Poetry can serve as a miraculous healer.
There is often intentional meaning sprinkled throughout a composition – the way the poem sounds when read, the visual layout on a page – making poetry an experience. Deciphering and analyzing each and every word, every space, every dash builds a cognitive fortress that other forms of literature rarely emulate.
Emily Dickinson is one of the most influential and studied poets of all time. Her life spanned from 1830 to 1886; just 10 of her 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime.
Her work encompasses everything that poetry seeks to be – a prowess to give life to the dull, to bring vibrancy to emotions locked away behind expressionless barricades.
Dickinson’s personal life remains mostly a mystery. She lived a life of seclusion in Amherst, Massachusetts, driven by experiences of hardships and rejection during her early years.
Her parents and close friends viewed her as feeble. She was often kept home from school, catalyzing her life of isolation.
Her family and schooling forced the beliefs of Calvinism onto her. These were beliefs that Dickinson always questioned and pushed back on, consequently being the only member of her family not to experience conversion or join Amherst’s first church.
Death all around
Throughout Dickinson’s life, many close friends and family members died, often tragically.
She was deeply traumatized after her second cousin and close friend, Sophia Holland, died of typhus when Emily was just 14. This sparked a suicidal mind of curiosity and wonder around the meaning of death.
At her time at the Amherst Academy, she sparked a friendship with the young principal, Leonard Humphry. He tragically died at 25 from a stroke.
A stroke also took the life of her father, with whom she had a rocky relationship, writing after his death that “his heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.”
Perhaps the most powerful death was that of her nephew, Thomas Gilbert Dickinson, who she affectionately called “Gib.” He was just eight years old when he fell fatally ill with typhoid fever. Dickinson’s health, mental and physical, deteriorated rapidly after his death, and she died two years later.
The continuous loss of loved ones and inspirations could have played a large role in the mental challenges that Dickinson faced throughout her life. While mental disorders are far from trivial, many believe that Dickinson suffered from major depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder.
Dickinson’s poetry and life of seclusion help confirm these suspicions. Her work frequently captures thematic elements of death, self-identity, the immortality of nature, and the pursuit of happiness.
One particular poem stands out as a masterpiece in her ability to give life to abstract emotions – one of her better-known poems and my personal favorite, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”:
The speaker is in a free fall of depression and misery, with Dickinson using “mourners” to reflect the everlasting intrusive thoughts running laps in her head, in heavy lead boots ready to burst through the floorboards of her mental capacity.
The weight of sorrow is growing too heavy to handle, like a “drum” that crescendos into unbearable deafness – “numb,” as Dickinson puts it. The ceremonial “bell” rings, giving being and life to those who surround her – yet she is in silence, the bell anechoic to her dissociated life, her alien soul.
As the “plank in reason” finally breaks, the speaker’s mind has numbed itself free of thoughts; the calamity of cerebral battle absolute – the capacity to know, final.
“then – “
Then what? She is utterly broken. An implosion of thoughts leads to a cacophony of noise, leads to a numbing of the brain, leads to death of psyche leads to…
The next state is oblivion – nothing more than an empty canvas with every paintbrush burnt in the fires of depression.
Dickinson is able to animate feelings of depression and hopelessness. These emotions are extremely intricate and differ for everyone experiencing them. The feeling is experienced so clearly, but the ability to express such feelings can be impossible.
Dickinson’s terrific use of symbolism and imagery produces a film for her readers to see – a portal into the mind of the speaker’s, and her own, mental turmoil. She provides tangible understandings of murky emotions.
Dickinson also had her fair share of beautifully uplifting poems, such as “We grow accustomed to the Dark,” “Two Butterflies went out at Noon,” and “We never know how high we are.” These are just a few favorites of mine that touch on the strength of humans, hope, and the journeys that life and nature bring, among other themes.
While a lot of Dickinson’s poetry is descriptively dark and captures heavy and complex emotions, her writing also touches on joyful elements of the human experience. Her ability to use symbols and tell stories that illuminate such a wide range of metaphysical emotions shows how magnificent of a writer she is and why she is one of the most celebrated poets in history.