Emily Dickinson, Reclusive Poet

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in the small town of Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father Edward had returned to Amherst from Yale to join his father Samuel’s law business, and when she was five years old he took a post as treasurer at Amherst College, which his father had helped to found in 1821. Emily had an older brother named Austin, and a younger sister named Lavinia. The three siblings all received a solid education, at their father’s direction. Their mother was a more distant figure, and Emily was never very close to her.
Emily Dickinson with her brother and sister - headstuff.org
Emily, Austin and Lavinia Dickinson respectively as children.

In 1837 Edward Dickinson became involved in state politics, being elected as one of the 635 members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. A few years later the family moved into a bigger house, while Emily moved on into secondary education. She attended Amherst Academy, which had only started accepting female pupils a few years earlier. Emily was a good pupil, both studious and interested. She did suffer from ill health, and missed most of the year she was aged 15, but still impressed the school’s principal. This may have been due to depression though, rather than illness. Life was hard in the 19th century, and the death of a cousin in 1844 from typhoid had left her traumatised. This may have been why she developed a strong Christian faith for a while, though it subsided quickly. When she left Amherst Academy and attended Mount Holyoke Seminary in South Hadley (six miles away from Amherst), she became mildly infamous for her refusal to indulge the religious pretensions of the school’s founder, Mary Lyon. This might be why she only stayed at Mount Holyoke for only a single year before returning to Amherst.

Emily Dickinson - headstuff.org
The only confirmed photograph of Emily, taken when she was 18.

It was around 1850 that Emily first fell in love with poetry. She’d studied literature at school, of course, but it was the modern (at the time) poets who lit a fire inside her. A friend of her father’s gave her a freshly published book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poems, and may have also been the one who introduced her to Wordsworth (who died that year). Wordsworth had brought Romanticism into the mainstream, while Emerson had forged the quintessentially American poetry style of transcendentalism. She was also clearly a fan of Jane Eyre, as she named her dog Carlo after one in the book.

In 1853 Emily’s brother Austin became engaged to Susan Gilbert, and three years later he married her. Susan was the same age as Emily, and the two became firm friends. She had been born in Amherst but had been sent to live with an aunt in New York state when her parents died. She had returned periodically to Amherst to visit relatives before coming back to the town to live with her married elder sister. Her younger sister Martha also returned, and it was through her friendship with Lavinia that Susan and Austin met. The young couple considered moving away, possibly to Michigan, but Emily’s father Edward persuaded Austin to stay by making him a partner in the law firm and building the pair their own house next door to his. Emily for her part was delighted to have a new sister, and she and Susan became lifelong friends.
Edward Dickinson - headstuff.org
Edward Dickinson

In 1853 Edward Dickinson was elected as a US Congressman, serving until 1855. This was the apex of Edward’s political career – he was offered the nomination for Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts in 1863, but declined. In his final year in Congress Emily and her mother spent three weeks visiting him in Washington, then two weeks in Philadelphia. It was the one and only time Emily strayed that far from home. Around this time Emily’s mother fell ill, and she would remain bedbound until her death.

Exactly when Emily began writing her poems is unclear. Since she never published any collections in her lifetime, she never made any formal attempt to organise or classify them. What she did do was create small books of poems (forty, containing around 1800 poems in total) out of folded and sewn stationary paper. She copied her poems into these, once she’d drafted them out a few times. She started doing this from 1858, but it seems that she had written quite a few of these poems before that. The bulk seem to have been written in the 1860s, but again this is largely a matter of speculation.
“A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart—pushing aside the blood—and leaving her [all] faint and white in the gust’s arm—”
– from the Master Letters
One thing we can tell from Emily’s poems is that she was in love, though it was a love she felt she could not fulfil. Who that love was for is a matter scholars debate to this day. Outside of her poems few of Emily’s papers survive, but one thing that does is what are referred to as the “Master” letters. We don’t know if these three letters were ever sent, or if they never went further than these drafts. We don’t know who they were written to, or if there even was a person. Emily was entirely capable of writing a letter to an idea, after all. Some even interpret the “Master” as God, with Emily desiring for the religious belief that the rest of her family professed. Most scholars think the “Master” was an actual person though – it’s who it was that they debate.
“Why do I love” You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place.
One candidate is Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican. He was four years older than Emily, and was well known to many in the Massachusetts literary scene. He was one of the few people to publish any of Emily’s poems in her lifetime, and the pair exchanged several dozen letters. Samuel had married ten years earlier, and there’s no evidence that he and Emily ever had a relationship. Though this could explain the yearning tone of the poems and letters, it still seems somewhat unlikely.
Charles Wadsworth - headstuff.org
Charles Wadsworth. Source

