Lesley Williams

Dr. A. MacDonald Smythe

English 103

27th November, 2007.          

          Enormously popular since the early publication of her poems, Emily Dickinson has enjoyed an ever-increasing critical reputation, and she is now widely regarded as one of America’s best poets. It is true that Dickinson’s themes are universal, but her particular vantage points tend to be very personal as if she rebuilt her world inside the products of her poetic imagination and this is why some of her knowledge of her life and her cast of mind is essential for illuminating much of her work. In many poems, she preferred to conceal the specific causes and nature of her deepest feelings, especially experiences of suffering, and her subjects flow so much into one another in language and conception that often it is difficult to tell if she is writing about people or God, nature or society, spirit or art. However, in face of the difficulty of many of her poems and the contradictory general impression made by her work and personality, Dickinson’s popularity is a great tribute to her genius. Furthermore, my main objective is to provide a detailed biography of this author and a critical analysis of selected poems I have chosen to discuss in this essay.

          Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts where she spent her whole life, most of it in the large meadow-surrounded house called the Dickinson Homestead, across the street from a cemetery. From 1840 to 1855, she lived with her family in a house on North Pleasant Street, after which they returned to Homestead. Though somewhat isolated, Amherst had a good private academy, a rich but mixed cultural tradition of reading the Bible, Shakespeare, and the classics; and, as the nineteenth century progressed, contemporary American authors and a large amount of popular and sentimental literature became current there. Social life was confined largely to church affairs, college receptions, agricultural shows, and private socializing such as walking, carriage riding, and books. Waves of religious enthusiasm and conversion swept through Amherst, especially during Dickinson’s early years, and gathered up her friends and her family, but never herself.

          Not much is known of Emily Dickinson’s earliest years. She spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847, somewhat regularly because of poor health. She wrote imaginatively for school publications but none of these writings survive. Her intense letters to friends and classmates showed a variety of tones, especially in her reluctance to embrace Christ and join the church and in her anticipations and fears about the prospect of a married life. The world, as she understood the idea, was clearer to her than the renunciations which conversion seemed to require, and quite possibly she sensed something false or soft-minded in the professions of others. In a period of rigorous living conditions without the benefits of modern medicine, life spans were shorter than ours, and Dickinson witnessed and suffered the early deaths of many acquaintances and dear friends. Also during this period, she was fond of two older men, Leonard Humphrey (1824-1850), the young principal of Amherst Academy, and Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), a law student in her father’s office. Romantic inclinations towards these two men seemed unlikely for Dickinson, but these men probably related to the descriptions of several losses in her early poems.    

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          Her immediate family was probably the most important people in Dickinson’s life. Her father, Edward Dickinson (1803-1874), a graduate of Yale law school and was a successful lawyer. He was portrayed as a man of unbending demeanor, and rectitude with a softer side that he struggled to conceal. It came out in incidents of pleasure in nature, kindliness to people, and the embarrassed desire for more intimacy with his children than he ever allowed himself. Dickinson expressed her distress over his death in many poems and letters. It is believed that he appears in some ...

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