Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson


Who Was Emily Dickinson?

Emily Dickinson left school as a teenager, eventually living a reclusive life on the family homestead. There, she secretly created bundles of poetry and wrote hundreds of letters. Due to a discovery by sister Lavinia, Dickinson's remarkable work was published after her death — on May 15, 1886, in Amherst — and she is now considered one of the towering figures of American literature.

Early Life and Education

Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her family had deep roots in New England. Her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was well known as the founder of Amherst College. Her father worked at Amherst and served as a state legislator. He married Emily Norcross in 1828 and the couple had three children: William Austin, Emily and Lavinia Norcross.

An excellent student, Dickinson was educated at Amherst Academy (now Amherst College) for seven years and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year. Though the precise reasons for Dickinson's final departure from the academy in 1848 are unknown; theories offered say that her fragile emotional state may have played a role and/or that her father decided to pull her from the school. Dickinson ultimately never joined a particular church or denomination, steadfastly going against the religious norms of the time.

Family Dynamics and Writing

Among her peers, Dickinson's closest friend and adviser was a woman named Susan Gilbert, who may have been an amorous interest of Dickinson's as well. In 1856, Gilbert married Dickinson's brother, William. The Dickinson family lived on a large home known as the Homestead in Amherst. After their marriage, William and Susan settled in a property next to the Homestead known as the Evergreens. Emily and sister Lavinia served as chief caregivers for their ailing mother until she passed away in 1882. Neither Emily nor her sister ever married and lived together at the Homestead until their respective deaths.

Dickinson's seclusion during her later years has been the object of much speculation. Scholars have thought that she suffered from conditions such as agoraphobia, depression and/or anxiety, or may have been sequestered due to her responsibilities as guardian of her sick mother. Dickinson was also treated for a painful ailment of her eyes. After the mid-1860s, she rarely left the confines of the Homestead. It was also around this time, from the late 1850s to mid-'60s, that Dickinson was most productive as a poet, creating small bundles of verse known as fascicles without any awareness on the part of her family members.

In her spare time, Dickinson studied botany and produced a vast herbarium. She also maintained correspondence with a variety of contacts. One of her friendships, with Judge Otis Phillips Lord, seems to have developed into a romance before Lord's death in 1884.

Death and Discovery

Dickinson died of heart failure in Amherst, Massachusetts, on May 15, 1886, at the age of 55. She was laid to rest in her family plot at West Cemetery. The Homestead, where Dickinson was born, is now a museum .

Little of Dickinson's work was published at the time of her death, and the few works that were published were edited and altered to adhere to conventional standards of the time. Unfortunately, much of the power of Dickinson's unusual use of syntax and form was lost in the alteration. After her sister's death, Lavinia discovered hundreds of poems that Dickinson had crafted over the years. The first volume of these works was published in 1890. A full compilation, The Poems of Emily Dickinson , wasn't published until 1955, though previous iterations had been released.

Dickinson's stature as a writer soared from the first publication of her poems in their intended form. She is known for her poignant and compressed verse, which profoundly influenced the direction of 20th-century poetry. The strength of her literary voice, as well as her reclusive and eccentric life, contributes to the sense of Dickinson as an indelible American character who continues to be discussed today.


  • Name: Emily Dickinson
  • Birth Year: 1830
  • Birth date: December 10, 1830
  • Birth State: Massachusetts
  • Birth City: Amherst
  • Birth Country: United States
  • Gender: Female
  • Best Known For: Emily Dickinson was a reclusive American poet. Unrecognized in her own time, Dickinson is known posthumously for her innovative use of form and syntax.
  • Fiction and Poetry
  • Writing and Publishing
  • Astrological Sign: Sagittarius
  • Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
  • Amherst Academy (now Amherst College)
  • Interesting Facts
  • In addition to writing poetry, Emily Dickinson studied botany. She compiled a vast herbarium that is now owned by Harvard University.
  • Death Year: 1886
  • Death date: May 15, 1886
  • Death State: Massachusetts
  • Death City: Amherst
  • Death Country: United States

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  • Article Title: Emily Dickinson Biography
  • Author: Biography.com Editors
  • Website Name: The Biography.com website
  • Url: https://www.biography.com/authors-writers/emily-dickinson
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  • Last Updated: May 7, 2021
  • Original Published Date: April 2, 2014
  • 'Hope' is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tunes without the words - And never stops - at all -
  • Dwell in possibility.
  • The Truth must dazzle gradually/Or every man be blind.
  • Truth is so rare, it is delightful to tell it.
  • If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?
  • Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne'er succeed./To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need.

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Biography of Emily Dickinson, American Poet

Famously reclusive and experimental in poetic form

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emily dickinson biographical essay

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Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) was an American poet best known for her eccentric personality and her frequent themes of death and mortality. Although she was a prolific writer, only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Despite being mostly unknown while she was alive, her poetry—nearly 1,800 poems altogether—has become a staple of the American literary canon, and scholars and readers alike have long held a fascination with her unusual life.

Fast Facts: Emily Dickinson

  • Full Name:  Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
  • Known For:  American poet
  • Born:  December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Died: May 15, 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Parents:  Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson
  • Education:  Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
  • Published Works: Poems (1890), Poems: Second Series (1891), Poems: Third Series (1896)
  • Notable Quote:  "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 Elizabeth Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer, a politician, and a trustee of Amherst College , of which his father, Samuel Dickinson, was a founder. He and his wife Emily (nee Norcross ) had three children; Emily Dickinson was the second child and eldest daughter, and she had an older brother, William Austin (who generally went by his middle name), and a younger sister, Lavinia. By all accounts, Dickinson was a pleasant, well-behaved child who particularly loved music.

Because Dickinson’s father was adamant that his children be well-educated, Dickinson received a more rigorous and more classical education than many other girls of her era. When she was ten, she and her sister began attending Amherst Academy, a former academy for boys that had just begun accepting female students two years earlier. Dickinson continued to excel at her studies, despite their rigorous and challenging nature, and studied literature, the sciences, history, philosophy, and Latin. Occasionally, she did have to take time off from school due to repeated illnesses.

Dickinson’s preoccupation with death began at this young age as well. At the age of fourteen, she suffered her first major loss when her friend and cousin Sophia Holland died of typhus . Holland’s death sent her into such a melancholy spiral that she was sent away to Boston to recover. Upon her recovery, she returned to Amherst, continuing her studies alongside some of the people who would be her lifelong friends, including her future sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert.

After completing her education at Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She spent less than a year there, but explanations for her early departure vary depending on the source: her family wanted her to return home, she disliked the intense, evangelical religious atmosphere, she was lonely, she didn’t like the teaching style. In any case, she returned home by the time she was 18 years old.

Reading, Loss, and Love

A family friend, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton, became a friend and mentor to Dickinson. It was most likely him who introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson , which later influenced and inspired her own poetry. Dickinson read extensively, helped by friends and family who brought her more books; among her most formative influences was the work of William Shakespeare , as well as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre .

Dickinson was in good spirits in the early 1850s, but it did not last. Once again, people near to her died, and she was devastated. Her friend and mentor Newton died of tuberculosis, writing to Dickinson before he died to say he wished he could live to see her achieve greatness. Another friend, the Amherst Academy principal Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly at only 25 years old in 1850. Her letters and writings at the time are filled with the depth of her melancholy moods.

During this time, Dickinson’s old friend Susan Gilbert was her closest confidante. Beginning in 1852, Gilbert was courted by Dickinson’s brother Austin, and they married in 1856, although it was a generally unhappy marriage. Gilbert was much closer to Dickinson, with whom she shared a passionate and intense correspondence and friendship. In the view of many contemporary scholars, the relationship between the two women was, very likely, a romantic one , and possibly the most important relationship of either of their lives. Aside from her personal role in Dickinson’s life, Gilbert also served as a quasi-editor and advisor to Dickinson during her writing career.

Dickinson did not travel much outside of Amherst, slowly developing the later reputation for being reclusive and eccentric. She cared for her mother, who was essentially homebound with chronic illnesses from the 1850s onward. As she became more and more cut off from the outside world, however, Dickinson leaned more into her inner world and thus into her creative output.

Conventional Poetry (1850s – 1861)

I'm nobody who are you (1891).

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!

It’s unclear when, exactly, Dickinson began writing her poems, though it can be assumed that she was writing for some time before any of them were ever revealed to the public or published. Thomas H. Johnson, who was behind the collection The Poems of Emily Dickinson , was able to definitely date only five of Dickinson's poems to the period before 1858. In that early period, her poetry was marked by an adherence to the conventions of the time.

Two of her five earliest poems are actually satirical, done in the style of witty, “mock” valentine poems with deliberately flowery and overwrought language. Two more of them reflect the more melancholy tone she would be better known for. One of those is about her brother Austin and how much she missed him, while the other, known by its first line “I have a Bird in spring,” was written for Gilbert and was a lament about the grief of fearing the loss of friendship.

A few of Dickinson’s poems were published in the Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868; she was friends with its editor, journalist Samuel Bowles, and his wife Mary. All of those poems were published anonymously, and they were heavily edited, removing much of Dickinson’s signature stylization, syntax, and punctuation. The first poem published, "Nobody knows this little rose,” may have actually been published without Dickinson’s permission. Another poem, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” was retitled and published as “The Sleeping.” By 1858, Dickinson had begun organizing her poems, even as she wrote more of them. She reviewed and made fresh copies of her poetry, putting together manuscript books. Between 1858 and 1865, she produced 40 manuscripts, comprising just under 800 poems.

During this time period, Dickinson also drafted a trio of letters which were later referred to as the “Master Letters.” They were never sent and were discovered as drafts among her papers. Addressed to an unknown man she only calls “Master,” they’re poetic in a strange way that has eluded understanding even by the most educated of scholars. They may not have even been intended for a real person at all; they remain one of the major mysteries of Dickinson’s life and writings.

Prolific Poet (1861 – 1865)

“hope” is the thing with feathers (1891).

"Hope" is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all And sweetest in the Gale is heard And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm — I've heard it in the chillest land — And on the strangest Sea — Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb — of Me.

Dickinson’s early 30s were by far the most prolific writing period of her life. For the most part, she withdrew almost completely from society and from interactions with locals and neighbors (though she still wrote many letters), and at the same time, she began writing more and more.

Her poems from this period were, eventually, the gold standard for her creative work. She developed her unique style of writing, with unusual and specific syntax , line breaks, and punctuation. It was during this time that the themes of mortality that she was best known for began to appear in her poems more often. While her earlier works had occasionally touched on themes of grief, fear, or loss, it wasn’t until this most prolific era that she fully leaned into the themes that would define her work and her legacy.

It is estimated that Dickinson wrote more than 700 poems between 1861 and 1865. She also corresponded with literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became one of her close friends and lifelong correspondents. Dickinson’s writing from the time seemed to embrace a little bit of melodrama, alongside deeply felt and genuine sentiments and observations.

Later work (1866 – 1870s)

Because i could not stop for death (1890).

Because I could not stop for Death— He kindly stopped for me— The Carriage held but just Ourselves— And Immortality. We slowly drove—He knew no haste, And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility— We passed the School, where Children strove At recess—in the ring— We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain— We passed the Setting Sun— Or rather—He passed Us— The Dews drew quivering and chill— For only Gossamer, my Gown— My Tippet—only Tulle— We paused before a House that seemed A Swelling of the Ground— The Roof was scarcely visible— The Cornice—in the Ground— Since then—'tis centuries— and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses' Heads Were toward Eternity—

By 1866, Dickinson’s productivity began tapering off. She had suffered personal losses, including that of her beloved dog Carlo, and her trusted household servant got married and left her household in 1866. Most estimates suggest that she wrote about one third of her body of work after 1866.

Around 1867, Dickinson’s reclusive tendencies became more and more extreme. She began refusing to see visitors, only speaking to them from the other side of a door, and rarely went out in public. On the rare occasions she did leave the house, she always wore white, gaining notoriety as “the woman in white.” Despite this avoidance of physical socialization, Dickinson was a lively correspondent; around two-thirds of her surviving correspondence was written between 1866 and her death, 20 years later.

