Emily Dickinson

(1830 -- 1886)

(bio by Bill Gilson)

The oddness of Emily Dickinson's later years has provided raw material for many hundreds of speculative books and papers; none has thoroughly explained her, and a fair number have only added to the clouds of obfuscating myth.

Dickinson had what appears to have been a normal childhood---was bright, witty, had friends, went to parties---but by her early 30's began a withdrawal which later became almost complete: there were occasions when even people whom she obviously loved had to speak with her from the other side of an ajar door.

Dickinson never married, and lived all her life in the family home, a large solid brick house near the center of Amherst, Massachusetts. Her paternal grandfather founded Amherst College; her father was that school's treasurer, as well as a member of Congress. Dickinson attended a local grammar school and, for about a year, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. Her closest friends knew she wrote poetry, because she often included poems or lines from poems in her letters. What they had no way of appreciating, however, was the magnitude of her solitary achievement. When she died at 56 her sister Lavinia found in a drawer over 1,700 poems --- the result of a lifetime's concentrated work. And since the publication of a small selection of those poems four years after her death, Dickinson's reputation has risen; today her place among the very best poets to have written in English is unchallenged.

Dickinson's letters --- she was a great and prolific letter writer --- reveal a slow transformation of style during her 20's, from conventionally phrased well-wrought sentences to spare, gnomic, highly charged, idiosyncratic and often difficult phrasings punctuated by dashes, with capitalizations for emphasis. This latter style is also that of the poems. Short, often obscure, deceptively simple-looking, the poems have a way of focusing down the reader's attention to where one proceeds word by word, savoring the audacity and rightness of each choice.

Dickinson in her early 30's made some tentative attempts to get published, but her work was far ahead of its time and she did not meet with success. Only seven poems were published in her lifetime, each changed by editors to suit the day's standards of rhyme, punctuation and meter. ``It was not Death...'' (almost all her poems are untitled) is number 510 in Thomas H. Johnson's definitive 1955 edition, and it has been dated approximately to 1862.