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The American Romantic Movement

Emily Dickinson
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Emily Dickinson in her famous white dress

A Quiet Romantic

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Dickinson's brother and sister

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Emily Dickinson as a teenager

Biography

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830, to her parents, Emily Norcross and Edward Dickinson.  She grew up in a large brick house built by her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson.  Emily had an older brother, William Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia Norcross.

Accounts of her earliest years with Austin and her younger sister Lavinia depict a healthy, happy girl whose precocious intelligence did not prevent her from enjoying a normal childhood. From the time she started school, Dickinson distinguished herself as an original thinker who, in her brother's words, dazzled her teachers: "Her compositions were unlike anything ever heard--and always produced a sensation--both with the scholars and Teachers--her imagination sparkled--and she gave it free rein."  (Crumbly 1995)

Emily’s father, Edward, was the authoritative head of the family, while her mother, Emily, was not “emotionally accessible”; this absence may have caused some of Emily's eccentricity.  As the Dickinson parents were greatly involved in the political scene, their children grew up with values centered around politics and education.  Growing up in a typical Puritan household of the 1800s, Emily and her siblings were also expected to live by their father’s religious morals and beliefs without argument.  Her father was an Orthodox Calvinist, and worked as a lawyer and treasurer of Amherst College.  He also served in Congress.

            As a child, Emily attended Amherst Academy and then Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, both in Massachusetts.  However, she left Mount Holyoke after one year due to extreme homesickness.   “Around 1850 Dickinson started to write poems, first in fairly conventional style, but after ten years of practice she began to give room for experiments.” (Online Literature 2000)  In 1858 Dickinson began to arrange her works into fascicles, which are packets or bundles of separately published collections or installments of a book.  She bound these collections together with a needle and thread.

Dickinson's emotional life remains mysterious, despite much speculation about a possible disappointed love affair. Two candidates have been presented: Reverend Charles Wadsworth, with whom she corresponded, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, to whom she addressed many poems. (Online Literature 2000)

 

Dickinson rarely left her home over the course of her life, and had few visitors.  However, the people she did have contact with greatly impacted Emily’s life and her writing.  For example, she befriended Samuel Bowles, Susan Gilbert, and Charles Wadsworth, to whom she wrote numerous letters. At the age of twenty-three she withdrew from society, and devoted her life to poetry.  As a recluse, Emily dressed only in white and restricted her contacts with the outside world to mostly letters and the very occasional visit in person. 

 

Throughout her life, the modest Emily only published seven of her 1800 poems.  After her death, her sister Lavinia found her poems and brought them to a friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, for her opinion.  After much organizing and editing, the first book of Emily’s poems was published.  This first volume became popular, and in later years, so would more of her poems.  “Her frequent use of dashes, sporadic capitalization of nouns, off-rhymes, broken metre, unconventional metaphors have contributed her reputation as one of the most innovative poets of 19th-century American literature.” (Online Literature 2000)

Through her letters and poetry, Emily Dickinson expressed herself.  She corresponded regularly with the few friends that she had, using deep, emotional letters to convey her message and to show her care and affection.  Dickinson utilized her talents in poetry, during the Romantic movement, to change and influence American literature and culture.

Emily lived until the age of 55, when she died of Bright’s disease on May 15, 1886.  Bright’s disease is an immunological reaction in the kidneys where antibodies in the blood are deposited.  When the condition persists over a long period of time, kidney failure can result.

 

Emily Dickinson's Influence on Romanticism

American Romanticism, also called the American Renaissance, marked the first maturation of American letters.  It was a time of “excitement over human possibilities, and a high regard for individual ego.” (Woodlief) The American people believed in the natural goodness of man, and that in a natural environment, man would behave well; however, man is hindered by his surrounding civilization.  Faith in emotion, spontaneity, and sincerity were all markers of truth during this time.  During the Romantic movement, the way one expressed himself was valued more highly than the way one presented himself or the way he was seen by others.  Throughout Romanticism, nature was thought to be a source of instruction, delight, and a way to quench man’s thirst for knowledge and understanding.  Writers connected back to their literal “roots”, finding inspiration and wisdom in nature.  They often wrote about the contrast between the pleasant simplicity of nature and the unnatural constraints of society.