Dickinson’s personal life during this time was complicated as well. She lost her father to a stroke in 1874, but she refused to come out of her self-imposed seclusion for his memorial or funeral services. She also may have briefly had a romantic correspondence with Otis Phillips Lord, a judge and a widower who was a longtime friend. Very little of their correspondence survives, but what does survive shows that they wrote to each other like clockwork, every Sunday, and their letters were full of literary references and quotations. Lord died in 1884, two years after Dickinson’s old mentor, Charles Wadsworth, had died after a long illness.

Literary Style and Themes

Even a cursory glance at Dickinson’s poetry reveals some of the hallmarks of her style. Dickinson embraced highly unconventional use of punctuation , capitalization, and line breaks, which she insisted were crucial to the meaning of the poems. When her early poems were edited for publication, she was seriously displeased, arguing the edits to the stylization had altered the whole meaning. Her use of meter is also somewhat unconventional, as she avoids the popular pentameter for tetrameter or trimeter, and even then is irregular in her use of meter within a poem. In other ways, however, her poems stuck to some conventions; she often used ballad stanza forms and ABCB rhyme schemes.

The themes of Dickinson’s poetry vary widely. She’s perhaps most well known for her preoccupation with mortality and death, as exemplified in one of her most famous poems, “Because I did not stop for Death.” In some cases, this also stretched to her heavily Christian themes, with poems tied into the Christian Gospels and the life of Jesus Christ. Although her poems dealing with death are sometimes quite spiritual in nature, she also has a surprisingly colorful array of descriptions of death by various, sometimes violent means.

On the other hand, Dickinson’s poetry often embraces humor and even satire and irony to make her point; she’s not the dreary figure she is often portrayed as because of her more morbid themes. Many of her poems use garden and floral imagery, reflecting her lifelong passion for meticulous gardening and often using the “ language of flowers ” to symbolize themes such as youth, prudence, or even poetry itself. The images of nature also occasionally showed up as living creatures, as in her famous poem “ Hope is the thing with feathers .”

Dickinson reportedly kept writing until nearly the end of her life, but her lack of energy showed through when she no longer edited or organized her poems. Her family life became more complicated as her brother’s marriage to her beloved Susan fell apart and Austin instead turned to a mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who Dickinson never met. Her mother died in 1882, and her favorite nephew in 1883.

Through 1885, her health declined, and her family grew more concerned. Dickinson became extremely ill in May of 1886 and died on May 15, 1886. Her doctor declared the cause of death to be Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys . Susan Gilbert was asked to prepare her body for burial and to write her obituary, which she did with great care. Dickinson was buried in her family’s plot at West Cemetery in Amherst.

The great irony of Dickinson’s life is that she was largely unknown during her lifetime. In fact, she was probably better known as a talented gardener than as a poet. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were actually published for public consumption when she was alive. It wasn’t until after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered her manuscripts of over 1,800 poems, that her work was published in bulk. Since that first publication, in 1890, Dickinson’s poetry has never been out of print.

At first, the non-traditional style of her poetry led to her posthumous publications getting somewhat mixed receptions. At the time, her experimentation with style and form led to criticism over her skill and education, but decades later, those same qualities were praised as signifying her creativity and daring. In the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest and scholarship in Dickinson, particularly with regards to studying her as a female poet , not separating her gender from her work as earlier critics and scholars had.

While her eccentric nature and choice of a secluded life has occupied much of Dickinson’s image in popular culture, she is still regarded as a highly respected and highly influential American poet. Her work is consistently taught in high schools and colleges, is never out of print, and has served as the inspiration for countless artists, both in poetry and in other media. Feminist artists in particular have often found inspiration in Dickinson; both her life and her impressive body of work have provided inspiration to countless creative works.

  • Habegger, Alfred.  My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.).  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson . Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.
  • Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson . New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
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A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson

A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson

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One of America’s most celebrated women, Emily Dickinson was virtually unpublished in her own time and unknown to the public at large. Today her poetry is commonly anthologized and widely praised for its precision, its intensity, its depth and beauty. Dickinson’s life and work, however, remain in important ways mysterious. This collection of essays, all of them previously unpublished, represent the best of contemporary scholarship and points the way toward exciting new directions for the future. The volume includes a biographical essay that covers some of the major turning points in the poet’s life, especially those emphasized by her letters. Other essays discuss Dickinson’s religious beliefs, her response to the Civil War, her class-based politics, her place in a tradition of American women’s poetry, and the editing of her manuscripts. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson concludes with a rich bibliographical essay describing the controversial history of Dickinson’s life in print, together with a substantial bibliography of relevant sources.

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Article contents

Dickinson, emily.

  • Molly McQuade
  • https://doi.org/10.1093/acrefore/9780190201098.013.680
  • Published online: 26 July 2017

A clear sign of literary malady: The experienced reader begins to take Emily Dickinson for granted, failing to feel the insoluble, salutary shock of her poetry. And the cure for this malady: try paraphrasing any poem by Dickinson. If you do, you'll quickly learn that you will probably never be able to satisfactorily summarize—or maybe even fully understand—Dickinson's recondite, elated originality. The writing will faithfully resist any effort to possess it completely; her poetry belongs to Dickinson only. Marvelously, though, many readers have been able to borrow it, admire it, and glean wisdom from the lapidary brio of the author. Although writing in literary seclusion in western Massachusetts during the mid to late nineteenth century , Dickinson invented a poetry both unprecedented in form and long-lasting in impact. She wrote as if to bid farewell to the Victorians and to urge on the modernists.

A Daughter and Her Precursors

Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a part of the New England region that often witnessed “the blazing up of the lunatic fringe of the Puritan coal,” as the contemporary American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has commented (McQuade, p. 33). Emily Dickinson's father, Edward , was the eldest son of Samuel Fowler Dickinson , a “flaming zealot for education and religion” (Bianchi, pp. 76–77) who wished with outstanding ardor for “the conversion of the whole world” (Bianchi, pp. 76–77). In his dedication to higher learning and the Protestant faith, Samuel Dickinson, lawyer and businessman, reflected the preoccupations of his neighbors in Amherst, a Puritan stronghold subject to periodic evangelical revivals.

His granddaughter Emily, although she did not profess the faith with his unbounded zeal, often concerned herself in her poems with the spiritual life. The following example delicately considers a supplicant's potential claims and merits before a singular and all-sufficient judge. (All quotations in this article are taken from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson , edited by Thomas H. Johnson , 1951 .)

Few, yet enough, Enough is One— To that etherial throng Have not each one of us the right To stealthily belong?

The uncanny unity of Dickinson's five lines embodies, with a selflessly ghostly reverence, both the divine unity of a god and the solitary, helpless unity of the lone congregant of one. In its absolute compression of form, the poem also supports its own claim of spiritual sufficiency.

Although Emily Dickinson's paternal grandfather served instrumentally in founding Amherst College, Samuel Fowler Dickinson did so at great cost to himself, neglecting his other affairs to his own financial injury and embarrassment: While still engaged in seeking funds for Amherst, he mortgaged all his property and then was unable to pay off the mortgages. As his firstborn son, Edward Dickinson was naturally compelled to make amends for his disgraced father, particularly after Samuel left Amherst in 1833 following foreclosure on his mortgages. The early burden of financial responsibility may have affected adversely the development of her father's character.

Edward Dickinson was for Emily, her older brother, Austin , and her younger sister, Lavinia , a distant though powerful figure whose law practice, various investments, political ambitions, and devotion to community service often combined to keep him from home during extended forays to Boston, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Thanks to Edward's drive to succeed, the Dickinson home in Amherst was handsomely appointed, the children were well provided for, and their father's presence on Sundays could be counted on. Merely by reading aloud to his family regularly from the Bible, he may have helped to assure his elder daughter's fascination with richly aphoristic language in particular and with rhetoric in general—with the full, roving scope of it, from scrupling understatement to rumbling hyperbole.

A Tacit Mother

Yet Edward's many absences also threw the younger Dickinsons into a greater dependency on their mother than might have been true otherwise. His growing distance from the family also isolated Emily Norcross Dickinson , his wife and their mother. Her steadfast resilience was demanded and perhaps not rewarded.

Regardless, Emily Norcross Dickinson would have been unlikely to provide perfect resilience under any circumstances, partly by dint of her innate temperament and partly due to her recurrent illnesses, which crimped her domestic role and abilities. Biographers have characterized Mrs. Dickinson as an uncommunicative, narrowly conventional farmer's daughter who did not receive from her husband the love or the support at home that a woman like herself would have needed.

If paternal absences and maternal silences, differently inflected, were facts of her home life from her earliest years, then perhaps Emily Dickinson learned the value, as well as the hardship, of tacit intimacy as a main bequest of the family. Tacit intimacy would rely on the listener's cultivated talent to interpret the unspoken—to “read” a silence, whether loving or troubled, intermittent or ongoing. The same interpretive talent also serves well a reader of Dickinson's spectrally concise poetry. The poetry's currency is silence as much as it is words:

My Cocoon tightens—Colors teaze— I'm feeling for the Air— A dim capacity for Wings Demeans the Dress I wear— A power of Butterfly must be— The Aptitude to fly Meadows of Majesty concedes and easy Sweeps of Sky— So I must baffle at the Hint And cipher at the Sign And make much blunder, if at last I take the clue divine—

No. 1099 Physically and emotionally constrained by an unspecified distress, the narrator of the poem is unable to perceive or to speak. Even so, she feels compelled to “baffle” and to “cipher” at evidence of the divine—to interpret even when interpretation seems all but impossible.

An Improper Puritan

Apparently the infant Emily Dickinson was never baptized, although her mother underwent a conversion experience only seven months after her birth and although Edward's family prayed fervently for him to follow suit. (Their prayers were rewarded.) Her brother Austin was the last to convert, in 1855 ; Emily never did.

Still, beginning with her earliest schooling locally in Amherst at the age of five, Dickinson was surrounded by an intense and intimidating aura of Puritan devotion. She most likely learned by heart many of Isaac Watts 's Divine and Moral Songs for Children ( 1788 ), for example. Watts's iambic rhyming quatrains embedded themselves in the poet's ear, as suggested in poem after poem by Dickinson, notably:

No Rack can torture me— My Soul—at Liberty— Behind this mortal Bone There knits a bolder One— You Cannot prick with Saw— Nor pierce with Cimitar— Two Bodies—therefore be— Bind One—The Other fly— The Eagle of his Nest No easier divest— And gain the Sky Than mayest Thou— Except Thyself may be Thine Enemy— Captivity is Consciousness— So's Liberty.

No. 384 Describing the freeing of the soul, this poem paradoxically engulfs its very own words mainly in iambic rhythms, thus suggesting the serious limitations attached to any state of spiritual consciousness.

In 1840 Dickinson began attending Amherst Academy, only recently opened to girls, and continued there as a student for seven years. One of her teachers, Daniel T. Fiske , described Emily at twelve as “very bright, but rather delicate and frail looking.” She impressed him as “an excellent scholar: of exemplary deportment,” and yet “somewhat shy and nervous. Her compositions were strikingly original” (Habegger, p. 152).

Part of Dickinson's originality may have suggested itself early in her inability to experience conversion. The revival fevers regularly sweeping the region claimed many souls who were thus ready to regenerate their religious dedication. The discomfort felt by abstainers must have been considerable, and it was not merely social in temper: During an era when illness could easily cut life short, a public and official renewal of one's faith would ease the passage to eternal life. Failure to renew, especially over the long term, would therefore require a rare sort of self-reliance, however subject to doubt. Indeed, the ability both to invite and to withstand recurrent doubt during the decades of her youth and maturity may imply that Dickinson did affirm faith but of another kind and in another light. In her poetry she subtly broached her heterodox faith:

We pray—to Heaven— We prate—of Heaven— Relate—when Neighbors die— At what o'clock to Heaven—they fled— Who saw them—Wherefore fly? Is Heaven a Place—a Sky—a Tree? Location's narrow way is for Ourselves— Unto the Dead There's no Geography— But State—Endowal—Focus— Where—Omnipresence—fly?

No. 489 Dickinson here expresses heretical doubt about the need of humans to specify, literalize, and “prate” about an afterlife, when all too evidently the dead have “no Geography.” Her asperity serves, however, the purpose of an unconventional devotion perhaps too great for words.

