This Day In Writing History
On December 10th, 1830, the legendary poet Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a prosperous middle class family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was treasurer of Amherst College, (his father, Samuel Dickinson, co-founded the school) as well as a state legislator who served numerous terms of office over a 40-year period. Emily described him as warm and loving, while her mother was cold and distant. Emily had an older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia.
As a child, Emily Dickinson was well-behaved and displayed a gift for music, showing a particular talent for playing the piano. However, from the age of nine, she studied botany and tended the family garden with her sister. Emily collected pressed plants, and throughout her lifetime, assembled them in a 66-page leather bound herbarium, which would contain almost 425 specimens.
At the age of ten, Emily, along with her sister, enrolled at Amherst Academy, a former boys' school that began accepting female students two years earlier. Edward Dickinson bought a new home and moved the family in. Whenever their parents were absent, Emily and her brother Austin would pretend to be Lord and Lady Dickinson, the owners and rulers of the home. Since she was so distant from her mother, Emily turned to her brother for comfort whenever something befell her. "He was an awful mother," she wrote, "but I liked him better than none."
From a young age, Emily was troubled by the "deepening menace" of death, especially when she lost people close to her. When she was 14, the death of her second cousin and close friend Sophia Holland from typhus traumatized her. A year later, a religious revival took place in Amherst, with many people becoming born again Christians. Emily too became one of the faithful, but it didn't last. She ended her church-going a few years later, after which, she wrote a poem opining that "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church - / I keep it, staying at Home."
After graduating from Amherst Academy in 1847, Emily Dickinson enrolled at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, which would later become Mount Holyoke College. She remained at the Seminary for only ten months. Some say that she had become ill and was homesick, others have suggested that she disliked the teachers and rebelled against the school's evangelical fervor. Whatever the reason, her brother Austin brought her home, where she took over the household, keeping house and cooking for the family. She enjoyed attending activities and events in town.
At this time, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton became a Dickinson family friend and a mentor to the 18-year-old Emily. He introduced her to the works of William Wordsworth and gifted her with a copy of Ralph Waldo Emerson's first poetry collection. Newton held Emily in high regard and recognized her talent as a poet, but their relationship was most likely platonic. Sadly, he contracted tuberculosis, and as he lay dying of the disease, he wrote to Emily and told her that he would like to live long enough to see her become a literary success. He didn't. Emily would say of Newton, "When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality - but venturing too near himself, he never returned."
A few years later, in 1850, Emily was devastated again by the death of a close friend. Leonard Humphrey, her former prinicpal at Amherst Academy, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at a young age. Emily had other friends, including Susan Gilbert, her best girlfriend, who had been a classmate of hers at Amherst. Emily would write her over three hundred letters, more than she had written to anyone else. Their friendship was tempestuous, as Susan was often aloof and disagreeable, but she also played the role of Emily's muse and literary advisor. She would later marry Emily's brother Austin, but the marriage was not a happy one.
From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became bedridden, suffering from various chronic illnesses. She demanded that one of her daughters remain with her, so Emily assumed the responsibility. The strain of having to care for her cold and emotionally distant mother, as well as keeping up with the household chores, took a toll on Emily's mind. She began to withdraw more and more from the outside world, and became a recluse.
When she wasn't caring for her mother or keeping house, Emily wrote poetry and organized her large collection of manuscripts, rewriting, editing, and making clean copies of her poems. Over a seven-year period, from 1858 to 1865, she assembled 40 volumes containing nearly 800 poems. When Samuel Bowles, owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican newspaper, became a friend of the Dickinson family, Emily sent him over three dozen letters and nearly fifty poems. Their friendship brought out some of her most intense writing.
Around 1872, Otis Phillips Lord, a judge on the Massachusetts state Supreme Court, became an acquaintance of Emily's, and then, her friend. In Lord, she found a soul mate and kindred spirit who possessed similar literary interests and admired her poetry. After his wife died in 1877, scholars believe that Lord's relationship with Emily became a late-life romance, but this can't be proven because their letters were destroyed.
More deaths of loved ones traumatized Emily. In 1874, her father died of a stroke. Nearly a year to the day in 1875, her mother suffered a stroke that left her partially paralyzed. The increased demands her care required took a tremendous toll on Emily's mental and physical health. She continued to write, but stopped organizing her manuscripts. Her mother would live for seven more years. She died in 1882. The following year, Emily lost her favorite nephew, Gilbert, her brother's youngest child, when the boy died of typhus. Judge Lord fell ill and died in March of 1884.
Devastated and drained both mentally and physically, her health began to deteriorate. Emily Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886, at the age of 55. Her doctor listed the cause of death as Bright's disease, now known as chronic nephritis or inflammation of the kidneys. After Emily's death, her sister Lavinia kept the promise she made and destroyed all of Emily's letters. However, Emily did not request that her poems be destroyed. Although less than a dozen of them had been published during Emily's lifetime, Lavinia was shocked to find that her sister had written nearly 1,800 poems.
When Emily's poems were published anonymously by Samuel Bowles in the Springfield Republican, he had edited them considerably, and she complained that the edits changed the meanings of her poems. Emily wrote poetry in an experimental style, with unconventional capitalization and punctuation, extensive use of dashes, slant rhyme schemes, and idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery. Evidently, Bowles thought her style was too unconventional for Victorian readers. Her work would not be published in its original, unaltered format until 1955, when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems Of Emily Dickinson.
Today, Emily Dickinson is rightfully considered to be one of the greatest American poets of all time, and she remains a major influence on American poetical voice.
Quote Of The Day
"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry." - Emily Dickinson
Today's video features a reading of Emily Dickinson's classic poem, I Cannot Live With You, in a virtual movie that uses special effects to make the poet seem to read her own work. An amazing, but somewhat creepy video. Enjoy!