Emily Dickinson

Emily’s tombstone, Amherst, Massachusetts. Insert – plague on the gate to the family plot.

The traffic on Route 9 was bumper to bumper as I waited for the line to inch forward. The majority of them were waiting to turn onto one of the many roads that led to the University of Massachusetts – Amherst. But it didn’t remove all the traffic as I continued into the heart of Amherst.

Turning onto Pleasant Street, I headed northward, following the directions the GPS was screaming out at me. It told me to take a right into a parking lot. At the time I thought I had put wrong coordinates into the GPS system, but I would later discover that the GPS was trying to take me into the old entrance of West Cemetery.

After consulting some maps, I was soon driving through the gates of West Cemetery along Triangle Street. The historic cemetery covers four acres between Triangle and North Pleasant Streets. Laid out in 1730, the oldest marked grave dates to 1737. In 2000, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

I drove slowly on the paved roadway. Following it, I soon saw the iron fencing that surrounded the graves of the Dickinson family. On the gate to the family plot is a plaque announcing this was the resting place of the poet, Emily Dickinson.

Born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was the second of three children. Her father, Edward, was a lawyer who would serve in the state legislature and also one term in the United States Congress.

Emily began attending the Amherst Academy – now Amherst College – in 1840. During the seven years she attended Amherst Academy Emily’s interest in poetry began. In 1847, Dickinson entered the Holyoke Female Seminary. She attended Holyoke for one year before ending her formal education and returning home – the year at Holyoke was the longest period of time she spent away from her home.

Note: I’ve read in numerous places that Emily “dropped out of school” as a teenager, which is very misleading. Yes, Emily was a teenager when she dropped out of the Holyoke Female Seminary, but she had already completed the schooling most females would have had access to during this time period. Dropping out of Holyoke would be the equivalent of dropping out of college in today’s world. The exact reason for Emily leaving Holyoke has been a debate among scholars. The reasons have ranged from being homesick to the education at Holyoke was not a challenge to her father demanding she drop out and return home.

Upon her return home, Dickinson turned her attention towards writing her poetry. Emily was greatly influenced by the idea of death and immortality. With the family house being near the West Cemetery, this may have had a major influence on her thoughts. Also, the Calvinist revivals happening in New England at the time added questions to her thoughts of life and death. Emily never joined the church, though the rest of her family had.

Emily’s interest in writing started in her teenage years, however, it was not until her early twenties that she began seriously writing poetry. The majority of her poems – roughly eleven hundred – were written between 1858 and 1865. Over eight hundred of her poems she had collected and bound into small booklets called fascicles. Her poems were numbered, but lacked titles – the titles most people have given to them are the first line of the poem.

Despite turning out a massive number of poems during this period of time, she rarely shared them with anyone outside of her family. One of those few was Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a long-time contributor to Atlantic Monthly.

In 1864 and 1865, Emily made two trips to Boston for treatment of an eye ailment, staying with cousins in nearby Cambridgeport. These were the last two trips she made from Amherst. If townsfolk thought of her as a recluse before, they were in for a shock because Emily rarely ventured from the family property after her return. Note: The exact eye problem she suffered from has been in debate, but it is during this time the amount of writing produced decreased and poems were not bound in the collections like she had in previous years.

Emily’s last years were marked with a string of deaths. Her father died in 1874 and her mother in 1882. In 1883, her nephew, Thomas Gilbert “Gib” Dickinson, the youngest son of her brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan, died of typhoid fever. Shortly after Gib’s death, Emily would become ill and would remain in poor health until her death on May 15, 1886 at the age of 55.

During her lifetime, Emily had very few pieces of her poetry and writings published, but in 1850, her first public piece was anonymously published in The Indicator. Two years would pass before her next poem was printed and the next six years after that. It would not be until 1890, four years after her death, that Emily’s poetry would be published under the direction of her friend Higginson and Mary Lewis Todd. It was well received and went through eleven editions in the two years following its publication.

Todd had been approached by Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia about publishing Emily’s poems. With the help of Higginson, Todd made changes in punctuation and form to shape Emily’s poems into being the “typical” poem of the time. The two also added titles to the numbered poems. While the two worked at editing Emily’s poems, Lavinia gathered Emily’s letters and turned them over to Todd. Todd went on the lecturing circuit, bringing Emily’s works to the American public.

When Austin died in 1895, the Todds and Dickinsons went to court over a piece of land. The fight had its origins due to a long-term, well-known, affair Austin and Todd had. When Todd lost the case, she locked away all of Emily’s writings, including numerous unpublished poems. It would not be until Todd’s death in 1932 that Emily’s poems and papers would be turned over to Amherst College. Though Emily’s works had been published a number of times, a complete volume of all of Dickinson’s poems was not published until 1995 and it was not until 1998 that her poems first appeared in print using the original punctuation and spelling.

As I finished paying by respects, the words of “Because I could not stop for Death (79)” entered into my mind “Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me – / The Carriage held but just Ourselves – / And Immortality.” With those words lingering in my head, I finished paying my respects and left her resting among her family as I carefully made my way out of the historic cemetery.

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