This is the birthday of poet Emily Dickinson, born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. Despite the “old maid” image she has for many people, she was a bright student, social, and had many friends in her youth.

At 14, she wrote to her friend Abiah Palmer:

“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 shall have perfect crowds of admirers at that age. Then how I shall delight to make them await my bidding, and with what delight shall I witness their suspense when I make my final decision.”

When she was a teenager, a religious revival swept across New England, but it did not take hold with her.

“I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly — and I can say that I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior. 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.”

She did become more and more reclusive and had more contact with people through letters than in person. She was deeply absorbed in her poetry and by 1865, when she was 35,  she was no longer an active participant in Amherst’s social life. But she had written more than 1,100 poems.

When Dickinson died in 1886, at the age of 55, about 1800 poems were found in her sister’s desk. A search on Emily Dickinson in Amazon turns up almost 4000 books of her poems or about her life and poetry.

Her face was in a bed of hair,
Like flowers in a plot—
Her hand was whiter than the sperm
That feeds the sacred light.
Her tongue more tender than the tune
That totters in the leaves—
Who hears may be incredulous
Who witnesses, believes.
(her poem #1722)

There are only a few images of her. None of them are very flattering. Very plain and rather sad.

She described herself this way: “My hair is bold like the chestnut burr; and my eyes, like the sherry in the glass that the guest leaves.”

I am not interested in all the theories about why she led the life she did – epilepsy, a broken heart, she was a closeted lesbian, even seasonal affective disorder. I am more interested in the poems. I actually like the mystery of her life. When I first encountered her poems and story in my moody high school day, I thought that if we had been friends I would have been able to help her greet the world.

Billy Collins‘ poem, “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes” gives her an erotic life and probably has a bit of my high school friend fantasy mixed in too.

He begins:

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And I can picture her in her room at the top of the house

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

Collins uses many allusions to her poems – a Sabbath afternoon, a carriage passing the house, a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

And, though I am sure there are feminists who object, I feel happy for Emily when in the poem we

…hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

She is not my favorite poet. Her short poems are not always easy to understand and the language sounds old, so she is not very popular with young readers. And yet there is something that comes from the mixing of her words and life that is intriguing.

There are many editions of her The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, and you can read them online for free at sites like Bartleby.com

Thanks to the writersalmanac.publicradio.org site for reminding me of her birthday and their post.

The Emily Dickinson Museum is the Homestead where poet Emily Dickinson was born and lived most of her life. The Evergreens, home of the poet’s brother and his family, is on the same three  acres of the original Dickinson property in the center of Amherst, Massachusetts.

Billy Collins book  Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes

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