Friendship Poems

Emily Dickinson Biography

483px-Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotypeEmily Elizabeth Dickinson was born at her family’s homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. The Dickinsons were a prominent, though not opulent, family. Emily Dickinson’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, had almost single-handedly founded the famed Amherst College. Emily’s father Edward Dickinson married Emily Norcross on May 6, 1828. Emily was the middle of their three children.

As a youngster, Emily was a well-behaved girl by several accounts. Emily attended primary school in a two-story building on Pleasant Street and received an education which was considered ambitiously classical for a Victorian girl. Emily’s father wanted his children well-educated and he followed their progress, even while away on business. On September 7, 1840, Dickinson and her sister, Lavinia, started together at Amherst Academy, a former boys’ school that had opened to female students just two years earlier. At about the same time, her father had purchased a house on North Pleasant Street. Emily’s brother Austin later described this large new home as the “mansion” over which he and Emily presided as “lord and lady” while their parents were absent.

Emily spent seven years at the Academy, taking classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy” and arithmetic. She also had a few terms off due to illness: the longest absence was from 1845 until 1846, when she was only enrolled for eleven weeks.

From a young age, Dickinson was extremely troubled by the “deepening menace” of death, especially the deaths of those who were close to her. When Sophia Holland, her second cousin and a close friend, grew ill from typhus and died in April 1844, Emily was seriously traumatized. She became so depressed that her parents sent her to stay with family in Boston to recover. When her health and spirits were restored, she soon returned to Amherst Academy to continue her studies.

As a result of her unusual education Emily was highly influenced by the popular writing of the day. She made attempts to continue her education at Mount Holyoke College although she was only there for 10 months. The explanations for her brief stay at Holyoke differ considerably and range from poor health and her father wanting her home to her purported rebellion against the evangelical fervor present at the school and her supposed dislike of the discipline-minded teachers. Whatever the specific reason, her brother Austin appeared at Mount Holyoke College on March 25, 1848 to bring her home. Happily settled back in Amherst, Dickinson occupied her time with household activities. She also took up baking for the family and enjoyed attending local events and activities in the budding college town.

In early 1850 Dickinson had written that “Amherst is alive with fun this winter … Oh, a very great town this is!” Her high spirits soon turned to depression again following yet another untimely death. Leonard Humphrey, the Amherst Academy principal, who had befriended her, died suddenly of “brain congestion” at age 25. Although Emily eventually recovered again, a fear of death and constant depression plagued her the rest of her life.

Despite one trip back East, Emily became more and more reclusive. She took on the role of aiding her ailing mother and lived in the homestead until her mother’s death. Over the years she become more reclusive even speaking to other people through doors and not even attending her father’s funeral which was held inside the homestead instead leaving her bedroom door cracked open in order to hear the service.

Her prolific writing continued until her death on May 15, 1886. After several days of worsening symptoms, Emily Dickinson died at the age of 55. Emily’s physician listed the cause of death as Bright’s disease, a kidney disease, which lasted two and a half years.

Despite Emily’s prolific writing, fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. After her younger sister, Lavinia, discovered the collection of nearly eighteen hundred poems, it was then that Dickinson’s first volume was published, four years after her death. Until the 1955 publication of Dickinson’s Complete Poems by Thomas H. Johnson, her poetry had been considerably edited and altered from their manuscript versions. Since 1890 Dickinson has remained continuously in print.


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