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10 December 2013

Emily Dickinson's Birthday Today!

I found this lovely tribute to Dickinson in my inbox this morning, courtesy of Garrison Keillor's The Writer's Almanac. You can find it here.

O.A. Bullard, artist. The Dickinson children. 
(Emily on the left). 1840. Harvard Collection.
Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.
It's the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts (1830). She was a bright, spirited girl who loved to be outside. She had a close-knit group of girl friends, and together they would explore the woods around Amherst, picking flowers, meeting people, helping with the final cooking down of maple syrup in the spring, and going for long walks. They read the Atlantic Monthly, admiring some of the poets and laughing at others, and they joined a Shakespeare club and then protested when their male tutors tried to cross out all the inappropriate parts from their books. This group of friends started a school newspaper, and Emily — considered the class wit — wrote the "comic column." At recess each day, a group gathered around Emily to listen to the funny stories she would invent on the spot. There were valentine parties, receptions, sleigh rides, and dances with cake and lemonade. A friend described Emily: "Her eyes were lovely auburn, soft and warm, her hair lay in rings of the same color all over her head [...] She had a demure manner which brightened easily into fun [...] She was exquisitely neat and careful in her dress, and always had flowers about her." Emily herself wrote to a friend: "I am growing handsome very fast indeed! I expect I shall be the belle of Amherst when I reach my 17th year. I don't doubt that I will have crowds of admirers at that age."

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.

Dickinson wrote: 

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 —

Finite infinity."

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