Emily Dickinson's poems reflect her intelligence and passion for the world, and have always inspired readers. But many of those readers are left with questions about how Dickinson, a reclusive woman living in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the 19th century, managed to create such powerful verse. The latest incarnation of this interest in Dickinson's life and work is the biopic A Quiet Passion, starring Cynthia Nixon. As the movie hits theaters tomorrow, here's a look at some of the poet's inspirations and her creative process.
A Love of Books
Reading often sparked Dickinson's creativity. She knew the Bible and Shakespeare, as well as writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The meaning of books in her life can be seen by how devastating a loss it was when she had to (temporarily) give them up.
Dickinson experienced eye trouble in the early 1860s — an exact diagnosis isn't known, but the Emily Dickinson Museum notes the likely problem was iritis, an inflammation of her eye muscles — and had to stop reading as part of her treatment. She later likened the loss to "eight weary months of Siberia." When reading was permitted once more, Dickinson "flew to the shelves and devoured the luscious passages."
Dickinson started gardening as a girl; she also studied botany as part of her schooling. This understanding of and interest in plants prompted her to create an herbarium, a book filled with more than 400 pressed specimens of plants and flowers.
As an adult, Dickinson remained a dedicated gardener (who occasionally worked by moonlight, possibly due to her eye issues). The different seasons, wildflowers, trees, birds and insects that she observed in her everyday life provided her with both companionship and inspiration, and the natural world became a popular poetic subject. Her poems include almost 700 references to animals and more than 350 references to roses, daisies and other flowers.
Connection Through Letters
Dickinson was able to express some of her most intense emotions in her correspondence. The people with whom she exchanged letters include family friend Joseph Lyman, abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, editor Samuel Bowles and the Reverend Charles Wadsworth.
Dickinson also frequently wrote to Susan Gilbert, even when the two lived next door after Gilbert became Dickinson's sister-in-law. In their correspondence, Dickinson sent her 276 poems, likely more than anyone else. In 1882, Dickinson wrote, "Dear Sue—With the exception of Shakespeare, you have told me of more knowledge than any one living—To say that sincerely is strange praise."
Leaving Society Behind
Yet Dickinson's connection with people via correspondence didn't keep the poet from choosing to absent herself from society. She'd never enjoyed making social calls and participating in activities like a local sewing circle, and had tried to avoid these obligations after returning home from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1848. By the mid-1860s, Dickinson had forsaken unwanted social interaction.
At least initially, reclusiveness granted Dickinson more time to devote to her work (though her isolation would grow in later years). Her seclusion may also be linked to her eye trouble: biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff has posited that fear of going blind may have spurred the poet to try to seize every moment she had to write before it was too late.
A Quest for the Right Words
Like a composer trying to produce an unforgettable melody or an artist who mixes different colors in a search for ideal shades and contrasts, Dickinson was determined to choose the right words for her poetry. To find them, she delved into the dictionary (she used Noah Webster's 1841 Revised American Dictionary of the English Language), closely studying definitions. She was also happy to invent her own vocabulary when called for.
Dickinson saw much of her work as being continually in progress. She would return to poems in order to cross out one word and replace it with another, or to mark a word with a + sign, then jot down potential substitutions. Even the verse in Dickinson's fascicles — books of her poetry that she'd labored to create by folding pieces of paper in half and then stringing the sheets together — contain these revisions. As she once noted, "'It is finished' can never be said of us."
Dickinson and Publication
For many writers, publishing is an integral part of the creative process. But Dickinson was basically unpublished during her lifetime (the few pieces that did appear were edited by others). She once told Thomas Wentworth Higginson that publication was "foreign to my thought." Instead, she opted to send many of her poems directly to friends and relations. Recipients might find lines attached to a bouquet of flowers, or discover a poem alongside a letter (if it fit the subject matter, a dead cricket or bee could be in the envelope as well).
By distributing them herself, Dickinson managed to exert more control over how her poems were presented. However, she neglected to specify what should be done with her work after her death in 1886. Today her powerful poetry reaches a wide audience, but it's impossible to say if it's in the form its author would have preferred.