Emily Dickinson led one of the most prosaic lives of any great poet. At a time when fellow poet Walt Whitman was ministering to the Civil War wounded and traveling across America—a time when America itself was reeling in the chaos of war, the tragedy of the Lincoln assassination, and the turmoil of Reconstruction—Dickinson lived a relatively untroubled life in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was born in 1830 and where she died in 1886. Although popular myth often depicts Dickinson as the solitary genius, she, in fact, remained relatively active in Amherst social circles and often entertained visitors throughout her life. However, she was certainly more isolated than a poet such as Whitman: Her world was bounded by her home and its surrounding countryside; the great events of her day play little role in her poetry. Whitman eulogized Lincoln and wrote about the war; Dickinson, one of the great poets of inwardness ever to write in English, was no social poet—one could read through her Collected Poems—1,776 in all—and emerge with almost no sense of the time in which she lived. Of course, social and historical ideas and values contributed in shaping her character, but Emily Dickinson’s ultimate context is herself, the milieu of her mind.
Dickinson is simply unlike any other poet; her compact, forceful language, characterized formally by long disruptive dashes, heavy iambic meters, and angular, imprecise rhymes, is one of the singular literary achievements of the nineteenth century. Her aphoristic style, whereby substantial meanings are compressed into very few words, can be daunting, but many of her best and most famous poems are comprehensible even on the first reading. During her lifetime, Dickinson published hardly any of her massive poetic output (fewer than ten of her nearly 1,800 poems) and was utterly unknown as a writer. After Dickinson’s death, her sister discovered her notebooks and published the contents, thus, presenting America with a tremendous poetic legacy that appeared fully formed and without any warning. As a result, Dickinson has tended to occupy a rather uneasy place in the canon of American poetry; writers and critics have not always known what to make of her. Today, her place as one of the two finest American poets of the nineteenth century is secure: Along with Whitman, she literally defines the very era that had so little palpable impact on her poetry.