Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, the town where she would live the duration of her life. She attended Amherst Academy, newly opened to female students, for seven years, punctuated briefly by spells of illness and a stay in Boston in the aftermath of the death of her cousin, Sophia Holland. In her teens she momentarily followed the rest of her family in embracing the wave of Protestant religious revivalism sweeping the United States; but Dickinson never joined the church, determining instead to navigate a private relationship with her faith.
A popular student at Amherst Academy, Dickinson subsequently spent less than a year at Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. Returning to Amherst, by her late teens Dickinson had written several poems, a practise she quietly took up in earnest in her early twenties. She was inspired particularly by William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson, to whom she had been introduced by Benjamin Franklin Newton, a young attorney and family friend. The Reverend Charles Wadsworth, who she met on a visit to Philadelphia in 1855, became another lasting influence upon her art.
The years 1858 to 1865 proved Dickinson’s most prolific, as she wrote, revised, and made clean copies of previously written poetry, eventually compiling as many as 800 original poems. These remained secret until after her death, with less than a dozen of her poems – of which she finally wrote almost 1,800 – published during her lifetime. In 1862 Dickinson first corresponded with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an American Unitarian minster, abolitionist, and literary critic, asking of Higginson, ‘Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?’. The two continued a lifelong correspondence, and would meet in Amherst in 1870, but faced with Dickinson’s elusive nature, Higginson never encouraged the publication of her work.
After 1866, Dickinson authored less poetry, and lived an increasingly secluded life. On the other hand she enjoyed a wealth of intimate correspondence, and wrote the bulk of her surviving letters from this period. Her father died in 1874; and her mother, intermittently bedridden since the mid-1850s, suffered a stroke the following year which left her partially paralysed. Dickinson sometimes felt her world overcome by death, and she died herself on 15 May 1886, at the age of fifty-five.
The seclusion in which Dickinson lived, travelling rarely even in her youth and never marrying, allied to some of the suggestive mysteries of her correspondence, have meant a perhaps undue interest in her romantic life. Leonard Humphrey, the young principal of Amherst Academy who died in 1850 aged just twenty-five; the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; Samuel Bowles, publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican, and the presumed subject of a series of letters Dickinson addressed to her ‘Master’ between 1858 and 1861; and later Otis Phillips Lord, an elderly judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court: all have been suggested as potential romantic involvements.
Yet beyond her letters, Dickinson maintained a close family life, with her brother Austin living next door with his wife, Dickinson’s closest friend Susan Gilbert, and their children; and her younger sister Lavinia also never marrying, remaining at the family homestead. Emily was also a talented amateur botanist, eventually assembling in a leather-bound herbarium a collection of 424 pressed and classified flowers.
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Most of all, Emily Dickinson was compelled to write poetry. After her death, Lavinia discovered the extent of her nearly 1,800 poems, many of which were bound together in hand-sewn fascicles. While Emily had asked her sister to burn her correspondence, she had left no definite instruction as to her poetry. So the first volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems was published in 1890; but with her highly individual use of punctuation, capitalisation, and syntax, her work was heavily edited even as it appeared across multiple editions and became increasingly acclaimed.
The Complete Poems of 1955, edited in three volumes by Thomas H. Johnson, was the first edition of Dickinson’s work which attempted to present her poetry intact, with all of its qualities and idiosyncrasies, largely as it appeared in her manuscripts. In 1958, Johnson edited a three-volume edition of her surviving letters. A single-volume edition of the Complete Poems appeared at the beginning of 1976.
The original order of Dickinson’s poems was not restored until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of holograph manuscripts – pen marks, needle punctures, and so on – to reconfigure Dickinson’s fascicles. Franklin published an edition of Dickinson’s poems based on his scholarship in 1998, with some critics asserting that Dickinson’s order bears important thematic significance.
With its themes of death and immortality, its exploration of personal identity and the impossibilities of language, and its vivid natural imagery, Dickinson typically wrote her poetry in iambs, where an unstressed syllable is followed by a stressed (da Dum, x /). Achieving at once a remarkable concision of expression, with many of her poems aphoristic, and at the same time an easy conversational flow, much of Dickinson’s most recognised poetry is an example of ballad metre.
Ballad metre is related to common metre, a poetic metre where lines of iambic tetrametre – with four iambs per line, da Dum da Dum da Dum da Dum – alternate with lines of iambic trimetre – three iambs per line – with a rhyme scheme abab. Hymns frequently follow common metre, as John Newton’s ‘Amazing Grace’:
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
Ballad metre differs from common metre in being less regular: still featuring lines of iambic tetrametre alternating with lines of iambic trimetre, there is no requirement for the first and third lines of a stanza to rhyme, with the rhyme scheme abcb. Dickinson’s use of ballad metre is well demonstrated in poems like ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, which begins:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And again in ‘There is a solitude of space’, which starts:
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
The first example shows something of Dickinson’s use of unorthdox capitalisation and the dash, which functions both to structure and pace the pattern of our reading, and as unfettered artistic expression, indicating the poet’s solemn pauses and searching hesitations, her descriptive exclamations and ejaculations of joy.
In a letter sent to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the autumn of 1870, Dickinson offered her own striking definition of poetry:
‘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?’
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The use of the dash in the 1862 poem ‘I can wade Grief’ affords a swaying, lilting quality to the first stanza, which effects in the reader a shared state of Dickinson’s disruptive joy. Dickinson explains that she is inured to grief, and finds its content manageable – but becomes disorientated by joy and so uncomfortable in the sensation that she jokingly asserts drunkenness as the cause of her response.
‘I can wade Grief’ eschews ballad metre entirely. The first four lines of the first stanza are in iambic dimetre, then with ‘But the least push of Joy’, the iamb is provisionally halted and momentarily reversed. At the end of the line and and on into the next, ‘Breaks up my feet—’, the iamb resumes, then the final four lines are a tale of two halves: a patter of unstressed syllables, with only the first syllables of ‘drunken’ and ‘Pebble’ and the word ‘smile’ fully stressed; then an abundance stresses as the stanza heaves to a close. We can see Dickinson wilt, tipped over in a stupor of emotion, then right herself and boldly conclude the stanza.
When the second stanza begins, the alliteration of ‘p’ gives pause, and time for reflection as Dickinson suggests that power is only the distorted remnant of suffering. Then the stanza builds to a climax. ‘Himmaleh’ indicates the Himalayas, the mountain range in South Asia home to nine of the ten highest peaks on Earth. Obliquely, Dickinson seems to invoke the extraordinary strength of shared human compassion.
‘I can wade Grief’ (1862), by Emily Dickinson
I can wade Grief—
Whole Pools of it—
I’m used to that—
But the least push of Joy
Breaks up my feet—
And I tip—drunken—
Let no Pebble—smile—
‘Twas the New Liquor,—
That was all!
Power is only Pain—
Stranded, thro’ Discipline,
Till Weights—will hang—
Give Balm—to Giants—
And they’ll wilt, like Men—