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Emily Dickinson

(1830 - 1886)
"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself
it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask....."

With these words in an unsigned letter, along with four enclosed poems, in the spring of 1862 Emily Dickinson began one of the most enigmatic and enduring correspondences in American literature, with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a Unitarian minister who went on to become Dickinson's lifelong friend and literary companion. She referred to him as her "Preceptor" and to his letters as a "hand stretched out in the Dark" . Higginson, while intrigued with the "strange power" of Dickinson's poems, nonetheless found them "bizarre" and discouraged her from pursuing publication of her work.

Unpublished during her lifetime, unknown to the literary world when she died of Bright's disease in 1886, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, and never physically traveled farther away from this intellectually-active village than to Boston for a mysterious eye ailment.

Yet mentally, Dickinson truly appears to have lived with an "upstairs room that had no ceiling......all time and space expanding around her", as Jane Langton remarked in Acts of Light. Her intoxication with nature was a near-rapturous state that has also been described by another rural New Englander of her day, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote his journals sixty miles away in Concord. Her awe of nature occupied her wholly, as did her contemplation of Eternity and the limitless expanse of the universe:

"No Friend have I that so persists As this Eternity."

These preoccupations may partially explain Dickinson's eccentricity and reclusive state during the later years of her life. Having retired completely to the Homestead on Pleasant Street, living with her parents and sister Lavinia, by her late thirties she became almost totally secluded. Often assuming a child's persona, Dickinson was known in her mature years for her white dresses worn as she gardened, baked, and wrote not only verse, but also letters prolifically. Held only by the simple latch of a garden gate, she proclaimed, "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or town."

Once turning away a visitor with the explanation, "My own Words so Chill and burn me", Dickinson had vast inner acres of ground to till, and she took what she saw as a sacred gift from the Gods seriously.

"It was given to me by the Gods -
When I was a little Girl -
I kept it in my Hand - I never put it down -
I did not dare to eat - or sleep -
For fear it would be gone -"

Yet, we also know that Dickinson fell deeply in love at least twice as an adult woman. She never married, but it is clear that she experienced both the high ecstasies of romantic love, and the low desolation and sadness of disappointment and separation in love. She examined it endlessly, as though her pain were a specimen on a slide:

"You left me Boundaries of Pain - Capacious as the Sea - "

"A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul."

During her last years, Dickinson's mind turned to death, mortality and her lifelong troubled theological beliefs: the enigma of that "Bareheaded life - under the grass".

After Dickinson's death, her sister Lavinia discovered what had been the secret obsession of Emily Dickinson's life in a locked silver box containing almost 1800 poems. They were gathered into some sixty packets of loosely-sewn-together paper, with others hastily jotted down on scraps and backs of envelopes in her bird-like scrawl that Higginson had noted in her initial 1862 letter to him.

A small first collection was published to enormous success in 1890, and two successive collections were edited and published later that decade. By the 1920's, Emily Dickinson's "bizarre" poems were famous and held in great esteem.

Finally, the "letter to the world - that never wrote to me" was delivered to a grateful audience that is held spellbound still by the power of this woman of uncommon genius.

".....like poetry torn up by the roots, with rain and dew and earth still clinging to them, giving a freshness and a fragrance not otherwise to be conveyed....."
--from the preface of Poems, 1890, Thomas Wentworth Higginson
describes his image of the raw power and rhythm of Dickinson's work.

Selected Works of Emily Dickinson
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