The Soul selects her own Society
Then shuts the Door
To her divine Majority Present no more
Unmoved she notes the Chariots pausing
At her low Gate
Unmoved an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat
I’ve known her from an ample nation
Then close the Valves of her attention
Emily Dickinson selected her own society, and it was rarely that of other people. She preferred the solitude of her white-washed poet’s room, or the birds, bees, and flowers of her garden to the visitations of family and friends. But for three occasions in her life she never left her native Amherst, MA; for the last twenty of her fifty-six years, she rarely left her house. And yet her reclusive existence in no way restricted her abundant life of the imagination. Her letters and poems, all except seven published posthumously, revealed her to be an inspired visionary and true original of American literature.
Belle of Amhurst
Emily Dickinson’s austere bedroom, with her writing desk, at the family homestead in Amherst, MA.
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born to a prominent Amherst family on December 10, 1830. A successful lawyer and later Congressman and judge, her father had been a founder of Amherst College. Dickinson’s girlhood was spent in the usual flurry of feminine activities of the day; she enjoyed a reputation as the witty Belle of Amherst for a time, and she spent a year away from home at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary from 1847-48.
Somewhere in her late teens, however, Dickinson began to sense her “otherness.” At Holyoke she refused to confess her Congregationalist faith. After her return home, she began to write her first serious poems, though she kept these jealously guarded to herself. In 1856 her adored older brother Austin married Susan Gilbert and came to live next door to the paternal homestead. Emily’s sister-in-law Susan offered the poet support, friendship, and understanding throughout their shared lives, and it was to Susan that Emily confided a few of her poems.
The early 1860’s saw Dickinson withdraw even deeper into herself, perhaps as the result of an emotional crisis whose origins elude biographers until this day. She seemed to prefer distance to social intercourse–(she would decline an invitation to her brother’s house in an exquisitely crafted poem, for example)–and she was far more comfortable in literary relationships, maintaining an active, intimate, even passionate correspondence with literary and religious figures from the outside world such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who visited the poet twice in Amherst, and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, which had published a few of her verses.
Emily Dickinson’s grave in Amherst, MA, with its epitaph: “E.D.Called Back.”
After Emily’s death in 1886, Mabel Loomis Todd, a cultured and beautiful socialite, who was also her brother Austin’s mistress, sought Higginson’s assistance in publishing three editions of Emily’s poems and two volumes of her letters, which initially won Dickinson recognition as a minor eccentric poet. Her true genius has only been acknowledged more recently as her cryptic language, dense symbols, fragmentary thought and punctuation have been decoded to reveal within them the voice of mystic clarity and fiery individuality. Emily Dickinson’s nearly 2000 poems covering the themes of life and death, immortality and the grave, solitude and society, nature and mankind, isolation and election chart the landscape of a human soul, whose self-imposed confines conversely became agents of imaginative transformation.
To the tiny New England graveyard, across the fields where in girlhood Emily Dickinson had watched the funeral corteges wend their way, a solemn procession carried the white-robed remains of the poet, who died in her home on May 15, 1886. The epitaph her sister Lavinia later had inscribed on her tombstone– “E.D. Called Back”–tersely reminds visitors of a life lived in realms beyond the temporal.