Emily Dickinson! Safe in her Alabaster Chambers
Updated: Mar 26
The life that Emily Dickinson chose to live could be described as serene, lonely, isolated, eccentric... This gifted poet did not leave the family estate at all for the last two decades of her life. She led a quiet and secluded life, filled with introspective reflections and observations of nature that surrounded her and therefore became known as the poet of nature. Her self-analysis took place through natural subjects and processes. She spent her days reading her favorite works and creating poetry that would bring her the literary fame that she detested and shunned away from during her lifetime. In fact, she considered the publication of a collection during life as an “auction of the human spirit”. Her need for isolation was so strong that the poet did not like to see anyone in person, not even her friends, but preferred to communicate with them and her family through letters. She also talked to visitors through the door, avoiding close interactions. The reasons for her self-imposed isolation have never been fully clarified. After she passed away, Dickinson left behind over a thousand poems that she created quietly and in solitude, hidden from the outside world. The strength of her literary voice, as well as her peculiar life, contributed to the fact that she became an unforgettable literary figure that is to this day the subject of many debates. In this week’s ZiNger we will closely examine some of the interesting details from the life of this withdrawn poet.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886) was an American poet who laid the foundations of modern poetry and is considered one of the world's greatest poets. Her poetry is characterized by its concision, brevity and simplicity. Her poems are dominated by reflections on life, death, limitations, biblical motifs and those from legends. Although she found inspiration in the books she read (the Bible, Shakespeare, Keats, Elizabeth Barret Browning, the Bronte sisters, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, etc.), she created her own distinctive style. Dickinson abandoned established rules and standards, created her own expression, recognizable construction and theme. She was not ashamed of her vulnerabilities and fears, quite the opposite; she openly revealed them to the reader. As a poet, she traveled through her consciousness and then transformed her thoughts and reflections into poems that were without clear boundaries. The strong emotions she expressed in her poetry contrasted with the life she led, which seemed to be without much excitement.
She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA. The Dickinson family had deep roots in New England. Emily’s grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer, politician, and was employed as a treasurer at Amherst College, followed by his son William, Emily's older brother. Edward Dickinson married Emily Norcross in 1828, and the couple had three children: William Austin, Lavinia Norcross, and the middle child, Emily. She studied at Amherst College for seven years and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for a year. Although Dickinson was an excellent student, she dropped out of school and spent the rest of her life isolated on the family property. The exact reasons for her departure from Holyoke in 1848 are unknown. Some theories suggest that her fragile emotional state may have played a role or that her father chose to withdraw her from school.
Relationships within the Dickinson family were complicated. Emily’s older brother William, who was married to Emily’s closest friend Susan Gilbert, had a long-running affair with writer and editor Mabel Loomis Todd who was also married. The affair was known throughout the Amherst community, and Emily sided with her longtime friend Susan while her younger sister Lavinia was divided and partially sided with Mabel. It is said that "Mabel effectively destroyed the Dickinson family," but by a combination of circumstances she was also the one who did the demanding work of editing and publishing Emily's poetry after her death. Emily's younger sister Lavinia found her poems after the author's death and asked Mabel to edit and publish them after she had previously given them to Susan for editing (she was familiar with Emily's poems), but it took too long so Lavinia became impatient and handed them to Mabel. Emily and Mabel never met, but they exchanged letters. Mabel arranged the poems to her liking which was considered a controversial decision and at the end of the year she was in a legal battle with the Dickinson family which included a dispute over a piece of land left to her by William.
The Dickinson family lived on a large estate known as Homestead in Amherst. After the wedding, William and Susan lived on a property next to Homestead, known as the Evergreens. Emily and Lavinia cared for their sick mother until her death in 1882. The sisters never married and spent the rest of their lives on the Homestead estate. Emily’s relationship with her mother was also complicated. Although she spent much of her life caring for her, their relationship was strained. She could not rely on her mother’s support as far as her literary endeavors were concerned, and she received the same treatment from the rest of her family and friends. But there was an exception; Edward saw his daughter as a literary genius.
