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Emily Dickinson: Poetry from a Recluse’s Pen

Emily Dickinson: Poetry from a Recluse’s Pen

by Amisha Acharya

One of the most original and unconventional poets that the American soil has produced, Emily Dickinson has weaved a huge bundle of mystical verses from her quill. Often addressed as a “reclusive poet”, she was majorly unnoticed while she was alive and most of her fame and glory is posthumous in nature.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

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!

Her unconventionality was indeed much ahead of the times she dwelled in and the audience lacked the sensitivity to grasp her art. Born in the year 1830, on 10th December in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson belonged to a prominent family that had powerful ties with the community. Her grandfather was the co-founder of Amherst College and her father was a respected lawyer and a one-term congressman. Dickinson was an excellent student and was educated at the Amherst Academy for seven years and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year. But she had a sudden departure from the academy in the year 1848, the exact reasons for which are unknown. Though it is speculated that her frail emotional state may have played a role in this unseen departure. In those days, she was silently rebellious since she never joined a church or denomination, stubbornly standing against the constricting religious norms of the times.

Add to Cart: 100 Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson

She had begun her writing journey when she was a teenager. Her early influences are said to be Leonard Humphrey, principal of Amherst Academy, and Benjamin Franklin Newton, a family friend who gifted her a book of poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Her poetry was also influenced by the metaphysical nature of the literature of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the “Book Of Revelation”, and her upbringing in a puritan New England town. It is said that she admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning as well as those written by John Keats. She was discouraged from reading the verses of Walt Whitman, her contemporary, because of its apparent unconventionality and disgracefulness. But now, ironically, these two poets are associated with giving a unique and distinguished voice to American Literature.

Also Read: Elizabeth Barrett Browning -About and Recommended Works

Dickinson was reclusive in general but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have any human connections outside the family at all. Among her peers and acquaintances, her closest adviser and friend, her confidant, was a lady named Susan Gilbert, who has been speculated to be an amorous interest of Dickinson as well. But as per records, Dickinson's brother William married Gilbert in 1856. Emily and her sister Lavinia never married and lived together at Homestead (which was the house where the Dickinson’s resided) until their respective deaths.

But still, her seclusion during her later years is the biggest point of speculation which is still discussed in literary circles. Biographers and scholars attribute her reclusion to her suffering from conditions like agoraphobia, depression and/or, anxiety or she may have experienced exhaustion due to shouldering the responsibilities as a caretaker of her sick mother. After the mid-1860s, she rarely left the confines of the comfort of her home, and it is during this time she was the most productive and created small bundles of poetry called “fascicles” unknown to her family.

By the 1870s she refused to have any contact with anyone and turned away her visitors if she had any. Also, at this time she only dressed in white! (Seems quite suspicious but I am all for the aesthetic and aura!). It was on this day i.e., May 15th in the year 1886, Dickinson died in Amherst, Massachusetts due to experiencing a heart failure. She is laid to rest in her family plot at West Cemetery and Homestead is now a museum preserving her heritage.

Ultimately the most tragic part of her life is that her talent was never appreciated or publicly recognized during her lifetime. She was quite prolific as a poet, and her poetry has highly influenced the poetry and literature of the 20th century. It is hard to believe that only 10 out of her around 1800 poems were published while she was alive. And even if they were published, they were highly altered to bury her uniqueness.

The poignancy and the subtle sensitivity of her verses is what makes her distinct as a poetess. I feel that the best part about all her poems is that they do not fit into any conventional genres or rigid structures. Rather as a transcendentalist that she was, her poetry too transcends and hovers over heavy themes like life, death, nature, faith, and immortality. The intensity of her poetry, as well as her eccentric personality, are the major factors that have made Dickinson immortal in the pages of American history, as she continues to inspire and be read and discussed till date.

Because, I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death – 
He kindly stopped for me – 
The Carriage held but just Ourselves – 
And Immortality…

Her first volume of poetry was published in 1890, four years after her demise, and it was met with astounding success. As of now, Dickinson is one of the most imminent American poets, and her poetry is appreciated by people from various age groups and walks of life.

Having written around a whopping 1800 poems in her lifetime, let us look into some of the poems which are her absolute best and a good gateway to enter the world crafted by her:

Tell all the truth but tell it slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through – 

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum – 
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb – 

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here – 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down – 
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then – 

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers

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.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods -
And now We hunt the Doe -
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply -

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow -
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through -

And when at Night - Our good Day done -
I guard My Master’s Head -
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow - to have shared -

To foe of His - I’m deadly foe -
None stir the second time -
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye -
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without - the power to die -

Much Madness Is Divinest Sense

Much Madness is divinest Sense -
To a discerning Eye -
Much Sense - the starkest Madness -
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail -
Assent - and you are sane -
Demur - you’re straightway dangerous -
And handled with a Chain -

So here we are at the end of this short list of recommended poems by Emily Dickinson. Of course, there are way more gems from her treasure trove but it is practically not possible to cram it all here. But one thing is for sure, some verses, if not all, are definitely going to remind us of those subtle moments of parallelism between life and death that we often overlook or forget, but luckily, observant poets like Emily Dickinson come to our rescue nonetheless.

- Amisha Acharya

To read more article written by Amisha Acharya - CLICK HERE

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Rishabh - May 26, 2021

fabulous article. I just watch Emily Dickinson apple tv series. Its good to know more about her through this article.

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