Poet Biographies

The Unique Life of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an American poet of famously reclusive habits, publishing only a few of her poems during her lifetime. Her work, filled with mystery and depth, continues to baffle and enchant readers today.

Emily Dickinson Potrait

Emily Dickinson is now one of the most popular poets of all time and is credited with writing some of the most skillful, and beautiful poems the English language has ever seen. Dickinson is without a doubt one of the most prolific American poets of her generation. She wrote hundreds of poems and chose to have around ten published. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered a collection of almost 1800 poems amongst her possessions. The volume, Complete Poems was published in 1955. Dickinson’s poetry was largely centered around themes addressed by many poets during the period. These themes included; love, death, war, and religion.

Life Facts

  • Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December 1830.
  • She attended a primary school on Pleasant Street where she began her classical education.
  • In 1858, Dickinson began to write her poems. She assembled a total of nearly eight hundred poems in forty fascicles or informal collections.
  • She died on 15 May 1886 at the age of fifty-five.
  • The volume, “Complete Poems” was published in 1955.

Interesting Facts

  • Emily Dickinson was a prolific gardener.
  • She struggled with her vision in her thirties.
  • Dickinson never published anything under her own name.
  • She became a recluse in the early 1860s.
  • At the time, her death was put down to Bright’s disease: a kidney disease that is accompanied by high blood pressure and heart disease.

Famous Poems

  • Because I could not stop for Death is undoubtedly one of Dickinson’s most famous poems. It is common within her works to find death used as a metaphor or symbol, but this piece far outranks the rest. “Death” appears as a real being. He takes the speaker by the hand and guides her on a carriage ride into the afterlife. There is a simplicity to the lines which puts the reader at ease. Any fear associated with the afterlife is far from one’s mind. Instead, a reader is treated to images of the “Setting Sun” and children at play. It is generally considered to be one of the greatest poems in the English language.
  • Hope is the thing with feathers – is perhaps Dickinson’s best-known, and most loved poem. It is much lighter than the majority of her works and focuses on the personification of hope. It is a bird that perches inside her soul and sings. The bird asks for nothing. It is at peace, and is, therefore, able to impart the same hope and peace to the speaker. She can depend on it, and take pleasure from it. The text is also a prime example of the way that Dickinson used nature as a metaphor for the most complicated of human emotions.
  • The Heart asks Pleasure – first –‘ is a poem that again touches on death and depicts it as something that is in the end, desirable. The speaker moves through the things that a human being wants most in their life. The first is an active pleasure. But for some, this is impossible. Next on her list is an escape from pain. If life could progress without trauma, that would be enough. Lastly, there are sleep and death. It is better to die, the speaker implies than to live a life of suffering, devoid of pleasure, or peace.
  • I felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘ depicts Dickinson’s struggles with mental health, and no piece is better known than this one in that wider discussion of her work. Within the text she uses various metaphors, concerned with life and death, to discuss endings, beginnings, and the deep, unshakable fear of losing one’s mind. The speaker depicts the slipping away of her sanity through the image of mourners wandering around in her head. They are in a cycle of sorts, unable to break out or change their pattern.
  • A Bird, came down the Walk is slightly more straightforward than some of Dickinson’s more complicated verses. She makes use of natural images, triggering the senses, as she speaks on a bird and its eyes and “Velvet Head.” The poem chronicles the simple life of a bird as it moves from grass to bugs and from fear to peace. Dickinson also makes use of original words such as “plashless.” A feature that alludes to her well-known love of words and the power of meter.

Explore more Emily Dickinson Poems.

Early Life

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in December 1830. Dickinson’s family were prominent in local society but were not wealthy. Dickinson’s paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, was one of the founders of Amherst College, an institution her father, Edward Dickinson, would later work at. Edward also worked as a lawyer and served a number of terms as a State Legislator. He married Dickinson’s mother, Emily Norcross, in 1828. Together they had three children, Emily, her sister Lavinia, and her brother Austin. 

As a young girl, Emily Dickinson was well-behaved. She attended a primary school on Pleasant Street where she began her classical education. It was her father’s determination that all his children were well-educated. At Amherst Academy, She studied English as well as classical literature, history, and botany. Dickinson was considered to be a bright and dedicated student.

