Emily Dickinson: American Poet and Solitary Rebel

Credit: The Boston Review

Who was Emily Dickinson?

Emily Dickinson is among the most famous poets in American literary tradition and is considered by many to be one of two leading figures of 19th-century American literature, along with Walt Whitman. This article discusses her life, the characteristics and themes of her poetry, and her literary legacy.

Emily Dickenson’s Upbringing

Emily Dickinson’s life, like her poetry, can be partly defined by rebellion, a bucking of societal expectations of the time. Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts to a well-off and prominent local family. Emily’s father was a lawyer prominent in local, state, and national politics, even serving a single term in the US Congress. Dickinson was raised in a highly religious family and society, a lifestyle that she did not accept. This was seen during the Revivalist Christian movement in New England at the time when Dickinson was the only member of her family not to join the local church and frequently rejected public professions of her faith.

Dickinson excelled at school and was recognized by her classmates and teachers for her skill at composition. She first attended Amherst academy for the early part of her education, but at age 15 Emily Dickenson transferred to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, a deeply religious school which she would only attend for a year. This was most likely because she refused to accept the strict religious principles espoused by the school and was placed in the “without hope” category of students by administrators before returning back to her family home.

Emily Dickenson’s Adult Life

At home, Dickinson took on the domestic duties expected of women at the time whether that be visiting with guests or household chores. Notably, Dickinson rejected the expectations of the time by never marrying during her life. Although she maintained several close friendships throughout her life, scholars debate whether she ever engaged in romantic relationships with others. At age 23, Dickinson began to retract from society, choosing to leave her home less and less. By age 30, Dickinson lived, as she would for the remainder of her life, as a recluse who rarely left home. Some scholars believe she suffered from agoraphobia, a fear of open spaces, which restricted her to her home. Despite physically separating herself from the outside world, Dickinson did not fully isolate herself from communicating with others. Throughout her life, she maintained extensive correspondence through letters with several friends. Scholars studying Dickinson believe these letters, especially early ones, represent her first experimentation with writing styles and techniques that would later be used in her poetry.

At home, Dickinson began to write, but it was not until the late 1850s that her creative output would explode. By 1865, Dickinson had written around 1,100 poems of the eventual 1,800 that she would come to write. Only around seven and twelve of Dickinson’s poems were published during her lifetime and all of these were done anonymously. It was not until after her death in 1886, that her family discovered her extensive writings consisting of forty handsewn volumes with around 1,800 poems in total. Friends and family would go on to publish the first volume of her poems in 1890, four years after her death, with several other volumes being published in the same decade which quickly became popular. Several leading writers of the 20th promoted her works at the time and espoused their greatness and brilliance. This established Dickinson’s position among scholars as one of the greatest American poets, turning her into a hugely important and influential figure in American literary canon.

Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Characteristics, Themes and Styles

Dickinson is well-recognized for her unique poetic style. Scholars say she demonstrates a deep understanding of the formal poetic conventions of her time while also experimenting with different techniques and elements that buck those conventions. Dickinson’s poems use common meter, sometimes referred to as hymnal meter, which contrasts with the iambic pentameter that was a popular poetic strategy at the time. The common meter results in her poems taking on a “musical” or “singable” quality similar to church hymns that leads them to often be categorized as lyric poetry, a genre characterized by having a single speaker. This genre makes large use of “I” but does not necessarily represent the voice of the author who expresses their thoughts and feelings. These choices help her poems to examine human psychological and emotional states, especially psychological turmoil, including loneliness, grief, pain, and happiness. For example, in her poem “There’s a certain Slant of light”, Dickinson explores the topic of depression and sadness about death and decay through the depression that one might experience during a winter evening, as the days get shorter and the natural world appears in a state of decay, with the sun going down.

Another prominent characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry cited by literary scholars is her clever use of cryptic and enigmatic (i.e. difficult to understand and interpret) language through allusion which creates a feeling of words being left out. The result is that Dickinson’s poems require effort on the part of the reader to analyze and put together context clues to construct meaning, making it necessary to read over them two or more times to understand. Similar to this, Dickinson’s poems are noted by scholars and poets alike to have a dense and fragmented quality to them. Dense in poetic context means a compression of a lot of ideas into few words. This creates a fragmented feeling in her poems, and this creates irregular flow that leaves the reader feeling that words have been left out.

Another technique characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry is her frequent usage of metaphors. In her works, Dickinson often makes use of metaphors relating material things to universal, abstract concepts. These include but are not limited to death, immortality, religion, nature, and love. Dickinson’s use of metaphor as a means of comparison in her poems is her attempt to explore, define, and enhance our understanding of universal abstract ideas of human existence by relating them to physical objects in our world. For example, in her poem titled “’Hope’ is the things with feathers (1861)” Dickinson compares the concept of ‘hope’ to a bird to get at the meaning of the abstract, and therefore hard to pin down, idea of ‘hope’.

Lastly, Dickinson’s poetry is noted for her unconventional usage of strange capitalization, perhaps as means of emphasis though this is debated by scholars, and her usage of dashes in place of commas or punctuation, perhaps denoting pauses and giving her poems the earlier described fragmented quality.

There are several important and recurring themes that Dickinson addresses through her poetry. The most prominent of these include death, immortality, love, the wonder of nature, identity and religion. For example, in one of her more famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death”, Dickinson personifies death to explore the themes of death and immortality. Perhaps due in part to her religious upbringing, many of Dickinson’s poems also explore religious questions and themes such as death, immortality, faith and doubt, often implicitly though sometimes explicitly. In regard to this, literary scholars note that at times she “straddles the line between religious loyalty and dissent” which may be indicative of her “spiritual rebellion” against the strictly religious society and family in which she was raised. This can be seen, for example, in her poem “The World is not Conclusion”, where Dickinson explores her own doubts in the Christian religion that she asserts cannot be done away with by any preacher or church.

Emily Dickenson’s Influence on Today’s World

Emily Dickinson stands as a unique and important figure in American literary tradition and popular culture. She is considered by many literary critics and scholars to be among the greatest American writers and an innovative poet of her time. Many feminists, American poets, and authors consider Dickinson an important early figure in the feminist movement. This is due to her being one of the first prominent female American poets to be honest and outspoken through poetry, which stood in contrast to the cultural standards of the time. For these reasons, Dickinson’s poems are often read and analyzed across most American school levels as a representation of poetic culture in the United States.




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