Emily Dickinson: Poet and Recluse

To begin to understand the reclusiveness of the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) requires empathy with her personality and with what she crafted from her psychology and life experiences. As her personality defined itself over the years, she shaped the reclusion for which she became famous. Poetry and her talent and creativity refined and confirmed to her, like ongoing feedback, her distinct view of solitude and the universe.

This is not to deny the valid argument of many feminist literary scholars who note that men writers are seen as using literary creativity to transcend their circumstances, while women writers are seen as using that creativity merely to cope. Emily Dickinson is indeed probably the greatest American poet and a most original voice, and the fact that she never published or intended to publish her poems is a strong statement of "art for art's sake," of creativity for personal transcendence versus fame and the need for external forces to validate her identity and values. This motive is enough to put Dickinson in an estimable status.

When she submitted a few poems to a leading scholar and critic of the day (Thomas Wentworth Higginson) for his opinion as to whether her poems "breathed," she received a discouraging note saying that the poems were "not for publication." He was to call them strange and bizarre in later years, though not directly to Dickinson. Her reply was bold and confident:

I smile when you suggest that I delay "to publish" -- that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.

It was at this point in her life (1862) that she determined to pursue her art the more vigorously, eventually producing 1, 775 poems up to her death at 55, but unawares to anyone, even to her closest kin. And with the perfection of her art followed the perfection of reclusion.


The clues to Emily Dickinson's personality begin early in her life. Her reclusiveness was the result of an intensely-lived private world that she felt no one could share or comprehend. Her father was a conservative personality, unsuccessful in many worldly pursuits but respected for his consistent integrity. He was overprotective of his wife and daughters to an extreme, intellectually dull, and personally stubborn. Hence, despite his driving need for conformity and public repute, he refused until close to his deathbed to affirm the Christian Evangelicalism of his day, to the discomfit of all his "saved" colleagues and associates. The patriarch ruled the household with a looming presence, though often away on legal, political, and business affairs that never enhanced his effectiveness in local Amherst or Massachusetts society.

Emily Dickinson's mother fit the role of traditional housewife. Her mother was gentle and soft-spoken but a neurasthenic overwhelmed by her husband yet with an organizational skill upon which he depended. She suffered the same psychological distance from her children that her husband did, for different reasons, being perpetually anxious, sickly and made small.

Dickinson was to write that she was like a motherless child, except when the relationship reversed during her mother's last years as an invalid, when daughter became mother and mother became childlike.

Dickinson recorded her perception of marriage based upon the observation of her parent, where the poem refers to marriage as a kind of burial at sea, the distinct persona of the woman, whether "pearl or weed" fathoms below the surface:

She rose to His Requirement -- dropt
The Playthings of Her Life
To take the honorable Work
Of Woman, and of Wife -- ...1

Dickinson received a classical education, in high school excelling in Greek, Latin, and botany. She rebuffed the misogynism of her father and male society by refusing to pursue the prescribed path for intelligent women, that of school teacher, accepting the only alternative to that or marriage: settling at home. In later years, she scoffed at female activists, whether suffragettes or socialites, seeing them as pursuing roles predetermined by men.

For many childhood years, her bedroom window overlooked a cemetery. Themes of death, graveyards, and the tomb are doubtless early impressive images. In her later teens, Dickinson assembled a book of pressed flowers numbering over seventy specimens, each meticulously labeled with their Latin nomenclature. Perhaps this was a prelude to how, at the age of about thirty, Dickinson began the practice of transcribing her poems to sheets to be stitched together into manuscript books or fascicles, carefully hidden away throughout her lifetime, found in her desk after her death.

Dickinson was discouraged from a social life by her father, suspicious of idleness and fearful of draughty basements, sickly households, and wintry air. The specter of death was, however, very real, and became a thematic element in her life and poems. Tuberculosis (consumption) and rheumatic fever claimed lives indiscriminately, whether men or women, high-born or low, whether children, youths, middle-aged, or elderly. Dickinson clearly observed the ubiquitous toll of pain, suffering, and death. These topics -- together with her childhood images, extended to God, heaven, angels, afterlife, immortality, and resurrection -- are set out in verse sometimes anguished, always carefully controlled. The preoccupations with God and immortality are present in one who described herself variously as druid, Cynic, hermetic, and possessed of "Sweet Skepticism." Yet Dickinson dwells on religious topics in a significant percentage of her work, with a genuine sense of struggle and a dogged search for answers.

