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Emily Dickinson

Despite being relatively unknown in her lifetime, today Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century. Dickinson's poems have a distinct use of structure and dashes that has caused her work to be recognisable. 

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Emily Dickinson

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Despite being relatively unknown in her lifetime, today Emily Dickinson is one of the most famous American poets of the 19th century. Dickinson's poems have a distinct use of structure and dashes that has caused her work to be recognisable.

Emily Dickinson, Portrait, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Emily Dickinson is perhaps one of the best-known names for the Transcendentalism movement in the United States.

Emily Dickinson: biography

Emily Dickinson's Biography
Birth:10th December 1830
Death:15th May 1886
Father:Edward Dickinson
Mother:Emily Norcross Dickinson
Spouse/Partners:None
Children:0
Famous Poems:
  • ‘Because I could not stop for Death’
  • ‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’
  • ‘A Bird came down the Walk’
  • A narrow Fellow in the Grass
  • ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’
  • ‘It was not Death for I stood up’
  • ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’
  • I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
Nationality:American
Literary Period:Transcendentalism

Let's discuss Emily Dickinson's background in further detail.

Early life and education

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her family were well known and influential in the town, as her grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College (where her father worked as treasurer) and her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent lawyer.

Emily was the middle child of the family and had an older brother, Austin and a younger sister, Lavina. Edward took a keen interest in his children's education, and Emily was taught first in Amherst Academy and then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Dickinson however returned home after one year, due to its strict religious atmosphere.

Emily Dickinson and religion

Religion had a considerable influence on Emily Dickinson and her poetry. Dickinson's family were Calvinists and she was raised during the Second Great Awakening (a Protestant revival that occurred throughout much of New England).

Emily Dickinson herself would ultimately reject religion as a teenager, as she did not take communion and did not convert. Despite this, the effects of religion can still be seen in her poetry, as she references the Common Book of Prayer (a Christian prayer book) and Christian heaven.

Adulthood

During her twenties, Emily Dickinson began to withdraw from wider society, and spent much of her time in the family home. Some critics speculate that this was due to an affair with the married Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Wadsworth moved to California shortly after the two met, although they would continue a correspondence throughout his lifetime.

Much of Dickinson's poems were included in the letters that she sent to friends. She was particularly close to her cousin Sophia Holland and her brother's wife, Susan Gilbert. Dickinson's relationship with Gilbert is also a point of speculation for some critics, who believe the two were lovers. These letters were an indication of how much of Dickinson's poetry would circulate: with 250 being sent to Gilbert alone.

In 1864, during one of Dickinson's most creative periods, she fell ill with a pain in her eye (possibly iritis). This affliction lasted for several years, and had a negative effect on Dickinson's mental health, as she feared she was becoming blind.

Illness and death were common in Emily Dickinson's life as throughout the 1860s to 1880s, many of her close friends and relations would die of tuberculosis. These deaths greatly affected Emily, and the presence of the theme of death was increasingly seen in her poetry.

Emily Dickinson and other literary movements

Two literary movements had a significant effect on the development of Emily Dickinson's poetry: Transcendentalism and Romanticism.

Romanticism was a movement that originated in England during the early 1800s that emphasised the importance of individual experience and nature. When the movement reached America it was quickly adopted by figures such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. Dickinson used the themes of Romanticism to begin to explore the individual interior experience (or the experience of the mind).

Transcendentalism was a movement that developed in New England in the 1830s following the arrival of Romanticism to America. Founding members of Transcendentalism in America included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It was linked to the philosophical ideas of Plato and Immanuel Kant and stressed that spirituality could not be achieved through rationalism, but had to be gained through self-reflection.

This movement furthered the ideas of Romanticism but also emphasised the divinity and connection between humanity and nature. This can be seen in Emily Dickinson's poems, such as, '"Hope" is the thing with feathers' (1891).

Emily Dickinson: death

Emily Dickinson died in 1886, aged 55. The doctors at the time wrote Bright's Disease on her certificate, which causes an inflammation of the kidneys. Researchers later believed Emily Dickinson's death was a result of heart failure. Following her death, her poetry was discovered by her sister Lavina, who became determined to publish all of the poems.

Emily Dickinson: facts

Here are some facts about Dickinson that summarise her life.

  • Emily Dickinson was a prolific writer, composing over 1,800 poems, but only a few were published during her lifetime.
  • Many of her poems were written on small slips of paper and tucked into envelopes, and they often contained unconventional grammar and spelling.
  • Dickinson's poetry is known for its unique use of language, unconventional form, and exploration of themes such as death, nature, and spirituality.
  • She was an avid gardener and often drew inspiration from the natural world for her writing.
  • Dickinson was a deeply religious person and often explored spirituality in her poetry.
  • She was a voracious reader and was well-versed in literature, philosophy, and theology.
  • Dickinson had a close friendship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a writer and abolitionist, who she corresponded with for many years.
  • Her poems were originally published under a pseudonym, 'A. Nobody,' and it wasn't until the 20th century that her work was widely recognized as some of the most important poetry of the 19th century.
  • Dickinson's style and themes have influenced numerous writers, including T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath.
  • In 1955, the poet Marianne Moore edited and published the first comprehensive collection of Dickinson's poems, which helped solidify her reputation as one of the most important poets of the 19th century.

Emily Dickinson: key poems

Here are some well-known quotes from Dickinson.

'A Bird, came down the Walk-' (1891)

'A Bird, came down the Walk-' is a poem written by Emily Dickinson that was published posthumously in 1891.

