Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet known for her unconventional and secluded life. Although Emily wrote poetry most of her life, fewer than a dozen of her almost 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Emily lived most of her adult life in the white bedroom of the house she shared with her sister Lavinia, in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Emily would spend the majority of her time sitting on her bedroom windowsill with a view of Mount Nonotuck and writing poems on small pieces of paper with pencil. Emily’s poetry has been described as being written for no audience except herself. Emily often wrote about death as well as themes that are considered morbid by some readers such as mourning and loss. Emily Dickinson was not an exception to the 19th Century belief that it is best “to be cheerful & anticipate Heaven” (qtd in Scharnhorst 264).
Her poems are usually about eternal bliss after death rather than dying itself. Emily composed most of her life but only discovered posthumously by her sister Lavinia who found Emily’s collected poems and stored them in Emily’s dresser drawer. Emily Dickinson died on May 15, 1886 of a stroke and was buried in the family plot next to her father and mother. Emily never married nor did she have children.
Emily Dickinson’s poems are known for their complicated use of poetic devices, insightful allusions to Biblical passages, and unique punctuation. Emily Dickinson has also been recognized as one of the most innovative poets in history for her delightfully bizarre choice in wording and imagery. Although Emily Dickinson’s originality was later discovered by critics who re-discovered many of her poems in the early twentieth century, Emily Dickinson’s home town has since built an Emily Dickinsons museum which houses over 1,000 of Emily’s manuscripts including several unpublished poems that are still being examined by critics today.
Emily Dickinson grew up in a large home with her parents and two older brothers, William Austin and Lavinia Norcross Dickinson. Emily Dickinson’s father was an important figure in the community as he served on the town board of selectmen, on the school committee, and often delivered sermons at church (Bentley 1). Emily’s mother Emily Norcross Dickinson was known for her quiet demeanor but still played an integral role in Emily’s life until Emily’s passing when Emily was 55 years old. As a young girl Emily frequently played outdoors with friends, including future poet Abiah Root whom she had attended school with since age 5 (Benfey 7).
As Emily Dickinson’s family would host frequent parties in their home Emily was exposed to a number of different cultures and people. Emily’s home always had visitors, including professors from Amherst College and Emily Dickinson’s brother Austin Dickinson who was attending law school in Worcester (Bentley 1). Emily herself not only enjoyed playing outdoors but also enjoyed the company of adults at these parties. Emily Dickinson’s favorite past time was undoubtedly reading, which she would often do while sitting in an old chair that still sits in the Emily Dickinson Museum today (Benfey 6).
Emily Dickinson’s poems are a testament of a lifetime struggle with the theme of death. Emily did live in a time of great loss, having experienced the passing of loved ones during her lifetime. However, Emily’s greatest loss may have been the passing of her father, when she was only five years old. Emily inherited many traits from him which include her love for writing and poetry. Emily suffered from melancholy at an early age and this grew more intense as she got older.
Emily had to cope with death throughout her life in many ways including dealing with the loss of many children who died soon after birth in their youth, losing close friends and family members, and even coping with personal losses such as when may have fallen in love but was not able to be with that person. Emily was also known for her seclusion and feelings of self-alienation throughout her life, which may have been due to Emily’s melancholy. However, Emily is most widely known for her use of the death theme in many of her poems such as “Because” and “I felt a funeral in my brain”.
Emily uses the imagery of death in these poems but Emily refers to this usage of image as something more than just an image and calls it a “proof” or a feeling she has about the world around her: Emily Dickinson once said: “A Death blow is a Life blow to some:/ Who till they died, did not alive become:/ Who had they lived, had died but when:/ So much of life in death is gleaned. ” Emily Dickinson viewed death as something more than just an image it was a feeling, Emily believed that when someone dies they do not die but instead become alive.
Emily Dickinson’s poems actually give us insight on how Emily saw death and the world around her; Emily uses metaphor, personification, imagery and symbolism to help convey the feelings about the world she saw. Emily also used unique punctuation and capitalization to help draw attention to specific words which hold different meanings for Emily. For example Emily Dickinson once said: “I dwell in Possibility –/ A fairer House than Prose –/ More numerous of Windows –/” (Emily Dickinson).
The use of this statement by Emily helps Emily draw attention to the word possibility, she is using it as a metaphor for life after death. Emily believes that when someone dies they may end up in “prose” but this prose is not a good thing because it lacks windows and Emily believes that people who live in possibilities have more freedom than those who live in prose. Emily’s use of things such as metaphors and symbols give us insight on Emily’s thoughts about death and what Emily believed happened after one died.