Emily Dickinson

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!

–Emily Dickinson

Emily DickinsonIndeed, Emily Dickinson, born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, was a peculiar poet.  After leaving the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley after only one year due to homesickness, Dickinson slowly withdrew herself from the outside world and lived in near total isolation by age thirty.  Although she rarely left her home, she did maintain written correspondences with several people—including the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (whom she met in Philadelphia), her brother and sister-in-law Austin and Susan Dickinson, and her sister Lavinia—who served as intellectual companions during her career as one of the greatest American poets.  Despite her current familiarity, Dickinson’s poems were not well-known or regarded during her lifetime, and none of her works were published during her lifetime.

Upon Dickinson’s death in 1886, Dickinson’s youngest sister Lavinia discovered nearly 1,800 poems in Dickinson’s bedroom drawers, handwritten and hand-bound into forty volumes.  Susan Dickinson, Emily Dickinson’s sister-in-law, most dedicated reader, and greatest supporter, however, immediately tried to edit and publish Dickinson’s poems.  She began by sending a poem to Century Magazine editor Richard Watson Gilder, who rejected the poem.  Another writer and editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, however, acquired a typewriter and convinced Lavinia to type up three of Dickinson’s poems.  Todd began publishing Dickinson’s poems in her journals over the next two to three years.

Some debate exists over the original chronology of Dickinson’s poems.  Early editors, including Todd, probably published the poems according to aesthetics—Dickinson is famous for using a variety of differently sized dash marks—however, they were all originally replaced with the typographical “n-dash,” which is slightly longer than a numerical dash mark. Since the early publications of Dickinson’s works, many are in support of organizing Dickinson’s works thematically and displaying Dickinson’s poetry more accurately.  In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson published the Complete Poems, finally printing Dickinson’s writings as they appeared in the original manuscripts.

As for Dickinson’s reclusive demeanor, scholars are still debating over whether or not she actually had an illness that contributed to her behavior.  Several of Dickinson’s poems allude to the fact that she may have had a physical disease or handicap.  Most recently, a biography of Dickinson by St. Hilda’s College (Oxford) scholar Lyndall Gordon entitled Lives Like Loaded Guns, claims that Dickinson may have had epilepsy and because of the social stigma associated with the disease, chose to remain inside her home most of her life.

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