Emily Dickinson

I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

The poet Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 to a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. She had an older brother, William, and a younger sister, Lavinia. Though a possible new daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson has been found, to date there is only one authenticated portrait of Emily, taken at age 16, circa late 1846-early 1847:
Emily’s father was a Yale graduate, successful lawyer, Amherst College treasurer, and a United States Congressman. Her grandfather was a Dartmouth graduate, accomplished lawyer, and one of the founders of Amherst College. The Dickinsons were strong advocates for education, and Emily benefited from early schooling. She studied English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, “mental philosophy,” and arithmetic at the Amherst Academy which she attended for seven years in her youth.

At age 15, Emily spent ten months at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but for the rest of her life Emily seldom left home. She occupied her time with family and household activities, including caring for her ailing mother. Emily enjoyed baking and gardening along with writing and reading. Dickinson was familiar not only with the Bible and Shakespeare but also with contemporary popular literature. She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as John Keats.

Although she seldom went out and visitors were scarce, Emily actively maintained many correspondences with friends and relatives. She regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, but she was not publicly recognized as a poet during her lifetime. Upon her death in 1886, Dickinson’s family discovered 40 hand-bound volumes consisting of nearly 1800 poems that had been written by Emily – some in pencil, only a few titled, many unfinished. Emily’s sister had the poems edited and arranged into volumes.

The first collection of Dickinson’s work was published posthumously in 1890 but it was heavily altered by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson was published by scholar Thomas H. Johnson. In 1981, the original order of her poems was restored by Ralph W. Franklin, in The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson is considered one of the most original 19th Century American poets. She is noted for her unconventional broken rhyming meter and use of dashes and random capitalization, as well as her creative use of metaphor and overall innovative style. According to Poets.org, “Her work was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.”

Dickinson’s poems range from playful to serious, and they are enjoyed by adults and children alike. Several predominant themes in her poetry are: love, nature, suffering, death, immortality, doubt and faith. Her poems are mostly short, and she wrote in the lyric style, in which the speaker of the poem is often referred to as “I.” “I’m Nobody!” is one of Emily’s most popular poems. She also wrote some poems that were riddles. You can read the complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poetry online at Bartleby.com. For more information about the life and times of Emily Dickinson, see:

A visit to the Emily Dickinson homestead in Amherst

Emily Dickinson’s Biography

A Timeline of Emily Dickinson’s Life

See also: Tips for Reading Dickinson’s Poetry

Poetry for Young People: Emily Dickinson is a beautifully illustrated collection of some of Emily’s most famous poems for young readers ages 8 and up. The book includes a brief biography of the poet and a short index. In her own words: “There is no frigate like a book/ To take us lands away,/ Nor any coursers like a page/ Of prancing poetry/ This traverse may the poorest take/ Without oppress of toll;/ How frugal is the chariot/ That bears a human soul!”

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