily Dickinson’, the contemporary British poet Wendy Cope reminds us that Emily Dickinson ‘liked to use dashes’ in place of full stops. But Dickinson’s innovations in poetry go far deeper than her trademark ‘dashes’.
She was also a pioneer of what is known as ‘slant rhyme’ or pararhyme: a form of nearly-rhyme where the words share consonant sounds but not the same vowel sounds.
For instance, in her well-known poem ‘I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died’, we find ‘Room’ ‘rhymed’ with both ‘Storm’ and ‘firm’, while in ‘They Shut Me up in Prose’, ‘Girl’ is paired with ‘still’.
9. She may have had romantic feelings toward her sister-in-law.
In 1998, the New York Times reported on an infrared technology study which revealed that much of Dickinson’s work had been deliberately censored – presumably by Mabel Loomis Todd, one of Dickinson’s first editors who helped to publish her work following her death – so that the name ‘Susan’ was removed from dedications to a number of the poems.
‘Susan’ is Dickinson’s sister-in-law, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. Some Emily Dickinson scholars believe that Dickinson harboured romantic feelings towards Susan, although this remains a matter of some debate.
10. Some critics regard her as one of the two greatest American poets of the nineteenth century.
Martin Seymour-Smith, in his colossal Guide to Modern World Literature, called Dickinson and Walt Whitman the only two great American poets the nineteenth century produced, not least because they are the only two American poets who innovated with what poetry could do (and with what it could be).