Emily Dickinson Throughout the history of literature, it has often been said that “the poet is the poetry” (Tate, Reactionary 9); that a poets life and experiences greatly influence the style and the content of their writing, some more than others. Emily Dickinson is one of the most renowned poets of her time, recognized for the amount of genuine, emotional insight into life, death, and love she was able to show through her poetry. Many believe her lifestyle and solitude brought her to that point in her writing. During Emily Dickinsons life, she suffered many experiences that eventually sent her into seclusion, and those events, along with her reclusiveness, had a great impact on her poetry. Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, the second daughter of Edward and Emily Dickinson. Her family was very prominent in the small town of Amherst, but Emily never enjoyed the popularity her family received and began to withdraw early from public life (Ravert 1).
Her solitude began long before it was obvious and went much deeper than many noticed at the time. The relationships that existed between Emily and her family were distant and remote, especially the bonds with her parents (Zabel 251-55). Emilys mother was never “emotionally accessible” (Ravert 1), therefore Emily was left without a mother figure in her life. Emily had a very strict, authoritative father, who provided her with an excellent education and many books and literature, but often censored her reading materials for subjects suitable to his own interests (Tate, Six 9-10). She felt her father would never accept the workings of her mind so she took herself away from him, refusing to let herself grow close to her family (Zabel 251-55). The Dickinson family was extremely devout in the Christian Puritan faith and tradition.
Emilys father was especially strict in his beliefs, but she refused to conform and never joined the church. Her faith was often shaken and her doubts of the Puritan conception of God tormented her. She could not convince her soul of their ideals, believing that “only direct experience leads to spiritual experience” (Miller 35). Dickinson was often more fervid in her expressions of love and nature than those of religion, for she saw the “austerities of the public God” (Zabel 253). She began to write poetry regarding the God of her own solitude, understanding that her real reverence was for Nature.
According to Conrad Aiken, Nature “seemed to her a more manifest and more beautiful evidence of Divine Will than creeds and churches” (NCLC 21:35). Her views and feelings toward faith and God placed her further away from society and created even more distance in her personal relationships with her family and close friends (Ravert 1). The factors that drove Emily Dickinson to live as she did, to withdraw from the world, are numerous, but most believe one of the most prominent reasons was that she simply chose to live that way. It seems she became a hermit by deliberate and conscious choice, for she had no interest in public life or the ways of society (Tate, Reactionary 22-24). In an 1891 essay, composed by Mabel L.
Todd, the critic stated Emily “had tried society and the world but found it lacking” (NCLC 21:14). As she grew up, Dickinson began to realize that she was different from the rest of the world in so many ways. According to the writer Amy Lowell, in an 1891 essay written about Emilys motives for seclusion, Emily knew no different life, but knew she did not belong to the one she found herself in (NCLC 21:29-30). She did not want to remake herself in any way, so she moved to a “solitude within” (Zabel 252). With the exception of only a few brief visits to Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, she lived entirely in the remote New England town of Amherst, seeing what could be seen from her bedroom window (Tate, Six 12-13).
She preferred to stay close to home, spending her time reading, working in her garden, doing chores, but most of all, writing poetry–her only true form of expression (Miller 34). Emily Dickinson “never had a fulfilling love affair” (Miller 34). There are many rumors and much speculation regarding Emilys love life, but no one will dispute the fact she had terrible luck with love and that this heartache ultimately affected her poetry. She was involved with a number of men, but never one with whom she could form a lasting relationship. Early in her love life, two significant men, Ben Newton and Samuel Bowles, influenced her poetry (Ravert 1).
Ben Newton was a young law student, who many claim was one of the first to encourage Emily to become a poet (Miller 34-35). She met Newton in Philadelphia while on business trip with her father, and immediately fell in love. After discovering he was a married man, Emily fled back to Amherst to continue life alone in her fathers house. Her “increase in turning from the world” (Zabel 254) began to become more apparent as time went on. Newton died in 1853; it was around this Emily decided to begin her career in writing (Zabel 254-255).
