Forever is Composed of Nows

Poet: Emily Dickinson
Date of Birth: 10 December 1830, Massachusetts, USA
Date of Death: 15 May 1886, Massachusetts, USA

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was a poet. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, into a prominent family with strong ties to the local community. She studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years before briefly attending the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation and was considered an eccentric by local people. She developed a passion for white clothing and was often reluctant to greet guests and in later life was reluctant to leave her bedroom. She never married and most of her friendships were entirely dependent on correspondence.

Dickinson was a prolific poet but fewer than a dozen of her poems were published in her lifetime. The published poems were significantly edited to fit poetic convention and rules. Many of her poems deal with the themes of death and immortality. It was not until after her death her cache of poetry was discovered by her sister and her work became public. The first collection of Dickinson’s work was published in 1890.

Dickinson was born at the family homestead in Massachusetts into a prominent but not wealthy family. Her father was a lawyer and trustee of Amherst College. Her patrilineal family had arrived in the New World America in the Puritan Great Migration two hundred years earlier. Dickinson’s father wanted his children to be well-educated and followed their progress even when absent from the family home on business. Dickinson started at Amherst Academy in 1840 which had opened to female students in 1838.

From a young age, Dickinson was troubled by a deepening menace of death, especially the deaths of those close to her. When her second cousin contracted typhus, and died in 1844, Dickinson was traumatized, she became so melancholic her parents sent to family in Boston to recover.

Dickinson was eighteen when her family befriended a young attorney named Benjamin Newton. Although their relationship was not a romantic one he was a formative influence on Dickinson and became one of a series of older men that Dickinson referred to as her tutor or preceptor. Newton introduced Dickinson to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. She was familiar with other contemporary literature of the day such as Lydia Maria Child’s Letters from New York, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Kavanagh and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. In 1850, Dickinson’s high spirits turned to melancholy and then depression after the death of the Amherst Academy principal, Leonard Humphrey at the age of 25.

In the 1850s, Dickinson had a strong and close relationship with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. Gilbert was supportive of the poet, playing the role of muse and adviser. The importance of this relationship has been widely ignored due to Mabel Loomis Todd, the long-time mistress of Susan’s husband, Austin, portraying Susan as cruel and manipulative. A viewpoint strongly denied by Susan’s children who were close to Dickinson.

Dickinson didn’t roam far from Amherst until 1855, when accompanied by her mother and sister, she took one of her longest and farthest trips from home. Three weeks in Washington, where her father was in Congress representing Massachusetts, then Philadelphia to visit family for two weeks.

From the 1850s. Dickinson effectively became carer to her mother who was bedridden with chronic illnesses until her death in 1882. As her mother declined domestic duties weighed heavily on Dickinson and she confined herself to the home finding life in books and nature instead. Dickinson increasingly withdrew from the outside world. In the summer of 1858 she began reviewing poems she had written and making clean copies of her work, carefully pieced together in manuscript books. The forty manuscripts she created between 1858 and 1865 held nearly 800 poems.

After Dickinson had withdrawn from social life the first half of the 1860s proved to be her most productive writing period. It is unclear what caused Dickinson to withdraw into extreme exclusion although she was diagnosed with ‘nervous prostration’ by a physician. Dickinson’s immense productivity of the early 1860s was dwindled from 1866 as she was beset with the personal loss of her dog, Carlos, and the loss of domestic help when the household servant married and left her employment. Dickinson was once again responsible for the household duties of the homestead.

Dickinson’s behaviour began to change around this time. She didn’t leave the homestead unless it was absolutely necessary and from 1867 she began talking to visitors from the other side of a door rather than face to face. On the rare occasion she was seen she was usually dressed in white bringing her some local notoriety. The few neighbours that exchanged messages with Dickinson during the last fifteen years of her life ever saw her in the flesh. Despite her physical seclusion Dickinson remained socially active through her letters. She would leave small gifts of poems or flowers for visitors to the homestead.

Edward Dickenson suffered a stroke and died on 16 June 1874. The simple funeral was held in the entrance hall of the Homestead, Emily remained in her room with the door cracked open and she did not attend the memorial service on 28 June 1874. In 1875 her mother suffered a stroke producing a partial lateral paralysis and impaired memory.

In 1872 Dickenson became acquainted with an elderly Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court judge, Otis Lord. It is likely his friendship with Dickenson became a late-life romance after the death of his wife in 1877. Dickinson found a kindred soul in the old man in their shared literary interests. They wrote to each other every Sunday. After a long illness Lord died in 1884.

In her final years Dickinson continued to write but stopped editing and organizing her poems. The 1880s were a difficult time for the Dickinson family with a succession of family bereavements starting with Emily’s mother in 1882 followed by her nephew in 1883. As death followed death Dickinson found her world upturned. Dickinson fell ill after fainting in 1885 and was confined to bed for months. On 15 May 1886, after several days of her condition worsening, Dickinson died.

I taste a liquor never brewed by Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

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