When in 1847 Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary as a student who boarded at the school in South Hadley, not far from her Amherst home, she might have hoped for a surcease of religious peer pressure, but she didn't get it. Here the pressure to renew her faith increased—and was less easy to escape from. During the Christmas season of 1847 , for instance, an audience of students was asked by Mary Lyon , headmistress of the school, to rise if they “wanted to be Christian” (Habegger, p. 201). According to an observer, Dickinson remained seated while everyone else stood. Moreover, her fellow students prepared written reports for inspection by authorities conceding Dickinson's continuing failure to conform in the faith (Habegger, pp. 202–203).

After School

When Dickinson left school for good in 1848 , she returned to live at home—with only a handful of interruptions or substantial excursions—for the rest of her life. Although for a time she continued to pursue a sometimes social existence in public, she gradually and famously withdrew until few outside the immediate family circle of her brother (and eventually his wife), her sister, her parents, and their servants regularly caught sight of her. Even esteemed guests might be turned away at her doorstep if the moment were not right; neighborhood children were well known to receive surreptitious baskets of her gingerbread, lowered from a window by the virtually invisible “Miss Emily.”

Although she was writing, at times furiously, from her twenties through her fifties— Dickinson died 15 May 1886 at age fifty-five—she chose voluntarily not to publish the poetry. Instead she circulated it selectively by inserting or weaving her poems into numerous informal notes and longer letters written and dispatched by mail or messenger to family and friends, whether distant or close at hand. (According to Victorian custom, she also bound her poems into stitched packets known as “fascicles” for the purposes of her own editing and revising.)

Any serious reader of Dickinson must thus contend, sooner or later, with the legend that surrounded and surrounds the writer as a self-anointed recluse without wings in the world. As her sister-in-law and confidant Susan Dickinson was to write in Dickinson's 1886 obituary, published in the Springfield Daily Republican : “Very few in the village, except among older inhabitants, knew Miss Emily personally, although the facts of her seclusion and her intellectual brilliancy were familiar Amherst traditions.” Dickinson herself cultivated her legend, not only by withdrawing but by doing so with a cunning theatrical panache. Her studied effort at self-characterization, even after her secession, left potent word of her in her wake as the woman in white who tended flowers, baked bread, cosseted children, and fashioned words into unusual artifacts.

Her “Lonely” Wisdom

Actually, Dickinson may have chosen wisely to secede from conventional life. Conventional life in western Massachusetts during the later nineteenth century would inevitably have meant marriage, the mortally dangerous matter of childbirth, and domestic subjection for decades to come, were the wife and mother to survive that long (many did not, despite all possible care). Thus, for a writer who happened to be female, the conventional life would have decreed the end of her writing. We would not have Emily Dickinson to read now if she had chosen to pursue the lot of an average woman of her place, time, and class.

Beyond those patent social constrictions, the poet also struggled against the apparently less insuperable bonds bestowed in any upstanding New England hamlet even when a respectable lady of the nineteenth century remained unmarried. One of those bonds must have been purely linguistic: the language of social custom and daily behavior. To conduct one's days and hours according to those linguistic conventions might impose an extreme or even cruel demand on someone such as Dickinson, whose genius was to speak and write as she knew how to and not as most did or were expected to. To obey such linguistic habits of diction, syntax, grammar, and rhythm on a regular basis would have annulled, transfixed, or strangled the language of her very genius—Dickinson would have seen her language taken from her. The acceptance of female subordination, in language as in most things, would only have intensified her need for liberty concerning words—a liberty always conditional and qualified yet undoubtedly more available within her family circle than outside of it. By minimizing in her own life social entanglements that would have corrupted her poetic language, Dickinson was seeking to preserve herself along with her writing.

Part of her uncanny intelligence was to work out a solution, according to her own necessary terms, with a boldness that disputes or negates her reputation, earned over time, for fearful retreats and sidling evasions. Rather than talk her life away on trivial social niceties, she conserved her singular verbal resources and decanted part of that stock into the famous handwritten missives, which sounded (and still sound) like no one else's. To her friend Elizabeth Holland , after Holland's visit, Dickinson dispatched the message:

The Parting I tried to smuggle resulted in quite a Mob at last! The Fence is the only Sanctuary.That no one invades because no one suspects it.

A contemporary reader cannot fail to notice the heightened aphoristic quality of this note, however quickly improvised it was.

To Adelaide Hills of Amherst, who never met Dickinson face to face, the poet wrote:

To be remembered is next to being loved, and to be loved is Heaven, and is this quite Earth?

Dickinson's rhetorical question provides an answer probably never foreseen or demanded by the recipient. She wrote to air her thoughts and secondarily to be heard.

To Sarah Tuckerman , another lady of Amherst never encountered in person, Dickinson mused at length:

I fear my congratulation, like repentance according to Calvin, is too late to be plausible, but might there not be an exception, were the delight or the penitence found to be durable?

Although the original context of the note is not known, Dickinson's words can be savored by any reader who appreciates extravagant and refined quibbling in a “routine” note of apology. By imposing on herself, and on others, the fastidious freedom to choose words, Dickinson surrounded herself with the art she most needed.

“A Susan of My Own”

Even while successfully negotiating the terms of her survival, however, the very private Dickinson was nonetheless confronted, as anyone would have been, by the commonplace calamities: illness and death, the wish for love, the denial of love, and the loss of love. Perhaps more than most people, she relied on intense friendships to help sustain her imaginatively, and yet she found them unreliable.

Because she lived in seclusion by choice, and because her poetry also steadfastly reflects the author's coveting of privacy, to read the life in the poetry is perilous, if not impossible. Likewise, to search the life for the origins of her poetry would be treacherous. It is more feasible to regard each arena, the life and the writing, separately. A survey of the leading people and events in Dickinson's adult life would fairly include the following.

A signal element until Dickinson's death was her long-term friendship with Susan Dickinson, who married her brother, Austin, in 1856 . She and Susan most likely met in Amherst during the late 1840s. The friendship was to mark her poetry decisively even when the two endured repeated fallings-out. Susan, an intelligent and sensitive woman close in age to Dickinson, shared with the poet a certain shrewdness and steeliness of temperament; she was also relatively tolerant of unconventional ideas and behavior. Susan was the intended audience and the frequent recipient of so many Dickinson letters and poems that even Susan must at times have felt overwhelmed or resentful. Also, as time passed and Susan bore several children, she found she had less time for the childless Emily and her seductively winning demands. Quarrels and estrangements disturbed them in 1854 and more protractedly in 1861 . Susan wrote Dickinson's obituary, however, and assisted with the posthumous editing and publication of her poetry.

To enjoy the full force of Dickinson's appeal to her friend, the evidence of the poet's letters and poems written for and to Susan is compelling. In the late 1870s, scholars estimate, Dickinson wrote this note to Susan in the form of a poem:

I must wait a few Days before seeing you—You are too momentous. But remember it is idolatry, not indifference. Emily. ( Open Me Carefully )

Dickinson charms by staging surprises meant to disarm and waylay the recipient.

On another occasion during the same era, she wrote to Susan:

To the faithful Absence is condensed presence. To others, but there are no others— ( Open Me Carefully )

Dickinson interrupted herself here in mid-sentence, precipitously dramatizing her deep regard for Susan.

And, with a renegade's childlike delight, Dickinson confessed:

To own a Susan of my own Is of itself a Bliss— Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord, continue me in this! ( Open Me Carefully )

What was the real nature of Susan and Emily Dickinson's long-lived mutual affinity? Suggests Adrienne Rich , “Obviously, Dickinson was attracted by and interested in men whose minds had something to offer her; she was, it is by now clear, equally attracted to and interested in women whose minds had something to offer her” (McQuade, p. 37). Rich elaborates: “Women [in the nineteenth century ] expressed their attachments to other women both physically and verbally; a marriage did not dilute the strength of a female friendship, in which two women often shared the same bed during long visits, and wrote letters articulate with both physical and emotional longing” (McQuade, p. 37).

In The Passion of Emily Dickinson , the Dickinson critic and scholar Judith Farr attributes ninety-four poems written by Dickinson as intended for Susan Dickinson, including numerous love poems. Like so much of Dickinson's private life, her relationship with Susan Dickinson remains enigmatic to us.

Letters to the Editor

In general, the 1850s were socially, emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually momentous years for Dickinson, despite or perhaps partly because of her seclusion. In 1853 she met Josiah Holland , literary editor of the Springfield Daily Republican , then a well-regarded newspaper, along with his wife, Elizabeth. Their company was stimulating. In 1858 she first met Samuel Bowles , the editor in chief of the Springfield paper for which Holland worked. Bowles's liberal politics included feminist leanings, unlike Holland's, and as the redoubtably busy boss of the paper he was able to give Dickinson much-valued indirect access into the world of public affairs as well as an audience of one for her letters and poems. (Bowles was introduced to her, as were others, when he visited the home of Susan and Austin Dickinson.)

On the other hand, just as momentously, in 1855 Dickinson heard the inspiring Charles Wadsworth preach in Philadelphia. Wadsworth seems to have impressed her with a spiritual quality of tormented eloquence that touched her as a woman and as a writer. Some biographers feel that Dickinson was seriously smitten with him and may have written some of her most recklessly erotic love poetry with him in mind.

Mr. Higginson

For the poet, 1862 was also a highly significant year, for it was then that Dickinson began to read the essays of Thomas Wentworth Higginson , an editor and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Emboldened partly by her enthusiasm for his observations of nature, she initiated a correspondence with him by sending him four of her poems. Higginson helped to fill the gap left in her spiritual and literary life after Wadsworth's 1862 departure for San Francisco and following her apparent quarrel with Bowles in the same year. Higginson's hidebound and conventional taste prevented him from savoring as he might have done Dickinson's achievement in poetry. Still, as a representative from the world of professional letters, such as it was, he eased her isolation.

Her father's death in 1874 was followed a year later by her mother's major stroke. As she had also done before during less threatening maternal illness, Dickinson offered primary care to her bedridden mother, although she was sharing their house with her sister, Lavinia. This added responsibility may partly account for the diminution of her writing from the fiendishly productive 1860s.

With one exception, all of Dickinson's suspected romantic interests (Wadsworth, for instance) led her to no tangible success. But in the early 1870s she became a friend of the prominent Judge Otis Lord while he was a guest of Austin and Susan . In the years after the death of his wife Elizabeth in 1877 , he began pursuing Dickinson and evidently sought to marry her. Although she shared his feelings, she decided against marriage.

She may have been wise to do so. The 1880s for the Dickinson family were parlous, for the long-married Austin Dickinson fell in love with Mabel Loomis Todd , the much younger wife, new in town, of a local professor. They carried on an active and long-lasting affair in his house and hers, to the grief of Susan and the supposed equanimity of the cuckolded husband. Although little known to Emily Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham later competed with Susan Dickinson and her daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi , in trying to bring Dickinson's poetry and her letters to publication after the writer's 1886 death from Bright's disease. Although she wrote poetry in secret and asked that her letters be destroyed on her demise, Dickinson left an immense cache of fascicles behind her, surprising everyone.

All in all, hardly a life empty of significant action. However, Dickinson's most significant life was given to and conducted through her poetry. While it is impossible to do justice to the body of her work, numbering 1,789 poems and three volumes of letters, many critics have tried and are still trying—among them Helen Vendler , Sharon Cameron , Judith Farr, Richard B. Sewall , R. W. Franklin , Thomas H. Johnson , Denis Donoghue , and others.

As Richard B. Sewall , a preeminent Dickinson critic and biographer, put it in 1963 , “We still are not quite sure of her. We ask and ask.” Perhaps it is better to keep asking, even now.

Dickinson's Dash

One of the first questions a new reader of Emily Dickinson might justifiably ask is about the rate of speed pulsing through her generally very short poems. The staccato quickness of much Dickinson poetry is achieved partly by use of her iconoclastic punctuation, most notably by her multiple dashes. The dashes, introduced at the ends of lines or as a fleeting intersection at a line's midpoint, quicken some of the poems by bifurcating them, as if a gasp is being uttered as the poem goes on running.

Her dashes, while mandating fragmentation, also serve to unite a poem's various fragments—syntactic, rhythmic, metaphoric—into a composite fragment, a whole made up of undisguised parts. The dashes may also summon up for some readers the sensation of abridgment, curbing or cutting as they do the poem's approaches to a thought or thoughts. Dickinson's poems typically record the motion of her mind as she thinks in and through the words. Her dashes take fast steps forward that also exert a retractive pull, holding back when a poem seems impelled or poised to spill headlong out of itself.

