Emily Dickinson : America’s Prolific Poet

Emily Dickinson is one of the leading poets of the nineteenth century. We are celebrating the beloved poet in our series, “Poetry’s Pioneering Women.”

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Today, we honor the American Poet that changed the course of history before we even knew her name. Emily Dickinson is one of the most influential poets of the nineteenth century. One cannot think of poetry and not mention Dickinson. Her unique writing style and haunting voice are now considered a staple of American poetry. She wrote poems so advanced for her time that she was discouraged from publishing them under her own name. Therefore, she deserves a spotlight in our series of Poetry’s Pioneering Women.

Dickinson’s History

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She grew up in a family that strongly valued education. However, her parents often kept her home from school in her teenage years because of her “frail” appearance. She attended Amherst Academy for seven years and displayed great talent in composition. Shortly after, she went to the historically women’s college, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, for a year. It is unknown why she left, but assumed it may have been due to a fragile mental state. She also detested the college’s strict rules and invasive religious practices.

She spent most of her life at home, simply because everything and everyone was so close. Her father, Edward Dickinson, worked at Amherst Academy and served as a state legislator. Her mother, Emily Norcross, married Edward in 1828 and had three children. She became chronically ill, and it kept her home as much as her daughter.

Dickinson’s brother, Austin, worked as an attorney and lived next door with his wife, Susan Gilbert. Their younger sister, Lavinia, also lived at home with Emily. Both siblings provided Emily with companionship as she became the black sheep in the family. In contrast to her family and colleagues, she never fully joined a church. This was her first step in defying societal norms.

Writing in Solitude

Solitude gave her a reason to write. Dickinson’s use of syntax and verse made her a gifted writer. She started writing poetic verses in her late teens. Most of her poetry took the form of letters written to her brother and her friends. The letters were intricate, imaginative, and sometimes, even humorous. She sent poems to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, who became the most avid reader of her work out of anyone she knew. Such poems display a sense of distance between the two, yet Susan became her most considerate audience.

Still, the defining lack of correspondence from others left her with strange feelings of abandonment and neglect. Hence, she wrote poems with themes that dealt with identity, love, death, and immortality. The American poet was greatly influenced by Leonard Humphrey, her school principal, and a family friend, Benjamin Franklin Newton. He gifted her a poetry book by Ralph Waldo Emerson. She found companionship with those who valued reading books and poetry as much as she did.

In 1855, she traveled from Washington, D.C, with her father and sister, to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. There, she listened to Presbyterian minister Charles Wadsworth’s sermon. His words inspired her, and he soon became a mentor and close friend of hers for many years. Dickinson’s inspirations and words finally took concrete form in her twenties. She was on track to become America’s rebellious poet.

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Becoming The Belle of Amherst

Emily Dickinson was unrecognized for her immense talent in her lifetime. In fact, only 10 out of 1,800 poems got published during her life. She is in a league of her own in poetry. Solitude followed her into her twenties. However, this solitude helped her carefully craft 40 hand-written manuscript books with nearly 800 poems. Unfortunately, publishers edited the ten poems that saw the light of day to fit the conventional standards of poetry at the time. A world resistant to change muted her distinctive lyrical poetry.

Poetry is a carefully crafted art, whether one realizes it or not. Dickinson’s work exhibits this perfectly by how intimately she shared her work with an inner circle before the world got its chance. It is almost sacred. Thus, her brother’s home served as a safe space for her and her friends to share their work. While there, she met Samuel Bowles. He was a publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican. Bowles held her to a high standard because of her poetic talents.

Dickinson shared her poem, “Title divine – is mine!,” with Susan before sharing it with her group of colleagues. She considered it to be one of her most confidential poems. Nonetheless, after Bowles heard it, he published the poem and six others in 1862 without her consent. Along with betrayal, the speaker in the poem proclaims she is now a “Wife,” but of a highly unconventional type. The published poem depicted Dickinson as a woman with immense disregard for the expectations of women in society.

A New Era of Poetry

She wrote poetry that evoked a new era of American literature. Her unusual syntax, ballad, hymn meter, and use of the dash set her apart from traditional poets. The Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England and her upbringing in Puritan New England heavily influenced her writings. Additionally, she admired the work of Shakespeare, Keats, and Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Naturally, she incorporated the use of performance in her lyrics. She needed her verses to dance on water. A question she always strove to answer yes with complete certainty was, “Is it alive?”

Is It Alive?

Much of Dickinson’s recognition came after her death. She died in Amherst on May 15th, 1886. Her sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of her poems from her lifetime. Among them were some of her greats, “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!,” “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” “Dear March – Come In,” “I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Died,” and “‘Hope” is the thing with feathers.'” Dickinson’s poems were ahead of their time. She never limited herself to traditional form. Instead, she freely combined it with experimental. Her poems are distinct by the creative use of off-rhymes, disregard for grammar rules, excessive capitalization, and a haunting tone and voice.

Despite the muted release of her early works that edited out her inflections, the original is now somewhat restored. A current publication of the poems replaced the dashes with an en-dash which may be closer to her intentional use. The first volume of Dickinson’s poetry was published posthumously in 1890. The whole publication, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, later published in 1955. Her poetry is very much alive today. Not only is the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers her most famous, but it is also one of the most well-known poems in the English Language.

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“Hope” is the thing with feathers

by Emily Dickinson

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

poem via Poetry Foundation.

Analysis

The poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, defines hope as something that lives within all of us. Here, we can see the importance of syntax and the intention of dashes. A metaphor in the first stanza describes hope as a bird. The way Dickinson describes it as “a thing with feathers” reads much softer than saying “a bird.” This metaphor allows the reader to create their own image.

Hope is a personified creature that lives inside our bodies or souls that never stops breathing or singing “the tune without words.” This tune is like a feeling or something one can’t explain. It just exists. In the second stanza, the image of a bird is now implied and capitalized to give us a more concrete image of the sore storm. Here, hope is personified again as the thing “that kept so many warm.” Hope can keep us alive.

The poet implies that only a terrible storm could stop this bird from singing. Use of the off-rhyme in “heard” and “Bird” also shows that the power of hope comes from how loud it is. At the end of this stanza, the en-dash allows us to shift our attention to a new image. In the third stanza, the speaker enters the poem in the first person, “I’ve heard it in the chillest land.” Our speaker hears hope all over the world. Simultaneously, the image of a bird returns as it soars and the tune in our soul sings.

Hope Asks For A Crumb

Even in the most severe or extreme cases, hope never asks for anything. It only asks for a crumb from the speaker. Hence, the en-dash is crucial with the “- of me.” The image of a crumb is an essential part. Here’s why. For the speaker, the size of a crumb is little to nothing. However, for the bird as hope, it can feed on it for a whole day. Therefore, the crumb may be all it needs to survive.

Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most prolific women in American literature and poetry. We are celebrating the women that inspire us during Women’s History Month. Dickinson is just one of the many poets that have inspired me to keep poetry alive!

Learn about more inspiring poets in our Poetry’s Pioneering Women Series!

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