The Belle of Amherst – Emily Dickinson

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The second daughter of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson; Emily, her brother Austin, and younger sister Lavinia; lived a quiet, nurtured life headed by her authoritative father Edward.

Being rooted in puritanical Massachusetts of the 1800’s, she and her siblings were supposed to accept the religious and ideological beliefs of their father without argument. Later in life, Emily would come to challenge the viewpoints of her father and the Christian church; the challenges she met would later contribute to the strength of her poetry.

Emily’s Education and Influences

Being the daughter of a prominent politician, Emily benefited from a good education and attended Amherst Academy. After her time at the Academy, she left for the South Hadley Female Seminary (later known as Mt. Holyoke College) where she started to blossom into a delicate young woman. One quote about her has it that her eyes were a lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head, with delicate teeth and skin. The origin of the quote is unknown.

Emily had a demure manner about her, but she was often shy and remote; and could be deprecating in the presence of strangers. Although she did well at college, she returned home after only one year there, and began a life of solitude.

A poet who took definition as her province, she challenged the existing definitions of poetry and the poet’s work. Like writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman; she experimented with expression in order to free it from its traditional restraints. As Charlotte Bronte and Elizabeth Barrett Browning had done, she crafted a new kind of persona for the first person. The speakers in Dickinson’s poetry are seen as sharp-sighted observers who see the inescapable limitations of their societies, as well the imagined and imaginable escapes.

Emily’s Work and Last Years

After she left college, Emily lived quietly at the family home, where she spent the rest of her adult life writing poetry. Her verses were short but inventive, and her themes universal: love, death, and her relationship with God and nature. Although her output was prodigious – over 1700 poems in all – she was not famous during her lifetime; she never left Amherst and according to the Encyclopedia Britannica “after the late 1860s [she] never left the boundaries of the family’s property.”

Emily died in 1886 with only a handful of her poems published. After Emily’s death, her sister Lavinia took to promoting her poems; publishing Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890, and other new editions of her work were published over the following decades.

Once published, her words gained a world-wide audience, and she came to be regarded as one of the finest poets of the nineteenth century. In one of the mysterious enigmas that surround her persona, is the fact that she never married nor has it ever been proven that she had any serious relationships; although it was widely rumored that she did.

Among her best known and often referenced poems are“I Because could not stop for Death” and “I cannot live with You.”

Let it be said that her poems will be long remembered and seldom forgotten.