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Emily Dickenson’s Life through Poetry Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 27th, 2021

Introduction

Emily Dickenson is one of America’s best-loved female poets of the 19th century. Although she was writing during a period in which literature was characterized by grand flourishes and highly intellectual sentiment, Dickenson remained true to her heart and wrote concisely of her feelings and thoughts through the use of strong imagery and powerful metaphors. Born in 1830 to a wealthy, well-educated family, Dickenson’s writing falls into the American Romantic period, also known as the American Renaissance or American Transcendentalism (Goodwin, 2005). During this time, writers in America were concerned with originality and exploration of spiritual and natural issues. These elements are certainly evident in her poems as she wrote about joy and death, sorrow and life and freed herself of the dictates of ‘academic’ or ‘correct’ poetry to experiment with line structure, syntax, and off-rhymes. A brief overview of Emily Dickenson’s life provides a springboard from which an exploration of her poetry reveals the close relationship that existed for her between real life and the written word.

Biography

Emily Dickenson was the second of three children born to a wealthy and well-respected litigator in New England. “The Dickenson’s were strong advocates for education and Emily too benefited from an early education in classic literature, studying the writings of Virgil and Latin, mathematics, history and botany” (Merriman, 2006). When she was 10, the family moved out of the ancestral home and Emily began attending Amherst Academy. By the time she was 17, she had distinguished herself academically and went to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, Massachusetts; however, she returned home later that same year for unknown reasons. “Some of the theories as to why she left are homesickness and poor health. Another reason some speculate is that when she refused to sign an oath publicly professing her faith in Christ, her ensuing chastisement from Mary Lyon proved to be too much humiliation” (Merrimen, 2006). Upon her return home, she began writing her poems and slowly phased herself out of any kind of public life. She suffered from a medical condition known as Bright’s Disease, which affects the liver and causes edema and chronic pain, which is speculated to have been the reason for her near isolation, but she continued to interact with others through correspondence from her desk and association with the neighborhood children (Merriman, 2006). She spent a good portion of her adult life helping her sister care for their invalid mother, who took to her bed by 1870 and died 12 years later in 1882 (Merriman, 2006). During this time, she wrote her poems, publishing very few of them, and took care of the family homestead. By the time of Emily’s death, she had gained notoriety for her reclusiveness, her penchant for always wearing white, and her brilliance in writing poetry, most of which were published posthumously.

Writing style

Her writing style can only be considered unique. “She was a deeply sensitive woman who questioned the puritanical background of her Calvinist family and soulfully explored her spirituality, often in poignant, deeply personal poetry” (Merriman, 2006). Her poems are characterized by their concise detail, their gentle symbolism, and their exploratory format. “Her early poetry is fairly conventional, but around 1860, she began to experiment with language and meter. She used off-rhymes, tampered with syntax, and stripped her language of unnecessary words” (Goodwin, 2005). A good example of her writing style can be found in the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” This poem relates the concept of a woman who has died during her regular duties. With its simple presentation and gentle rhyme, the poem is surprisingly touching. The poem’s great emotional effect is largely due to Dickinson’s masterful use of personification, symbolism, and imagery.

The poem begins with the assumption that Death is an individual as the speaker of the poem tells us “He kindly stopped for me”. The genteel and concise way in which this is expressed gives the impression that this Death is not someone to be feared but is instead something along the lines of a suitor. He picks her up in a carriage complete with a chaperone in the form of Immortality and takes her on a gentle ride, “he knew no haste”. He is so charming and ‘civil’ that she voluntarily puts away her labor and leisure to go with him. In giving Death form and figure in this way, she has personified the idea of Death into a more gentle, more graceful, more loving figure than it was typically portrayed by the more Puritanical leanings of her Calvinist family (Merriman, 2006).

Dickinson also employs a great deal of symbolism within this poem to reinforce her conception of a peaceful death. The travel from the physical world of the body to the world of the spirits is symbolized by the gentle ride in a carriage shared with a pleasant company. The children were seen playing in the schoolyard that is passed upon this journey symbolizes the continuation of life even in the face of death. The “children strove”, indicating that they were not finished with their toil and play as the speaker now is, thus presenting a strong contrast between the activity of life and the passive observation of death as the speaker passes silently by. This idea of the activity of life contrasted with the inactivity of death is also supported by the “fields of gazing grain” that symbolize growth and gain. Meanwhile, the chill of the grave is compared to a house whose “roof was scarcely visible, / The cornice but a mound”. This seems to hearken back to her lifestyle as she occasionally played with or baked for the children of the neighborhood but preferred to remain isolated within the gardens and grounds of her childhood home.

Imagery also plays a large role in the peace and serenity of the poem despite the topic. In her description of her pleasant ride, Dickinson depicts a quiet slow ride through the countryside with nothing to frighten her or make her uncomfortable. Her companions are gentle and courtly and she is expected to do nothing but sit and relax, having “put away / My labor, and my leisure too”. The children are depicted as they “strove, / At recess, in the ring”, raising the image of children struggling against one another within a confined space, perhaps fighting as in a boxing or wrestling match. The impression is that it is preferable to be peacefully sitting within the cool shade of the carriage than to be struggling in the sun with others.

Through her delicate use of imagery, strong ability to employ symbolism, and her characterization of Death, Dickinson manages to present a conception of death as a peaceful, pleasant, pain-free journey. Her comparisons of death to the activity of living consistently illustrate death’s preferred status as it is viewed from the other side of the divide, yet her opening lines, indicating that she “could not stop for Death”, recognize that this preference is not necessarily discernable by the average living person. This removes the fear that the author might have felt suicidal or the uncomfortable suspicion that the author might have been anxiously awaiting death and allows the reader to simply experience Dickinson’s ideas of a peaceful passing.

Summary

Emily Dickinson’s life can be seen to be summarized within the lines of this poem as well as many others. In her journey towards Death, she illustrates a peaceful, courtly afternoon ride through the country to a place where she is expected to do nothing but rest. In this concept, one can trace the anguish of an individual suffering from chronic pain who wishes for a break-even from leisure as even this is characterized by illness and discomfort. At the same time, it reflects a life that is not overburdened with toil despite its busy qualities within the easily relaxed lines of the text. Nowhere is there a sense of urgency, of a task left unfinished or an unwillingness to leave the former life behind. In a great many ways, this characterizes her life. She lived in a semi-reclusive state, utilizing her time to take care of the family mansion and its grounds, baking for the children of the neighborhood, and writing her poetry or keeping up her correspondences. While caring for her sick mother, life must have been quite busy for her within the home, but still characterized by her sense of time management. The number of poems produced in her lifetime numbering in the hundreds was never seen by outsiders until the family found them in her room after her death and enlisted the help of friends Higginson and Mabel Loomis to collect them roughly chronological collections (Merriman, 2006). “The edits were aggressive to standardize punctuation and capitalization and some poems re-worded, but by and large it was a labor of love” (Merriman, 2006). As can be seen in the analysis of “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, her life is characterized in her poetry – a life full of contentment and love but also with pain and suffering, busy with activity but relaxed and loose, ready for the next big event.

References

Dickinson, Emily. “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” Book Title. Place of publication: Publisher name, Date of publication, pp. #.

Goodwin, Renee. “Emily Dickenson, 1830 – 1886”, The Literary Explorer. (2005). Blonde Librarian. Web.

Merriman, C.D. The Literature Network. (2006). Web.

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IvyPanda. "Emily Dickenson’s Life through Poetry." August 27, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/emily-dickensons-life-through-poetry/.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Emily Dickenson’s Life through Poetry." August 27, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/emily-dickensons-life-through-poetry/.

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