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Emily Dickinson

1884–1886: Called Back

1874–1883: Disappointment and Loss

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

Dickinson suffered her first blackout in the spring of 1884. She began to weaken. In April 1884, doctors diagnosed an advanced case of Bright's Disease, or nephritis–an inflammation of the kidney. Shortly thereafter, Dickinson received the news that Otis Lord had died. For the next two years, Dickinson was effectively an invalid. She rarely left her bed and never wrote poetry. In the winter of 1885, Dickinson chose to refuse more medical examinations. As she lay back against her pillows, weak and sick, Dickinson composed her last poem, "So give me back death."

During the first weeks of May 1886, Dickinson seemed to sense her impending death and wrote a short note to her cousins Louise and Fanny Norcross, which said only: "Little Cousins, Called Back, Emily." On May 13th, Dickinson complained to Lavinia that she felt especially ill and that it was becoming difficult to breathe. Later that day she fell into a coma. The family held a vigil around her bedside for sixty hours. On the evening of May 16th, Emily Dickinson died.

Dickinson's funeral was held in the Dickinson home. As she had requested, Dickinson was buried in a robe of white flannel. Dickinson's siblings placed her white coffin in the library and, prior to the funeral service, allowed only a select number of Dickinson's friends to view her in the casket. Among the chosen few was Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

The service was conducted by George Dickerman. The 15th chapter from Corinthians–a chapter that Dickinson loved–was read, and Colonel Higginson read Emily Brontë's poem "Last Lines." Dickinson's white coffin was placed on a bier of pine bough adorned with sand violets. Lavinia placed two heliotropes in Dickinson's hand and whispered to her sister that they were for her to take to Judge Lord. Dickinson was buried next to her parents at West Street Cemetery in Amherst. The epitaph on her headstone was the same as the text of the note she had sent to her cousins Norcross: "Called Back."

After Dickinson was buried, Lavinia and Sue burned Dickinson's letters, as she had asked. As she continued to clean out Dickinson's room, Lavinia stumbled upon a locked box with no label. It was the repository of Dickinson's life's work–all of her poetry. Lavinia was astonished, and could not bring herself to burn the poems. As time passed, Lavinia happened upon many secret stashes of poetry and envelopes filled with scraps of paper covered front and back with verse. She immediately felt a deep, intense need to see the poems published. Lavinia would be the first to introduce the world to Dickinson's poetry.

Lavinia brought the poems to Sue, Dickinson's greatest confidante during her life. Sue was amazed at the number of poems, but tempered in her desire to see the poems published. Like Austin, she worried that the poems' lack of form would be an obstacle in achieving publication. When she sent a few poems out to literary journals and magazines, only to have them returned, she felt she needed to deliberate for a while instead of rushing the poems to a publisher. Lavinia found Susan's procrastination inexplicable. Dickinson's literary estate became the prize in a contentious battle between Dickinson's relative and Mabel Todd. After Dickinson's death, Todd was able to take advantage of a rift that had developed between Lavinia and Susan over the snail's pace with which Susan was editing and selecting Dickinson's poems for publication. Susan was already angry with Lavinia for giving Austin and Mabel a lover's haven in her living room. In her anger at Sue, Lavinia gave Mabel hundreds of Dickinson's poems to edit and publish.

Lavinia went on to edit or co-edit two more volumes of Dickinson's poetry. Later, Dickinson's niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi would publish and edit another volume. Mabel Todd, too, would transcribe and publish a volume. She also brought a lawsuit against Lavinia and Susan over a provision in Austin Dickinson's will; she lost. Angry at the Dickinson family, Mabel took all the poems and letters of Dickinson's she had in her possession and stashed them in a box, allowing no one to see them for thirty years. In 1945, Bolts of Melody, edited by Mabel Todd and her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham, was published. Five years later, Harvard University bought all available Dickinson manuscripts and the publishing rights to her poems. In 1960, Thomas H. Johnson published all of her poems in one volume, without editing for current poetic convention as Lavinia and Mabel Todd had done. The publication of this volume, Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1960, finally completed Emily Dickinson's canon and ensured Dickinson's status as a household name and a poet's poet. Her innovations and her technical daring have made an impact on modern poetry that is difficult to overestimate.

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