Poetic Provocateur: 7 Surprising Facts on Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's first book of poetry was published posthumously in 1890. Here are seven revelations about this reclusive poetic genius.

The pages of history — especially within the stodgy confines of the academic textbook — have often stripped away the "much ado" of the lives of prominent figures. And such is the case of the life of Emily Dickinson.   

Outside of her bold and haunting poetry, a skeletal look at Dickinson's life seems fairly unremarkable: Born in 1830, the middle child of a respected puritanically rooted New England family, Dickinson was an educated woman of no outstanding beauty. After briefly attending Mount Holyoke Seminary, she returned to her family's home in Amherst, Massachusetts where she became an emotionally fragile spinster recluse, penning over 1800 strangely dash-ridden poems (only a dozen were published while she was alive) before dying from kidney disease at age 55. 

But to go beyond the bare bones of Dickinson's biographical stats, you'd discover a non-conformist with a "Bomb" in her bosom. Describing her life as "a Loaded Gun" and a "still — Volcano," Dickinson found power in choosing to lead a reclusive life; she found pleasure in refusing convention.

Emily Dickinson Poetry Photo

A reproduction of one of Emily Dickinson's fascicle books. (Photo: The Emily Dickinson Museum)

Called by her friends and community as the "Queen Recluse," the "partially cracked poetess," and/or simply "the Myth," Dickinson lived her life the way she chose fit, her mantra being, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” which she exemplified (literally) in her bundled books of poetry she kept hidden in her bureau drawer. 

In honor of Dickinson, here are some rather surprising facts that'll make you rethink your opinion on this quiet yet roaring American poetess of the 19th century.  

She didn't believe in God

Dickinson came of age during the American Enlightenment, an era in which many of the most progressive thinkers of the day (e.g. Ralph Waldo Emerson) were dissatisfied with organized religion and sought God through new schools of spiritual thought. 

But a 17-year-old Dickinson was a little more dissatisfied. Attending Mount Holyoke at the time, she found solace in studying the sciences and considered herself a "pagan."

When her headmistress asked who among her classmates sought salvation, Dickinson refused to lie. 

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see –
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.  

Social conventions bored her

Despite her reputation as being eccentric and antisocial in her community, Dickinson couldn't bother herself with small talk. Her way of communicating with most of her friends was through letters and she often refused to see anyone, only allocating face-to-face time to a small inner circle. Her brother Austin would describe her guise of unworldliness as a means of living exactly the way she desired:

The Soul selects her own Society—
Then—shuts the Door—

Even when she was broached by her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson to hear Emerson give a talk, she had no interest, explaining to him that people, "talk of hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog—He and I dont object to them, if they’ll exist their side.”   

Thomas Wentworth Higginson Photo

Dickinson's confidant, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, would go on to edit and publish her poetry after her death with the help of Mary Loomis Todd. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The mechanics of her poetry even defied tradition

Known for her pervasive use of unorthodox punctuation, rhythm, and syntax in her poetry, Dickinson didn't adhere to the traditions or rules of the genre.

And while there are many interpretations of what her dashes — inconsistently varied in length and direction — mean, some scholars believe it was Dickinson's way of stating her freedom, that she and her art could not be confined by a simple period. Others cite it was her way of interrupting a thought or bringing thoughts together. 

Here's a stanza taken from her original unedited manuscript of “Before I got my eye put out”:

The meadows—mine–
The mountains—mine–
All forests—stintless stars–
As much of noon, as I could take–
Between my finite eyes–

Thomas Wentworth Higginson was wary of her genius — and person

Among her intimate inner circle was abolitionist, women's rights activist and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Dickinson was 31 (considered middle aged) when she began what would be a 24-year friendship with Higginson, whom she'd only meet in person twice.

Emily Dickinson Home Photo

The Homestead, the house where Emily Dickinson was born and where she wrote nearly all of her poetry. (Photo: The Emily Dickinson Museum)

Longing to have a literary mentor, Dickinson had asked Higginson to be her "Preceptor" and claimed he had "saved her life" in 1862, although he was never certain what she meant by this.  

When he paid his first visit to her in 1870, he confessed to his wife that he wanted to keep his distance. “I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her.”

While Dickinson may have felt Higginson had saved her, critics believe he made a critical mistake when he persuaded her to delay publishing her works — blaming his overly cautious nature of how her brazen words would be received by the literary world and public at large. 

She wasn't a fan of her parents

Edward Dickinson Photo

Emily's estranged father: Edward Dickinson (Photo: Edward Wilton Carpenter, Charles Frederick Morehouse [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Despite Edward Dickinson's success as a prominent lawyer and politician, his daughter described him as an emotionally distant man.

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists,” she wrote of her father in a letter to Higginson.  

And Dickinson didn't have high regards for her unstable mother (née Emily Norcross), either, who was recovering from a mental breakdown. 

“I never had a mother," Dickinson wrote to Higginson again. "I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled.” 

But like mother, like daughter: Dickinson would also experience an unspecified "terror" of her own, which would shake her to the core.

She did her fair share of flirting

Despite living a spinster's life, Dickinson experienced moments of feverish passion with a mystery man. Although no one is certain whom the object of her affection was in her letters (albeit there are a few men in question), Dickinson referred to him as her "Master" and begged him to “open your life wide, and take me in.”

During the last two decades of her life, she also experienced unrequited love from one of her father's friends: the widower Judge Otis Lord of Salem.

In one of her romantic exchanges with him, she plays hard to get and flirtatiously writes:"'No,' is the wildest word we consign to Language." 

Behind its puritanical New England facade, the Dickinson household attracted scandal

The dysfunction within the Dickinson family grew to new heights when older brother Austin decided to carry on a longtime adulterous affair with the vivacious and sexually charged Mabel Loomis Todd. Both were married to different spouses, but the affair was well-known throughout the Amherst community. Dickinson sided with Austin's wife Susan — who was also her childhood friend — while her younger sister Lavinia was partial to Todd. 

Mabel Loomis Todd Photo

Mabel Loomis Todd (Photo: Yale University Library)

It's been said that "[Todd] effectively destroyed the Dickinson family," but ironically, it was she who was also credited to have painstakingly (and controversially) edited and published volumes of Dickinson's poetry for all the world to see after the poetess' death in 1886. (The two women had never met, although they had been known to exchange letters.)

Austin's wife Susan, with whom Dickinson privately shared her poetry for decades, also lay claim to her sister-in-law's writing and thus, an acrimonious battle between the Dickinsons and the Todds, which began in the late 1890s, lasted for more than half a century.