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|Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born Dec. 10, 1830, in
Amherst, Mass., into a severely religious, puritanical family that
had lived in New England for eight generations. She was educated
at Amherst Academy and at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, South
Hadley, Mass. A high-spirited and active young woman, Dickinson later
withdrew from society; virtually her only contact with her friends
was through her whimsical and epigrammatic letters. The traditional
reason given for her reclusive life-that she suffered a romantic
disappointment-is debated by modern scholars.
Throughout the remainder of her life Dickinson wrote poetry of a profoundly original nature. The first contemporary literary figure to become aware of her existence as a poet was clergyman and author Thomas Higginson. Although Higginson recognized her genius and became her lifelong correspondent and literary mentor, he advised her not to publish her work because of its violation of contemporary literary convention. Her other literary friend, the novelist Helen Jackson (1830-85), however, tried unsuccessfully to persuade her to publish a collection of her poetry. After Dickinson's death, nearly 2000 poems, many only fragments, were found among her papers. From this mass of material Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd (1856?-1932) edited the first published selection of her work, Poems (1890), which enjoyed great popular success. Todd never spoke to Dickinson, but glimpsed her once through a doorway.
Recent research suggests the influence on her poetry of two among the several men and women important in her life: Charles Wadsworth (1814-82), a Philadelphia clergyman, and Otis P. Lord (1812-84), her father's friend.
Dickinson most frequently wrote her poems, compressed into brief stanza forms, in a few different combinations of iambic tetrameter and trimeter lines (see VERSIFICATION). She employed simple rhyme schemes and varied the effects of these schemes by partial rhyming (for example, "tune" with "pain"), a device common among many poets of the following century. Her language is simple, but her complex syntax draws a rich variety of connotations from many common words. Her imagery and metaphors derive both from an acute observation of nature and from an imagination often as playful in thought and witty in expression as that of the English metaphysical poets of the 17th century. Earlier editings eliminated Dickinson's characteristic use of dashes that serve to convey the rhythm and power of her thought.
The combination of universal themes, expressed with vivid personal feeling, and her use of familiar verse forms gives Dickinson's lyrics a mystical directness somewhat comparable to that found in the work of the English poet William Blake. In addition to the 1890 selection, her published works include Poems: Second Series (1891), Poems: Third Series (1896), and The Single Hound (1914). A complete edition of her poetry, restoring the original punctuation and typographic style, was published in 1960. A three-volume edition of her letters appeared in 1958. Dickinson died May 15, 1886.
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