The Wick and the Flame

Many of Dickinson's poems show her interest in speed as a verbal mode. One poem that does so with finely adumbrated irony is No. 233.

The Lamp burns sure—within— Tho' Serfs—supply the Oil— It matters not the busy Wick— At her phosphoric toil! The Slave—forgets—to fill— The Lamp—burns golden—on— Unconscious that the oil is out— As that the Slave—is gone.

The confident writer here contrives a richly simple scene that burgeons quietly into metaphor. The scene: A kerosene lamp, dependent upon oil as its fuel, continues to burn its wick (the source of the lamp's light) despite the gradual exhaustion of the oil, which the “slave” does not happen to refill.

As long as the oil exists in good supply, the wick “matters not,” for the oil will enable the flame to burn. But once the oil has vastly diminished, the wick takes precedence, persevering despite the lack of both oil and attendant “slave” to aid the flame. What Dickinson does not say directly: Only the wick can burn in a kerosene lamp, and so without the wick a lamp cannot shed any light. As physically the smallest and visually the most recondite element, the wick—typically just a bit of densely knitted fabric or thread—is nonetheless the most significant constituent of lamp and light, selflessly and singularly enabling our sight by which to read.

Like the wick she cites, Dickinson's insight about the wick and its flame lies submerged in the body of the poem, which is itself like a lamp radiating intelligence as a deceptively modest essential ingredient—as, in other words, the poem's flame. Yet Dickinson employs her dashes here to qualify and cast doubt on the seeming stability of both the poem and the lamp it evokes.

The dashes undermine the lamp's security, which is as fleeting as the ever-consumed oil that dwindles in the vessel of the lamp. Dashes also dramatize the oncoming extinction of the flame igniting the ultimately oil-less wick. In a line such as “The Lamp—burns golden—on—” the dashes overtly dispute the lamp's observed action, eroding the announced continuity of light and instead imitating the unsure flickering of a guttering flame. But because Dickinson chooses not to visualize the flame's death, she leaves us with a paradoxical closing impression: of steadfastness in a state of conscious uncertainty.

That state is finally the poet's, since she is the author of the metaphorical lamp. In the poem, Dickinson ironically salutes her own indentured and overlooked strength. The self-effacing writer, like the wick, rests on her own unsteady bravado as creator while her sustenance and stamina recede.

Although the critic R. P. Blackmur has voiced a negative view of Dickinson's dashes, he also clarified her use of them for his own earlier critical era, claiming that her dashes acted as musical notation for her words, which he compared with musical notes. The notation of the dashes was, Blackmur argued, inadequate to guiding the reader through Dickinson's ambiguous “music.” Even so, the very inadequacy of the notation encouraged successively different readings (or hearings) of any given Dickinson poem, thus highlighting and serving her propensity for lyric freedom.

Failing at Sea

Similarly, in poem No. 226, Dickinson employs dashes.

Should you but fail at—Sea— In sight of me— Or doomed lie— Next Sun—to die— Or rap—at Paradise—unheard— I'd harass God — Until He let you in!

Here the dashes insinuate an implicit undertone in the action of the poem and comment on it. This seven-line poem lacks the visual symmetry of the previous poem's twinned quatrains, and unlike No. 233, No. 226 also begins on an emphatically subjunctive note of unconfirmed future possibility. “Should you but fail at—Sea—” reads the first line, with seemingly gratuitous paired dashes fluttering up at its end. What could be the connotative meaning of those pronounced dashes?

At the very least, the dashes interject further doubt into the already unsure “sea” of the first line, where the identity of the “you,” the locale of the “sea,” and the full meaning of the anticipated “failure” all remain hazardously unknown. As the reader's eye travels down the lines of the poem, that eye is rocked by an unstable wake, thanks mainly to Dickinson's dashes.

She resolves No. 226 with a countervailing irony utterly unlike that imbuing poem No. 233. For after conjecturing the various possible future fates of the “you” addressed in No. 226, fates of doom and suspected expiration, the poem's narrator insists that she will save the day if need be: she'll “harass God” to forestall disaster and grant the “you” safe passage into heaven. While Dickinson may be mocking her own powers before God, she also asserts these powers merrily by crafting the poem in the first place, by summoning and then puckishly solving the poem's challenges. As an author she permits herself a godly kind of mischief.

Hymns and Anti-Hymns

Emily Dickinson's mischief-making tendencies, whether construed from punctuation or by other means, were tempered almost always by her poetry's reliance on hymn meters, ranging from “common meter” (an eight-syllable line followed by a six-syllable line) to “short meter” (two six-syllable lines followed by a line of eight syllables followed by a line of six syllables) to “long meter” (lines of eight syllables only).

Hymn meter typically occurred in four-line stanzas and in Dickinson's work included mainly iambic or trochaic metrical patterns. The regularity of hymn meter gave Dickinson's poetry a steady base to work with and to deviate from, as well as a specifically liturgical point of origin for earthly and spiritual meditations alike. As the eminent Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson has noted, Dickinson often mingled different hymn meters within a single poem and varied exact rhymes with imperfect and suspended rhymes. With the passing of time, she asserted with increasing frequency her right to expressive liberties.

As the contemporary Dickinson critic Timothy Morris has observed more recently, Dickinson's approach to rhyme developed comprehensively over her career. In her first poems, written during the first half of the 1850s, she preferred exact rhyme. Later in the same decade, she experimented consistently with what Morris calls “a much less conventional rhyming,” meaning a less regular and a more sonically subtle kind.

As Morris has proved by surveying analytically her poems by year of composition, Dickinson also imposed another signature innovation upon hymn form: She typically enjambed her lines, whereas the lines of hymns are traditionally end-stopped. Enjambment—in which the end of one line continues, in its syntactical organization and in its sense, into the next line—confers on Dickinson's poetry a supple speed of impetus and delivery that would have been wholly exotic to hymn lyrics. Although Dickinson's early work contains end-stopped lines, Morris's quantitative analysis has demonstrated that over the years she increased the prevalence of enjambed lines in the poetry.

Clearly Dickinson was a poet who counted and measured even while she worked to subvert traditional forms. Why did she choose to subvert at all? Was the impulse a well-considered one?

Rules of Subversion

Some of her poems, devoted to fathoming nullity or immensity as a spiritual quantity, may offer a partial answer to the question. For example, consider poem No. 546:

To fill a Gap Insert the Thing that caused it— Block it up With Other—and 'twill yawn the more— You cannot solder an Abyss With Air.

The six lines of this poem, ranging dramatically in their length, seek, at least nominally, to provide a sort of prescription for the writing of a poem—at least, for a certain kind of poem as it might be written by a certain kind of poet.

“To fill a Gap,” begins the poem in its prescription, “Insert the Thing that caused it.” The counsel offered is so matter-of-factly pragmatic as to foretell the construction of this very poem. What is the Gap except the space between what may be left unsaid and what might instead be written?

If the poet fails to express herself, then the gap must remain as it is; she would thus prolong the gap. To “block it up” may serve to fill it but will also meanwhile press upon the edges of the gap, widening it. In other words, each poem presses on its own borders and presses against other poems, written or yet to be written. Although writing may fulfill the momentary beckoning of an unwritten poem, writing cannot conclude the greater work of poetry, which expands in its possibilities with each word written. Like a cubist ahead of her time, Dickinson seems to envision a poetry of shifting juxtapositions that will never fully occupy or settle the space of poetry or the mind that creates it.

If all poetry remains provisional and unfinished, forever shifting in place and extending in dimension, then the poet might do well to reflect such material facts of aesthetic life in the form of the poems she writes. The visual “yawning” of this poem does just that by carving gaps into itself and defying its own finishing. By closing her auspicious first line with the word “Gap” and by concluding her oracular last line with the word “Air,” with both words capitalized like Platonic ideals or like reigning gods, Dickinson seems to salute the poem's ability to unmake itself, whatever the will of the poet.

Creation, especially for a maverick Puritan such as Dickinson, would needfully call to mind and into question the poet's heterodox and troubling position as a would-be rival of God. To concede truthfully the necessary originality of the poet in the effort of creating, she may have refused to mimic poetic tradition or to venerate theological orthodoxy. Creation by either God or man must, by definition, forgo mimicry and commit originality; formal rebellion may further poetic justice.

Beyond Ingenuity

Not even Dickinson's formal ingenuities should distract a reader for too long from what she writes about and how she feels—or how the poems feel. A fact of continual amazement in her poetry is the exacerbated emotion that infuses, with terrific selectivity, phrases and lines and single words that otherwise might mainly suggest by their spare singularity the poet's unusual restraint in writing.

Such emotion flourished with Dickinson's extreme verbal scruples and with her dictional precision. She relied on relatively few words to do the work and play of a poem, yet the combined effects of syntax, rhythm, diction, rhyme, and metaphor in her writing confer an uncanny power on the slimmest scaffolding. She was able to economize marvelously, seizing smallness and wringing it for feeling. Her style was grandly parsimonious.

Dickinson's poem No. 365, beginning with the line “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat ?,” shows what may be asked by her poetry of reader and writer alike.

Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat? Then crouch within the door— Red—is the Fire's common tint— But when the vivid Ore Has vanquished Flame's conditions, It quivers from the Forge Without a color, but the light Of unanointed Blaze. Least Village has its Blacksmith Whose Anvil's even ring Stands symbol for the finer Forge That soundless tugs—within— Refining these impatient Ores With Hammer, and with Blaze Until the Designated Light Repudiate the Forge—

To see the ore that “quivers from the Forge / Without a color” is to see the soul fully ignited and refined, a vision beyond the scope and ability of most eyes. To recognize the ore so vividly colorless demands a courageous, penetrating glance. So does Dickinson's poetry.

Nature is What We Know

Visual perception was a mainstay of Dickinson's writing, nowhere more so than in her many poems observing nature. “ ‘Nature’ is what We know” she declared, “But have no Art to say.” Nature's art guided Dickinson's.

She conceived exquisitely stark and airborne metaphors of a bee's erotic conquests in poem No. 1224:

Like Trains of Cars on Tracks of Plush I hear the level Bee— A Jar across the Flowers goes Their Velvet Masonry Withstands until the sweet Assault Their Chivalry consumes— While He, victorious tilts away To vanquish other Blooms.

The workaday bee, who nonetheless seeks sexual “Plush,” finds it over and over again in the open (ajar) blossoms, whose “Velvet Masonry” excitingly evokes both a watertight floral construction and the possibility of entering it rapturously. Dickinson's unexpected merger in her metaphor of love with business eroticizes each, as though pollinating both. The poem marks a conquest of its subject, inspecting bee and flower as if conducting an “assignment” in love.

Another remarkable piece of more extended natural observation, poem No. 1575, describes the bat as a sort of anti-poet who is unable to sing anything. Yet Dickinson's eye lingers upon him with a covetous adoration.

The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings— Like fallow Article— And not a song pervades his Lips— Or none perceptible. His small Umbrella quaintly halved Describing in the Air An Arc alike inscrutable Elate Philosopher. Deputed from what Firmament— Of what Astute Abode— Empowered with what Malignity Auspiciously withheld— To his adroit Creator Ascribe no less the praise— Beneficent, believe me, His eccentricities—

To visualize inscrutability in a creature is not far removed from conducting the devotional duty of a congregant, which may help to explain why the poem moves, in the last stanza, to consider the bat's creator. Immaculately imperfect—“dun, with wrinkled Wings”—the animal is as such doubly desirable and infinitely beloved. Dickinson's fine and sharp portrait leaves out so much that what persists is unforgettable, fiercely and religiously real.

Sorest Need

“There is a word / Which bears a sword / Can pierce an armed man—,” wrote Dickinson in poem No. 42. Although that metaphor is for this poet relatively undistinguished, even mundane, her poetry aims to pierce in just such a way, and her narrators tend to welcome their share of piercing too.

“I like a look of Agony,” reflects the speaker in poem No. 241, “Because I know it's true—.” To be properly felt, truth must wound, as when, in poem No. 561, “I measure every Grief I meet / With narrow, probing, Eyes—/ I wonder if It weighs like Mine—/ Or has an Easier size.” Poetic readiness was for Dickinson cued by pain, well received. “To comprehend a nectar,” she wrote, “Requires sorest need.”

