Emily Dickinson was born into a middle-class Puritan family in Massachusetts in 1830. She received her university education at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where she refused to declare her faith in public and then decided to interrupt her studies and return home.
She began a life of seclusion, she wore white clothes as ambiguous emblems of spiritual marriage and singleness and never left her father’s house except for some walks in the garden.
She wrote a lot of letters because it was her only form of contact with the world and also her poems seem to have been written for the purpose of communication rather than for publication.
During her lifetime she allowed seven out of more than 2.000 poems to be printed. She died in 1886 and four years later the literary critic Thomas W. Higginson was asked to make a selection from her work so that a book her verse might be published.
‘Poems by Emily Dickinson’ appeared in 1890 with some corrections and changes meant to suit the taste of a public accustomed to more traditional rhythms and images.
2. Poetry of isolation
Emily Dickinson’s poetry was influenced by the reading of the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, the Metaphysical poets and contemporary writers like Emily Bronte and Robert Browning. The same forces that had long dominated New England contributed to shaping her mind.
However, she combined all these influences in a highly original way, detached from current taste, from the great events and contrasts of the age, the campaign for the abolition of slavery, the Civil War, the beginning of the campaign for the rights of woman.
If Whitman was the poet of wholeness, she was the poet of what is broken and absent. She possessed the genius to transform a private circumstance into one of general relevance.
3. The eternal issues of life
Dickinson uses her poetry to break received certainties. Her themes are the eternal issues of life: death and loss, love and desire, time, sorrow, despair, God, nature, man’s relation to the universe.
She was deeply interested in spiritual experience and obsessed with death.
She wrote about it from the point of view of the person dying or of a witness.
She felt horror or compassion and she wrote about her own death.
Death remained a great mystery and regarded as a liberation from a state of anxiety. Death is seen as the place where the human being tends to become music, perfume, passion, flight.
The theme of love is full of emotions. She deals with the expectation of eternity as the hope of a final spiritual union.
Nature plays an important part in Dickinson’s poetry, she presents 3 ways:
- Objective description;
- Juxtaposing the thing observed and the soul of the observer (philosophical speculation);
- Source of imagery to emphasize a concept or theme.
The ‘I’ speaking voice becomes a bee, a spider, a bird, a blade of grass, lilacs, in a vision of the world where macrocosm is fitted into microscopic structure.