Certain parallels can be drawn between Emily’s life and the life led by her mother. Like Emily, her mother did not leave the family estate, she also isolated herself and over the years she became extremely selective about who she would spend time with from her close circle of family and friends. Emily once wrote to her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "My mother does not care for thought.". This was in stark contrast to Emily who spent her days thinking and analyzing the world around her and within herself. On another occasion, she wrote, "Could you tell me what home is. I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled." (https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-dickinsons-mother-735144)
Emily had a complicated relationship with religion as well, and her poems sometimes reflect a certain penchant for science. But they also reveal a belief in the existence of God and a complex, albeit unconventional, spirituality. She started writing as a teenager. Her earlier influences included Leonard Humphrey, director of the Amherst Academy, and family friend Benjamin Franklin Newton who sent Emily a book of poetry by Ralph Wald Emerson (also one of her influences). She maintained numerous correspondences with friends and family, and in her spare time studied botany. She had a large greenhouse with hundreds of plants, flowers and trees of all kinds which she maintained together with her sister Lavinia and which was famous in the Amherst community for its beauty.
Although she did not have to marry as many of her contemporaries did to secure a livelihood, and she spent most of her life in isolation, romantic feelings did not bypass Emily. Most of her letters were destroyed after her death on her instructions, but certain letters have been preserved, including three letters called The Master Letters addressed to a male person whom Emily addressed as Master and to whom she expressed deep emotions and affection. For years it has been speculated who this man was for whom Emily had romantic feelings and many names have been mentioned, one of them being Mr. Otis Phillips Lord, a family friend with whom she maintained correspondence. Mr. Lord even proposed marriage to Emily, but she refused. The identity of the man she passionately wrote about in her poems and letters and who won her heart was never revealed.
During Emily's life, only a dozen of her poems were published at the urging of her friends and relatives. Some of them are: I taste a liquor never brewed, Safe in their Alabaster Chambers, Some keep the Sabbath going to Church, Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple, and Success is counted sweetest. The first volume of poems was published in 1890, and a complete compilation, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was not published until 1955. In the beginning, there was mixed reception of her poetry. While some praised her “rare individuality and originality”, others disapproved of her unusual non-traditional style (https://learnodo-newtonic.com/emily-dickinson-facts). Interest in Emily’s poetry became widespread in the early twentieth century, and critics realized that the irregularities in her poems were consciously artistic. Over time, Emily became a strong figure in American literature and recognized as an innovative, pre-modernist poet and is thought to have influenced the direction of 20th century poetry.
An interesting detail can be found in Emily’s description of her mother’s death and Dickinson's tombstone. Emily cared for her mother for the last seven years of her life, until her mother died on November 14, 1882. After her death, Emily wrote: "The dear Mother that could not walk, has flown. It never occurred to us that she had not Limbs, she had Wings- and she soared from us unexpectedly as a summoned Bird." (https://www.thoughtco.com/emily-dickinsons-mother-735144). Emily herself died four years later, on May 15, 1886, at the age of 55, and Bright's disease was cited as the cause of death; a kidney disease Emily had suffered from for the last two and a half years of her life. She was buried on the family plot at West Cemetery in Amherst, and Homestead, where she was born and where she died, became a museum. At first, only the initials EED (Emily Elizabeth Dickinson) were engraved on her tombstone, but later her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, had another tombstone made with the author's full name, date of birth and date of death, and the phrase "Called Back" which was a reference to a novel of the same name by author Hugh Conway, one of her favorites. Those two words were also the last words Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter shortly before her death. It could be said that she, like her mother four years before, was called back and soared into the heavens like a bird.
In her room, cut off from the world, this talented poet has quietly created over a thousand poems that have ranked her among the world’s greatest poets. But she preferred to live life by her own rules, and her isolation from the world allowed her to look into the depths of her soul in silence and solitude, and convey what she had discovered in poems that secured her eternal glory. Her brother William described her choice as a way of life exactly the way she wanted it. And indeed, Emily Dickinson found power in her choice to live her life the way she wanted and found pleasure in rejecting the convention. Her exact reasons for isolation will remain a mystery like the writer herself, but what she left behind is what matters most; over a thousand little precious insights into the hidden world of this poetess who was known by the nickname “The Myth”.
I hide myself within my flower,
That wearing on your breast,
You, unsuspecting, wear me too—
And angels know the rest.
I hide myself within my flower,
That, fading from your vase,
You, unsuspecting, feel for me
Almost a loneliness