Born 180 years ago in Amherst, Massachussettes, Emily Dickinson is making a rare appearence these days, on the leaving cert Honours English syllabus for 2011. I'd say therefore, she is well worth taking a look at - Surely one of the most unusual and eccentric poets ever, she passed most of her 55 years of life as a virtual recluse. When she died 1,175 poems were found in her room. Only a handful had been published during her own lifetime.
It is said that Emily increasingly wore white, a dramatic gesture that set off her titian hair and large brown eyes. I wonder when I read her, particularly poems like 'I felt a funeral in my Brain' what happened to her? To cut herself off from the world as she did...There has been much speculation, that she appears to have suffered some traumaic life event seems certain... the nature of that event we are left guessing at...
We do know that in her early twenties Dickinson enjoyed a number of close friendships, the most intense of all being with Susan Gilbert. Dickinson's letters to Susan have an intensity and passion like no other. In one, she invites Susan to 'the church within our hearts, where the bells are always ringing and the preacher whose name is Love - shall intercede there for us!'
However during their early frienship, Susan Gilbert was also being courted with equal intensity by Austin Dickinson, Emily's brother and in 1853 when Emily was 23 Susan and Austin anounced their engagement. This unsuspected alliance proved devastating to the young Emily. 'I do not miss you Susie - of course I do not miss you - I only sit and stare at nothing from my window, and know that all is gone...' The young Emily was heartbroken, her attachment to Susan had been her whole world.
Ted Hughes however writes that 'the central themes of the poems have suggested to many readers that the 'key traumatic event' was a great and final disappointment in her love for some particular man in the early 1860's', ten years later. Three draft letters addressed to one whom she called 'Master' were found among her papers when she died.These are intense and passionate letters, but the identity of the Master has never been known. The secret remains just that. What is significant is that more than one third of her 1,775 poems were written during the three years 1862 - 1864 when Dickinson was in her early 30's.
Although she often visited Austin and Susan and their three children whom she adored, during their early marriage, Dickinson elected a life of increasing solitude. It was amply interrupted though by a number of friendships, by her books and by her writing. She was greatly supported by another female poet Helen Hunt Jackson. Suan Gilbert's marriage to Austin was a deeply unhappy one and he began a longterm affair with Mabel Loomis Todd. In the 1870's when she was in her 40's Emily was courted by an old family friend Judge Otis Lord. It only lasted a short number of years and her life became punctuated by the death's of those she loved including Otis Lord's own.
'The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my heart from one, another has come.' Her father, her mother, Otis Lord, Helen Hunt Jackson.
The two most obvious features of her poetry are her use of the dash and the capital letter. The dash is used by Dickinson in place of the comma and the full stop. It forces us to pause, stop and think. It adds weight and significance to the thoughts expressed. It focusses our attention on certain words and phrases. It very cleverly adds to the rhythm, groups of words are clustered together creating a regulated pace in a carefully crafted deliberate way.
Capable of great exuberance - 'I taste a liquor never brewed' c. 1860,
extraordinary optimism - ''Hope'' is the thing with feathers' c. 1861,
deep personal psychological distress - 'I felt a Funeral in my Brain' c. 1862
Emily Dickinson is the most unmistakably 'original' poet on this years leaving cert syllabus. Her poetry is the most instantly recognisable of all poetry. But more than that, it is those age old themes of love, joy, pain, heartbreak, mental distress and death that allow her to remain as relevant in our lives today as when Dickinson was writing her poems 170 years ago. We feel her joy, we share in her distress. We empathise.
Emily Dickinson fell ill with Bright's disease in November 1885 and died on the 15 May 1886. Susan Gilbert Dickinson wwrote the obituary and arranged the funeral following Dickinson's instructions 'to be carried out the back door, around through the garden, through the opened barn from front to back, and then through the grassy field to the family plot, always in sight of the house...'