Even so, her writing thrives on indirection as a technique, on the avoidance of explicit statements. When Dickinson's poetry is at its most cryptic and unfathomable, the writer seems to claim a stance of diabolical removal, deitylike, from which to preside, overlook, and administer. The stance recalls that of the lordly “He” in poem No. 315:

He fumbles at your Soul As Players at the Keys Before they drop full Music on— He stuns you by degrees— Prepares your brittle Nature For the etherial Blow By fainter Hammers—further heard— Then nearer—Then so slow Your Breath has time to straighten— Your Brain—to bubble Cool— Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt— That scalps your naked Soul— When Winds hold Forests in their Paws— The Universe—is still—

The artful inevitability of death needs no announcing, all the more so as the mortal mind could not understand death anyhow.

A Dimple in the Tomb

Dickinson's mind enjoyed danger and was wont to frisk with it. Her poem No. 1489 can be read as a mordantly earnest wisecrack.

A Dimple in the Tomb Makes that ferocious Room A Home—

For the legendary secluded one, a sepulchral dimple was perhaps a redeeming joke.

When writing with the fewest possible words, as above, Dickinson seemed to compress and expose at once, to speak translucently in order to mete out a transporting justice. In the process, “she” vanished in the purity of her sight and insight. Although unmistakably hers, the poetry aspires to a wayward disappearing act:

By homely gifts and hindered Words The human heart is told Of Nothing— “Nothing” is the force That renovates the World—

See also Poetess in American Literature, The .

  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1951; edited by Thomas H. Johnson )
  • The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958; edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward )
  • Selected Letters of Emily Dickinson ( 1971 ; edited by Thomas H. Johnson )
  • The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson ( 1986 ; edited by R. W. Franklin )
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson ( 1998 ; edited by R. W. Franklin )
  • Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson ( 1998 ; edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith )

Further Reading

  • Bianchi, Martha Dickinson . Emily Dickinson Face to Face . Hampden, Conn., 1932.
  • Cady, Edwin H. , and Louis J. Budd , eds. On Dickinson: The Best from American Literature . Durham, N.C., 1990. An up-to-date anthology of criticism, originally published in the scholarly journal American Literature , on such topics as Dickinson's style, her links with the metaphysical poets, and “thirst and starvation” as a theme in her writing.
  • Cameron, Sharon . Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre . Baltimore, 1979. Analysis of Dickinson's use of time in her writing.
  • Cameron, Sharon . Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles . Chicago, 1992. A leading contemporary Dickinson scholar's contribution to the field.
  • Farr, Judith . The Passion of Emily Dickinson . Cambridge, Mass., 1992. An incisive investigation of Dickinson's love poetry.
  • Farr, Judith . I Never Came to You in White . Boston, 1996. An epistolary novel, based on fact, about Dickinson's schooldays, written by the Dickinson scholar.
  • Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson . Boston, 1976. A compact biographical and critical study.
  • Gelpi, Albert . The Tenth Muse: The Psyche of the American Poet . New York, 1991. This collection of Gelpi's criticism includes the essay “The Self as Center,” a highly regarded work of Dickinson criticism.
  • Gilbert, Sandra M. , and Susan Gubar . The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination . New Haven, Conn., 1979. Includes a chapter offering a substantial and significant feminist reading of Dickinson.
  • Habegger, Alfred . My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York, 2001. A much-praised full-length biography of Dickinson.
  • Howe, Susan . My Emily Dickinson . Berkeley, Calif., 1985. The noted contemporary American poet's ruminations on Dickinson.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson . 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1951.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography . Cambridge, Mass., 1955. A significant contribution to Dickinsoniana.
  • Leyda, Jay . The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1960. Essential reading.
  • McQuade, Molly , ed. By Herself: Women Reclaim Poetry . St. Paul, Minn., 2000.
  • Sewall, Richard B. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays . Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1963. Essays by Thomas H. Johnson, R. P. Blackmur, Louise Bogan et al, that give a sense of how critical reactions to Dickinson have changed over time.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York, 1974. A milestone in the field of Dickinson studies.
  • Ward, Theodora Van Wagenen . The Capsule of the Mind: Chapters in the Life of Emily Dickinson . Cambridge, Mass., 1961. Useful early work on the poet.

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Emily Dickinson: Suggested Reading

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Collected Poems

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson . Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960. The definitive collected poems, with restoration to the original punctuation and capitalization, arranged, as much as possible, in chronological order.

Franklin, R.W., ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press/Harvard University, 1981. The most recent incarnation of Dickinson’s poems, presented as she wrote them, with all their variants of punctuation, capitalization, and arrangements on the page. Many do not fall into such neat hymn patterns as earlier publications suggested.

Biography and Letters

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson . Modern Library: New York, 2001. This recent biography includes the significant feminist scholarship accrued since Richard B. Sewall’s lauded 1972 biography, and is worth reading for this perspective as well as a devotion to overlooked Dickinson poems.

Howe, Susan . My Emily Dickinson . North Atlantic Books: Berkeley, California: 1986. A personal, poetic, and accessible entrance into the world of Emily Dickinson that mixes biography and criticism.

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Emily Dickinson Selected Letters . Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1971. Edited by Thomas Johnson, who compiled the definitive collected poems, these letters show an astounding variety of wit, poetics, and personality, giving us perhaps the truest biography—though, following her own rule, she chose in the many letters of her lifetime to “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant,” revealing more moods and modes of thought than concrete biographical detail.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson . Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1972. Winner of the National Book Award. Widely considered to be the best biography for accuracy and richness of biographical detail.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson . Perseus Books: New York, 1986. A good critical biography and exploration of the intersection between her life and works.

Martin, Wendy, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2002. A collection of essays by notable Dickinson scholars that address historical, thematic, and poetic issues over the scope of her poetry.

Farr, Judith, ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Articles . New Century Views: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1996. A collection of essays, mostly focused on Dickinson’s poetics.

Anderson, Charles R. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry . Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1960. A classic critical work on Dickinson’s poems that explores what Anderson believes to be the "major" poems from various angles such as "wit," "circumference," and "process."

Translating Emily: Digitally Re-Presenting Fascicle 16 . Traces historical publishing variants of an entire fascicle and presents a scanned version of the pages. A great way to study the regularization of the dash in a handful of poems.

Suggested Poems

After great pain, a formal feeling comes (352) Because I could not stop for Death (712) Fame is a fickle food (1659) I cannot live with You (640) I dwell in possibility (657) I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (280) I heard a Fly buzz (465) I measure every Grief I meet (561) I taste a liquor never brewed (214) I'm Nobody! Who are you? (288) The Soul selects her own Society (303) The Soul unto itself (683) There's a certain Slant of light (258) They shut me up in Prose (613) To make a prairie (1755) What Soft Cherubic Creatures (401) We play at Paste (320)

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In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Emily Dickinson

Introduction, general overviews.

  • Bibliographies
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Emily Dickinson by Paul Crumbley LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2022 LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012 DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0008

Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830, in the house known as the Homestead, which was built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She would die in the same house on 15 May 1886, but the life she led during her fifty-five years reached far beyond the confines of that single house or the rural community of Amherst. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer and civic leader who held political office for brief periods on the state and national levels; her mother, Emily Norcross, came from a prominent family in nearby Munson. Emily led a happy childhood that included warm relationships with her older brother, Austin; her younger sister, Lavinia; and many friends. Her formal education included a solid grounding at the Amherst Academy and a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. One of Dickinson’s first notable expressions of independence was her refusal to join family and friends who professed their faith as part of the series of religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening, which peaked in Amherst c . 1850. As the 1850s advanced, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive, such that by the mid-1860s she rarely left the family property. It was during this period that Dickinson was most dedicated to writing poetry, producing the forty small manuscript books known as fascicles between 1858 and 1864 and completing more than two hundred poems a year in 1862, 1863, and 1865. The fascicles represent a form of domestic publication that Dickinson preferred to print publication, largely because she wanted to preserve poetic innovations, such as her dashes, unusual capitalization, and slant rhyme, that she knew editors would normalize. The ten poems published during her lifetime, all anonymously and without her permission, were modified by editors, justifying her concerns. To secure a readership for her poems while also retaining editorial control, Dickinson sent out at least a third of her poems as part of an extensive correspondence. Her closest friend was her sister-in-law and neighbor, Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Austin’s wife. Dickinson communicated with Susan almost daily, frequently sending her poems. Another important correspondent was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a well-known writer and political activist who contributed regularly to the Atlantic Monthly . Dickinson sent Higginson many poems and openly discussed publication, repeatedly asserting that she had no desire to enter print. Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood friend of Dickinson’s and a well-known poet, aggressively urged Dickinson to publish her poems, despite Dickinson’s continued resistance. It was finally Higginson, together with Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of the Amherst College astronomer David Todd and Austin’s mistress, who edited and published Dickinson’s poems, in 1890.

The works listed here provide broad discussions of Dickinson that summarize key features of her life, identify central themes, touch on primary formal issues, and look at representative poems and letters. All these books are designed as introductions for readers approaching Dickinson for the first time and tend to be relatively short. Pickard 1967 is the earliest work included and offers a good discussion of Dickinson’s artistic achievement. Ferlazzo 1984 , Dickenson 1985 , Robinson 1986 , Knapp 1989 , and Kirkby 1991 all appeared in less than ten years and are similar in their attention to specific poems and their efforts to model reading practices; of these, Kirkby 1991 is particularly accessible and engaging. Martin 2007 challenges the myth of Dickinson as poet, stressing her engagement with the world. Smith 2007 is the most recent introductory work listed here and the one most attuned to digital resources.

Dickenson, Donna. Emily Dickinson . Berg’s Women. Dover, NH: Berg, 1985.

Dickenson pays particular attention to the multiple meanings supported by Dickinson’s poems. She does a good job of presenting the compression and complexity essential to Dickinson’s poetic form.

Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson . Twayne’s United States Authors. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Ferlazzo discusses key poems according to familiar subject categories, such as faith, mortality, love, and nature. The book is notable for its focused study of particular poems.

Kirkby, Joan. Emily Dickinson . Women Writers. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1991.

Kirkby’s brief introductory volume offers a short biographical essay and an overview of major subjects: nature, the gothic, gender identity, artistic self-creation. Kirkby primarily examines Dickinson’s understanding of the intellect and how she uses language to situate the self in the world.

Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson . Literature and Life: American Writers. New York: Continuum, 1989.

Knapp looks at some of Dickinson’s more challenging poems, providing lively discussions that make clear Dickinson’s refusal to adhere to social conventions that restricted the sphere of female poetic discourse.

Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge Introduction to Emily Dickinson . Cambridge Introduction to Literature. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

This introductory volume overturns the myth that Dickinson was an intensely private writer who did not engage with the social issues of her day. Martin organizes the text by concentrating on biography and cultural context in her opening two chapters; she dedicates the remaining two chapters to a discussion of major themes in the poems and letters and an overview of Dickinson’s reception.

Pickard, John B. Emily Dickinson: An Introduction and Interpretation . American Authors and Critics. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1967.

An early introduction to Dickinson’s life and work. Pickard includes a brief chronology at the beginning, two chapters that detail early life and artistic maturity, two chapters that focus on artistic principles and practice, four that examine primary themes, and a concluding assessment of her achievement.

Robinson, John. Emily Dickinson: Looking to Canaan . A Faber Student Guide. Boston: Faber and Faber, 1986.

Good overview of the intellectual and artistic influences that shaped Dickinson’s writing. Robinson gives careful readings of central poems that move easily between poems and letters, in accessible prose.

Smith, Martha Nell. Emily Dickinson: A User’s Guide . Blackwell Introductions to Literature. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007.

DOI: 10.1002/9780470696620

An introduction that studies Dickinson’s life, major poems and letters, and critical reception. This work is particularly good at emphasizing the experience of reading Dickinson and identifying digital resources, such as the Dickinson Electronic Archives (cited under Digital Resources ).

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T he Emily Dickinson Museum welcomes inquiries from researchers and strives to support their work. This page includes information about resources at the Museum and other Dickinson-related sites as well as information about copyright issues with Dickinson’s work, a selected bibliography, and a list of electronic resources.

  • Emily Dickinson Museum Resources

Dickinson Manuscripts and Related Collections

Digital and electronic research resources, printed materials, emily dickinson museum’s resources.