This period, from 1828 to 1865, was when America began to regard itself as independent, after setting itself apart from Britain.  New writers and artists influenced the individuality and uniqueness of America through their work.  This new, creative fire ignited a separate, growing culture that, over time, gave birth to the America known today.

The Romanticism movement flourished, being fed by poetic accounts of nature; literature bathed in imagery, irony, and originality; and works involving subjects from freedom and equality to guilt and salvation.  “The American brand of romanticism developed its own character, especially as these writers tried self-consciously to be new and original.” (Woodlief) The development of this movement was aided by the amount of cultural free time given for literature and art; practical matters such as “the essential of making a living and establishing political independence had been squared.” (Woodlief) The “glory years” were from 1850-1855, a surprisingly short period of time.  This short-lived literary outburst may have been related to the conflicts that would soon lead to war.

Emily Dickinson, without intending to do so, greatly impacted American Romanticism.  With her imagery, wisdom, and questioning of life’s meanings, she forever left her mark on American literature.  Throughout her life, she published very few poems, but after Emily’s death, her sister, Lavinia, found her old collections of work.  Lavinia took Emily’s poetry to a friend and publisher, and with some hesitance, the first compilation of Dickinson’s work was published in 1890.  To her publisher’s surprise, the first volume became very popular, and more volumes would be published in the years to come as word of Dickinson’s magnificent works of poetry spread throughout America.

The subjects of Emily Dickinson’s poetry varied from nature to religion; many of her late poems involved the difficulty and necessity of faith.  One of her first poems, a comic valentine, displays Dickinson’s wit that “would later be so prominent a feature of her mature verse.” (Waggoner 2004) In her poetry, she used the most unconventional, “nonliterary” form available, though she used traditional variations in other works. 

Apart from the occasional verse and the small number of pure love poems, about which there has been too much fruitless speculation concerning who was meant, her single complex subject was the self and its ultimate destiny.  Having failed, despite the religious revivals, to find the comfort of her father’s faith, she settled for a while for Emerson’s.  But then Emerson, though he continued to be valued as a spiritual guide, came to seem to her not to have taken sufficient account of the fact of suffering.  After this she carried on a running debate with both her “fathers” on the possibility of any valid faith, Christian or transcendental. (Waggoner 2004)

In one of her poems, Because I could not stop for Death, the ideas of Romanticism are quite evident.  The first stanza reads, “Because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves and immortality.”  The subject of human mortality is present in Dickinson’s poem, and the question of what lies beyond death is discussed.  This relates directly to the subjects of romanticism; it is clear that in her poem, Dickinson has a desire for knowledge and wisdom, especially for what the future – and eternity – holds.

 

 

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Emily Dickinson's house

Some of Dickinson's Poems

  1. Success is counted sweetest
  2. Our share of night to bear
  3. Soul, wilt thou toss again?
  4. T is so much joy!
  5. Glee! the great storm is over!
  6. If I can stop one heart from breaking
  7. Within my reach!
  8. A wounded deer leaps highest
  9. The heart asks pleasure first
  10. A precious, mouldering pleasure ’t is
  11. Much madness is divinest sense
  12. I asked no other thing
  13. The soul selects her own society
  14. Some things that fly there be
  15. I know some lonely houses off the road
  16. To fight aloud is very brave
  17. When night is almost done
  18. Read, sweet, how others strove
  19. Pain has an element of blank
  20. I taste a liquor never brewed
  21. He ate and drank the precious words
  22. I had no time to hate, because
  23. T was such a little, little boat
  24. Whether my bark went down at sea
  25. Belshazzar had a letter

Sources:
 

Crumbly, Paul.  (1995).  “Emily Dickinson’s Life”   http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/dickinson.htm

 

“Emily Dickinson.”  (2000). < http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/>

 

Olsen, Victoria. (1990). Emily Dickinson.

 

The Academy of American Poets.  “Emily Dickinson.” http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/155

 

Waggoner, Hyatt H. (2004). “Emily Dickinson.”  Encyclopedia Americana.  Pages 80-81.

 

Woodlief, Ann.  “American Romanticism.” <http://www.kirjasto.sci/jfcooper.htm>