Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in a conservative puritanic, New England town, Amherst, Massachusetts. The Dickinsons had been a popular and influential family in the town. Emily’s grandfather had taken a leading part in founding Amherst College. Her father was a successful lawyer, a member of the Congress and a trustee and then a treasurer of the college. He was a stern authoritarian and a strict moralist. The puritanic background of the family and the rigidly conservative climate of Amherst abetted the temptation of the young to rebel against the old, irrational traditions.
As a girl, Emily attended the south Hadley Female Seminary, where she rebelled against the authorities and refused to fast on Christmas. Her defiance was not, however, against only the religious practices in the Seminary. Her love of freedom inspired her to rebel against the academic rigours and severity of the Seminary. She returned home to lose herself in the world of books and to give herself to her private avocation of writing poetry.
The events rapidly surveyed above have only, if any, negative relevance to the life of Emily Dickinson. Those were the circumstances which did not so much as touch even the surface of her life. Her inner life remained secure from the influence, good or bad, of her times. She withdrew into the private world of solitude and silence, where she was moulding her thoughts in the crucible of her rich imagination.
On Emily’s return to Amherst, the legend days, she fell in love with Ben Newton. Who was her father’s law apprentice and who was then living with the Dickinson family. Biographical material available, however, neither confirms, nor refutes the legend. It is likely that youthful Emily was attracted to brilliant Ben Newton, who was also a free thinker, a lover of books and ideas. The legend further says, that Ben Newton was too poor to marry Emily, and in addition. Emily’s authoritarian father was not likely to approve of Newton’s proposals. Ben Newton died of consumption five years later.
In 1854, on her way to Washington to meet her father, Emily Dickinson met Reverend Charles Wadsworth in Philadelphia. Legend tells us again that Emily fell in love with Wadsworth, who had been married. It is not unlikely that Ben Newton’s recent death created a void in Emily’s life and that she could find in Wadsworth a right kind of person to fill the void. Ben Neton was said to have introduced her to a world of ideas, and Charles Wadsworth was referred to by Emily as one who ‘tried to teach me immortality’. There is however no documentary evidence of any kind to prove the nature of Emily’s relationship with Newton and Wadsworth. Till such proof is available, the legend will flourish and with every new generation of readers, the legend may further exaggerate and mystify the romantic episode of Emily’s love.
The legendary love affair with Wadsworth was but a brief episode and soon passed off. Emily spent the remainder of her life as a recluse. Despite her human associations continued with the most intimate of her friends, who included her childhood friend Helen Hunt Jackson, and her literary friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she withdrew, more and more, as time went on, into the white solitude of a nun. Dressed in the white costumes of a perpetual bride, cloistered in her father’s house. Emily was perhaps enacting in her real life, the life of a heroine of any tragic love story.
It was during this period of her isolation that this New England recluse, as Emily is often called today, was chiseling her hymns into which she poured all her passions, her emotions, her sorrows, her vivacity and her wit. Her poems, perhaps, give us a clearer image of their maker than what all the legends and biographies can, of their subject. It is indeed no exaggeration to say that after her death in 1886, she lives today in her poems.
Emily Dickinson was a prolific writer of small but sweet hymns. Every poem is a congealed image of an experience, a state of mind or a transient phase of an intense emotion. At the time of her death in 1886, several hundred poems were left in the hand of her sister. During her lifetime, only seven of her poems slipped into print, presumably by being surreptitiously procured by the publisher. When they were published, they did not create so much as a ripple in the contemporary world of poetry. Recognition came to Emily posthumously. Indeed, fame has been never her ambition. In one of her letters to Thomas Higginson, her literary mentor, she wrote prophetically “if fame belonged to me, I could not escape her.” Her prophecy has come true now, when the fame is at her feet.
Living in contented ignorance of the contemporary literary scene, Emily Dickinson was singularly unscathed by the literary and political currents and cross-currents of her times. She confessed to Higginson that she had not read Whitman. She only heard of him and she was told that “he was disgraceful.” The few formative influences on Emily’s creative life were Ben Newton and Charles Wadsworth and both of them were reported to have inflamed her youthful passions, as indeed they had enkindled her imagination. Her legendary disappointment in the love-episode is perhaps the greatest influence on her secluded ways of life, and on her “little swallow flights of imagination”, which are her poems.
Speaking of the books that she read, Emily Dickinson wrote to Higginson, “for poets, I have Keats and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne and the Revelatiions.” For a girl who was nearly uneducated, these writers were a profound influence on her mind. Keats supplied her with rich imagination and sensuous imagery. Emily’s thought ellipses can be traced to Browning. The melancholy and melody of her hymns were the fruits of her study of Thomas Browne. Ruskin’s Biblical simplicity and economy are abundantly found in her poems. In addition, Emily had the whole world of ideas introduced to her by Ben Newton and the world of immortality introduced by Wadswoth. The rigidity of the puritanic home provoked her to rebel. To excel them all, she experienced disappointments, frustrations and sorrows. Though secluded from the usual rut of social life, she experienced the bitterness of life to the last drop. With all these forces working on her impressionable mind, no wonder that Emily wrote on mystic, metaphysical and religious themes, on God, Nature, Mortality and Immortality. But, her tragedy of life had not chilled her imagination, if any, it had only sharpened it, as it had deepened her insight into life.
Emily Dickinson was one of the most famous poets that ever lived in nineteenth-century America. She has some radical views on life and death. She chose to live a life of seclusion; not mixing with many people, but having a very restricted social network. Emily Dickinson had a very small social circle and that she deliberately restricted herself to a very tight circle of close friends and family besides that she was not even married.
The time that, she spent by herself was dedicated to reading extensively and also to writing poetry. She became a prolific writer of poetry but unfortunately most of her poems were discovered only after her death and published by her sister. Many authors had an influence upon her, but the most prominent of those who influenced her were the metaphysical poets, Elizabeth Browning, Robert Browning and John Keats. And from the side of her parents’ religious orientation, she was strongly influenced by the Bible and in particular The Book of Revelation.
Emily Dickinson lived for a very short span of time relatively from 1830 and died in the year 1886 but within this short life span, she was able to produce some really unique poetry. She developed a style of her own, i.e., utilizing short, compact phrases which were packed with meaning and loaded with significance. She was able to address far-reaching thoughts and ideas, even looking into issues like life, death, immortality in her short poems. And these are some of the issues which have made her poetry very controversial.
People read her poems and they are provoked into greater thought and discussion. One line of her poem has caused much loaded discussion among critics because it can be viewed in a whole range of ways.