This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me...
The Belle of Amherst
Emily Dickinson was born on 10 December, 1830, in New England at a time when (according to Robert N Linscott):
Puritanism was dying and literature was just coming to life. Her birthplace was Amherst, a quiet village in the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts, nearly a hundred miles from Concord and Cambridge in space, and at least half that number of years in time.
It was in this relatively quiet setting where she dedicated herself to a:
... secret and self-imposed assignment - the mission of writing a 'letter to the world'1.
Emily's ability to write in her distinctive style was inspired by the mini soap opera of her life. She reflected often on the intense interactions of her friendship with Susan (a woman who she was, it is debated, sexually attracted to), while Susan's marriage to Emily's brother Austin gave her even more to ponder over through poetry. Emily's emotions also went out to a mysterious man she called 'Master'. She also penned poems concerning more general subjects, such as death, nature, and love. These final three constitute the bulk of her extraordinary 1775 recorded poems, of which only about ten were published in her lifetime.
Her father was the leading lawyer of Amherst village, and became treasurer of Amherst College and a member of the legislature and of Congress later in life. Throughout his life, Edward Dickinson was the head of a household that engaged itself in worldly affairs, the sole exception being his unmarried, reclusive daughter, Emily.
Cutting herself off from the world did not stop Emily from being a good person. She was known to reach out to others through letters and flowers, for they were her language of affection and amiability.
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease on Life the Aching
Or cool one pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.
Strength in Words
A Book, is only the Heart's Portrait - every Page a Pulse
Emily needed little reason to leave her home, comfortable with her writing materials and her father's library, containing scholastic texts as well as the Bible, close at hand.
A word is dead
When it is said,
I say it just
Begins to live
Emily was rarely known to show her face to anyone as she grew older. Some considered her to be a great myth or legend, but the written works which she leaves behind declare her to have been a very real person.
Emily was an observer of her world:
Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us, every Day -
Emily read the Bible, and referred to its stories many times in her poetry. She did scrutinise faith, science and the Church:
'Faith' is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see -
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency
She believed in worshiping God in her own church, the garden she adored:
After a hundred years
Nobody knows the Place
Agony that enacted there
Motionless as Peace
When she died at the age of 55, most who knew Emily Dickinson had not seen her face for a quarter of a century.
The Edited Works
... Her distinctive literary style had been amended by conservative editors. Transcribing her poems from the fascicles or handwritten copies she herself had made, bound, and hidden, they regularised her spelling, altered her language, and normalised her punctuation. The result seemed to some readers the language of genius; to others, of eccentricity.
- Judith Farr
To some, this process of editing is considered blasphemous. Emily Dickinson never fell into the rules of convention - she liberally spread dashes and various spellings throughout her work. Dickinson's talk and writings were like no one else's. She was well-read, so one can easily believe that these denials of proper English structure were intentional and not merely the results of sudden inspiration; her handmade, hand-bound copies attest that her feelings were complete before becoming her 'letter to the world'.
- Emily Dickinson International Society - a group dedicated to the study and appreciation of Emily Dickinson's work.
- The Emily Dickinson Journal - This is published twice a year.
- The Emily Dickinson Random Epigram Machine
- The American Verse Project - This site has links to her poetry online.
- Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Robert N Linscott
- The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H Johnson
- Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, Tor Publications
- The Passion of Emily Dickinson, by Judith Farr