Emily Dickinson: Greatest Female American Poet

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English: Daguerreotype of the poet Emily Dicki...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Starting in middle school, American students begin to learn about poetry. They are taught about stanza, rhyme, diction, and themes. They  recite “Nothing Gold can Stay” “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Raven.” And they learn about Walt Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Frost, and Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is painted as a crazy loner suffering from depression; some even believe that it was her who stuck her head in the oven to kill herself (it was actually American poet Sylvia Plath). In reality, Dickinson spent her life caring for her mother, sending  homegrown flowers to friends, and writing poetry until she died from hypertension.

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She was the middle child of Edward and Emily Dickinson. Her father was a successful attorney who spent one term in Congress while her mother was reclusive and spent most of her life at home sick. Though education for women in the 1800’s was unusual, her parents wanted her to receive an education so she attended Amherst Academy and then Holyoke Female Seminary. As a child, her hobbies included baking, gardening, reading, singing, and playing the piano. Though she is remembered for being a loner, she had friends and was excited to meet young men; she even received a marriage proposal. Dickinson did not start writing poetry until receiving a book of Walt Whitman’s poetry she was in her 20s. A popular theme of her poems was death; it was due either to the death of her cousin or it was the cemetery she could see outside of her window.

While Dickinson had a very social childhood, her mother’s illness required Emily or her sister, Lavinia, to stay at home to take care of her. When she was not taking care of her mother, cleaning the house, baking, gardening, or writing to her friends, she would write her poetry. She started to become secluded in the 1860’s due to a decrease of health. In 1864, she underwent treatment for a painful eye condition called iritis; she spent a total of 14 months under a doctor’s care. Even though Dickinson never left her house again, she continued to write friends and send them poetry and flowers from her garden. In the 1870’s, her friends and family members began dying off; her father died in 1874, her mother had a stroke in 1875 (died in 1882), her young nephew died in 1883, and several childhood friends and literacy mentors died. Her brother, who lived next door, began cheating on his wife (and Dickinson’s best friend). Dickinson’s happy home was now empty and torn apart. She died on May 15, 1886 from Bright’s Disease, though it is now believed to be hypertension.

After her death, Lavinia discovered hundreds of Emily’s poems and had them published by a family friend in 1890. Emily had 12 poems published in her lifetime; the rest of the 1,800 poems were published after her death. The poems were instantly popular since her poems were atypical of 1800’s poetry; her poetry ignored grammar rules, consisted of short stanzas, and the sentences didn’t end in rhyme. Like many women of her time, Dickinson had to tend home and take care of loved ones. Unlike the average 19th century woman, Dickinson chose to remain independent and concentrate on her interests. Dickinson knew one day that her poems would be published, but she couldn’t possibly have known that she would become the most popular female American poet and that her poems would be read all over the world.

 

Sources:

Emily Dickinson. biography

Emily Dickinson Museum

Emily Dickinson

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