At least -- to pray -- is left -- is left --
Oh Jesus -- in the Air --
I know not which Thy Chamber is --
I'm knocking everywhere -- ...2

Late in life (1882), Dickinson wrote of faith:

Those -- dying then,
Knew where they went --
They went to God's Right Hand --
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found --3

Even in high school, Dickinson already experienced the strong pressure of peers accepting the Evangelical message. She found herself increasingly isolated from female friends whose religious pledge left her in a shrinking circle of acquaintances, growing smaller as they left school to marry or graduated to pursue teaching. Male acquaintances, met chiefly through her older brother or her female friends and younger sister, also disappeared with new obligations and social ties. Dickinson was increasingly more alone, turning to letters as a form of communicating with fast-disappearing friends. For relatives she would add poems on special occasions. There were not the poems she prized, often not retaining her own copies.

Dickinson was a voracious but careful reader, influenced by the latest authors, from light romance to her favorites: Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot. (Of the former, she wrote: On what an afternoon for Heaven, / When "Bronte" entered there!4) She seems to have appreciated Emerson and deemed liberal and Unitarian writing favorably. She was aloof and skeptical about Civil War issues; her father remained firmly in the untenable middle ground of the defunct Whig party.

Dickinson attached herself to people very quickly and held on tenaciously, even if only in her mind. Her early correspondence with female friends expressed a deep affection that provokes the question of whether these were formulaic expressions of exuberance by a reticent and innocent youth or expressions of literal love of female companions. After her brother married and lived next door, Dickinson developed an intense devotion to his wife, Sue, expressed in letters and poems. But she seldom visited her.

Conversely, her platonic relationships with men has provided grist for a psycho-analytical mill. Dickinson was attracted to strong older men of outstanding intellectual or rhetorical skills -- not unlike her father -- and all inapproachable due to marriage, geography, or station. These included the minister Wadsworth, editor Bowles (who called her "Queen Recluse"), scholar Higginson, and judge Lord. She offered them poems and wrote for herself poems about unnamed beloveds and the sufferings of unrequited love. Nothing came of these relationships. In kindness we may deem them futile. Or delusional and Freudian father-substitution if we are feeling less generous. But ultimately, Dickinson was by disposition a solitary, and reminded herself of it through her poetry.

Did Dickinson suffer episodes of physical or mental illness? Recent observers have detected everything from anorexia to bipolarism, from agoraphobia to seasonal affective disorder. These are readily suggested by Dickinson's own intense and heartfelt creativity, an exhausting of spirit that would leave a less strong constitution without recourse. But does her portrayal of winter as deathly versus the seasons of light qualify for the judgment of seasonal affective disorder? What poet close to nature is not possessed of this essential imagery? Similarly, her reclusion has been classified as agoraphobia. But to Dickinson, reclusion was a choice against the vanity and oppression of the society she sought to eschew. Her priority as a creative person was to safeguard her art and muse "to own the Art / within the Soul." 5

More telling is the diagnosis of depression, certainly not a rare phenomenon among creative people, whether a producer of art of a product of it. Some of Dickinson's poems about pain and suffering are very suggestive. She speaks of "the Hour of Lead," and herself as "Queen of Calvary." Here are some instances around 1862-64 -- her most creative period -- that suggest anything from migraine to breakdown.

From Blank to Blank --
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet --
To stop -- or perish -- or advance --
Alike indifferent--6

I felt a cleaving in my Mind--
As if my Brain had split --
I tried to match it -- Seam by Seam --
But could not make them fit.
The Thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before --
But Sequence ravelled out of Sound
Like Balls -- upon a Floor.7

Icicles upon my Soul
Prickled Blue and Cool --
Bird went praising everywhere
Only Me -- was still -- ...8

If end I gained,
It ends beyond
Indefinitely disclosed--
I shut my eyes -- and groped as well
'twas light -- to be Blind --9

After great pain,
a formal felling comes --
The Nerves sit ceremonious,
Like Tombs -- ...10

That Dickinson suffered real physical pain and mental anguish is clear. But she identified suffering as a component of spiritual growth.

