Emily Elizabeth Dickinson is considered one of the greatest poets America has ever seen. She is frequently compared to other infamous poets such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charlotte Brontë. I’m sure most of you have heard one of her most famous poems, Hope is the Thing with Feathers:
“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…”
Despite her popular poetry, Dickinson’s life is not as well known. Did you know that Dickinson was in love with botany? Were you aware that not a single one of her poems were published in her lifetime? Did you know that she attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary? During her year at seminary, Dickinson frequently discussed faith and religion with the head of the school. Yet she was labeled “without hope,” as she did not wish to convert to Christianity.
Dickinson was the only “hopeless” student in the school. She later experienced a change of heart, writing to a friend, “I am not happy, and I regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian.” After her year at Mount Holyoke was over she returned home, but was equally unsatisfied. She hated the thought of becoming a proper young lady, setting aside her own interests, and helping with her household as was a custom during that time. Dickinson’s health declined and she started spending more and more time alone. She lived her whole life in the same home with her family, only going outside for school and other necessities. She spent much of her time adding to her huge herbarium, baking, and writing. Her family was mostly unaware of her poetry. It was only after her death in 1886 that her sister Lavinia discovered her hand-sewn books filled with nearly 1,800 poems.
Scholars have speculated over the cause of Dickinson’s seclusion. Many believe she suffered from anxiety,depression, or agoraphobia. These conditions also may have become a larger problem for Dickinson when she started taking care of her extremely ill mother, who passed away four years before Dickinson herself died. But nothing is known for certain. Dickinson was known as a hopeless recluse who avoided others and hated household chores with a passion. However,today she is known as one of the most important poets of her time. Her turbulent thoughts and painful emotions were the source of beautiful poetry. Her massive herbarium is now owned by Harvard University, and copies are available for purchase. Dickinson may have been suffering from a psychological condition such as depression, or she may have simply been an extreme introvert. But these hardships were the very thing that fueled Dickinson’s poetry. The story of Emily Dickinson is the story of beauty rising from the ashes.
A page from Emily’s herbarium
Here is a short collection of some of Emily Dickinson’s poems:
Luck is not chance:
Luck is not chance—
Fortune’s expensive smile
The Father of the Mine
Is that old-fashioned Coin
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
“Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson 16 August, 2019.
Paul Crumbley “Emily Dickinson’s Life.” Modern American Poetry. www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/bio.htm 17 August, 2019
Biography.com Editors “Emily Dickinson Biography.” Biography. www.biography.com/writer/emily-dickinson 17 August, 2019.
“I’m Nobody! Who are you?” Poets.org. poets.org/poem/im-nobody-who-are-you-260 17 August, 2019.
“Luck is not chance.” Poets.org. poets.org/poem/luck-not-chance-1350 17 August, 2019.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Poets.org. poets.org/poem/i-felt-funeral-my-brain-280 17 August, 2019.