Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, December 10, 1830. She died in the house in which she was born. In her youth she was high-spirited and full of humor, but after the age of twenty-six she became a physical recluse and a kind of spiritual hermit; she rarely set foot beyond her doorstep. "She habitually concealed her mind, like her person, from all but a very few friends," wrote Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who may be said to have discovered her, " and it was with great difficulty'that she was persuaded to print, during her lifetime, three or four poems." ghe disliked publicity so much that those four published poems had to be taken from her almost by stealth, and, though she wrote more than twelve hundred poems in secrecy, the first volume of her poetry did not appear until 1890, four years after her death.

Keeping herself strictly to herself, she became a mystery, a legend even in her own lifetime. Undisturbed by the outside world, she continued to ignore all people except her immediate family and a few intimate friends. She devoted herself to the household, to her baking, her preserving, and her poetry. In 1885 she was suddenly taken ill; she died of Brighes disease in her fifty-sixth year, May 15, 1886.

Her fame grew gradually; only a small circle of readers appreciated the peculiar keenness and concision of her thought. But she was never without enthusiastic admirers. Poems (1890) was followed by Poems: Second Series (1890) and Poems: Third Series 1896), the contents being collected and edited by her two friends, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Several years later, a further generous volume was assembled by her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, entitled The Single Hound (1914).

Although the revival of interest in poetry drew attention to the individuality of Emily Dickinson's expression, her readers remained few. Many were cool and critical. An occasional article appeared, showing her "lack of control" or, beneath a cover of condescension, ridiculing her "hit-or-miss grammar, sterile rhythms, and appalling rhymes." Suddenly, without warning, she leaped into international prominence. Almost forty years after her death, her name was everywhere. The year 1924 saw the publication of Martha Dickinson Bianchi's important volume, The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson, the first collected Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, and the first English compilation, Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited with a splendid prefatory essay by Conrad Aiken.

The enthusiasm attending the triple appearance was unbounded. Martin Armstrong, the English poet, said in a review, "Mr. Aiken calls Emily Dickinson's poetry 'perhaps the finest by a woman in the English language,' I quarrel only with his 'perhaps.'" Nor were the other comments less definite. "A feminine Blake," "an epigrammatic Walt Whitman," "a New England mystic," were a few of the characterizations fastened upon her. Other appraisals sought to "interpret" her verses in the light of the "mysiiiry" of her life. It is no secret that Emily Dickenson fell in love with a man already married, that she renounced her love, and withdrew from the world. But "the Amherst nun" would have repudiated the analysts as vigorously as she, whose verses and letters brim with mischievous fancy, would have laughed at the grandiose epithets.

In 1929 a collection of undiscovered or withheld poems, Further Poems of Emily Dickinson, was edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson. There were one hundred and seventy-six hitherto unpublished pieces, and their clear beauty as well as mysterious appearance caused something of a furor. The excitement increased in 1930, the centenary of Emily Dickinson's birth, when three biographers differed with each other. A new volume, Unpublished Poems by Emily Dickinson, appeared toward the end of 1935. Another collection entitled Bolts of Melody (1945) contained more than 650 poems, many of which were published for the first time and could be numbered among the poet's most characteristic work. Various biographies attempted to reveal the secret of her life and the key to her poetry. The most imaginative of these was Genevieve Taggard's The Life and Mind of Emily Dickinson (1930); the most thorough and plausible was This Was a Poet (1938) by George Frisbie Whicher.

Emily Dickinson wrote chiefly of four things: Nature, Love, Life, and Death. Much of her work is like inspired improvisations. Some of it is erratic, obviously unfinished, thrown off in the heat of creation; some of it is obscure. But in most of the poems the leaps of thought are so daring, the epithets so fanciful and yet so exact, the imagination so startling and original that the lines are little short of on. One gasps at the way this poet packs huge ideas into tense quatrains. Hers is a kind of super-observation which arrests us in such magical and startling phrases as: a dog's belated feet, like intermittent plush," a hummingbird whose flight is "a route of evanescence, a resonance of emerald," an engine "neighing," a mushroom whose whole career "is shorter than a snake's delay," leaves that "unhooked" themselves from trees, lightnings that "skipped" like mice, the wind "tapping like a tired man."

Her letters, like her poems, have an unpredictable way of turning about their subject. They combine the impish with the mystical; they announce tremendous things in an offhand tone of voice. Few definitions of poetry give us the feeling of poetry as sharply as her informal: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know it is poetry. If I feel phiysically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know this is poetry. These are the only ways I know it."

I'm Nobody! Who Are You?

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

Success Is Counted Sweetest

I Took My Power in My Hand

The Return


The Bee

The Wind

The Mountain

The Stone

The Humming-Bird

A Book



Inebriate of Air

Indian Summer

Joy in Insecurity




A Cemetery

Beauty and Truth

Precious Words