10 Interesting facts about Emily Dickinson

Lucy Middleton

This month marks a whopping 188 years since American poet and letter writing extraordinaire Emily Dickinson was born. Often characterised by a fascination with sickness, dying and immortality, her poems have managed to stand the test of time due to their innovative and unusual use of form and syntax. Here are ten things you might not have known about the wordsmith behind “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” and “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.”

 

She wrote nearly 1,800 poems in her lifetime

After Dickinson’s death in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia found a bumper collection of hand-sewn books and almost 1,800 poems in her bedroom. The poet’s early life had been filled with schooling, reading and writing, but her work became most prolific during 1858 to 1865, her late twenties and early thirties, in which she composed just short of 1,100 poems. It was period of relative change in Dickinson’s lifetime, overlapping with the Civil War and her family’s move back to the Homestead, something she resented. 

 

Yet, only a dozen or so were published in her life time

Just ten of Dickinson’s poems made it into the newspapers while she was alive, all of them printed anonymously and likely without her knowledge. But despite being private, the writer had no hesitations sharing her work with close friends and family, with her brother Austin’s wife, Susan Dickinson, receiving 250 of them alone. 

It could be insinuated from Dickinson’s poem “Publication is the auction of the mind” that she abhorred the thought of receiving publicity, fame or any kind of attention for her work. She even wrote the lines, “but We—would rather/ From Our Garret go / White—Unto the White Creator”, suggesting that she would rather die than sell her thoughts to the outside world. Fortunately for us, her family intervened and compiled her poems into books after her death.

 

She might have suffered from anxiety 

Dickinson spent the last 20 years of her life in seclusion, rarely leaving her home, hiding when the doorbell rang and often preferring to talk to visitors through a darkened door rather than face to face. Some theories suggest that this could be as a result of extreme anxiety or a health condition that made her uncomfortable around people. Others believe that the writer was merely focused on her poems and preferred to stay chained to her desk.

It is often also noted that Dickinson became even more reclusive during the 1880s, when her mother, nephew Gilbert, and friends Charles Wadsworth, Judge Otis P Lord and Helen Hunt Jackson all passed away. She was described as being “delicate” and of a “nervous prostration” by her sister, but did remain socially active through her correspondence, despite occasionally using letters as a tool to keep company away.

 

Experts are still trying to unmask her mystery “lover”

She might not have ever married, but Dickinson’s canon includes passionate love poems and three love letters, now known as the “Master Letters”, written between 1858 and 1862. Potential recipients debated by historians include Samuel Bowles, the editor of a newspaper in Springfield, her close friend Benjamin Newton, or George Gould, who attended school with her brother and reportedly proposed to her in the 1850s. The letters, each addressed to the “Master”, are written in rough draft form with several crossings out and show off Dickinson’s masterful ability of manipulating the English language. 

 

She lived in the same house for most of her life

Dickinson spent most of her life living in the Homestead, her family’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. The property was built for her grandparents in 1813 and then passed down to their children in 1830, the same year that the poet was born. She only lived elsewhere in Amherst for a 15 year period, after Homestead was purchased by businessman David Mack—but in 1855, the family rebought the house and moved back in, with both Dickinson and her sister residing there until their deaths. It is the setting for which Dickinson wrote most of her work, and was later inherited by her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi

 

People thought that she only wore white 

A legend formed after Dickinson’s death that the poet only ever wore white garments. This was not helped by the fact she was buried in white, while her only surviving item of clothing was also a white dress, given to the Amherst Historical Society in 2000. American author Thomas Wentworth Higginson also wrote that Dickinson was dressed in white when the pair met in 1870.

However, the Emily Dickinson Museum states that the poet’s one-colour-wardrobe is nothing more than a myth. The poet never made actually made reference to wearing white herself, but did describe other items she owned of different colours.. She told one cousin in a letter: “Won’t you tell ‘the public’ that at present I wear a brown dress with a cape if possible browner, and carry a parasol of the same!”

 

She was an avid gardener 

Some academics have noted that Dickinson was more famous for her green thumb than her use of the English language. She started gardening as a child and later went on to undertake botany courses at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary and Amherst Academy. The Homestead garden was well-known for its beautiful assortment of flowers, many of which are detailed in letters from friends and family who had been to visit.  

Dickinson also assembled a 66-page collection of 424 pressed flowers, each one meticulously classified and labelled. Biographer Peter Parker stated that she enjoyed sending loved ones bunches of flowers with a written verse attached, although they mostly “valued the posy more than the poetry”.

 

She didn’t belong to the church

Dickinson was a bit of a rebel when it came to religion and God. While brought up in service-attending Calvinist household, the writer later decided not to join the church, as she did not want to “give herself up to Christ”. She continued to attend religious services until her thirties, but also wrote about the importance of science and even referred to herself as a pagan. By 1868, she had stopped going to church altogether. 

Despite this, there is still evidence that Dickinson was spiritual in her own time, writing the lines “Some keep the Sabbath going to church / I keep it staying at home”. But her outward “lack of faith” still continued to concern her family, and at one point her father even asked a reverend to come by and assess her “spiritual health”.

 

Her poems were canonised by her brother’s mistress

The decision to posthumously publish Dickinson’s poems was made by her younger sister Lavinia, who asked both Susan Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson to help out her with the task at hand. But the pair took too long for her liking, forcing her to turn to the mistress of her brother—Susan’s husband—Austin, Mabel Loomis Todd.

An accomplished creative, Mabel finished the first series of Dickinson’s poems in just four years after her death, with Thomas as her co-editor. But the duo changed much of the verses’ punctuation, random capitalisation and even some of her rhyming couplets, later causing a fall out with Dickinson’s niece. Martha went on to edit at least six volumes of her aunt’s poetry and even penned a memoir, attesting herself as the “the one person now living who saw [Emily Dickinson] face to face.”

 

She didn’t die from kidney disease

Dickinson’s death certificate states that she died from Bright’s disease, an illness involving chronic inflammation of the kidneys. But modern research into her medication and symptoms has suggested that she might have actually suffered from heart failure or a brain haemorrhage, as a result of high blood pressure. 

In letters, the poet was described as suffering severe headaches and sickness, while she struggled to breathe after falling into a coma on her deathbed. But it would appear that Dickinson, who died aged 55, was prepared for her passing; the poet left strict instructions for her funeral, choosing her clothing, coffin, and even mapping out a route for the mourners to take.