The only times she missed her classes were due to periods of illness. From a young age, she was plagued with a fear of death. This stemmed from the deaths of family members and friends.

In 1847, Dickinson moved on to Mary Lyon’s Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. She was only there for ten months and had trouble making, and maintaining friendships. The reason for her departure is unclear. It could’ve been the result of poor health or her father’s demand that she stay at home. As a young woman, she soon fell into the reclusive lifestyle that she maintained for the rest of her life. It could be argued that the short time she spent on the outside allowed her to create such a unique and original style of poetry.

Literary Career

Over the next years, Dickinson became familiar with poets such as William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. A family friend, Newton, was responsible for these literary introductions. He considered Dickinson to have great promise as a poet. Another prominent influence on her writing was the Bible. The Christian religion had gone through a great revival over the previous years and Emily has dedicated herself to her faith.

In 1858, Dickinson began to write and review her poems. She assembled a total of nearly eight hundred poems in forty fascicles or informal collections. These works were not discovered until after her death. A few years later Dickinson began a correspondence with the writer and critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She read his aspirational message to writers in The Atlantic Monthly and decided to reach out to him. Higginson praised Dickinson’s writing but warned her away from publication for the time being. She took Higginson’s advice seriously and the two corresponded until her death.

Writing Career and Relationships

With the early 1860s behind her, Dickinson’s productivity dropped off. She was constantly dealing with personal problems, losses, and the struggles of the household. It was around this period that Dickinson became a true recluse. She did not leave the house unless she absolutely had to and therefore began to develop something of a reputation in town. Despite her reclusive life, the writer did not stop contact with the outside world entirely though, maintaining her garden obsessively.

Dickinson’s father died in June of 1874 and Emily did not leave her room to attend the funeral. Almost exactly a year later her mother suffered a stroke. The final years of Dickinson’s own life were difficult. Her mother’s death was followed quickly by one of Dickinson’s nephews.

Although today she is known as an incredibly prolific writer, during her lifetime only a dozen or so poems were ever published. The overwhelming majority of Dickinson’s poems were released posthumously. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered a collection of almost 1800 poems amongst her possessions. These were published later in editions. It was rumored that Susan Dickinson, Emily’s sister-in-law got in the way of an earlier release of Dickinson’s poetry due to having her own visions for the work.

This collection of Dickinson’s poetry was edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, who in fact was romantically involved with Emily’s brother William Austin Dickinson. Todd also acted as publisher, releasing editions of her work. However, there is some controversy surrounding the events that took place during the editing process. It is believed that Loomis and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the co-editor, changed many aspects of Dickinson’s verse. These changes included; punctuation, capitalization, and syntax. Although the work contained a lot of early poems that had no names attached to them, the pair decided to attribute titles to over 1900 poems. It is unfortunate that Emily was unable to release her masterpieces on her own terms, as Loomis was thought to have adapted the tone of the works in order to fit in with conventional 19th-century poetry.


In 1885, Dickinson fainted while cooking and was confined to her bed for the following months. Her final letter was sent to her cousins in mid-1886. She died on 15 May 1886 at the age of fifty-five. At the time, the poet’s death was put down to Bright’s disease. A kidney disease that is accompanied by high blood pressure and heart disease.

After her death, the Emily Dickinson Museum was formed in Amherst, Massachusetts. This museum is made up of two houses, the homestead where she spent most of her life from 1855 to 1886, and the Evergreens.

Influence from other Poets

Emily Dickinson was notably influenced by writers such as Ralph Waldo EmersonWilliam Blake, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as more generally by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England.

One of poetry’s biggest mysteries surrounds the disconnect between Dickinson and Walt Whitman. The two are considered to be the two greatest American poets of the 19th century among contemporary scholars. However, despite living roughly at the same time, they both claimed to not even know of the other’s existence. Whitman never read Dickinson’s poetry and vice versa.

One of Dickinson’s biggest influences was that of Leonard Humphrey, with whom she had a friendship that developed at Amherst Academy. Despite him being a principal and educator, they were only a few years apart in age and connected intellectually. Humphrey was said to have been a mentor to Emily and was actually instrumental in persuading her to start reading books and writing poetry. From this, her love for literature grew. Unfortunately, not too long after, Humphrey sadly passed away, causing Dickinson a lot of pain in her early life.