A Bird, came down the Walk -
He did not know I saw -
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

The poem recounts an encounter that the speaker has with a bird in her garden, the speaker observes the bird eat, walk, and drink, but when she tries to interact with the animal, it flies away. This poem uses the imagery of a bird to discuss the theme of nature and how it can be both brutal and beautiful at the same time.

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' (1896)

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' is a poem that was written in 1861 that centres around themes of death and madness.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading - treading - till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through -

In the poem, the speaker is experiencing the death of her mind (or sanity) and is struggling to come to terms with this. Dickinson uses dashes (which would become a signature of her work) to describe this process and the suffering (or madness) that it is causing the speaker.

'It was not Death, for I stood up,' (1891)

'It was not Death, for I stood up' was one of Emily Dickinson's most famous poems and was published after her death in 1886.

It was not Death, for I stood up,

And all the Dead, lie down -

It was not Night, for all the Bells

Put out their Tongues, for Noon.

The poem's meaning is unclear but many critics have thought that it follows the emotional state of the speaker, after she has an irrational and harrowing experience. Contradictions are seen throughout the poem as the speaker tries to understand what has happened to her. This poem follows common themes seen in Dickinson's work, such as death and madness.

'"Hope" is the thing with feathers - ' (1891)

Emily Dickinson's poem, '"Hope" is the thing with feathers - ' was composed in 1861 and features an extended metaphor that runs throughout the poem.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

It is a lyric poem that uses the imagery of a bird to represent hope. This poem uses Romantic and Transcendentalist influences to show the effects that nature can have on the human soul. The poem centres on the theme of hope and are typically viewed as one of Dickinson's more positive poems.

'A narrow Fellow in the Grass' (1866)

'A narrow Fellow in the Grass' is one of the only poems published during Emily Dickinson's lifetime.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides -
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is -

The poem follows a male speaker, as he recounts why a childhood encounter with a snake has led him to fear the animal in adulthood. In this poem, Dickinson uses the imagery of the snake to further discuss themes of deceit and fear, as well as how these factors affect man's relationship with nature.

Emily Dickinson: key themes and quotes

What themes are portrayed in Dickinson's poems?

Death

Death is a theme that is seen consistently found in Dickinson's poetry. Throughout her life, Dickinson was surrounded by death; she lived through the American Civil War and during the 1870s and 1880s many of her close friends and family passed away.

The Second Great Awakening's preoccupation with preparing its followers for death would have also influenced Dickinson and how she viewed death. Dickinson uses these experiences and influences to explore the concept of death, afterlife, and mortality in her poetry.

Poems about death:

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro

'It was not Death, for I stood up,'

The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial
Reminded me, of mine -

'Because I could not stop for Death'

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
And Immortality.

Madness

Dickinson also explores the themes of madness and sanity in much of her poetry. During her lifetime, mental illness would have been extremely stigmatised, especially in the religious environment Dickinson grew up around. This caused anxiety about sanity and insanity that is seen throughout Dickinson's work.

When Dickinson was in her mid-twenties she began to withdraw from society and live instead as a recluse. This period of self-isolation may in some way have influenced how Dickinson presented madness in her poetry.

Poems about madness:

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

'Much Madness is divinest Sense'

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -

Religion

Emily Dickinson's Calvinist upbringing can be felt throughout much of her works. Although Dickinson ultimately rejected religion herself, Christian references can still be found in works such as 'It was not Death, for I stood up,' (1891).

Christian rituals, traditions and practices are seen in many of Emily Dickinson's poems; however, her tone towards these things varies greatly. Her views on religious themes such as Christian heaven and hell, influence how she presented themes of death and immortality in her other poems.

Poems about religion:

'It was not Death, for I stood up'

Nor Fire - for just my marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool -

'Hope' is the thing with feathers'

Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

'Tie the Strings to my Life, my Lord' (1861)

Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,Then I am ready to go!

Nature

Emily Dickinson's poetry was influenced by the naturalist, transcendentalist, and Romantic literary movements that occurred during her lifetime. These movements all emphasised the importance of nature and its effects on the human spirit, something that can be seen through many of Dickinson's poems.

In her poetry, Emily Dickinson explores how nature and human beings can influence each other, through figurative language, as well as specific observations about animals. Like many of the themes in Dickinson's work, her exploration of nature can be linked to the theme of religion as she uses allusions to Biblical creatures.

Poems about nature:

'A Bird, came down the Walk-'

A Bird, came down the Walk -

He did not know I saw -

'Hope' is the thing with feathers'

"Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -

'A narrow Fellow in the Grass'

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides

Emily Dickinson - Key Takeaways

  • Emily Dickinson was born in Massachusetts in 1830.
  • Her family were Puritan Calvinists, although she eventually rejected religion.
  • She was reclusive and spent much of her life in her family home.
  • Emily Dickinson wrote approximately 1,800 poems, most of which were published after her death.
  • She was influenced by the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements.
  • Her poetry explored themes of death, madness, religion, and nature.

Frequently Asked Questions about Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is best known for her poetry and letters, most of which were published following her death. 

Emily Dickinson wrote about themes of death, madness, religion, and nature. 

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886, doctors wrote Bright's Disease on her certificate, which causes an inflammation of the kidneys. Researchers later believed she died of heart failure.

Emily Dickinson was a poet and writer who lived from 1830-to 1886. During her life, she wrote approximately 1,800 poems. 

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Who wrote, ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

When was ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ written?

Where else can the common metre be found?

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