Emily Dickinson

Portrait of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who although little known in her lifetime has become one of the most important people in American poetry. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, USA on 10th December 1830 and died there on 15th May 1886 aged 55.

Major Works

“Success is counted sweetest” (1859)
“Hope” is the thing with feathers” (1861) 
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (1861)
“There’s a certain Slant of light” (1861)

Biography Timeline

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson is born on 10th December 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was Edward Dickinson a lawyer in Amherst and a trustee of Amherst College and her mother was Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child and the family lived on Main Street in a house which her father had built in 1813.

1833: Her sister Lavinia Norcross Dickinson is born on 28th February. The house is sold to to another family, the Macks, but the Dickinsons continue to live in one part of the house as tenants.

1840: In April the Dickinsons move to a house on North Pleasant Street in Amherst and in September Emily and her sister begin attending the Amherst Academy, a recently converted boys’ school. 

1844: In April Dickinson’s second cousin Sophia Holland dies of typhus which deeply upsets her.

1846: She meets Leonard Humphrey a teacher in his early twenties who becomes the head of the Amherst Academy and he becomes a friend and mentor and she refers to him as “master”.

1847: She completes her studies at Amherst and enrols for one year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (later Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley during September. 

1848: She returns to Amherst in March earlier than expected after her brother is sent to fetch her, possibly due to poor health or a dislike of the school. She occupies her time in baking and household chores.

1850: Her earliest published poem is “Magnum Bonum, Harem Scarem” which appears in the Amherst College Indicator. It is included as a February Valentine. Leonard Humphrey, dies unexpectedly at the age of 25 and she is extremely upset.

1851: She begins sending poems to her friend to Susan Huntington Gilbert who is an early champion of her work.

1852: On 20th February “The Springfield Daily Republican” publishes her poem “Sic Transit Gloria Mundi”anonymously also as a Valentine. In December her father Edward is elected to the United States Congress as a member of the Whigs representing Massachusetts’ Tenth Congressional District. Emily stops going to church declaring in a poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – I keep it, staying at Home”.

1855: In February and March Emily, her sister Lavinia and their mother visit Washington, D.C. to see Edward Dickinson and also friends in Philadelphia. After their return their mother falls ill. In November David Mack dies and the family purchase back the whole house on Main Street, Amherst.

1856: On 1st July her brother Austin marries Susan Gilbert in Geneva, New York and her father builds a new home for them nearby called the Evergreens. Emily craves her sister in law’s approval but her feelings are often hurt.

1858: She begins collecting her poems together into small packets which have become known as “fascicles.” Some of her verses are published in the “Springfield Republican” newspaper which is edited by her friend, Samuel Bowles. The forty fascicles created from 1858 until 1865 contain nearly eight hundred poems but no one was aware of them until after the poet’s death.

1859: She writes the poem “Success is counted sweetest”

1861: In April the American Civil War begins. 

1862: She begins corresponding with literary critic and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson after she reads an essay by him in “The Atlantic Monthly” newspaper. She asks him to review her poetry and their letters continue for the rest of his life.

1863: In September she moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts for treatment of a severe eye condition. She lives with her cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross. 

1864: Some of her poems appear in “Drum Beat to raise money for Union soldiers’ medical treatment. She also publishes in the “Brooklyn Daily Union” newspaper.

1865: The American Civil War ends. 

1866: On 27th January her beloved Newfoundland dog dies. She never has another pet.

1867: She begins to withdraw from social life and speaks to visitors through a door although she continues to write.

1869: The Dickinson family hire Margaret Maher as their main servant who remains with them for thirty years.

1870: She finally meets Thomas Wentworth Higginson after previously declining his requests for a meeting or photograph.

1872: She meets Otis Phillips Lord, who is a Massachusetts Supreme Court Judge. They begin to write letters to each other.

1874: Her father Edward dies of a stroke alone on 16th June in a Boston boarding house after collapsing whilst giving a speech in the Massachusetts state legislature. He is 71 and the family are mortified that they couldn’t say goodbye. The funeral service is held in the family home and Emily listens to proceedings from her upstairs room. She does not attend the memorial service on 28th June.

1875: Her mother suffers a stroke on 15th June which leaves her partially paralysed.

1876: Her mother falls and breaks her hip and becomes permanently bedridden and Emily and Lavinia care for her. Dickinson writes the poem “Home is so far from Home”.

1877: Death of Otis Phillips Lord Lord’s wife and it is believed that Emily begins a romance with him.

1881: Mabel Loomis Todd and her husband David move to Amherst. Mabel would later become co-editor of the first volumes of Dickinson’s published poetry. 

1882: Her mother Emily Norcross Dickinson dies on 14th November. 

1883: Her favourite nephew, Gilbert Dickinson, son of brother Austin and Susan dies of typhoid fever.

1884: Judge Otis Phillips Lord dies on 13th March.

Emily Dickinson dies on 15th May 1886 in Amherst of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment now called nephritis. The funeral takes place in the family house’s library on 19th May and she is buried in the West Cemetery in Amherst. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, read “No Coward Soul Is Mine”, by Emily Bronte her favourite poet. Her sister Lavinia finds hundreds of Emily’s unknown poems in her desk after her death and they are finally published in 1890. The book is a great success.