Revolutionary Recluse: A Profile of Emily Dickinson

By Stern, Fred | The World and I, October 2005 | Go to article overview

Revolutionary Recluse: A Profile of Emily Dickinson


Stern, Fred, The World and I


The image of a slight woman in white, running through her father's garden, looking like a large butterfly: Such glimpses of the eminent poet, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), were rare. Dickinson was a recluse in her Amherst, Massachusetts, home. But the will to cut herself off from society only added to the mystique surrounding her, compounding the fame achieved from her poetry.

It is thought that a serious eye ailment was partly responsible for her antisocial behavior. Despite visits to Boston's best eye clinics, the condition seems to have persisted, causing periods of blindness when she was in her thirties.

But it is also thought that she chose isolation because her strong creative calling demanded an intense concentration on producing her unique poetic empire. That empire thrives to this day and easily equals in reputation that gained by the work of her near contemporary, Walt Whitman.

Dickinson's world was the realm of birds, frogs, flowers, grasses, small animals. Her universe comprised the heavens, clouds, the earth and the unseen distant sea. Her concerns, expressed in more than 1,775 poems of the first magnitude, were eternity, immortality, love, and the Calvinist and Puritan concepts she chose to contend with.

It's fascinating to compare Dickinson with the era's other poetry giant, Whitman, although it is doubtful she ever read his seminal Leaves of Grass. Interestingly the two poets covered the two extreme poles of American literature--the one embracing the solitary inner spiritual life, the other heralding the comradeship of the masses and singing of an expanding America in its prime period of building. Whereas Whitman was focused on the "War Between the States," even becoming a nurse during and immediately after the conflict, for Dickinson, the Civil War played no part either in her poetry or her life.

Dickinson wrote her poems on strips of paper, the insides of envelopes, the borders of newspapers and bound them together in threaded bundles, six or seven untitled poems to a bundle. Her vocabulary was the Christian hymn, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and William Blake, but her vision and the images she created were strictly her own.

As a young woman, Dickinson had been a vivacious, outspoken young lady, attractive and utterly self-confident. "I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my seventeenth birthday," she wrote to a friend in her early years. But later she slipped into utter isolation. She described herself to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, literary critic and her "perceptor," in a more negative manner. "I am small like the Wren and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Burr, and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, the Guest leaves." (The capitalization is hers.)

Dickinson was the offspring of a prosperous New England family. Her grandfather was one of the founders of Amherst College. Her father was its treasurer, an eminent lawyer as well as a one-term congressman. She lived in close relationship with her siblings, a sister, Lavinia, (Vinnie) and a brother, Austin, who also became a lawyer. Emily's mother was sickly, and the girls pretty much ran the household. Their happiest time came with the "Commencement Teas" that were Amherst's leading social event and for which the Dickinson girls provided the cakes and other delicacies.

In high school, Dickinson was among the most popular girls and later made many friends at Mount Holyoke College. But despite the fact that Holyoke was only a few miles from home, she became homesick and lasted barely a year there. Soon, her best friend, Susan Gilbert, became her sister-in-law. Dickinson had the usual complement of beaux and, later, friendships with people like the widowed Judge Otis Phillips Lord, but she never married. To this day no one knows exactly why.

Ever so gradually, Dickinson decided to retreat solely to her father's house. "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or Town," she wrote. …

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