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The Life and Times of Emily Dickinson: Recluse Poet and Literary Legend
by Daniel J. Durand
What can I say of dear Emily—she was a recluse by choice, keeping to herself for the better part of her life. She never married, clung to a very tight circle of friends and family, and rarely ventured outside of her own home. Yet she produced such deep and moving poetry, and so very much of it. Perhaps motivated by sadness in her life, perhaps only seeing things in a different way than most—what can anyone say of Emily?
Emily Dickinson was, to say the least, a very interesting character. As I’ve mentioned, she kept to herself for the better part of her life, avoiding people to the extreme. It got to the point that she would talk to people through closed doors rather than face to face, and kept a long correspondence with her sister-in-law, despite the fact that they were next-door-neighbors. When she became ill later in life, she made her doctor examine her from a distance.
Dickinson had a very strict father growing up, who was both a lawyer and for a time a member of the House of Representatives. Some critics claim this may have bred an amount of disregard for authority. She never quite fit with the common religious view of the time, Calvinism, which had made a comeback in that era and, along with other religious matters, was considered to be the issue of the day. Her poetry has always been considered unorthodox. It appears that Emily simply didn’t belong with the rest of the world.
All of these factors, and a series of chronic illnesses throughout her life, which pulled her away from her schooling several times, are likely what caused her to seclude herself from the world. Whether or not they contributed to the substance of her poetry may be unclear, but one thing for sure is that during the longer periods of isolation, Dickinson produced more poetry than when she was among society.
Now for a look at some of Dickinson’s writing. In her poem, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died”, the narrator is speaking of the last things they witnessed before their own demise. A bit grim, to say the least, but the meaning seems to be one of two things; either a last expression of annoyance over the final moment of one’s life being interrupted by something so trivial as a fly, or possibly regret, deep sorrow, that the simple annoyance of a buzzing fly, being a part of life, is something no longer to be experienced by the narrator. Dickinson uses a lot of extra pauses within the text, possibly to further the point of being on the cusp of life and death, just before passing.
More dismal writing follows, as we see in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”. In this piece, Death is characterized as being almost gentlemanly in the first two lines, which read:
“Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—“
Another point I noticed was how Dickinson mentions the sort of unpreparedness on the part of the narrator:
“The Dews drew quivering and chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet—only Tulle—“
It struck me that most people, if they knew it was going to be cold, would dress for the weather and be ready—but who is ever ready for death?
One more for the afterlife, and then something a little less gloomy. In “My Life Closed Twice Before its Close”, Dickinson, or the narrator, whichever is talking if the two are in fact separate entities, seems to be mourning over two losses, almost cynically expecting a third. The closing lines, I think, have a lot of power behind them, and seem to grasp the meaning of the pain:
“Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.”
Now, before we come to the slightly brighter bits, just a recap of the parts so far. Dickinson seems nearly obsessed with death- she lost more than a few friends throughout her life, including a cousin when she was young, a friend and faculty member at college, and quite a few more during the Civil War. These instances must have carried a lot of weight with her writing, and possibly with her lifestyle, as she maintained fewer and fewer relationships as time wore on, possibly to avoid more losses. I find it doubtful at best that anyone could experience that much emotional turmoil and have it not affect their lives in some way, and this would certainly explain her hermit-like tendencies.
Some of her other works seemed like a sort of explanation; for example, “The Soul Selects Her Own Society” may flesh out Dickinson’s reasoning for being a recluse. She mentions something about “shutting the door” and closing the “Valves of her attention”. Could she mean singling out the comfortable parts of the world and discarding the rest? Her other poem, “There is a Solitude of Space”, refers to the solitude of a “soul admitted to itself”. Could she have considered herself one of those souls?
Putting aside motivation for only a moment, Dickinson is a very contemplative writer, reasoning out the meaning and existence of opposites in “Water, Is Taught by Thirst”. After all, how could we know pleasure without pain, or joy without sorrow? All are facets of life, identified by each other, balancing and cancelling each other out. Sort of an interesting school of thought.
Finally, “The Brain is Wider Than the Sky” looks at the very essence of thought, or so it seems to me, comparing the depth of the mind to the sea, the width to the sky, and, in the last stanza:
“The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—“
Could the “weight of God” mean that the Brain is a burden or responsibility? The “Syllable and Sound” part also stands out, as syllables are sounds, so one comes from the other, perhaps reflecting the common belief that Man, and therefore the Brain, comes from God.
Dickinson is definitely not to be taken on an empty stomach, as far as I’m concerned. Probably as a direct result of her isolation, her writing is deep and sometimes carrying a considerably challenging meaning. In a period of history where so very much was happening, Dickinson turned inward, ignoring the outside world almost entirely, and making more than a few good observations. However, I wonder at just how far inside herself she went- she had intended all her writings be burner after she died, never to be read by another soul. Therefore, how much solid meaning can one other than her take from so personal a collection?
Most troubling of all is the personal cost. Dickinson had very little of a life, by common standards, because of this self-imposed exile. Was she truly motivated by pain and suffering? How much more could her life have been if she could have just let go? Or was she simply an odd duck? Hopefully, we can gain enough understanding of ourselves from the work she left behind that we don’t have to cross over the same line as she did.
Pettinger, T. “Short Biography Emily Dickinson” Biography Online. May 26th, 2006. Biography Online. 9/7/09 http://www.biographyonline.net/poets/emily_dickinson.html
Mterry7. “How to Cite Websites” HubPages. HubPages. 9/7/09 http://hubpages.com/hub/How-to-cite-Websites
Prentice-Hall. “Guide for Interpreting” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 394-395
Dickinson, Emily. “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 396
“Because I could not stop for Death” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 397
“My life closed twice before its close” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 398
“The Soul selects her own Society” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 398
“There is a solitude of space” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 400
“The Brain—is wider than the Sky” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 400
“Water, is taught by thirst.” Timeless Voices, Timeless Themes: The American Experience. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2000. 401