Emily Dickinson: 188 years young and fresh!

December 10th marks Emily Dickinson’s 188th birthday. Almost two centuries since her birth, we might wonder what has given her such staying power. Why is it that virtually every American high school student learns to recite a Dickinson poem — and that so many of us long past high school can still recall those lines of verse we committed to memory so many years ago?

Though I am not a Dickinson scholar, I am a fan. And through the research for my recent book, After Emily: Two Remarkable Women and the Legacy of America’s Greatest Poet, I’ve delved into the stories of Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham, the two women who brought Dickinson’s poetry and letters to press and crafted an image of the poet we still have today. In writing my book, I’ve learned a lot about the life and work of the so-called “Belle of Amherst.”

One of the things I’ve learned is that it’s not just U.S. residents who revere Emily Dickinson. There’s significant scholarship about her work in countries around the world. There is an International Emily Dickinson Society, and perhaps a special affinity for Dickinson’s work in Japan.

A quick Google search for “Emily Dickinson” yields over 40 million hits. Renderings of Emily Dickinson can be found not only in print, but also in song, art, drama and film.

Why do so many people around the world love Dickinson’s poetry? I think it has something to do with how fresh it remains, how remarkable her combinations of words are, how her idiosyncratic use of punctuation and capitalization perhaps give us clues about how to read the poems -even, perhaps, about where to breathe.

And it has something to do with how nuanced it all is. So many poems take on a small moment in nature — a spider spinning a web, the leaves turning color in the fall — and yet manage to make us think of the larger issues of how miraculous these small moments are. Or her brilliant and distinct use of metaphor makes us realize the different levels on which she simultaneously wrote.

It might be that the mystery that surrounds so much of Dickinson’s life and work that also partially accounts for why we continue to find her endlessly intriguing.

Back in 1891, the year after the first volume of Dickinson’s poetry was published and quickly went through six printings, Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote a piece about her that was published in the Atlantic Monthly. Higginson, the Civil War colonel who led a black regiment from Massachusetts, also earned fame as an abolitionist and literary figure. Emily Dickinson reached out to him and sent him some poems, pondering if they “were alive.” This led to an extended correspondence between and two visits before the poet’s death in 1886; Higginson attended Emily Dickinson’s funeral. It also led Higginson to co-edit the first two volumes of her poetry with Mabel Loomis Todd.

In his 1891 Atlantic Monthly piece, meant to help build excitement around the poetry of this newly published talent whose work broke with so many conventions of 19th century verse, Higginson wrote, “Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. The lines which form a prelude to the published volume of her poems are the only ones that have come to light indicating even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends.”

For all of the hundreds of books and thousands of articles that have been written, there are still so many things we just don’t know about Emily Dickinson. How is it possible that she wrote so many amazing poems during her lifetime and yet so few people had a clue that she did? Which of the many word choices she left behind did she truly intend? How much of her life story can we read into her poetry? Why did she begin the retreat to her home and her room that characterized the latter years of her life?

While there is so much about Dickinson that remains shrouded in mystery, there is one thing that’s clear. In the correspondence I have received since the publication of my book, it’s become evident to me that Emily Dickinson continues to inspire not only intrigue, but also creative expressions born of some kind of connection to her. People have sent me poems that they’ve composed a la Emily. One person sent me a song, and another, a link to music composed meant to go along with her poem “Because I could not stop for death.” At book readings and events I’ve done I have heard from people hard at work on their own Emily Dickinson-related papers, books and projects.

One of my colleagues at Tufts, Madeleine Delpha, sent along some artistic renderings she’d created. She’s kindly allowed me to reproduce them.

So happy birthday, Emily! You continue to amaze us, mystify us and inspire us, 188 years since you first came into this world.

Artwork by Madeleine Delpha