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

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

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SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I’m Shirley Griffith with PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English. Today we tell about 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.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The words are by American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in eighteen eighty-six. 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 nineteen fifty-five.


I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you -- Nobody – Too?

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Some experts see Emily Dickinson 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 --

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: 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 tenth, eighteen thirty, 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, Latin 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 Dickinson 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 eighteen fifty-eight and eighteen sixty-two.


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

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: In those years, Dickinson 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?


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: 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 Dickinson wrote to him when she was in her early thirties. She included a few poems. Higginson wrote back and later visited Dickinson in Amherst.

In the next few years, she sent him many more poems. But he did not have them published, and admitted that he did not understand her poetry.


'Tis not that dying hurts us so --

'Tis living hurts us more;

But dying is a different way,

A kind behind the door --

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Some historians wish that Emily Dickinson’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 she 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.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: So little is known about Emily Dickinson’s life that many writers have created a life for her. One writer says part of the joy in studying her is what we cannot know. The poet herself said: "I never try to lift the words which I cannot hold."

In two thousand ten, a new book about the poet was published. It is called “Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language.”

The author, Aife Murray, writes that over the years, Dickinson employed an ethnically diverse group of servants. These included African-American gardeners, Native American laborers, maids from Ireland and men from England who worked with the horses. Murray writes about the relationship between Dickinson and her workers. She says their language and culture influenced Dickinson’s life and her writing.

Before her death, the poet wrote about her wishes for her funeral. She chose six of the family’s workmen, laborers, gardeners and stablemen to carry her coffin. This shocked her family and neighbors.


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,



SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: 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.

This was the time of the American Civil War in the eighteen sixties. The events that changed America's history, however, did not touch her. She died in eighteen eighty-six, at the age of fifty-five, completely unknown to the world.

No one wrote about Emily Dickinson's poems while she was alive. Yet, so many years after her death, she remains 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.


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

In her life, Dickinson 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 her 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


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: This program was written by Richard Thorman and produced by Lawan Davis. The poetry reader was Kay Gallant. I’m Shirley Griffith. You can comment on this program on our website, You can also find transcripts, MP3s and podcasts. And you can find us on Facebook, Twitter and iTunes at VOA Learning English. Join us again next week for PEOPLE IN AMERICA in VOA Special English.