Research at the Museum can be useful not only to Dickinson scholars but also to researchers interested in nineteenth-century material culture, social and cultural trends, domestic life, architecture, and decorative arts.

The Museum maintains collections of objects owned by the Dickinson family from the Homestead and Evergreens and selectively acquires a permanent collection of objects for exhibit purposes in the two houses. The large collection of approximately 8,000 objects at The Evergreens includes furnishings, decorative arts, paintings and prints, household wares, textiles, and toys. The Evergreens collection complements a much smaller collection at the Homestead. The Museum also has useful research material related to the history of the Homestead, The Evergreens, and the landscape.

Researchers wishing to use the collections of the Emily Dickinson Museum should contact the executive director at [email protected] or 413-542-2154.

The Museum does not own Dickinson manuscripts or family papers but works closely with the institutions that do. The two major repositories for Emily Dickinson’s manuscripts and family papers are Amherst College and Harvard University:

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections , Amherst, Massachusetts. The Dickinson collection documents the creative work and personal life of Emily Dickinson, spanning her lifetime, from 1830 to 1886; her family and friends; and the early publication history of her work. It also includes material from Dickinson scholars Mabel Loomis Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham, Jay Leyda, and others. The collection includes original poems, manuscripts, and letters from Dickinson to family and friends; images of the poet, including the daguerreotype and silhouette; physical artifacts related to Dickinson; manuscript transcriptions; printers’ copies and proofs; Mabel Loomis Todd’s correspondence, research indices, and writings; and material from or about Dickinson’s friends and family, including correspondence, photographs, objects, and scrapbooks.  The collection began with a gift from Millicent Todd Bingham of the Dickinson manuscripts in the possession of her mother, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Finding aid:

  • Emily Dickinson Collection

Digitized Dickinson Manuscripts  available on-line:

  • acdc.amherst.edu

Houghton Library, Harvard University , Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Dickinson Collection began at Harvard in 1950, the gift of Gilbert H. Montague “in happy memory” of his wife, Amy Angell Collier Montague. Montague, a distant cousin of the Dickinsons, purchased the collection from Alfred Hampson, who inherited it from Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece. Hampson was eager that the manuscripts be available for research at a major university, and Montague knew his alma mater would provide the proper environment to nurture the reputation of Emily Dickinson. The collection includes most of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles and a large collection of family letters as well as family photographs, books, and personal items.

  • Guide to the Emily Dickinson Collection

The Emily Dickinson Room, where most of the Dickinson books, as well as furniture and other objects from the Dickinson family, are on display is shown to visitors on Fridays at 2:00 pm and at other times by appointment.

Other libraries with significant Dickinson-related holdings include:

Finding aid :

  • John Hay Library  Guide to the Martha Dickinson Bianchi Papers, 1834-1980

Jones Library , Amherst, Massachusetts. This Dickinson collection places the poet within the context of her community in Amherst, Massachusetts, during the mid-nineteenth century. The collection consists of approximately 7,000 items, including original manuscript poems and letters, Dickinson editions and translations, family correspondence, scholarly articles and books, newspaper clippings, theses, plays, photographs, and contemporary artwork and prints. The Jones Library also maintains Digital Amherst, a site prepared for the Town of Amherst’s 250th anniversary that celebrates the town through images, multimedia and documents.

Finding aids :

  • Jones Library  Dickinson Collection
  • Jones Library  Digital Amherst
  • Mount Holyoke College  Emily Dickinson Collection

Yale University Library Manuscripts and Archives , New Haven, Connecticut. The papers of Dickinson editor Mabel Loomis Todd consist of correspondence, notebooks, diaries, lectures, financial records, scrapbooks, subject files, and memorabilia documenting Todd’s personal life and professional career . Correspondence and diaries detail Todd’s personal attitudes and feelings toward her family, her relationship with William Austin Dickinson, her travels with her husband, David Peck Todd, and other matters. Legal and financial papers document court battles over her status as editor of Emily Dickinson’s work. Lectures and subject files detail much of Mrs. Todd’s work as a speaker and author, including material on Emily Dickinson and David Peck Todd’s eclipse expeditions. Also at Yale are the Todd-Bingham Picture Collection as well as the papers of Todd’s husband, David Peck Todd, and daughter Millicent Todd Bingham.

  • Yale University  Mabel Loomis Todd Papers
  • Yale University  Todd-Bingham Picture Collection
  • Yale University  Todd-Bingham Memorabilia Collection
  • Yale University  Millicent Todd Bingham Papers

Boston Public Library  Images of Dickinson correspondence

In addition to links cited above in  Dickinson Manuscripts and Related Collections , the electronic resources listed below are useful in pursuing Dickinson interests.

  • Emily Dickinson Archive  (edickinson.org) Emily Dickinson Archive (2013) makes high-resolution images of Dickinson’s surviving manuscripts available in open access, and provides readers with a website through which they can view images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives. This first phase of the EDA includes images for the corpus of poems identified in  The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition , edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge: Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998).

Digitized Dickinson Manuscripts  This link allows the user to peruse Amherst College’s complete collection (850 items) of Emily Dickinson manuscripts. The  College’s Archives and Special Collections  department houses about half of Dickinson’s poetry manuscripts.

  • Dickinson Electronic Archives  A website devoted to the study of Emily Dickinson, her writing practices, writings directly influencing her work, and critical and creative writings generated by her work. Includes texts of letters, correspondence of the Dickinson family, and teaching resources. The  DEA  is produced by the Dickinson Editing Collective, Martha Nell Smith and Lara Vetter, General Editors and Coordinators.
  • Emily Dickinson International Society  A member society formed in 1988 to p romote, perpetuate, and enhance the study and appreciation of Emily Dickinson throughout the world. The society publishes the Emily Dickinson Journal and the Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin and hosts annual meetings and conferences about topics of interest in Dickinson studies.
  • Emily Dickinson Lexicon Project  The  Emily Dickinson Lexicon  is an on-line dictionary of all of the words in Emily Dickinson’s collected poems (Johnson 1955 and Franklin 1998 editions), using Dickinson’s own Noah Webster’s 1844  American Dictionary of the English Language  as the primary source for definitions.
  • Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson’s Fragments and Related Texts  A subscripton may be required to access this material, which is related to the printed text cited above in Printed Materials.
  • Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences: A Born-Digital Textual Inquiry  A searchable archive of seventy-four poems and letters from Emily’s correspondence with Susan Dickinson. Each text is presented with a digitized scan of the holograph manuscript.
  • Emily Dickinson Bibliography  An extensive bibliography related to Dickinson, created and maintained by Donna Campbell, Washington State University
  • Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium  (Harvard’s Houghton Library) Full color photographs of each page of Dickinson’s herbarium.
  • Emily Dickinson’s Music Book (Harvard’s Houghton Library) Full color photographs of each page of Dickinson’s Music Book. 
  • Dickinson Family Association  An organization of and for the descendents of Nathaniel Dickinson, from whom the poet was descended. Nathaniel Dickinson came from England to Connecticut by 1637 and later settled in Hadley, Massachusetts (the town from which Amherst was created in 1759).

Dickinson Printed Texts On-line (see above for information about digitized manuscripts)

  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson   ed. by Thomas Johnson (1955).  A digitized edition of this landmark work.
  • Dickinson in  The Norton Anthology of Poetry   A guide to Emily Dickinson poems in  The Norton Anthology of Poetry  (5th edition) and Amherst College manuscript holdings.
  • Academy of American Poets  The Dickinson page includes a list of poems and links to selected texts.
  • Poetry Foundation   The Dickinson page includes a list of poems and links to selected texts.
  • Poems of Emily Dickinson, First, Second, and Third Series  (Project Gutenberg) The 1890s editions of Dickinson’s work.
  • Modern American Poetry: Emily Dickinson  Dickinson poems selected from An Online Journal and Multimedia Companion to  Anthology of Modern American Poetry  (Oxford University Press, 2000)
  • First Series  Electronic text of the 1890 edition (11th printing), ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  • Second Series  Electronic text of the 1891 edition (4th printing), ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  • Third Series Electronic text of the 1896 edition (2nd printing), ed. by Mabel Loomis Todd.
  • The Complete Poems  Electronic text of the 1924 edition of Dickinson’s poems, selected and with an introduction by her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi.

Below is a selected list of editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters, biographies, and key reference works. For additional bibliographies, see Selected works related to the Homestead and The Evergreens  below.

Recent Editions of Emily Dickinson’s Poems (in chronological order)

  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson . Ed. Thomas Johnson. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1955.
  • The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson . Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1981.
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson . Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Reading Edition . Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson’s Fragments and Related Texts, 1870-1886 . Ed. Marta Werner.  University of Michigan Press, 1999.  (see also electronic links below)
  • The Gorgeous Nothings.  Ed. Jen Bervin and Marta Werner. New Directions Publishing, 2013.
  • Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. Ed. Cristanne Miller. Harvard University Press, 2016.

Recent Editions of Emily Dickinson’s Letters (in chronological order)

  • The Letters of Emily Dickinson . Ed. Thomas Johnson and Theodora V. Ward. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters . Ed. Thomas Johnson. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1971.
  • Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson . Ed. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Paris Press, 1998.

Biographies and Related Historical Works

  • Benfey, Christopher.   A Summer of Hummingbirds:  Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, & Martin Johnson Heade.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2008.
  • Bianchi, Martha Dickinson.  Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences . Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932.
  • Bingham, Millicent Todd.   Emily Dickinson’s Home :   Letters of Edward Dickinson and His Family .  New York:  Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1955.
  • Dobrow, Julie.  After Emily : Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2018. 
  • Habegger, Alfred.  My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson.  New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Kelly, Mike.  The Networked Recluse: The Connected World of Emily Dickinson.  Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College Press, 2017.
  • Kirk, Connie Ann.  Emily Dickinson: A Biography . Greenwood Press, 2001.
  • Longsworth, Polly.  The World of Emily Dickinson . New York: W.W. Norton, 1990.
  • Lundall, Gordon.  Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds.  New York: Viking Penguin, 2010. 
  • Lundin, Roger.  Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief . Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1998. 
  • Murray, Aife.  Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Lebanon, NH: University of New Hampshire Press, 2009. 
  • Pollak, Vivian R.  Our Emily Dickinsons: American Women Poets and the Intimacies of Difference.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.
  • Sewall, Richard B.  The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974.
  • Smith, Martha Nell.  Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson.  Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1992. 
  • Whicher, George Frisbie.  This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson . 1938. Reprinted with an introduction by Richard Sewall by Amherst College Press, 1992.
  • Wineapple, Brenda.   White Heat:  The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson .  New York:  Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.
  • Wolff, Cynthia G.  Emily Dickinson.  New York: Knopf, 1986.

Reference Works and Essay Collections

  • Eberwein, Jane Donahue, editor. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998. 
  • Eberwein, Jane Donahue, and Cindy MacKenzie, editors.  Reading Emily Dickinson’s Letters: Critical Essays. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. 
  • Grabher, Gundrum, Roland Hagenbuchle, and Cristanne Miller, editors.  The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. 
  • Leyda, Jay, editor.  Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson.  New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1960; reprinted by Archon Books, 1970. Two volumes. 
  • Loeffelholz, Mary.  The Value of Emily Dickinson.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2016. 
  • MacKenzie, Cynthia, editor.  A Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado, 2000. 
  • Martin, Wendy, editor. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002 .
  • Pollak, Vivian R., editor.  A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson . Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004. 
  • Rosenbaum, S.P., editor. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univeristy Press, 1964. 
  • Smith, Martha Nell, and Loeffelholz, Mary, editors. A Companion to Emily Dickinson .  West Sussex, England: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.
  • Vendler, Helen. Dickinson:  Selected Poems and Commentaries.  Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010.

Selected works related to the Homestead and The Evergreens

  • Bingham, Millicent Todd.  Ancestor’s Brocades. New York: Harper & Brothers , 1945. Dover Paperback publication, 1967.
  • Capps, Jack.  Emily Dickinson’s Reading 1836-1886 . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
  • Farr, Judith.  The Gardens of Emily Dickinson . Cambridge: The Belknap Press at Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Liebling, Jerome.  The Dickinsons of Amherst . University of New England Press, 2001.
  • Longsworth, Polly.  Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair: Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd . New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1984.
  • McDowell, Marta.  Emily Dickinson’s Gardens: A Celebration of a Poet and a Gardener . New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
  • Mudge, Jean et al.  Emily Dickinson: Profile of the Poet as Cook with Selected Recipes.  Amherst, MA, 1976. 