Samuel Bowles effect on Emily and her writing was even more negative than that of Newton. At the beginning of her career, Emily wrote to Bowles, an editor, hoping he would print one of her poems in his newspaper. Bowles repeatedly refused, claiming no one would understand her poetry. “It is unpleasant to see the degree to which Emily Dickinson suffered at the rejection of Bowles” (Miller 34). Regardless of the hurt these men caused her, Emily persisted in her writing and continued to have relationships with different men.
All the while, Emily Dickinson was becoming more distant from the world. Thomas Wentsworth Higginson was one of the most influential men in Emilys life leaving his mark on her poetry and her heart. The first time Emily heard of Higginson was after reading an article in Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” advising poets on ideas such as topics to write about, how to train to write, the proper styles of writing, and other items of that nature. At the time, Higginson was a well-known editor and essayist, and Emily was inspired. She sent four poems to him, asking his opinion and advice about her own publication (Miller 34-35).
He advised her not to publish and refused her as a sponsor, but did not neglect to notice “her creative originality” (Ravert 1). Their correspondence continued for years as he became her literary guide and critic. Due to Higginsons guidance and advice, Emily finally made the decision not to publish, and eventually did the only thing she knew to do–withdraw from the world (Miller 34-35). Regardless of the sadness Emilys solitude and seclusion must have caused her, “because of the effects of loneliness, ones vision of the world becomes sharper” (Tate, Six). Many critics claim that as a result of Dickinsons life of solitude, she was able to view the world with more focus than other authors of her time (Ravert 2). Mabel L.
Todd stated in her essay describing Emily Dickinsons style of writing, that Emily studied anything and everything, yearning to learn and observe all she could about the world. For Emily, “anything was grounds for a legitimate study–life, death, and the unknown life beyond” (NCLC 21:9). She seemed to master life by rejecting it, and her genuine insight was that of unparalleled depth (Tate, Reactionary 10). Dickinson had always had a desire to be absorbed in a force greater than herself (Zabel 255-56). She believed that to achieve this, she had to step out of the real world and write for “what she might have been rather than for what she was” (NCLC 21:8). She had spontaneous flashes of insight, unrelated to any outward circumstance. Poetry to her was the expression of deep, emotional meanings, a transfer of passionate feelings and conviction that one can only express through writing. She showed much courage for accepting life and refused to let a promise of a future life deter her from anything she may feel or experience in her present one (NCLC 21:8-18). Emily wrote with an effort to make the world less strange by showing it through her own vision, but eventually became aware of the prison she was creating for herself.
As a result, a longing for escape can be found in quite a few of her poems. Dickinsons poetry reflects the direct feelings of her own profound heart and a rare, subtle knowledge of the essence of the human spirit (Zabel 256-62). Emily Dickinsons contribution to the world of literature is one of the greatest in American history. She is effective in that she does not attempt to tell readers what to think through her poetry, but merely what to look at about the world (Tate, Reactionary 15). Her experiences with love, rejection, and ultimately solitude, brought the kind of insight and emotion to her writing that many feel are characteristic to society today. From her own life experiences, Emily Dickinson gained a “brilliant understanding of the heart and its suffering” (Zabel 261).
Her poetry will remain universal for as long as the human heart endures. Bibliography Miller, Ruth. “Emily Dickinson.” The American Renaissance in New England. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Gale, 1978.
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21. Detroit: Gale, 1981-. 80 vols. to date. Ravert, John. “Emily Dickinson.” Homepage.
26 Jan. 2000. . Tate, Allen, ed. Reactionary Essays on Poetry and Ideas. New York: Scribner, 1936.
– – -. Six American Poets: From Emily Dickinson to the Present: An Introduction. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minneapolis P, 1969. Zabel, Morton D., ed. Literary Opinion in America: Essays Illustrating the Status, Methods, and Problems of Criticism in the United States After the War. New York: Harper, 1937.