Another possible candidate is Charles Wadsworth, who Emily referred to as her “closest earthly friend”. She met him during the trip to Philadelphia with her mother. Charles was a minister in the city at the time. The pair kept up a correspondence and Charles even visited the Dickinson family in 1860. Sadly in 1862 he moved to San Francisco, and he and Emily only had a long distance correspondence after that. It’s definitely true that the pair shared a close friendship, and if Wadsworth was not her love he was definitely at least her muse. Mark Twain also knew Wadsworth, and commented that he:

never fails to preach an able sermon; but every now and then, with an admirable assumption of not being aware of it, he will get off a first-rate joke and then frown severely at any one who is surprised into smiling at it.
Those two are the most popular suggestions for the “Master”, though there are others. Some on the fringe think that Emily’s relationship with her sister in law Susan ran deeper than mere friendship. Others point to a professor at Amherst named William Smith Clark. But the evidence for him as “Master” seems to be based on little more than circumstance and opportunity, with no evidence that the two even knew each other. One final option is George Gould, a friend of Emily’s brother Austin. In 1850 The Indicator, Amherst’s local paper, carried a letter addressed to “George H Gould”. Though the letter was anonymous, it’s clear from the style (and the reference to a dog named Carlo) that it was written by Emily Dickinson. The tone of the letter is hard to read – over the top enough to be genuine enthusiasm or mockery. Still, a rumour persisted that Gould had proposed marriage to Emily and that she had accepted, but her father Edward had blocked the match. That had been ten years before she wrote the “Master letters”, though.
Thomas Wentworth Higginson - headstuff.org
Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Whoever the letters were addressed to, they seem to have been related to something that resulted in a crisis in Emily’s personal life. Evidence for this comes from her correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He wrote a piece in 1862 for Atlantic Monthly offering advice for young writers who wished to “break into print”. Emily sent him some of her poems, and a letter with the plaintive line “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Higginson wrote back encouragingly, and the two began a correspondence with the old literary critic acting as a mentor to the young poet. Emily later told Higginson that he had saved her life in 1862.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –
Her life may have been saved, but Emily was clearly affected by whatever had happened. This was when she wrote most of her poems, but it was also the beginning of her descent. Things got worse in 1866, when her beloved dog Carlo died. He was sixteen years old – a good age for a dog, but still heartbreaking for his owner. Gradually Emily began to retreat from the world. By 1867 she was refusing to see visitors, only speaking from behind a closed door. She rarely left the house, and on the few occasions she was spotted she was usually wearing a white dress. Naturally this made her neighbours even more curious, but Austin and the rest of the family did their best to protect her.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
Emily wasn’t a complete recluse, though. She was an indulgent auntie to Austin and Susan’s children, and the local children were among the few people she would talk to. Of course she also kept up a huge amount of correspondence. She rarely met any of the people she wrote to any more, unless they were prepared to trek out to Amherst. Higginson was one of the few who made the trip and one of the few who she came out to meet in person. It was an intense enough experience that he later said he was “glad not to live near her”. Apart from that, Emily confined herself to those she knew. [1] When her father died suddenly in 1874, she didn’t leave the house – the funeral was held in the entrance of the house, with Emily listening from behind a door.
Otis Lord - headstuff.org
Judge Otis Lord.

One of the few people who managed to get through her shell was Otis Lord, a judge who had known her father for years. He and his wife had been frequent visitors to the Dickinson house, and they were among those who Emily accepted enough to spend time with. In 1875 Otis became concerned enough about Emily’s health to visit on his own, and to confer with her sister Lavinia. At this time the Dickinson home held Emily’s mother, Lavinia (who also never married) and her, with Austin and family next door. As a result of this visit, Otis told Lavinia that Emily seemed distracted and that she admitted that she would often forget that her father was dead.

