The Influence Of Personal Experiences In Emily

Dickinson’s Poetry Essay, Research Paper

The Influence of Personal Experiences In Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

None of Emily Dickinson’s readers has met the woman who lived and died

in Amherst, Massachusetts more than a century ago, yet most of those same

readers feel as if they know her closely. Her reclusive life made understanding

her quite difficult. However, taking a close look at her verses, one can learn a

great deal about this remarkable woman. The poetry of Emily Dickinson delves

deep into her mind, exposing her personal experiences and their influence on her

thoughts about religion, love, and death. By examining her life some, and

reading her poetry in a certain light, one can see an obvious autobiographical


All the beliefs and emotions Emily Dickinson wrote about were based, in

one way or another, on the same aspect of her upbringing, which was religion.

During her childhood, life in Amherst was based strongly upon religion and

Puritan values. The distinctive Puritan virtues of simplicity, austerity, hard

work, and denial of flesh, were ever-present disciplines in Emily’s life (Sewall

22). Despite her stubborn denials to be labeled, she was very much of a ?New

Englander?. Cynthia Griffen Wolff, author of Emily Dickinson, points out that

Emily ?knew every line of the Bible intimately, quoted from it extensively, and

referred to it many more times than she referred to any other work… yet in

this regard she was not unusual by Amherst’s standards? (72). The most

prominent figure of religious virtues in her life was her father, Edward

Dickinson. Reading the Bible to his children and speaking in town of religious

ethics were daily events in his life. At home, he tried to raise his children

in the rigorous religion of their ancestors, however his methods appeared quite

harsh. People who knew the Dickinsons referred to Edward as a ?severe, latter-

day Puritan, a power-minded tyrant…?, and his home was often depicted as a ?

gloomy prison? (Sewall 8). In fact, Emily’s fear and awe of him seemed to

dominate her life. Although he read aloud from his Bible, conducted prayer

service in his home daily, and he educated his children in a strict Puritan way,

he himself was not quite a believer. He delayed conversion until well into

middle age, ?…displayed no mark of singular devotion, defined his vocation in

terms of business, and was not inclined to explore the mysteries of the Divinity?

(Wolff 125) It is possible that the paradox of faith which tore Emily’s mind

could have had its roots in her father’s own doubts.

No quandary in life presented Emily Dickinson with such wrenching

choices as the demand for conversion. Her doubts tempted her to rebel against

God, but her needs drove her toward faith in Him. Neither stance could overcome

the other, and neither could be reconciled. Emotionally, she lacked a direction

of beliefs, however there was one thing she was sure of – God existed. ?Reason

convinced her that there must be such a Being as God; and as to God’s existence

she seems never to have wavered? (Wolff 84). Believing that He was there only

gave her something solid to forsake. In a letter to her friend once she wrote, ?

…and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless…? (Sewall

375). However, it was only when she had achieved complete poetic independence

that she could confidently write in open defiance of God:

I reckon – when I count at all -

First – Poets – Then the Sun

Then Summer – Then the Heaven of God -

And then – the List is done -

But, looking back – the First so seems

To Comprehend the Whole -

The Others look a needless Show -

So I write – Poets – All -…

…And if the Further Heaven -

Be beautiful as they prepare

For Those who worship Them -

It is too difficult a Grace -

To justify the Dream – (Sewall 355)

On several occasions, Emily went as far as calling herself a pagan. The

bitterness with which the comment was made may have been aroused by the same

feeling as in the line ?Of Course – I Prayed – / And did God Care?? of one of

her poems. Unable to accept Heaven, she was left only with this brief world,

which, without Heaven, seemed somewhat of a dreadful place to her. She wrote in

a letter once a prayer for forgiveness for trying to enjoy life too much. ?Knew

I how to pray,? she wrote, ?to intercede for your Foot were intuitive, but I am

a Pagan? (Sewall 590), and then the poem:

Of God we ask one favor,

That we may be forgiven -

For what, he is presumed to know -

The Crime, from us, is hidden -

Immured the whole of Life

Within a magic Prison

We reprimand the Happiness

That too competes with Heaven

These religious doubts she harbored in her mind and so often expressed led her

to be seen as having renounced her faith and, most often, replaced it with a

belief in her own powers, especially those employed in her art. Charles

Anderson wrote that ?…her pained sense of estrangement from the religion of

her fathers lingered to the end, but so did the integrity that gave her courage

to go her own way, to continue her search for Heaven through poetry rather than

through a theology she could not accept.? (Bloom 35) Eventually she did find

Heaven, and she accepted it with open arms. She is said to have discovered

herself ?elected to receive the grace of God?. The relationship with God she

wrote of was much like a relationship of two people. For that reason, many of

her poems read as religious can also be seen as poems of love. An example of

one is this poem:

My River runs to thee -

Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?

My River waits reply -

Oh Sea – look graciously -

I’ll fetch thee Brooks

From spotted nooks -

Say – Sea – Take Me!

One could interpret this poem as her need to be accepted by God, as well as a

love poem expressing her yearning for human companionship. This yearning, along

with other forms of love poems, is shown a countless number of times in her


Emily Dickinson’s love poetry follows a similar pattern, one that is

both peculiar and frustrating. She brings together lovers, perfectly matched

and deeply in love. They are not unhappy, yet they are never allowed to be

together by some higher power. ?The same poetry that postulates marriage as the

ideal also accepts as a given that this marriage can never take place? (Wolff

387) Emily could have written love poetry celebrating the strength of a happy

marriage or even examining the difficulties of achieving that perfect union, but,

for the most part, she did not. Separation was too much a part of her real-life

relationships for her not to acknowledge it. For various reasons, the major

friendships and passionate relationships of her life ?…confirmed her deepest

conviction: where passion is concerned, there must be separation? (Wolff 411).

