Emily Dickinson wrote thousands of poems, many of which were lost or destroyed, yet the nearly 1,800 posthumously published verses give us a luminous artistic record of a poet who is now, arguably, the most important of the 19th century. She painstakingly assembled thematically related fascicles, stitching each grouping of poems by hand (pastors similarly stitched the pages of their sermons). Unlike Kafka, who wanted his manuscripts burned after his death, she stacked her poems in a drawer for her relatives to find.
While she lived, she sent a number of her poems off for publication, but only a handful were ever accepted. Editors disliked her liberties with punctuation and rhythm, and she responded later with a poem about publication being “the Auction/Of the Mind of Man.” Yet the notion of the reclusive, powerful poet wielding words that only she would read during her lifetime is a common myth. Her volumes of correspondence to friends and relatives often included poems; she shared them, tacking them on to rhetorically florid notes.
In fact, she began writing letters because social life took up too much of her time. Her parents were society people, and she lived with them all of her life. Hours were spent in parlors and at parties, so letters afforded her the ability to remain sociable while concentrating on writing. Letters, in some respect, provided a forum to test ideas and metaphors, voices and definitions.
Dickinson believed in poetry. When she was in seminary as a young girl, she understood that she had ‘no hope’ of faith in god; instead, she felt a calling to write.
Because her poems are elliptical, and most of what we know about her personal life is contained only in the letters she sent to others, very little is known about her private thoughts. Once she realized she would never be published, what company did she imagine she kept? Did it include Shakespeare and Milton? Dante and Ovid? When greatness goes unrecognized, I wonder what it says to itself.