Emily Dickinson’s Biography and Analysis of Poems Essay

Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be among the most talented poets of all time. The prominent poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Massachusetts, United States. During her youth, Dickinson barely spent a year attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Amherst (Academy of American Poets). The poet died in her childhood home in Amherst in 1886 (Academy of American Poets). During her life, many classic poets served as an inspiration for Emily, and the specific field of literature that allured the woman was English poetry.

After her death, Dickinson’s poetry was printed in two volumes. The initial volume was released in 1890, and the final in 1955 (Academy of American Poets). There are currently only ten recognized publications of Emily Dickinson, while the estimated number of works during her lifetime is 1,800 (Academy of American Poets). The reason behind such a minuscule quantity of works is that while the poet sent her works in letters to her acquaintances, she ostensibly retained the majority for herself. As a result, she was not interested in publishing her poetry since she was committed to her own interests.

The poet was born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, in a wealthy family of a local politician, a Yale graduate, and a prominent lawyer. As a member of the Whig party, the woman’s father, Edward Dickinson, was a widely recognized attorney (Dickinson and Bianchi 36). Moreover, Emily Dickinson made the decision to limit her interpersonal contact from a young age. The woman made the decision in her late twenties to spend a significant part of her time in the family house rather than stepping outside (Dickinson and Bianchi 14). She did not do much traveling and valued her friends by how well they could respond to her letters. Lastly, the decision of Dickinson to stay with her family was not due to her close relationship with her parents. The woman characterized her mother as being heartless and frigid (Dickinson and Bianchi 68). Once her mother became bedridden later in life, the poet reportedly began to develop greater compassion for her. She appeared to connect better with her father, although he was rumored to be against female intellectuals (Dickinson and Bianchi 69). This may aid in understanding Dickinson’s decision to keep her extensive library of poems a secret.

Interesting Facts

Despite not having numerous published works, Emily Dickinson is a renowned poet due to the quality of her writings and her talent. There are several documentaries and films based on her life experience and poetic path. For example, among the recent films that the story of the poet inspired are A Quiet Passion and Wild Nights with Emily (Dickinson & Bianchi, 2021).

Success Is Counted Sweetest

The poem Success is counted sweetest is among the most popular works of Emily Dickinson, rich in literary devices and common literary features. When it comes to the plot, in the poem, Emily Dickinson ponders about success and what it takes to achieve it. The author argues that holding onto anything valuable for too long causes it to lose its worth. Additionally, later in the poem, the author states that for individuals who have never experienced victory or who have been forced to deal with disappointments throughout their existence, achievement represents the most valuable and greatest feeling.

In this sense, the main themes of such poetry are need, achievement, and failure. The author utilizes several instances to illustrate her points on accomplishment. Dickinson draws a parallel between success for different people, illuminating the preciousness of achievement for those who worked hard and those who cannot “tell the definition / So clear of victory” (Dickinson 8). Thus, individuals that encounter setbacks or disappointments in life respect and cherish them. The point of view in her poem, Emily Dickinson, makes the case that those who possess the least of it love it most. Prosperity is paradoxical in this way since the more accomplished someone is, the less they value it, and the reverse is additionally true. In this way, the poem has both an aspirational and depressing tone.

As for the literary devices, in the given poem, the first stanza shows the successful and evident use of metaphor. A metaphor employed in the stanza is a figure of speech that conveys a comparison of two items with dissimilar natures. For instance, sweet success is compared to nectar, and in this sense, the author argues that “To comprehend a nectar / Requires sorest need” (Dickinson 4). Nectar, in this context, refers to the pleasure of success and what it takes to achieve it. Another literary device used in the second stanza of the poem Success Is Counted Sweetest is imagery. For instance, in order to catch the attention of the audience, the poet narrates, “Not one of all the purple Host / Who took the Flag today,” illustrating the visual and tactile imagery, employing color and movement, respectively (Dickinson 6). Lastly, “The distant strains of triumph / Burst agonized and clear!” illustrates the use of auditory imagery, emphasizing the noise for the audience (Dickinson 12). Thus, the imagery was necessary for the author to help the audience understand concepts involving all sensory experiences.

Finally, Dickinson employed symbolism to allude to specific personas. The process of employing symbols to represent concepts and traits by assigning them with symbolic interpretations separate from the actual literal definitions is known as symbolism. For instance, in the second stanza, “the purple Host” alludes to the royal army and royalty (Dickinson 5). The purple host symbolizes the royal army, which additionally stands for the Northern troops and individuals who view winning as an easy task. Additionally, nectar in the first stanza might allude to not only triumph and success but opulence as well.

“ Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers

“Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers is another poem by Emily Dickinson that serves as an inspiring and calming piece. In the plot, Dickinson likens hope to a brave and independent bird that performs its music in any condition. This creature, similar to a quiet friend, keeps encouraging the heart to keep faith in the face of challenges. Its melody aids the recovery of perceptions in souls in despair. Dickinson conveys the idea that faith is unfailing, unending, and brilliant. The author explains how hope acts as a shining beacon amid that storm by contrasting human tragedy with the weather conditions. At the end of the poem, Dickinson depicts her personal awful situation and resilience. The woman claims that having hope enabled her to go over her life’s challenges. Thus, resilience and the notion that there is a constant promise are among the piece’s central themes. There is always a ray of optimism, despite the hardest and saddest of circumstances. Everyone has a voice that is audible in any weather.

Moreover, the tone of the poem is quite gracious and grateful for both the challenges and strength to persevere. The author’s perspective toward the topic is optimistic, which she endeavors to project onto others. The narrator in this piece talks about how optimism “perches in the soul” and persists with singing, despite the enormous obstacles (Dickinson 2). Therefore, the point of view of the author is that no matter what difficulties the person faces, there should always be hope that will navigate the person.

As for the literary devices, the first method used is the application of metaphor. In the first stanza, the author claims that “Hope” is the thing with feathers – / That perches the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all.” (Dickinson 4). Here, the author successfully likened hope to a bird, illustrating how it sings and bolsters a man’s soul. From here, one can see another instance of the literary device, such as personification. It is the process of giving human traits or features to an inanimate item. In the first stanza, the bird can be perceived as a friend or a preacher who never quits teaching and supporting. In order to provide the men with inner strength, it whispers its quiet melody into their hearts. In this sense, Emily Dickinson humanized hope in her poetry.

Moreover, Emily Dickinson used imagery to fill the poem with the necessary details to allow the audience to relate to the piece and feel the implied emotions. The imagery was employed to aid in their ability to see the reported items in their minds. Among the examples of tactile imagery is the weather, which is illustrated in the last stanza through temperature: “I’ve heard it in the chilliest land” (Dickinson 10). Another instance of tactile imagery is “That could abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm.” Lastly, symbolism is the final literary device, where “the chillest land” represents challenges through difficult times during which there is yet hope (Dickinson 9). Thus, it was employed to highlight the enormous influence that hope has on people’s lives.

I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed

The last poem of Emily Dickinson is I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed, which emphasizes the connection between a human and nature. The plot of the poem revolves around the perceptions and elated mood of the author, who narrates about the insects who additionally become drunken by the summer days and alive nature. In this sense, nature is the primary topic of the poem, which is preceded by the imagery of booze and inebriation. Moreover, the tone of the poem is ecstatic since the work by Emily Dickinson is about becoming fully intoxicated, not with alcohol, but rather with life. The narrator of the verse envisions drinking so intensely and joyfully from humanity’s greatest beauty on a magnificent warmer months morning that many angels rush to their homes to see the author’s joyful actions. Therefore, with the setting in a rural area on a summer day, the author perceives life as joyful during warmer months.

As for the literary devices, the first one is a metaphor. The first metaphor is a comparison of happiness to drunken euphoria in nature, which is seen in the first line, “I taste a liquor never brewed,” which alludes that this is not real alcohol (Dickinson 1). Another example is when Dickinson draws a parallel between a flower and a pub inside this context “When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee / Out of the Foxglove’s door” (Dickinson 10). In this sense, the author additionally uses personification since she gives bees and butterflies human traits of being drunk and thrown out of the tavern.

Furthermore, Dickinson uses hyperbole throughout the entire poem. The main hyperbole is that the bees and butterflies are so addicted to nature and warmth that they become intoxicated, “When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” – I shall but drink the more” (Dickinson 12). Thus, hyperbole allows the audience to see how affected and thrilled they are by the environment.

Hence, Emily Dickinson can be perceived as a talented poet for many reasons due to her inspiring works. While examining and reading her poems of Dickinson attentively, I could not but admire her skillful use of literary devices that make the pieces sound sophisticated and full of life. I liked the poems of Emily Dickinson because she did not incorporate complicated language or verse forms. After millennia, the works of the famous poet can still be understood without a problem. Moreover, I noticed that the poems have overarching themes, such as resilience, aspirations, and appreciation. The poet implements similar approaches to her writing and strives to instill hope and happiness in the readers. While reading the verses of Dickinson, I felt inspired and grateful. However, the works of Emily Dickinson did not remind me of any other poet, and I perceive the poet’s writing as unique, which proves her pure talent. Emily Dickinson had the skill of writing simple poetry to which people could relate. While many poets of her time had quite pompous works that exuded a sense of grandeur, for the most part, they were merely sophisticated words. In the case of Dickinson’s works, they are filled with a wide array of true emotions, including hope, happiness, grief, sorrow, and others.

Works Cited

Academy of American Poets. Emily Dickinson . Academy of American Poets, n.d. Web.

Dickinson, Emily. Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: Poems of Emily Dickinson . United States, Gibbs Smith, 2019.

Dickinson, Emily, and Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson . United Kingdom, West Margin Press, 2021.

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IvyPanda. (2023, September 20). Emily Dickinson's Biography and Analysis of Poems. https://ivypanda.com/essays/emily-dickinsons-biography-and-analysis-of-poems/

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The Circumstances of Emily Dickinson’s Death: Insights into the Poet’s Final Days

This essay is about the circumstances surrounding Emily Dickinson’s death, emphasizing the mysterious nature of her passing and the challenges she faced leading up to it. Dickinson died in 1886, officially of Bright’s disease, though speculation remains about other potential contributing illnesses. Her final years were marked by personal losses, declining health, and increased reclusion, yet she continued to write prolifically. After her death, her sister Lavinia found almost 1,800 poems, most unpublished and hidden in Emily’s room. These poems would later be published, revealing her as one of the greatest American poets. The essay also explores how her distinctive style, rich imagery, and exploration of death and consciousness left a significant legacy, offering a glimpse into her profound intellect despite her reclusive life.

How it works

Emily Dickinson, one of the most enigmatic figures in American poetry, lived a secluded life that fascinated and puzzled scholars. Her death, as much as her life, has remained shrouded in mystery, marked by illness and solitude. Dickinson passed away on May 15, 1886, in her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. The official cause of death listed by her physician was Bright’s disease, a catch-all term at the time that referred to various kidney ailments. While this diagnosis remains the accepted cause of death, there’s much speculation around what exactly caused her to decline in her final years.

In the period leading up to her death, Dickinson had become increasingly reclusive. She had long since stopped attending church services and limited her interactions primarily to her immediate family. Her letters from that time hint at her growing frailty, using her signature poetic and metaphorical language. She wrote to her friends about her struggles, describing “an aching head” and “weak lungs.” This gradual decline was set against a backdrop of personal losses that struck the already reclusive poet particularly hard.

Her father, Edward Dickinson, had died unexpectedly in 1874, leaving Emily emotionally shaken. The loss of her father, who had been a dominant yet supportive figure in her life, seemed to cast a pall over the household. Two years later, her mother suffered a debilitating stroke, which left Emily and her sister Lavinia to care for her. Despite her already fragile health, Emily took on this role with dedication, but the emotional toll it took on her was evident. Her nephew, Gilbert, who was particularly dear to her, died in 1883 of typhoid fever, a loss that left Emily devastated.

These personal tragedies, combined with her own deteriorating health, contributed to her increasing isolation. Her letters became more infrequent, and she refrained from her usual social activities. However, she did not stop writing. In fact, some of her most poignant work comes from this period, although it was often less organized and edited than her earlier poems. The subject of death became more frequent in her writing, explored with her characteristic mix of curiosity, melancholy, and wit.