I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes–
I wonder if It weighs like Mine–
Or has an Easier size.
The judge had a tragedy of his own in 1877, when his wife passed away. In the months that followed, he and Emily found comfort in their friendship for each other. Friendship, and perhaps more. There were definitely rumours at the time that the pair were romantically involved, stemming from a story that Susan had caught the pair embracing. The relatives of the late Mrs Lord were definitely convinced, though as they would stand to lose their inheritance from Otis if he remarried they were hardly impartial. Emily’s letters do show some level of intimacy and passion, though whether this was physically expressed is impossible to say.
Mabel Todd - headstuff.org
Mabel Todd.

The 1880s were a hard time for Emily. Around 1882 Austin began cheating on his wife with Mabel Todd, the wife of a professor at Amherst College. The affair caused a great deal of pain to Susan, and thus indirectly to her friend Emily. Mabel was also incredibly nosy about Austin’s mysterious reclusive sister, though she never met her. The same year Emily’s friend Charles Wadworth died in San Francisco. And then towards the end of the year her mother passed away. She had been suffering from dementia due to a stroke for the last ten years, and Emily commented that though the two had never been close when she was a child but “when she became our Child, the Affection came.”

1883 brought a fresh tragedy, when the youngest of Austin and Susan’s children died of typhus. The next year Otis Lord passed away. To Emily it seemed as if the world she had cocooned herself in was being torn away piece by piece. In the summer of 1884 she collapsed in the kitchen, and was unconscious for several weeks. Though they did not realise it at the time, this was due to acute nephritis of the kidneys. For the next two years she remained bedbound and weak, until she finally died in the spring of 1886. Susan dressed her in a simple white dress as she prepared, with flowers from her garden in her hands and at her neck. She was (as she had requested) carried from the house to the same cemetery as her father and mother, where she was laid to rest.
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
And Immortality. [2]
Emily had requested that Lavinia burn her papers when she died, which she did (apart from a few she missed, such as the “Master Letters”). However she decided that the forty bundles of poems she discovered didn’t fall under that directive. She handed them over to Susan, who was a writer and published poet in her own right, to prepare for publication. Susan proved to be a little too close to the subject, though. Her plan for publishing Emily’s poems was an elaborate volume including illustrations and extracts from letters, but it was far too slow for Lavinia. So instead she recruited Higginson and, somewhat inexplicably, her brother’s mistress Mabel Todd.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Quite why Lavinia chose Mabel is unknown, though she would regret doing so in the long run. Mabel did help to get the poems published quickly, getting a first volume out in 1890. Her focus seems to have been on making them profitable though, and she ruthlessly edited them to be more “normal” by adding punctuation and rewording the more impenetrable sections. Higginson did his best to rein her in, but by the time the third volume was published he had washed his hands of the whole thing. In 1898, after Austin had died, the Dickinson family fell out with the Todd family. However some of the poems were left with Mabel, and she claimed the rights to publish them. As a result, in the early twentieth century Susan’s daughter Martha published the poems held by the Dickinsons, while Mabel’s daughter Millicent published the poems held by the Todds.
Emily Dickinson - headstuff.org
A statue of Emily in South Carolina. Source

These competing volumes helped to raise Emily Dickinson’s profile, and the avant-garde literary set of the 1920s found a kindred spirit in the reclusive woman from Massachusetts. Her poems found an audience they would have missed in her time, and by the 1930s she was recognised as a unique and powerful talent. It wasn’t until 1955 that a complete and unedited collection of her poems was printed, but it cemented her position as part of the pantheon of American poetry. It also contributed to her cult and legend – the Woman in White, the tortured genius. Perhaps she was tortured – but her letters show that she was also a funny, passionate and often happy individual. She wasn’t a terrible person, by any means. But she was pretty terrible at being a person. Then again, who among us isn’t?

Images via wikimedia except where stated.
[1] Autism, agoraphobia, depression and epilepsy have all been given as reasons for Emily’s self-isolation. The lack of any evidence for or against any of these hasn’t stopped the speculation.
[2] Because this poem (and several others Emily wrote) are in the “Common Metre” it can be sung along to quite a few different tunes including the Pokemon theme tune and “House of the Rising Sun”. This probably doesn’t mean anything, but it’s fun to do.