Despite living through one of the most turbulent times in American history, Emily Dickinson led a remarkably uneventful life. Born in 1830 in Massachusetts, she spent almost all of her 56 years living at home with her wealthy family, and never marrying. From this seclusion was born one of the most brilliant, eccentric poetic voices ever known. Her rhymes are rough, rhythms inconsistent, and lines are broken up by oddly placed dashes. Her metaphors are often obscure. Yet readers who become familiar with her style are rewarded with beautiful, breathtakingly original meditations on nature, death and the meaning of the self. As one critic put it, “she seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once”.
Some poets are known for tackling great social themes. Not Dickinson. She looked inward for inspiration, describing her joys, hopes and doubts in a universal way. Her very personal poetry gives the impression of a complex, thoughtful individual who refused to conform to expectations. One poem depicts her mind flying free as a bird, even as others cage her body.
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We know little about Dickinson – everything from her political views to her romantic relationships remains quite mysterious. As an intensely private person, she probably wanted it this way. A mere 10 of her 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime, and she only found fame after death. Her poetry celebrates privacy and anonymity. “I’m Nobody!” begins one triumphantly. “Who are you?”
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Dickinson was raised by very Christian parents, who stressed the importance of matters like Jesus’s sacrifice. The poet did not care for such a dogmatic form of religion. While she may have retained some kind of faith in the idea of an afterlife, her writing rails against the cruelty and oppressiveness of God. Yet her upbringing is reflected in the influence of hymns on the rhythms and imagery of her poetry.
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Dickinson had a morbid imagination. Death occurs frequently in her poetry, which is even occasionally narrated from beyond the grave. Some of these poems are hopeful; most are melancholic, and a few are plain weird. One famous work homes in on the distracting buzz of a fly that the narrator hears as they die. Another takes the perspective of death himself as he moves about, claiming victims.
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Dickinson’s longest poems are only a few dozen lines; the shortest, barely a dozen words. Her style has been described as “aphoristic”, which means that she packs a lot of meaning into few words, often by resorting to dense metaphors. This can make her poetry tricky, but also a lot of fun to analyse. Some critics have suggested that she would have been good on Twitter!
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