No poem captures this paradox more powerfully than this poem of loss:

I cannot live with You -

It would be Life -

And Life is over there -

Behind the Shelf…

…I could not die – with You -

For One must wait

To shut the Other’s Gaze down -

You – could not -…

…Nor could I rise – with You -

Because Your Face

Would put out Jesus’s -

That New Grace

Her love is so strong that she compares him to Jesus, and he outshines Him, yet

she cannot live with him, die with him, or rise up to Heaven with him, due to

circumstances she can not help. The cause of separation, unlike her real

relationships, is almost always the same. ?It is a trandescendent necessity;

God decrees that distance? (Wolff 412). In many of these poems, as the one

above, the speaker provokes Him into that action by claiming neither to need the

Divinity nor His heaven. The lover’s make their own paradise. Not only does

this show influence of Emily’s relationships, but once again it contains hints

of her religious struggle. Direct opposition of God is also set by the

generosity, affection, and willingness of the lovers to treat each other as


One characteristic of all the relationships that Emily created in her

poems is the idea of equality. Despite superficial differences of size, age, or

social power, the lover’s are essentially equal, and neither wants to dominate

the relationship. This is shown in these excerpts from one of her poems:

He was weak…I was weak…

…I was strong…He was strong…

…So he let me lead him in…

…So I let him lead me – Home

Emily allows women to be treated fairly, in the same way as men. On many

occasions in her poems the voice of the ?wife? speaks. For the most part, the ?

wife? speaks of the hardships of the relationships. Humorous, it is a feeling

of impatience in the voice of the woman upon discovering that creating that

Heaven-on-Earth is more easily said than done (Wolff 350). The wife often seeks

to bring coherence to the troubles through the old-fashioned domestic qualities

taught to her in order to accommodate for the lost paradise.

The love poetry of Emily Dickinson is not ?…idealizing and

incorporeal…?, but rather it is ?…ardent and filled with sexual

invitation…? (Wolff 385). One poem unlike her usual writings explores her

ability for passion and possibly a yearning for it:

Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Were I with thee

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!

Futile – the Winds -

To a Heart in port -

Done with the Compass -

Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden -

Ah, the Sea!

Might I but moor – Tonight -

In Thee!

This gives so much evidence of Emily’s capacity for passion that for a while

(now passed) ?…critics generally supposed that the principle reason for her

art lay in some unfulfilled affair of the heart? (Wolff 385). However, her

passion in poems is never fulfilled due to the same theme of separation.

This separation she writes about not only deals with love, but often

with a more permanent separation, death. Death was only one more thing that

Emily knew of which kept people apart. The deaths of her friends and family

forced her to acknowledge the loneliness and separateness of this world. The

fact of death led her to question once again ?…the nature of this Being Who

had authored our fate…? (Wolff 84). She found it hard to believe that she was

to worship and love something who could repeatedly take away from her all the

relationships that meant so much.

Emily Dickinson’s preoccupation with death began when she was young and

continued on throughout most of her life. She was a meditative child, sensitive

and serious, and she began to puzzle over the mystery of death and new birth at

a very early age. Emily Dickinson was sure that after death life on Earth was

over, in all aspects. People lost all connections with previous lives, and

gained a morbid equality, such as that described in this poem:

…there was a little figure plump

For every little knoll -

Busy needles, and spools of thread -

And trudging feet from school -

Playmates, and holidays, and nuts -

And visions vast and small -

Strange that the feet so precious charged

Should reach so small a goal!

?The cemetery is filled with the dead and under ?every little knoll’ there lies

someone who was once a little child plying its tasks and pursuing its dreams;

yet all are now equally dead, equally far from life’s pleasures? (Wolff 180).

The thing that frightened yet intrigued Emily the most about death was

the ?…gradual isolation of an increasingly helpless self moving toward the

horror of the utterly unknown…? (Wolff 221). However, there was a certainty

of death. It was not a certainty of what would become of one, but that death

was sure to occur. When children die, many say they die ?too soon? Dickinson is

apt to say that the death was not too soon, and that there is never a ?right

time? to die. Wolff believes she would reprimand us for ?…thinking ourselves

to clever and strong when we elude death for a while, and even forgetting his

long shadow falling across our paths…? and reminding us that ?…in the end,

the Angel of Death dispatches us all? (181). In 1884, Emily Dickinson

experienced a ?year of deaths? when five people close to her, including her

mother, her nephew, and two men she felt strongly for, passed on. In was during

this year that she wrote this poem which exemplified her own collapse that year:

So give me back to Death -

The Death I never feared

Except that it deprived of thee -

And now, by Life deprived,

In my own Grave I breathe

And estimate it’s size -

It’s size is all that Hell can guess -

And all that Heaven surmise -

This poem is about her confrontation with loss and death. Emily is ?

…estimating the ?size’ of death – distancing it, coming to terms with it, and

finding no fear in it? (Sewall 665).

The personal experiences of Emily Dickinson had a great influence on her

poetry. Through her verses we can understand and relate to her much more easily.

Without them, her withdrawal from society would have kept her unknown. Once

she wrote:

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me -

The simple News that Nature told -

With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see -

For love of Her – Sweet – countrymen -

Judge tenderly – of Me

It seems fairly obvious that Emily Dickinson knew that someday her poems would

be found and would be used as a window into her thoughts.


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