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Emily Dickinson

Study Questions and Suggested Essay Topics

1884–1886: Called Back

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Study Questions

Emily Dickinson's personal life receives as much attention, or even more attention, than her poetry. Why do you think this is so?

Much time has been spent guessing at the inspiration for Dickinson's love poetry, and the nature of her secret love life. Some biographers feel that the secret to Dickinson's poetry can be unlocked by examining her personal life, a belief which confirms some feminist scholars in their theory that literary critics believe female artists find their inspiration and creativity only through emotion and, more specifically, matters of the heart. Although many scholars have said that Dickinson's romantic sufferings provided material for her poetry, an argument can be made that Dickinson's literary influences, especially Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Charlotte Bronte and George Eliot, provided the bulk of her inspiration. Many scholars dislike the obsessive focus on Dickinson's personal life, saying that if Emily Dickinson had been a man, there would be less prurient interest in sex, and more attention paid to the brilliance of the poetry. Dickinson took great care to establish the difference between her personal "I" and her poetic "I", yet people often mistake the narrator of the poems for Dickinson herself.

To what extent was Emily Dickinson the eccentric recluse she is often portrayed as being?

The legend of Emily Dickinson has created an exaggerated portrait of the Amherst poet. She was not always a recluse and, in fact, was a gifted conversationalist. Especially as a young woman, Dickinson was at ease socially and always the center of attention. She charmed all of the important people she met in Washington D.C., including a justice of the Supreme Court. She spent long hours in her room not hiding, but writing or reading. She was prodigious, producing 1,800 poems, so there can be little question that she retreated to her plant- filled haven to work, not to spurn society. However, as time passed, Dickinson did become more reclusive. She turned away many visitors, even friends who came to see her, and rarely left her home. Dickinson's reclusive tendencies caused gossip to build around her even while she lived–some Amherst townspeople referred to her as "The Myth."

Describe some of the reasons that Dickinson did not gain fame as a poet during her lifetime.

Emily Dickinson faced many obstacles, both in her family and in the world at large, that prevented her from gaining fame during her lifetime. Her father, while he believed in the necessity of a good education for every girl, thought poetry frivolous and unimportant. Dickinson was likely cognizant of the fact that her innovative poetry would baffle most editors and publishers. The poetry of her day followed a series of strict conventions, all of which her own poetry flouted. Dickinson's almost shockingly unconventional work struck Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for one, as sloppy and inept. For a time, Higginson, whom Dickinson admired, actively discouraged Dickinson from seeking publication. Dickinson had no obvious outlet for her work. Only seven of her poems were printed during her lifetime, most in the local newspaper. Seven was a miniscule percentage; Dickinson produced around 1,800 poems in total. The fact that Dickinson persevered in the face of such discouragement shows that either pure love of art, a conviction of her own genius and future fame, or a combination of both, spurred her to keep writing.

Suggested Essay Topics

Discuss some of the themes that appear in Emily Dickinson's poetry.

Why do you think Emily Dickinson did not seek publication more actively?

Discuss some of the criticisms of Dickinson's poetry made by Thomas Wentworth Higginson. How did Dickinson's respond, and what does her response reveal about her attitude toward her work?

Susan Gilbert Dickinson was torn about publishing Dickinson's poems, feeling that someone so shy in life would not have liked her poems put on display. Yet in her private notes, Emily Dickinson was extremely ambitious and sought fame. If you were Emily Dickinson's literary executor, would you have pushed to publish her poetry? Why or why not?

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