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Dickinson, Emily

Category: Poet

From the daguerreotype taken at Mount Holyoke, December 1846 or early 1847. The first authenticated portrait of Emily Dickinson later than childhood, the original is held by the Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College  Source:  Wikipedia

 Emily said of herself,
‘I am small, like the wren, and my hair is bold, like the chestnut bur, and my eyes like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.
My only real companions are the hills, the sundown, and my dog, Carlo. My mother does not "care for Thought", my father buys me books, but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind’.

 

Emily Dickinson (1830 –1886) was an American poet, born in Amherst, Massachusetts.  She appears from her poetry to have been almost continually in touch with the spiritual world and was probably naturally gifted – inherited genes. But she did suffer from grief, of which more in a moment.

In school, Dickinson was described as "very bright" and "an excellent scholar, of exemplary deportment, faithful in all school duties". But she was also extremely sensitive and she was ill from this sensitivity.  In 1845–1846, for example, she was at school for only eleven weeks. 

She was traumatised when Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April, 1844.  Another of her close friends  Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly of "brain congestion" at age 25. Two years after his death, Emily revealed to her friend Abiah Root:

"... some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep…– my master has gone to rest, … and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey".

Although she got involved in a religious revival in 1845, Dickinson was not a ‘Christian’.   After her church-going ended, about 1852, she wrote a poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home", which I hope says it all.

Essentially Emily wanted to be at home.  Her family were comfortably off and successful, which meant that she was able to live a ‘mostly introverted and reclusive life’.  Her family’s house was a ‘safe house’

Rescued from a short period away from home at a school in which she languished in absolute melancholy, she recovered almost immediately once she got back home.  Back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities.  She took up baking.

1859 daguerreotype certified by Amherst, aged 29

Of particular interest in the context of the ‘Safe House’  theme is Emily’s love of plants.  Dickinson, along with her sister, tended the garden at Homestead. Her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, remembered "carpets of lily-of-the-valley and pansies, platoons of sweet-peas, hyacinths, enough in May to give all the bees of summer dyspepsia. There were ribbons of peony, hedges and drifts of daffodils in season, marigolds to distraction—-a butterfly utopia". In particular, Dickinson cultivated scented exotic flowers, writing that she "could inhabit the Spice Isles merely by crossing the dining room to the conservatory, where the plants hang in baskets". Dickinson would often send her friends bunches of flowers with verses attached  - Communing with nature.

From the mid-1850s, Emily's mother became effectively bedridden with various chronic illnesses until her death in 1882.  Because their mother was chronically ill, one of the daughters had to remain always with her. Emily took this role as her own, and "finding the life with her books and nature so congenial, continued to live it".

Carlo, her beloved dog died around 1866 after providing sixteen years of companionship; Dickinson never owned another dog.   Emily sought seclusion even more. She did not leave her home unless it was absolutely necessary and as early as 1867, she began to talk to visitors from the other side of a door rather than speaking to them face to face.  She acquired local notoriety; she was rarely seen, and when she was, she was usually clothed in white. Dickinson's one surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress.  Few of the locals who exchanged messages with Dickinson during her last fifteen years ever saw her in person.  But Dickinson had a good rapport with the children in her life. Mattie Dickinson, the second child of Austin and Sue, later said that "Aunt Emily stood for indulgence." So if the people were right, she was as sociable as anyone.  Most of her real friendships were carried out by correspondence. 

As she withdrew more and more from the outside world, Emily began in the summer of 1858 what would be her lasting legacy. Reviewing poems she had written previously, she began making clean copies of her work, assembling carefully pieced-together manuscript books.

While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime.  The work that was published was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time, a totally tragic thing to do. Dickinson's poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use what is called ‘slant rhyme’ as well as ‘unconventional capitalization and punctuation’

This is because they are absolutely chock a block with symbolic references.  The words in capitals are the symbolic words. 

I could have included all 1800 poems as examples of what a safe house and a natural gift is capable of achieving.  Instead I have included only a selection.  But she covers just about every symbolic object.  She clearly ‘knew’.  You can read her poetry at a very superficial level and it is just ‘nice’ poetry, but its power comes when you know the symbolism.  In only a few lines she can cover a wealth of symbolic objects and meaning.

In later years, as death succeeded death, Dickinson found her world upended. In the fall of 1884, she wrote that "The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come." That summer she had seen "a great darkness coming" and fainted while baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On May 15, 1886, after several days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55.

Dickinson was buried, laid in a white coffin with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady's Slipper orchid, and a "knot of blue field violets" placed about it. The funeral service, held in the Homestead's library, the poem "No Coward Soul Is Mine", by Emily Brontë was read.   At Dickinson's request, her "coffin [was] not driven but carried through fields of buttercups" for burial in the family plot at West Cemetery on Triangle Street.

It was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Only recently have we been able to obtain an unedited collection.  Before this every Tom, Dick and Harry appears to have believed they knew better than she did.

Special note

As a child

I do not recommend any biographies on Emily Dickinson.  There have been some ridiculous things written about her from people whose understanding of sensitivity and spirituality are zero.  She was not epileptic, she did not have lupus and she had none of the diseases attributed to her.   Her family were terrified that she had TB and dosed her on cod liver oil, the following is helpful

In her teen-age years she had suffered from bouts of “severe cough…& general debility”, causing her several times to drop out of school. As she entered her twenties, she seemed to be losing weight and feeling ill again. With the strong history of consumption on her mother’s side, and the epidemic then raging in the Connecticut Valley, Emily Dickinson’s parents had every cause to be alarmed, and sent her sequentially to several physicians: Dr. John Brewster of Amherst, Dr.  James Dean of Greenfield, homeopathic Doctor William Wesselhoeft of Boston, and  finally, to the dean of physicians of Boston, co-founder of the Massachusetts General Hospital, and Harvard professor, Dr. James Jackson.  In Dr. Jackson’s medical writings, he prescribed exercise, fresh air, nutrition, and also cod-liver oil as a supplemental restorative for suspected tuberculosis.

There may however be something worth thinking about in one of the medicines that she took later in life. 

Glycerine was the prescription Dr. Jackson gave Emily Dickinson, filed at least nine times between September 1851 and December 1854.  Glycerine is a sweet carbohydrate syrup derived from animal or vegetable fat, first prepared by a lead-based extraction process in 1845 and used as an emollient and antiseptic lotion. By 1850, given its nutrient origin, it began to be prescribed as a cough remedy and food supplement for tuberculosis.

She did not have TB, but she may have eventually died from lead poisoning.

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