The hallowing of Pain
Like hallowing of Heaven,
Obtains at a corporeal cost --
The Summit is not given
to Him who strives severe
At middle of the Hill --
But He who has achieved the Top --
All -- is the price of All --11

This sentiment is far from that of a helpless victim of illness and circumstance who "lived on Dread."12 Dickinson expanded on the theme of suffering in one poem by linking suffering to the paragon of pain, Jesus, suffered with "straight renunciation" by the "son of God" but not by Jesus' followers, who endorse the way in their own fashion: "Later, his faint Confederates / Justify the Road -- ..."13


The beginnings of a philosophy of life based on confronting pain and suffering emerges as a theme, together with love of nature and the cultivation of solitude.

Dickinson's love of nature expressed itself early as an appreciation of plants and animals in her own spacious garden, which she tended avidly throughout her life. As a youth, she roamed nearby meadows and developed a keen scientific eye for flowering species, as mentioned above. (As a youth, too, she hid books of fiction in the woods because her father disapproved of them and would not tolerate them in the house.) Numerous flowers found their way into Dickinson's poems: daisy, iris, daffodil, bell, asphodel, clementis, gentian, crocus, to name a few. Bees, birds, and butterflies are the common creatures she mentions. Dickinson's hours in the garden produced the flowers she regularly sent to family and acquaintances. She was not uncomfortable there when neighborhood children played on the spacious grounds of the house, though she was known to bolt indoors if an adult approached. Often she lowered gingerbread (based on her favorite recipe, still extant among her manuscripts) in a basket from her second-story room to the delighted children waiting below.

Dickinson's spot of nature was a great teacher. She observed the patterns of the seasons, the cycle of generation, growth, decay, and rebirth. This cosmic pattern lay right before her, before anybody who wanted to observe it, yet it went unnoticed, as one of her earliest poems says.

The neighbors do not yet suspect!
The Woods exchange a smile!
Orchard, and Buttercup and Bird --
In such a little while!
And yet how still the Landscape stands!
How nonchalant the Hedge!
As if the "Resurrection"
Were nothing very Strange!14

Dickinson saw herself, and life, inseparable from this process, and characterized by a profound solitude.

Growth of Man, like Growth of Nature --
Gravitates within --
Atmosphere, and Sun, endorse it --
But it stir -- alone --
Each -- its difficult Ideal
Must achieve -- Itself --
Through the solitary prowess
Of a Silent Life ...15

Ultimately, Dickinson may have experienced a quiet mysticism akin to philosophical transcendentalism at the least. Intense artists close to nature have often expressed such a sense of union with the universe. The preoccupation of literary commentators with Dickinson's (in their terms) morose preoccupation with death and the grave and her eccentric reclusion has obscured a revelatory facet of Dickinson's life and art.

First, Dickinson begins with reduction of the self or ego:

Deprived of other Banquet,
I entertained Myself --
At first -- a scant nutrition --
An insufficient Loaf --
But grown by slender addings
To so esteemed a size
'Tis sumptuous enough for me --
And almost to suffice ...16

Her philosophy initially reaches only for simplicity. In other poems Dickinson speaks of a loneliness (that is, solitude) due not to lack of friends or to circumstances but to the blessings of nature and thought, what today might be called "mindfulness," which bring a boon "richer than could be revealed / by mortal numeral --" 17

The next step for Dickinson is an unbegrudging acceptance of self. The difficult course is between humility and self-esteem versus a struggle for acceptance by others. This can be classed in terms of conventional extroversion versus introversion, but this seems not only inadequate but trivial. An instance of this acceptance of self is evident in her clear rejection of the vanities of publication and fame. "Publication," she writes, "is the Auction of the Mind." 18

Fame of myself, to justify,
All of Plaudits be
Superfluous -- An Incense
Beyond Necessity --19

Here is a depth that defies conventional psychological category. Dickinson then begins the transition by applying these points to her daily life. What is notable is that the poems, while chronologically early and logically very mature.

I was the slightest in the House --
I took the smallest Room --
At night, my little Lamp, and Book -- And one Geranium -- ...

Except to Heaven, she is nought,
Except for Angels -- lone.
Except to some wide-wandering Bee
A flower superfluous blown. ... 21

How many Flowers fail in the Wood
Or perish from the Hill --
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful -- ...22

This is humility, not solitude, represented in each case by the flower image, humblest element of nature but to the pure of heart the most beautiful.

Dickinson then applies this sense of humility to her interpersonal relations, acknowledging her sufferings because of others.

