Emily Dickinson, Biography Of An American Poet
Poet Emily Dickinson, an enigma in life and death, experimented with meter and rhyme to create magical poems that were years ahead of their time.
American poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Although she became something of an enigma in later life, Emily's childhood was fairly conventional. She attended school at Amherst Academy beginning when she was 9 and continuing there until the age of 16.
In 1847, she became a student at nearby South Hadley's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. There she began to develop her keen powers of observation and the ability to crystallize the essence of a moment, an emotion, or an idea into short bursts of poetry.
Emily left Mount Holyoke after less than a year. Historians speculate about her departure--she was not a bad student--but there is no clear consensus about the reason. Possibly she left because of ill health, or her longing for home, or because her authoritarian father was reluctant to permit further study.
Emily's legendary peculiarities did not emerge until she grew older. She gradually withdrew from the world, too shy or too fearful to face visitors. When she did speak with them, she concealed herself in another room and spoke through a doorway. Her fears apparently did not extend to children. A kindred spirit, she delighted in joining them.
Thomas Higginson, poetry editor for the Atlantic Monthly, became an important figure in Emily's life. He wrote an editorial encouraging young poets to send him their verses. Emily did, in 1862, sending four of her poems in her only attempt to publish her poetry. Higginson offered some advice and suggested changes to her rhyme and meter in keeping with poetic tastes of the times.
Emily continued to correspond with Higginson throughout the years, but refused to change her poems. Poetry came to serve as the expression of her soul.
After Emily's death, Higgenson wrote an article and published her letters in the October, 1891 issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine. He quoted some verses she had included in a letter:
"At least, it solaces to know
That there exists a gold
Although I prove it just in time
Its distance to behold;
Its far, far treasure to surmise
And estimate the pearl
That slipped my simple fingers through
While just a girl at school!"
Higginson pointed out that Emily could have easily altered the last line to rhyme "girl" with "pearl" - but in "defiance of form" she would not change the words.
He was bemused by their relationship, which was carried on mainly through correspondence. She signed her letters "Your Scholar", but evaded his attempts to coach her. He contented himself instead with being a listening ear for her poetry.
In the mid 1860's Emily's eyesight began to fail her, and she traveled outside of Amherst to see eye specialists. After returning home, she began secluding herself, and to exhibit some of the peculiar behaviors that were to mark her later life.
Neither she nor her younger sister Lavinia married. They stayed at home and cared for their father, who died in 1874, and later their mother, who died in 1882, several years after suffering a stroke. Emily never again left Amherst.
She wrote approximately 1800 poems, but didn't knowingly publish any during her lifetime. According to her obituary, friends surreptitiously submitted a few poems for publication. These were edited extensively and published anonymously.
In 1884, Emily became ill with a kidney disease generically called "Bright's Disease," and soon became bedridden. She died after lapsing into a coma on May 15, 1886. Her tombstone epitaph contains the two words she sent in a message to her cousins shortly before she died: "Called Back."
Her younger sister Lavinia found Emily's poems after her death. She discovered hundreds of poems tied up neatly with string. Most of these poems had never been seen before, except by Emily. Lavinia believed that the poems had merit and should be published. She enlisted first the help of her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, and eventually that of Mabel Loomis Todd, a close friend of the family.
Mabel Todd agreed to help. Because of Emily's experimental, irregular meter and imperfect rhymes, the poems were revised to fit the conventions of the times. A volume of poems was published in 1890, followed by a second and then a third volume in 1891 and 1896, respectively.
It wasn't until many years after Emily Dickinson's death that her enchanting, unaltered poems were finally made available for the enjoyment of the world.