"God keep me from what they call households"
Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
She gradually withdrew from the world and spent much of her life secluded in the family home. She helped with all the work of a large 19th-century household, rising before dawn every day to make the fires and prepare the family breakfast and looking after the conservatory and garden. With her sister Lavinia, she nursed their mother in her final illness.
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The house on North Pleasant Street where she lived between the ages of 10 and 25 was built next to a graveyard, with her bedroom window facing the cemetery. Five of her school friends died of consumption and were buried in it during her time there.
Though known as something of a poet to her friends and family, circulating poems in letters and hand-sewn manuscript books, Emily Dickinson had only a handful of poems published during her lifetime. After her death she became an overnight sensation. The first edition of her poems was produced in 1890, and sold 10,000 copies. This was a regularised version, which flattened out her unconventional spelling, capitalisation and puctuation. It was quickly followed by more of her poetry and her letters. Some early critics marked her down as being part of the avant-garde, condemning her "versicles" for their odd rhyme and "queer" form. One English reviewer remarked that "she reminds us of no sane or educated writer." Others claimed that her poetry was deeply rooted in New England Puritanism, praising her as a "Recluse Woman of Genius". Her reputation dipped after the enormous success of the 1890s, with poets and critics alike preferring Walt Whitman's expansive lines to the "bare, bleak and fragmentary" verse of the Amherst wraith, but has been on the rise since the 1950s. The popularity of her poetry has always been bound up with interest in her unconventional life - a fact keenly appreciated by her first editors. They were the first to understand the appeal of an isolated, shadowy figure, dressed only in white, "starving of passion in her father's garden", and fostered the first of many myths about her life - that she wrote in secret. She has been characterised as a feminist, a Marxist, a lesbian and a covert nun. Early feminist critics indentified her as the archetypal woman poet who "take[s] her own metaphors literally," enacting them in her own life. She has been a central figure in the feminist canon ever since.
Dickinson's poetry presents the editor with a unique set of problems. Only eight of her poems were published during her lifetime, the rest being circulated in manuscript form among her friends and family. Many poems exist in more than one version. Her manuscripts also play with typographical convention in their layout, punctuation and capitalisation. Even in fair copies alternative words or lines are retained, suggesting that for Dickinson there is no such thing as a definitive, final version. Moreover her manuscripts are owned by Harvard University and Amherst College, and access is "vigorously policed and controlled". Many of the cheaper editions substitute commas for Dickinson's vibrant dashes and flatten out her capitalisation and spelling. Faber's 'complete' edition is based on the first edition which did not do so, though due to a dispute over ownership the editor was allowed to see some of the manuscripts only twice. The editor of the now 'standard' Harvard edition had no such problems of access. The brief Everyman selection also keeps her dashes - her striking language, deft changes of register and compressed syntax still seem fresh.
George Eliot, the Brontes, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Keats. She discussed literature constantly with her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, sending her many poems in draft form.
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The same fierce concern with religion may be found in her near contemporary, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and something of the same precise attention to the natural world. He was another poet who was unpublished during his lifetime and he also experimented with form and syntax, though always within a rolling lyricism totally different from Dickinson's deliberate staccato.
Try Richard B Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson. For a more rounded picture of the poet, read it alongside Cynthia Griffin Wolff's biography, Emily Dickinson, which also includes extensive critical analysis.