Emily Dickinson was a reclusive 19th century poet whose work remained largely unknown until after her death. Today, she is widely regarded as one of America's greatest poets with over 1,800 poems to her credit. Some scholars seek to explain her life through the study of poetry, while others seek to explain her poetry through the study of her life. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in the year 1830 and briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning home because of homesickness.
During most of her adult life, she rarely left home and received few visitors. Her primary means of communication with the outside world was through her written correspondence with various acquaintances. She wore only white dresses throughout most of her life, becoming more reclusive as the years went by. At times, she lowered baskets of sweets from her window so that the neighborhood children could enjoy the baked goods.
Dickinson spent her life living within the walls of her childhood home along with her father Edward Dickinson and her sister Lavinia. Dickinson's brother Austin, an attorney, lived next door to the family along with his wife Susan. Much of Dickinson's work reflects a sense of loneliness and longing, but her poetry is also marked by moments of happiness. Her poetry was greatly influenced by the literature she read throughout her life. The book of Revelation, the Metaphysical poets of the 17th century, and her background in Calvinist Christianity all contributed to her writing style. The reclusive poet was a prolific writer and often included her poetry in letters to her friends. It wasn't until several years after her death that her poetry was revealed to the world.
When Dickinson died in 1886, her family discovered 40 handmade booklets comprised of over 800 poems. These simple books were merely pieces of stationery that were sewn together. Dickinson had carefully copied her poetry onto the pages. Some of the poems appeared unfinished, while others appeared to be rough drafts. The poetry was punctuated with a variety of dashes written in different sizes and directions. When the poems were professionally published in 1890, editors removed the dashes and included traditional punctuation. Modern printings of her poems are published with an em-dash, a punctuation mark more in compatible with the dashes Dickinson used in her work. To read more about her life, visit Poets.org.
Essays based on Dickinson's poetry can be found at this site created by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Those interested in reading excerpts from letters Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a famous editor and abolitionist, may wish to visit a site created by Cornell University. Poetry lovers who wish to see where Dickinson lived and worked should consider visiting the Emily Dickinson Museum.
Here are some more links that may help you to learn more information about this enigmatic poet who made an indelible mark on both American and world literature.
Emily Dickinson International Society
Today in Literature
Emily Dickinson Lesson Plans and Teaching Resources
Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson Collection
Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson
Emily Dickinson Online