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Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886: The 'Belle of Amherst' Became One of America's Greatest Poets


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PEOPLE IN AMERICA – a program in Special English about famous Americans of the past.  Now, Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe tell the story of nineteenth century poet Emily Dickinson.

Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me –
The carriage held but just ourselves
And immortality.

The words are by American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1886. During her life, she published only about ten poems. Four years after her death, a few more poems were published. But her complete work did not appear until 1955.

I'm Nobody!  Who are you?
Are you -- Nobody – Too?

Emily Dickinson has become part of our language without really being part of our history. Some see her as the last poet of an early American tradition. Others see her as the first modern American poet. Each reader seems to find a different Emily Dickinson. She remains as mysterious as she was when she was alive.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant --

The truth about Emily Dickinson has been difficult to discover. Few people of her time knew who she was or what she was doing. The main facts about her life are these.

She was born December 10, 1830, in the small Massachusetts town of Amherst. She lived and died in the same house where she was born. Emily received a good education. She studied philosophy, the Latin language, and the science of plants and rocks.

Emily's parents were important people in Amherst. Many famous visitors came to their house, and Emily met them. Her father was a well-known lawyer who was elected to Congress for one term.

Mr. Dickinson believed that women should be educated. But he also believed that women should not use their education to work outside the home. He felt their one and only task was to care for their husband and children. Emily once said: "He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they upset the mind. "

Emily wrote more than one thousand seven hundred poems. There are three books of her letters. And there are many books about her life.

Some of her best work was written in the four years between 1858 and 1862.

I live with Him -- I see his face --
I go no more away
For Visitor -- or Sundown--
Death's single privacy

Dreams -- are well -- but Waking's better,
If One wake at Morn --
If One wake at Midnight – better --
Dreaming -- of the Dawn --

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to me--
The simple News that Nature told--
With tender Majesty

In those years, Emily seems to have found her "voice" as a poet. She settled into forms she used for the rest of her life. The forms are similar to those of religious music used during her lifetime. But her choice of words was unusual. She wrote that her dictionary was her best friend.

Other influences were the English poet, William Shakespeare; the Christian holy book, the Bible; and the forces of nature.

I dreaded that first robin so,
But he is mastered now,
And I'm accustomed to him grown--
He hurts a little though

I dared not meet the daffodils,
For fear their yellow gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own.
I could not bear the bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away

In those dim countries where they go:
What word had they for me?

Throughout her life, Emily asked men for advice. And then she did not follow what they told her. As a child, there was her father. Later there was her father's law partner, and a churchman she met in the city of Philadelphia. Another man who helped her was the writer Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

Higginson had written a magazine story giving advice to young, unpublished writers. Emily wrote to him when she was in her early thirties. She included a few poems.

Higginson wrote back and later visited Emily in Amherst. In the next few years, Emily sent him many more poems. But he did not have them published, and admitted that he did not understand Emily's poetry.

'Tis not that dying hurts us so --
'Tis living hurts us more;
But dying is a different way,
A kind behind the door --

Some historians wish that Emily's poems had reached the best American writers of her day: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau or Walt Whitman. These men could have overlooked her strange way of living to see only her ability.

Historians also say it is possible that Emily chose to write to someone like Higginson so she would not be understood.

To hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing
Or only a divine
It is not the bird
Who sings the same unheard,
As unto crowd.

So little is known about Emily's life that many writers have created a life for her. They talk about the things that interest them as if they interested Emily, too. But one writer says part of the joy in studying Emily is what we cannot know. Emily herself said: "I never try to lift the words which I cannot hold. "

I cannot live with you,
It would be life,
And life is over there
Behind the shelf
So we must keep apart,
You there, I here,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And prayer,
And that pale sustenance,
Despair!

Emily Dickinson sewed the pages of her poems together with thread and put them away. She also seems to have sewed her life together and put it away, too. Step by step, she withdrew from the world. As she grew older, she saw fewer visitors, and rarely left her house.

The time of Emily's withdrawal was also the time of the American Civil War. The events that changed America's history, however, did not touch her. She died in 1886, at the age of 55, completely unknown to the world.

No one wrote about Emily Dickinson's poems while she was alive. Yet, more than one hundred years since her death, she has come to be seen as one of America's greatest poets.

The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will contain
With ease -- and you beside.

After Emily died, her sister Lavinia found Emily's poems locked away. Lavinia wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson and demanded that the poems be published. Higginson agreed. And a few of Emily's poems about nature were published. Slowly, more and more of her poems were published. Readers soon learned that she was much more than a nature poet.

In her life, Emily was an opponent of organized religion. Yet she often wrote about religion. She rarely left home. Yet she often wrote about faraway places. She lived quietly. Yet she wrote that life passes quickly and should be lived to the fullest.

Will we ever know more about the life of Emily Dickinson?  As she told a friend once: "In a life that stopped guessing, you and I should not feel at home. "

We have the poems. And for most readers, they are enough.

Surgeons must be very careful
When they take the knife!
Underneath their fine incisions
Stirs the Culprit – Life

You have been listening to the Special English program PEOPLE IN AMERICA.  This program was written by Richard Thorman.  Your narrators were Kay Gallant and Harry Monroe.  Listen again next week at this same time on VOA for another story of PEOPLE IN AMERICA. This is Shirley Griffith.


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Source: Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886: The 'Belle of Amherst' Became One of America's Greatest Poets
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