|O.A. Bullard, artist. The Dickinson children. |
(Emily on the left). 1840. Harvard Collection.
Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.
When she was 16, Dickinson left for boarding school at Mt. Holyoke Academy, which drew students from all over the country. She wrote about her new school: "On the whole, there is an ease and grace, a desire to make one another happy, which delights and at the same time, surprises me very much." She was enthusiastic about the curriculum, with its emphasis on experiential science. But the religious atmosphere of Mt. Holyoke was intense. New England was experiencing a Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening, and Mt. Holyoke encouraged students to publicly declare their commitment to Christ. The girls were separated into three groups: those who declared their faith, those who had hope of conversion, and those without hope. Girls cried when they were labeled "no hope." Of 234 students, Dickinson was one of 80 who started the year in the "no hope" category, and one of just 29 who ended the year that way. She wrote to a friend: "There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject." She left Mt. Holyoke after one year, and no one knows the reason for sure — she had been ill, or the religious demands were too intense, or her family didn't believe in educating her further. In any case, the religious pressure continued at home, and most of her friends and family converted. She wrote to a friend: "How lonely this world is growing, something so desolate creeps over the spirit and we don't know its name, and it won't go away, either Heaven is seeming greater, or Earth a great deal more small [...] Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless. Abby, Mary, Jane, and farthest of all my Vinnie have been seeking, and they all believe they have found; I can't tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?"
For a while, Dickinson remained actively engaged in Amherst's social life, going to parties and entertaining visitors. But she grew more depressed after the deaths of several close friends and family members, and she slowly withdrew from social gatherings. She wrote lots of letters, but she rarely left her home, and spoke with visitors through a closed door. She spent much of her time gardening, and during her life she was known in Amherst not for her writing, but for her fabulous gardens of flowers and trees. She published just 10 poems during her lifetime, and they were heavily edited. After her death, her sister Lavinia found almost 1,800 poems that she had left behind.
There is a solitude of space
A solitude of sea
A solitude of death, but these
Society shall be
Compared with that profounder site
That polar privacy
A soul admitted to itself —