My friend must be a Bird --
Because it flies!
Mortal, my friend must be,
Because it dies!
Barbs has it, like a Bee!
Ah, curious friend
Thou puzzlest me!23

Dickinson compared herself with a neglected but "happy" stone in the road, existing in "casual simplicity.. She began summarizing her identity (by 1861) as the woman in white -- prophetic words describing her ubiquitous color of clothing late in life --leading a "small life." A wonderful irony shows in Dickinson's conscious awareness of self:

A solemn thing -- it was -- I said --
A woman -- white -- to be --
And wear -- if God should count me fit --
Her blameless mystery --
And then -- the size of this "small" life --
The Sages -- call it small -- Swelled -- like Horizons -- in my vest --
And I sneered --- softly -- "small!"

This stage -- from awareness of Nature to awareness of self, from self-esteem to humility, from aloneness to solitude -- is well represented in the famous poems on solitude beginning "The Soul selects her own Society" and "There is a solitude of space."25

The famous poems, however, do not hint at the struggles and ecstasies of solitude experienced by Emily Dickinson. Of struggle, pain, sorrow, and loneliness she did not shirk. These poems speak of her reclusive aversion to people's presence.

... I dwell too low that any seek --
Too shy, that any blame -- ...26

They might not need me -- yet they might --
I'll let my heart be just in sight --A smile so small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity --27

But the most impressive aspect of Dickinson's life and struggles is seldom emphasized: the philosophical, almost mystical insights that she boldly terms ecstasies. They are so sharply drawn, so contextually genuine, that one can venture to believe that Emily Dickinson's solitude bore a wonderful and sublime spirituality. She was possessed of a desire to seek out infinity and immortality, and they presented themselves to her.

Sometimes it takes on the romanticism of a Blake:

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never
in a Book it lie -- True Poems flee --28

Sometimes it is an insight into Silence:

Silence is all we dread.
There's Ransom in a Voice --
But Silence is Infinity.29

And sometimes it recognizes the gift of (as might be said today) living fully in the moment:

Witchcraft was hung, in History,
But History and I
Find all the Witchcraft that we need
Around us every Day --30

But Dickinson is far more explicit. For the first time appears what Wordsworth called "intimations of immortality." Here are four poems:

Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,
And I am richer than all my Fellow Men --
Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily
When at my very Door are those possessing more,
In abject poverty --31


The Only News I know
Is Bulletins all Day
From Immortality
The Only Shows I see --
Tomorrow and Today --
Perchance Eternity --
The Only One I meet
Is God -- The Only Street --
Existence -- This traversed
If Other News there be --
Or Admirabler show --
I'll tell it you --32


"Go traveling with us!"
Her travels daily be
By routes of ecstasy
To Evening's Sea -- 33


Morning is due to all --
To some -- the Night --
To an imperial few --
The Auroral Light.34

It is no coincidence that the poems of ecstasy are among Dickinson's last, composed within five years of her death. Like the classic Chinese recluse who turned his hut into a universe, we may venture to conclude that Emily Dickinson did the same in her equivalent dwelling. And when her last hour came, she could rest confident in the sentiment of this late poem, which could have been her death poem, brief but redolent:

Sweet hours have perished here;
This is a might room;
Within its precincts hopes have played, --
Now shadows in the tomb.35


Poems numbered are from the enumeration found in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960 and Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955. See also The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1998.

  1. 732.
  2. 502.
  3. 1551.
  4. 148.
  5. 855.
  6. 761.
  7. 937.
  8. 768.
  9. 761.
  10. 937.
  11. 772.
  12. 776.
  13. 527.
  14. 74.
  15. 750.
  16. 773.
  17. 1116.
  18. 709.
  19. 713.
  20. 486.
  21. 154.
  22. 404.
  23. 92.
  24. 271.
  25. 303 and 1695.
  26. 1009.
  27. 1391.
  28. 879.
  29. 1251.
  30. 1583.
  31. 1040.
  32. 827.
  33. 1513.
  34. 1517.
  35. 1767.


  1. Cody, John. After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971.
  2. Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1989.
  3. Habeggar, Alfred. My Wars are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.
  4. Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.
  5. Longsworth, Polly. The World of Emily Dickinson. New York: Norton, 1990.
  6. McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  7. Ward, Theodora. The Capsule of the Mind: Chapters in the Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961.