Emily Dickinson

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Dickinson, Emily,

1830–86, American poet, b. Amherst, Mass. She is widely considered one of the greatest poets in American literature. Her unique, gemlike lyrics are distillations of profound feeling and original intellect that stand outside the mainstream of 19th-century American literature.


Dickinson spent almost all her life in her birthplace. Her father was a prominent lawyer who was active in civic affairs. His three children (Emily; a son, Austin; and another daughter, Lavinia) thus had the opportunity to meet many distinguished visitors. Emily Dickinson attended Amherst Academy irregularly for six years and Mount Holyoke Seminary for one, and in those years lived a normal life filled with friendships, parties, church, and housekeeping. Before she was 30, however, she began to withdraw from village activities and gradually ceased to leave home at all. While she corresponded with many friends, she eventually stopped seeing them. She often fled from visitors and eventually lived as a virtual recluse in her father's house. As a mature woman, she was intense and sensitive and was exhausted by emotional contact with others.

Even before her withdrawal from the world Dickinson had been writing poetry, and her creative peak seems to have been reached in the period from 1858 to 1862. She was encouraged by the critic Thomas Wentworth HigginsonHigginson, Thomas Wentworth,
1823–1911, American author, b. Cambridge, Mass. A Unitarian minister, he was a leader in the abolitionist movement and was a member of a group that backed John Brown's attack on Harper's Farry.
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, her chosen reader and an advocate who may never have fully comprehended her genius but who, through their considerable correspondence, helped make her aware of events in the world beyond Amherst, and by Helen Hunt JacksonJackson, Helen (Fiske) Hunt,
1830–85, American writer whose pseudonym was H. H., b. Amherst, Mass. She was a lifelong friend of Emily Dickinson. In 1863, encouraged by T. W. Higginson, Jackson began writing for periodicals.
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, who believed she was a great poet. Nonetheless, Dickinson published only seven poems during her lifetime. Her mode of existence, although circumscribed, was evidently satisfying, even essential, to her. After her death in 1886, Lavinia Dickinson discovered over 1,000 poems in her sister's bureau. For too long Dickinson was treated less as a serious artist than as a romantic figure who had renounced the world after a disappointment in love. This legend, based on conjecture, distortion, and even fabrication, has plagued even some of her modern biographers.


While Dickinson wrote love poetry that indicates a strong attachment, it has proved impossible to know the object of her feelings, or even how much was fed by her poetic imagination. The chief tension in her work comes from a different source: her inability to accept the orthodox religious faith of her day and her longing for its spiritual comfort. Immortality she called "the flood subject," and she alternated confident statements of belief with lyrics of despairing uncertainty that were both reverent and rebellious. Her verse, noted for its aphoristic style, its wit, its delicate metrical variation and irregular rhymes, its directness of statement, and its bold and startling imagery, has won enormous acclaim and had a great influence on 20th-century poetry.

Dickinson's posthumous fame began when Mabel Loomis ToddTodd, Mabel Loomis,
1858–1932, American author, b. Cambridge, Mass. A friend of Emily Dickinson, she edited and deciphered much of the Dickinson material in Poems (with T. W. Higginson, Ser. 1 and Ser. 2, 1890–91), Letters of Emily Dickinson (2 vol.
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 and Higginson edited and published two volumes of poems (1890, 1891) and some of her correspondence (2 vol., 1894). Other editions of verse followed, many of which were marred by unskillful and unnecessary editing. A definitive edition of her works did not appear until the 1950s, when T. H. Johnson published her poems (3 vol., 1955) and letters (3 vol., 1958); only then was serious study of her work possible. Dickinson scholarship was further advanced by R. W. Franklin's variorum edition of her poetry (3 vol., 1998).


See also R. W. Franklin, ed., Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1981) and Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (1986). Valuable biographies of Dickinson those by G. F. Wicher (1938, repr. 1980), M. T. Bingham (1954 and 1955, repr. 1967), J. Leyda (2 vol., 1960, repr. 1970), R. B. Sewall (2 vol., 1974), C. G. Wolff (1986), and A. Habegger (2001). Among the many studies of Dickinson are those by C. R. Anderson (1960), A. J. Gelpi (1965), D. J. M. Higgins (1967), W. R. Sherwood (1968), S. Wolosky (1984), B. L. St. Armand (1986), J. Farr (1992), B. Wineapple (2008), L. Gordon (2010), and H. Vendler (2010).

Dickinson, Emily


Born Dec. 10, 1830, in Amherst, Mass.; died May 15, 1886, also in Amherst. American poet.

Emily Dickinson was brought up in the religious traditions of Puritanism. During her lifetime only seven of her 2,000 poems were published; these seven were published anonymously. Her first book of poems (1890) was not received well by the public. However, at the beginning of the 20th century interest in Dickinson’s work grew.

The influences of both a puritanical Weltanschauung and the “cult of nature” as espoused by Thoreau, Emerson, and the English romantic writers can be discerned in her poetry. Emily Dickinson’s work is marked by intensity of lyrical feeling, fantasy, irony, and a tense searching quality of thought.


The Poems, vols. 1–3. Cambridge (Mass.), 1955.


Kashkin, I. A. “Emili Dikinson.” In his book Dlia chitateliasovremennika. Moscow, 1969.
Brooks, V. V. Pisate’ iamerikanskaia zhizn’, vol. 2. Moscow, 1971.
Miller, R. The Poetry ofE. Dickinson. Middletown, 1968.
Clendenning, S. T. Emily Dickinson. A Bibliography: 1850–1966. [Kent, 1968.]

Dickinson, Emily

(1830–1886) secluded within the walls of her father’s house. [Am. Lit.: Hart, 224]

Dickinson, Emily (Elizabeth)

(1830–86) poet; born in Amherst, Mass. She attended Amherst Academy (1840–47), Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (1847–48), and lived in Amherst all her life. She met the Reverend Charles Wadsworth in Philadelphia (1854), and he may have been the inspiration for some of her love poems. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a former minister and author, seems to have been her literary mentor, as indicated in an extended correspondence beginning in 1862. Speculation continues regarding her personal life, but it is noted that she became a recluse c. 1862, and apparently died from the complications of uremia. Only two of her poems were published in her lifetime; her sister, Lavinia Dickinson, discovered hundreds of her poems after her death and they were published in selections from 1890 on. The first authoritative edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (3 vols.), edited by Thomas H. Johnson, did not appear until 1955. She is known for her poignant, compressed, and deeply charged poems, which have profoundly influenced the direction of 20th-century poetry and gained her an almost cultlike following among some.