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Emily Dickinson: Unknown Until After Death

by | May 15, 2020 | News

On this day, 15th of May, 1886, the American poet Emily Dickinson died in Amherst, USA though she was unknown to many but her death was the trigger for the fame that was bestowed upon her.

Born in Amherst, Massachusetts Dickinson lived much of her life a loner, described as an eccentric by locals, always dressed in white clothing and known for her refusal to greet guests or in adulthood to even leave her bedroom. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence.

Emily Dickinson left school as a teenager, eventually living a reclusive life on the family homestead. There, she secretly created bundles of poetry and wrote hundreds of letters. A week after her death in 1886, her younger sister Lavinia opened drawers in the poet’s bedroom and found nearly 1,800 poems, written by Dickinson during her lifetime.

While Dickinson was a prominent poet, only 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Dickinson poems offer clues about why she rarely left her home: She may have had epilepsy. Several of her poems touch on a kind of disability and, certain lines within those poems indicate that Dickinson may have had spells.

Emily Dickinson is now recognised as one of the greatest poets who ever lived, yet her life remains a mystery. The subject of death, including her own death, occurs throughout her poems and letters. Although some find the preoccupation morbid, hers was not an unusual mindset for a time and place where religious attention focused on being prepared to die and where people died of illness and accident more readily than they do today. The fact that Dickinson lived fifteen years of her life next to the town cemetery must have played a part in what may seem as her focus on death.

The poet’s death came after two and a half years of ill health. From the time her nephew died in October 1883 and she became what her sister describe as “delicate.” On two later occasions she experienced “blackouts,” and she was confined to bed for the seven months preceding her death.

The effect of these strains, the symptoms of severe headache and nausea mentioned in her letters, and her deathbed coma punctuated by raspy and difficult breathing, have led researchers to conclude that she died of heart failure.

Dickinson’s doctors, Dr. Otis F. Bigelow, prevented by Dickinson to even take a pulse. “She would walk by the open door of a room in which I was seated – Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!” he is supposed to have said (Years and Hours, Vol. I, xxix-xxx). The “cause of death” that Bigelow wrote on her death certificate was “Bright’s Disease,” at the time a general diagnosis that included hypertensive symptoms, as well as symptoms for nephritis, a disease of the kidneys.

 

 

 

 

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