In her final weeks, Dickinson was bedridden and attended by her sister Lavinia. The poet’s passing was relatively quiet, with little fanfare outside the immediate family. After her death, Lavinia discovered nearly 1,800 poems hidden in a locked chest in Emily’s room. Although Emily had shared some of her work with a few close friends, she had kept most of her poetry private, preferring to create without the scrutiny of public exposure.

Lavinia understood the importance of this discovery and took it upon herself to organize and publish her sister’s work. With the help of family friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the poems were prepared for publication, although not without substantial editing that sometimes altered the original punctuation and syntax. Despite these changes, the published volumes were met with critical acclaim, gradually revealing Emily Dickinson as a towering figure in American literature.

Today, Dickinson’s legacy endures as a remarkable and distinctive voice. Her unconventional punctuation, striking imagery, and exploration of themes like mortality, consciousness, and the self continue to captivate readers. Her poems, which often play with form and structure, reflect her unique perspective on life, blending irony, melancholy, and hope in a way that still resonates deeply.

Her death, much like her life, remains a topic of fascination and speculation. While Bright’s disease is the official cause of her demise, some modern medical experts believe other factors like heart disease or hypertension might have contributed. However, the true nature of her illness will likely remain a mystery, given the lack of precise medical records. Despite the questions surrounding her passing, her work offers glimpses into her resilient spirit and profound intellect, providing a window into her interior world even as her reclusive life kept her largely hidden from view.

Ultimately, Dickinson’s story is not only about death but about how she made sense of the world around her. Her fascination with the ethereal and the everyday allowed her to explore profound ideas in ways that still feel fresh and relevant. In the quiet of her Amherst home, she created a body of work that transformed the way we see poetry, leaving an indelible mark on American literature. Her final days might have been filled with illness and isolation, but the legacy she left behind is one of creativity, brilliance, and a unique window into the human soul.


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PapersOwl.com. (2024). The Circumstances of Emily Dickinson's Death: Insights into the Poet's Final Days . [Online]. Available at: https://papersowl.com/examples/the-circumstances-of-emily-dickinsons-death-insights-into-the-poets-final-days/ [Accessed: 22 May. 2024]

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Discover the fascinating life of Emily Dickinson with "Emily Dickinson Audio Biography." This podcast offers an in-depth exploration of the poet's world, from her early years in Amherst, Massachusetts, to her profound yet secluded existence. Through carefully curated episodes, listeners will hear dramatic readings of her letters, analysis of her groundbreaking poetry, and insights from leading Dickinson scholars. Whether you're a seasoned poetry lover or new to her work, this podcast provides a comprehensive and engaging portrait of one of literature's most intriguing figures. Tune in to uncover the secrets, inspirations, and enduring legacy of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson - Audio Biography Biography

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Emily Dickinson Biography

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A mother’s eloquent plea for justice in perilous times

Emily Raboteau’s “Lessons for Survival” wades through the many challenges that face us — and finds reason to hope.

Emily Raboteau was 10 when her father gave her “the talk.” Growing up in America “would be tough,” he told his young daughter and her two brothers. “Because of White supremacy, some people would think negatively of us, no matter how smart we were, no matter how poised, how well-dressed, well-spoken, or well-behaved. We would have to work twice as hard to get half as far.” Raboteau’s father, a professor at Princeton, punctuated his warning with a piece of family history: His father had been shot by a White man who was never punished.

In her new book, “ Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against ‘the Apocalypse,’ ” Raboteau writes that it was then she realized she had to figure out a way not only to stay safe but also to embrace her history and culture. As her father had put it: “Our Blackness wasn’t a life sentence but a gift. Our people had survived unspeakable atrocities and shaped history. Our ancestors kept faith, made music and community, found love and joy. Our culture was joyful. We belonged to a loving Black family. We should be cautious, but more than that, we should be grateful for our heritage.”

As she got older, Raboteau came to realize that embracing her culture included understanding that people of color and people without much money are much more likely to suffer not only from police attacks but also from pandemics, regional conflicts, rising seas, pollution, unaffordable health care and the indifference of politicians.

“Lessons for Survival” brings together essays Raboteau has written over the past dozen years, inspired by the births of her two sons and the fears, hopes and insights that caring for them has prompted. She finds reason for both fear and hope in birds, and one of her pleasures is birdwatching and viewing images of birds that have been painted on buildings in Upper Manhattan , photographs of which appear throughout the book. Her writing about being a mother is perceptive and eloquent: At one point, she and her husband are taking the boys, then 2 and 4, to a local park on a hot day. The 4-year-old is “stubborn,” and, she writes, “The heat knocked out the two-year-old as if it were a club.” But then, “our son was coaxed down the vertiginous stairs by the magical horn of an Amtrak train on the railway beneath the bridge.”

Raboteau — author of two previous books, “Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora” and the novel “The Professor’s Daughter” — is a natural investigator. She not only explores her neighborhood and her city, she travels. About halfway into the book is an essay about a trip she took to the Middle East in 2016. It was an assignment and also a way to visit one of her oldest friends, who works at an electric plant in the Hebron Hills.

Raboteau’s week in the Middle East is in June. The weather is dry and hot, and the world she finds herself in gives her a strong sense of what could happen in the near future if the issue of climate change doesn’t move to the very front of governmental concerns. The man who shows her around says, at one point, “In the spring, this is the most beautiful place in the world.” When he perceives that Raboteau doesn’t understand how he could think so, he adds, “It’s so calm.” His remark pushes Raboteau to pay attention to (and write perceptively about) how the people she talks to and watches make their way through the hardships of their lives: For one thing, according to her guide, the locals are allowed only 20 gallons of water per day, but they put up with it and are determined to stay. As Raboteau explores, she sees many similarities between the way Palestinians are treated and the way Black people are treated, and always have been treated, in the United States. These days, that is something more people, especially young people, seem to be aware of.

But she felt a moment of hope when she looked up at the night sky, “now punched through with a thousand stars and streaked with meteors. Its perfect clarity made me gasp.”

What will save us? The lesson from Raboteau’s book is that it has to be curiosity, willingness to learn, patience and love — not only for your children and your spouse, but also for nature, even the sparse nature around Spuyten Duyvil Creek, a tidal estuary between the Hudson and Harlem rivers. When Raboteau walks there, she sees and connects to trees, plants, birds and a strip of “lowland swamp forest,” and contemplates the way that the Lenape Native Americans managed to live there for far longer than we have.

The question is, how do we push politicians and corporations to figure out how to save our environment and acknowledge the economic and ecological discrepancies that plague our culture? I suggest that every single one of them be required to read “Lessons for Survival.” Even for someone like me, always sympathetic to ecological concerns, it is eye-opening.

Jane Smiley is the author of many books and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for “A Thousand Acres.” Her latest is the novel “Lucky.”

Lessons for Survival

Mothering Against ‘the Apocalypse’

By Emily Raboteau

Henry Holt. 304 pp. $29.99

A previous version of this article misstated the title of a previous book by Emily Raboteau. It is "Searching for Zion," not "Searching for Survival." The article has been corrected.

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Check out our coverage of this year’s Pulitzer winners: Jayne Anne Phillips won the fiction prize for her novel “ Night Watch .” The nonfiction prize went to Nathan Thrall, for “ A Day in the Life of Abed Salama .” Cristina Rivera Garza received the memoir prize for “ Liliana’s Invincible Summer .” And Jonathan Eig received the biography prize for his “ King: A Life .”

Best books of 2023: See our picks for the 10 best books of 2023 or dive into the staff picks that Book World writers and editors treasured in 2023. Check out the complete lists of 50 notable works for fiction and the top 50 nonfiction books of last year.

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  1. Emily Dickinson

    Emily Dickinson (born December 10, 1830, Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.—died May 15, 1886, Amherst) was an American lyric poet who lived in seclusion and commanded a singular brilliance of style and integrity of vision. With Walt Whitman, Dickinson is widely considered to be one of the two leading 19th-century American poets.. Only 10 of Emily Dickinson's nearly 1,800 poems are known to have ...

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    Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne'er succeed./To comprehend a nectar/Requires sorest need. Emily Dickinson was a reclusive American poet. Unrecognized in her own time, Dickinson is known ...

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    Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Little-known during her life, she has since been regarded as one of the most important figures in American poetry. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, into a prominent family with strong ties to its community.After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the ...

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    Dickinson is now known as one of the most important American poets, and her poetry is widely read among people of all ages and interests. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830 to Edward and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson. At the time of her birth, Emily's father was an ambitious young lawyer.

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    Emily Dickinson - Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. While she was extremely prolific as a poet and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime. She died in Amherst in 1886, and the first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890.

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    Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830-May 15, 1886) was an American poet best known for her eccentric personality and her frequent themes of death and mortality. Although she was a prolific writer, only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Despite being mostly unknown while she was alive, her poetry—nearly 1,800 poems ...

  7. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson

    The volume includes a biographical essay that covers some of the major turning points in the poet's life, especially those emphasized by her letters. ... A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson concludes with a rich bibliographical essay describing the controversial history of Dickinson's life in print, together with a substantial ...

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    Biography. T his section of the website introduces users to significant topics in Dickinson's biography. Included here is information about the town where Dickinson lived, as well as essays about members of Dickinson's family; important friends (including her dog Carlo); her impressive schooling; her loves of reading and of gardening ...

  9. Dickinson, Emily

    A Daughter and Her Precursors. Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, a part of the New England region that often witnessed "the blazing up of the lunatic fringe of the Puritan coal," as the contemporary American poet and essayist Adrienne Rich has commented (McQuade, p. 33). Emily Dickinson's father, Edward, was the eldest son of Samuel Fowler Dickinson, a ...

  10. Emily Dickinson: Suggested Reading

    A collection of essays by notable Dickinson scholars that address historical, thematic, and poetic issues over the scope of her poetry. Farr, Judith, ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Articles. New Century Views: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 1996. A collection of essays, mostly focused on Dickinson's poetics.

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    Kirkby's brief introductory volume offers a short biographical essay and an overview of major subjects: nature, the gothic, gender identity, artistic self-creation. Kirkby primarily examines Dickinson's understanding of the intellect and how she uses language to situate the self in the world. Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. Literature ...

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    Jane Donahue Eberwein. Dickinson, Emily (10 Dec. 1830-15 May 1886), poet, was born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson in Amherst, Massachusetts, the daughter of Edward Dickinson, an attorney, and Emily Norcross. The notation "At Home" that summed up her occupation on the certificate recording her death in that same town belies the drama of her inner ...


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    A massively detailed, illustrated biography of Emily Dickinson Originally published in 2 v.: New York : Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974 ... The New England Dickinsons and the Puritan heritage -- Samuel Fowler Dickinson -- Edward Dickinson -- Emily Norcross Dickinson -- William Austin Dickinson -- Lavinia Norcross Dickinson -- II. "War between ...

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    This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson. 1938. Reprinted with an introduction by Richard Sewall by Amherst College Press, 1992. Wineapple, Brenda. ... Eberwein, Jane Donahue, and Cindy MacKenzie, editors. Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2009. ...

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    Biography. Emily Dickinson is considered by many to be among the most talented poets of all time. The prominent poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Massachusetts, United States. During her youth, Dickinson barely spent a year attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in Amherst (Academy of American Poets).

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  20. The Circumstances of Emily Dickinson's Death: Insights into the Poet's

    This essay is about the circumstances surrounding Emily Dickinson's death, emphasizing the mysterious nature of her passing and the challenges she faced leading up to it. Dickinson died in 1886, officially of Bright's disease, though speculation remains about other potential contributing illnesses.

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    Using updated scholarship and never before published primary research, this new biography peels away the myths surrounding Emily Dickinson and takes a fresh look at the complex and busy life of this genius of American letters. As a research tool, the volume is also useful for its explanation of current nomenclature for the poems, mysteries and controversies, and the poet's influence on ...

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  25. Review: 'Lessons for Survival,' by Emily Raboteau

    Review by Jane Smiley. May 20, 2024 at 11:00 a.m. EDT. cropped Emily Raboteau (Rachel Eliza Griffiths) Emily Raboteau was 10 when her father gave her "the talk.". Growing up in America ...