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 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.
Emily Dickinson's austere bedroom, with her writing desk, at the family homestead
in Amherst, MA.
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.
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.
Emily Dickinson's grave in Amherst, MA, with its epitaph: "E.D.Called Back."
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.
Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
We slowly drove--he knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his Civility.
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess -- in the Ring --
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain --
We passed the Setting Sun --
Or rather -- He passed Us --
The Dews drew quivering and chill --
For only Gossamer, my Gown --
My Tippet -- only Tulle--
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground --
The Roof was scarcely visible --
The Cornice -- in the Ground --
Since then --'tis Centuries -- and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity --
Why -- do they shut me out of Heaven?
Did I sing -- too loud?
But -- I can sing a little "Minor,"
Timid as a Bird!
Wouldn't the angels try me --
Just -- once more --
Just -- see -- if I troubled them
But don't -- shut the door,!
Oh, if I -- were the Gentlemen
In the "White Robes"
And they -- were the little Hand -- that knocked --
Could --I forbid?