Biography of Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886

Biographical Sketch by Donna-Jean Breckinridge

"There is no Frigate like a Book to take us Lands away . . ."

Yes! my young heart thought. That's it, exactly! But wait--what's a frigate?

"As imperceptibly as grief the summer passed away," and I nodded in mournful agreement. "Too imperceptible, at last, to seem like perfidy." Hold on--what is perfidy?

"A route of evanescence with a revolving wheel; a resonance of emerald," and I could picture it, this tiny bird in its beauty. I loved the sound and feel of the words, and then I read "a rush of cochineal."

And once more, Emily Dickinson sent me off to a dictionary.

But what sets Dickinson's writing apart is far more than a random, obscure vocabulary word.

The cover of my small Everyman's Library Pocket Poets book expressed it well. "Virtually unknown as a poet in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now recognized as one of the most unaccountably strange and marvelous of the world's great writers." Strange and marvelous. And that's just part of the lure.

"Her poems," it went on, "represent a mind unlike any other to be found in literature."

Emily Dickinson's grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College. Her father was the college treasurer and later became a United States Congressman. Emily Dickinson herself was very well-read, and she was influenced by the Bible, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Brontë, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and especially Shakespeare. After attending Amherst Academy and the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Emily Dickinson began a quiet life at home. With the exception of a trip to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., and also two trips to Boston for her health, Dickinson never left Amherst. More than that, she became a recluse and seldom left the confines of her own home.

But she wrote. She wrote hundreds of letters, and her recipients included friends, relatives, and even a publisher. But mainly she wrote poems.

Dickinson's poetry, though penned by a woman who never married, eschewed social settings, and did not travel, covered the fathomless mysteries of nature and the full range of human emotion. And in her bold and daring look at life, she wrote about both doubt and hope, love and fear, friendship and isolation, life and death. And she did it all, using uncommon capitalization and a liberal use of dashes.

In one of her last poems, she wrote,

"Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven ---
For what, he is presumed to know ---
The crime, from us is hidden ---
Immured, the whole of life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven."

During her life, few knew that she did much more than care for her aging parents. A couple poems were published anonymously, but it was not until after her death that the scope of her writing was discovered. Her younger sister Lavinia found a collection of nearly 1800 poems. The woman who once wrote "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" has remained continuously in print since 1880.

"If my Bark sink
Tis to another sea ---
Mortality's Ground Floor
Is Immortality ---"

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