Her Unique Character

One of the most famous, and unique, aspects of Emily Dickinson’s life was her very unconventional nature. This arguably has made her even more of a fascination for poetry lovers, contributed towards her creativity, and helped birth many masterpieces over her literary career. 

As she spent nearly all of her life living in Amherst, Massachusetts, she gained a reputation over time with the local people. Within the community, word was that Emily was indeed ‘strange’ or ‘peculiar’ due to the way she conducted herself. During her time period, it was quite common for people to wear black, unassuming clothing. However, she was known for wearing white clothes a lot of the time, inherently making her stand out from the crowd. As time went on, she also settled into a deeply reclusive life, making her appear anti-social to those around her, further contributing to her perceived image. It even got to the point where she would only talk to people through her closed bedroom door, refusing to come downstairs.

With this being said, without her unusual nature, she might not have garnered the level of admiration for her work that she has today. As art imitates life, sometimes the unusual, unique ways of artists tend to seep into their work.

Legacy and Reputation

Emily Dickinson’s legacy is one of genius but also a mystery. Modern-day scholars consider her work as some of the greatest of the 19th century, and even of all time. However, much is not known fully about Dickinson’s work and life. Over 1800 unnamed poems were recovered after her death, leaving a lot to speculation and imagination. Throughout the publishing process, there was controversy surrounding the legitimacy of editing, and question marks were raised as to how much had been changed posthumously.

We also do not know the full extent of her love life, with some scholars unsure of her sexuality. Some of her poems can be interpreted as referencing her preferences, but we will never fully know. Her unique lifestyle choices also add to the enigmatic perception of the great poet.

However, with this being said, Emily Dickinson still remains one of the greatest American poets to have ever lived, and arguably the many mysteries surrounding her only add to her incredible legacy.

Emily Dickinson FAQs

How did Emily Dickinson write her poems?

Dickinson would keenly observe the things in her life, both physically and emotionally, and use these to explore a wide variety of themes. She would take inspiration from many things, such as nature, religion, music, fashion, and more. This is a similar technique used by many artists, musicians, and writers.

What was strange about Emily Dickinson?

Emily Dickinson was by all means a very unique character and did not conform to the lives of those around her. Some might say that she was ‘strange’. It was mostly the residents of Amherst that saw her this way, as she would wear white clothing as opposed to black, and she was famous for her reclusive lifestyle.

When did Emily Dickinson start writing?

It is known that Emily Dickinson began her illustrious poetry career in her teenage years. It was during this stage that she built her fundamental understanding of high-quality verse. However, it wasn’t until later that she entered a period of immense creativity, possibly helped by her reclusive nature, which led to the majority of her critically acclaimed poems being written.

How did Emily Dickinson die?

It is believed that Emily Dickinson died from heart failure brought on by hypertension in 1886 at the age of 55. She also suffered from Bright’s disease which affected the kidneys. From her letters, we find out that she had been getting severe headaches for many years, and whilst in a coma not long before her death, she had trouble catching her breath.

Where was Emily Dickinson born?

Emily Dickinson was famously born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent her whole life until her death in 1886. There is now a museum in Amherst, dedicated to Dickinson herself, named the ‘Emily Dickinson Museum’.

Did Emily Dickinson have a life partner?

The simple answer is no, as Emily Dickinson never had an openly romantic relationship, never married, nor had children. However, through her writing, there is speculation that she was in love with an unknown person. This is seen in her work “Master Letters”. Scholars have also suggested that she had a life-long love affair with her childhood friend Susan Gilbert, who later became her sister-in-law. Susan lived next door to Emily all throughout her childhood.

What is Emily Dickinson’s most famous quote?

From over 1800 poems, Dickinson has created many inspirational and applicable quotes that resonate with many people. However, one quote that stands out reads “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”

Where is Emily Dickinson buried?

Emily Dickinson has a strong affiliation with Amherst, Massachusetts, as she was born there and died there. After her death in 1866, at the age of fifty-five, she was buried in West Cemetery in Amherst.

William Green Poetry Expert
Will created Poem Analysis back in 2015 and has a team of the best poetry experts helping him analyze poems from the past and present. Although he has a background in Automotive Engineering, having worked for McLaren testing supercars, Will has a keen eye for poetry and literature.
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