AMY DRAKE, Playwright

What Drove Emily Dickinson to Write Poetry?

February 13, 2022

What force drove Emily Dickinson to compose over 1700 poems in an age when few women were acknowledged for their writing ability and one of the leading literary critics of the nineteenth century did not even accept her work as poetry? The fundamental need of an innately creative person to express themself in an artistic medium. Not a want, or desire, but a need as essential as breathing or sleeping.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 Amherst, Massachusetts, the middle child of attorney Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Her older brother, Austin, followed in their father’s footsteps and became an attorney and married Emily’s close friend and schoolmate, Sue Gilbert. Emily was educated at Amherst Academy and spent one year at Mount Holyoke, excelling in science. Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia, seemed content to run the household during their mother’s long incapacitation. Neither Emily nor Lavinia ever married, although Emily may have considered wedding her father’s widowed friend, Judge Otis P. Lord, late in her life. Although Lavinia lived the life of a spinster, with feline companions, Emily’s lifestyle defied convention. Reclusive and prolific, Emily’s anxiety caused her to flee upstairs when visitors came to call. She was most comfortable in the company of her muse and her dog, Carlo.

During her lifetime, fewer than 12 of her poems were published. She was vexed by editors’ attempts to “correct” her almost rhymes and unusual punctuation, characteristics, along with her brilliant descriptions and setting of tone — which have set her apart from mainstream poets. One of her early poems was a Valentine sent to a male friend who sent it off to be published. Gathering her courage, Emily sent a sample of her work to Colonel Higginson, who had written an article on female writers for The Atlantic. Perplexed by her unconventional writing style, Higginson did not find her poetry suitable to print for he did not think Emily’s work was real poetry. In spite off this, they became lifelong friends. He attempted to teach her to write proper poetry: She thanked him for his guidance, which she disregarded.

Thank goodness for Emily’s intrinsic sense of following her poetic instincts. We, the readers, benefit from Emily’s own confidence in her work, in spite of Higginson’s criticism. Higginson’s contribution to connecting us with Emily was in writing about their first of two meetings. He was one of the few people Emily would receive in person. Higginson described Emily as plain, with reddish bands of hair and childlike footsteps and breathless speech. She greeted him with two daylilies and seemed quite nervous. The tumbling of her words bespoke a life of isolation. Their visit was cordial and she remained grateful for his companionship.

Emily did receive encouragement to publish her work from poet, novelist, and essayist Helen Hunt Jackson, who had penned the bestselling novel, Ramona. Perhaps Mrs. Jackson’s praise of Emily’s work provided all of the gratification Emily needed, eschewing the popularity publishing her work would have brought.

Emily lived very much in her own world. She had few friends and experienced extreme anxiety in engaging with those outside of her close family circle. She endured the pain of many losses and wrote about death. It may be that poetry was Emily’s only viable means of communicating with the world of the living, from a removed, safe distance. Although Emily was inspired by relatives, nature, and her own fertile imagination, her infatuation with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and later love with Judge Otis Lord, her fierce creative drive existed within and would not be extinguished.

As an educated young woman from a comfortable family, Emily could surely have chosen a husband, had she desired one. She may have been afraid that if she married, she would have lost her true love — poetic inspiration — and been forced to give up writing poetry to keep house, raise children, and fulfil the societal expectations of a respectable wife. Instead, Emily followed her heart and remained steadfastly loyal to her inner muse.

Sources

Ackmann, Martha, These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in The Making of Emily Dickinson, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2020

Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Harvard Univ Press, Cambridge, 1967

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