Emily Dickinson was born into a Massachusetts family with money, but it seems as though she had a somewhat troubled relationship with her parents. About her father, who was a lawyer, she said that he was “pure and terrible” and that he never smiled, and in a letter she wrote that she “never had a mother”, as the mother failed to understand her child’s nature.
Emily lived a very quiet and solitary life, and she never married. All her life she lived in only two houses, both of which were owned by her parents, except for one year which she spent on a school 10 miles away from home.
When Emily was very young, a religious revival swept the society. All the members of her family joined, but she did not. At the age of 15, she wrote in a letter to a friend:
“I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever.
As she grew older, she became more and more eccentric. At the age of 30, she stayed at home and also preferred to stay away from people as much as she possibly could. Her visitors had to communicate with her from the next room, or if she was hidden behind a curtain. At one point, her doctor had to diagnose her by watching her walk by the open door between the two rooms. At this time, she also started to wear only white dresses. This added even more mystery to her persona.
As to why she suddenly started acting this way, nobody knows. One can only speculate, but it has been said that this antisocial behaviour could be due to Bright’s disease, which ultimately would kill her at 55 ½. This is a kidney disease, but one of its symptoms is oedema. This could make her face go puffy, or it could “cause an accumulation of fluid sufficient to distend the whole body” according to Wikipedia.
Even though she had been writing poetry from a very young age, her family did not know how much until her sister Lavinia found her poems in a dresser after she had died. Only seven of them were published while she was still alive, out of a grand total of 1175. This is due to the publishers’ need to change the poems to make them more suitable for the readers. Emily would have none of that, and therefore chose to keep them for herself while she lived.
All her letters were burned after she died, just as she had asked, but Lavinia could not bring herself to burn her poems. Instead, she felt a strong urge to have them published. Therefore she sent some of them out to journals and magazines, only to have them returned because they didn’t quite fit in to what poems were supposed to be at the time. Lavinia fell for the temptation, altered Emily’s poems – and got them published by doing so. The poems remained altered until the first authentic collection was published as late as in 1955.
In many ways, Emily was too modern for her own time. Her poems did not fit in to the conventional norm, as they often are short and do not always rhyme the way they “should”. She often uses half rhymes and assonance, and she cuts out all unnecessary words, making every word count.
The main themes in her poetry are life, love, nature, time, eternity, death, pain and religion. She loves puns and irony, and will often start the poem with a statement and end up questioning the whole thing as the end approaches.