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Emily Dickinson: One of the Most Influential Poets of All Time

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, to Edward and Emily (Norcross) Dickinson. 

Little-known during her life, while her writing ‘career’ was really not much of a career. She was extremely reclusive in life and wrote abundantly in the comfort of her own home. During her life, she only published roughly ten poems. 

Her poetry was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town, which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.

After her death,her family discovered forty handbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or “fascicles” as they are sometimes called. Dickinson assembled these booklets by folding and sewing five or six sheets of stationery paper and copying what seem to be final versions of poems. The handwritten poems show a variety of dash-like marks of various sizes and directions (some are even vertical). The poems were initially unbound and published according to the aesthetics of her many early editors, who removed her annotations. The current standard version of her poems replaces her dashes with an en-dash, which is a closer typographical approximation to her intention. The original order of the poems was not restored until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of the paper itself to restore her intended order, relying on smudge marks, needle punctures, and other clues to reassemble the packets. Since then, many critics have argued that there is a thematic unity in these small collections, rather than their order being simply chronological or convenient. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press, 1981) is the only volume that keeps the order intact.

In addition to poetry, Dickinson kept consistent letter correspondences. Her most notable long-time correspondence was with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert, with whom she traded love letters for over thirty-six years. In addition, Dickinson clearly looked to Gilbert as one of her most important readers, if not the most important. She sent Gilbert more than 270 of her poems.

Dickinson’s poetry has more than stood the test of time for her inventive style and language and her honesty about existential themes. She has consistently inspired writers since her death, including Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and even Colleen Hoover. She’s one of the most widely read poets of all time.

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