The Mysterious Emily Dickinson: A Poet Ahead of Her Time
Emily Dickinson’s work is widely known and highly respected, yet she remains something of an enigma. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830, she lived a reclusive life, rarely venturing outside her family home and garden. She wrote hundreds of poems, but only a handful were published during her lifetime. After her death in 1886, her sister Lavinia found a trove of nearly 1800 poems in Dickinson’s bedroom, and the first collection of her work was published in 1890.
Dickinson is now considered one of the most innovative and important poets of the 19th century, yet her work defies easy categorization. Her poems are often enigmatic, playful, and ironic, with shifting perspectives and points of view. They are also highly compressed, with striking images and turns of phrase. Dickinson was clearly influenced by both religious and secular poetic traditions, yet she often subverted or challenged those traditions.
2. The Dickinson phenomenon
In the 20th century, Dickinson became one of the most popular poets in the English-speaking world. Her poems have been translated into many languages and anthologized widely. They have been set to music by composers as varied as Aaron Copland and John Cage. Scholars have written hundreds of books and articles about her life and work.
Dickinson’s popularity may be due in part to the fact that she seems almost a contemporary, and her unevenness, her paradoxes and conceits are well suited to present-day conventions. Her fear of the majority, her concern with the individual conscience, her ironies and honeyed words all speak to us in a time when such things are once again at the forefront of our minds.
3. Emily Dickinson and the 20th century
Dickinson’s work has often been seen as ahead of its time, anticipating many of the concerns of Modernism. Her focus on the inner life, her attention to psychological states, and her use of experimental forms all prefigure later developments in poetry. In particular, Dickinson has been seen as an early practitioner of social satire.
Many of Dickinson’s poems take on the voice of someone who is marginalized or excluded from mainstream society. In “The Chariot,” for example, she speaks from the perspective of a black woman who has been sold into slavery. In “The Railway Train,” she takes on the voice of a child who is afraid of being left behind by the train. These poems give us a glimpse into lives that are usually hidden from view.
At the same time, Dickinson also satirizes those who would maintain the status quo or uphold traditional values. In “The Bustle in a House,” she mocks those who are preoccupied with domestic chores while ignoring more important matters. In “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” she gently pokes fun at those who see nature as something to be conquered or controlled.
Emily Dickinson was clearly a poet ahead of her time. Her focus on inner experience, her use of irony and satire, and her innovative approach to form and content all anticipate later developments in poetry. Yet for all her modernity, Dickinson remains deeply rooted in tradition, drawing on both religious and secular sources for her inspiration. It is this combination of innovation and tradition that makes Dickinson’s work so timeless and relevant today