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Women in the Arts: Emily Dickinson

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets in history, chose to live in the isolation and silence of her room in order to write the most beautiful poetry ever. She travelled through time and space without moving from her home.

Who is Emily Dickinson?

Born on 10 December 1830 in Amherst (Massachusetts), Emily Elizabeth Dickinson, the second child of Edward Dickinson, an esteemed lawyer destined to become a member of Congress, and Emily Norcross, a woman with a fragile personality, received a fairly liberal and complete education for the time.

From 1840 to 1847 she attended Amherst Academy and later enrolled at South Hadley High School, from which she was withdrawn by her father after one year. Between the ages of 23 and 25, Emily made the most important and controversial decision of her life: she completely isolated herself from the rest of the world. She was a recluse for fifteen years, during which time she only went out and about in her beloved garden.

The reason for this confinement is still unknown, but perhaps explained by the fact that Emily had made writing her life's work. According to scholars, the choice was made not because of a disappointment in love, nor because of health problems, but more because of the awareness of living in an oppressive society to which she felt she did not belong. Some contemporary scholars have suggested that the poet might have suffered from social anxiety.

She continued to talk to her friends, however, through writing. Letters remained the main means of communication throughout the poet's life. Often, these contained poems.

Like many of the transcendentalist authors of the 19th century, Dickinson was also fascinated by science. She saw the study of nature as part of a larger need to understand the universe and the human role within it.

Emily Dickinson's House and Garden

Emily’s troubled love life

According to biographical reconstructions, two men came into the poet's life. The first was Benjamin Franklin Newton, with whom she shared a passion for literature. It was he who recommended reading to her and invited her to continue writing. However, the man died of tuberculosis, causing Emily deep sorrow.

The other man who came into her life was the pianist Charles Wasdworth. He soon moved away from the poet, however, because as a married man he did not want to risk cheating on his wife.

Some think that her poems were dedicated to these two men, but over the years another hypothesis has been put forward: her love poems were dedicated to Susan Gilbert, a childhood friend and her brother's wife. This belief could explain why the poet's feelings and love life are shrouded in great mystery. Below is one such poem:

“To own a Susan of my own

Is of itself a Bliss —

Whatever Realm I forfeit, Lord,

Continue me in this!”

What was she most celebrated for?

“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me, I know that is poetry”

The decision to isolate herself from everything and everyone coincided with her wider production of poetry. For Emily, writing, in this sense, was a spiritual journey of self-discovery and of the world with which she had chosen to no longer interact.

Her poetry was born through the contemplation of nature: from the window of her room, she observed the world and animals, described her garden, the insects and flowers and the changing seasons. At the same time, she studied Shakespeare, Keats and Emily Brontë, her favourite authors. She wrote about love and nature, about the transience of life and the painful resignation of death.

But she was not interested in success or recognition; for her, poetry was only a means of exploring feelings and of introspection. Her poems were hidden in the drawer of her desk: many were shared with family and friends, but only few of them were actually published as Emily didn’t feel the need to pursue a career as a published writer.

What is her legacy?

Emily Dickinson died of nephritis on 15 May 1886 at the age of 55 in her father's house. Her funeral, according to her wishes, took place in the fields she loved so much. Of her great anthology of over 1800 poems, only six were published during her lifetime. The rest were published posthumously thanks to her younger sister Vinnie.

Today, Dickinson is one of the most read and studied American writers. Dickinson’s innovations in poetic form and examination of unexpected topics inspired writers in future generations, both in the US and around the world. Her influence can be seen, for example, in modernist poetry of the 20th century.

Dickinson was not the ‘typical’ woman of the time and rarely did she ever conform to any boundaries, much less ones put in place by society.

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Edited by Olena Strzelbicka

Researched by Larisa Cuturean

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