Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was a 19th century American poet.
She once defined poetry “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” (Letter342a, 1870)
The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958).
Emily was born on December 10th 1830 to a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts with a brother Austin and sister Lavinia. Their lineage can be traced back to the Puritan Great Migration two hundred years earlier who travelled to the New World from Europe.
Emily was considered to be a very able student studying the classics. However the subject of death seemed to haunt her throughout the years: the death of her second cousin Sophia Holland early in her life appeared to have had a deep impact on Emily.
Leonard Humphrey was a principal at her college who assisted in her thirst for literary knowledge and was thought to be more than a mere acquaintance who passed away at the age of 25.
Emily cared for her mother who, after suffering from a slowly deteriorating illness, died shortly after the passing of her father.
The death of her dog after so many years of companionship, and her favourite niece just three years before her own passing showed a constant stream of sadness.
There is also a thought she struggled with religion – brought up under the acceptance of God but to later turn away from the routine communal worship to that of her own private contemplation; preferring also to dress in white rather than the traditional dark colours.
By 1860 Emily was effectively a recluse. Yet it was this seclusion that allowed Emily the opportunity to enjoy her reading and refine her own literary works.
She wrote thousands of poems yet fewer than a dozen were published during her lifetime. Those pieces which were printed were often ‘edited’ to suit the tone and traditions of the age.
It was not until after her death in 1886 when Emily’s younger sister, Lavinia, came across all her works.
“There Is Another Sky”
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields –
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
There are many interpretations to this poem – some say it highlights her sexual desire for her brother, Austin – he had married Susan Gilbert, also perceived to be an unrequited love of Emily’s.
Others suggest the poem is her hope that Austin will see her through to a better place in heaven. Or simply with all the death and sadness she faced, her brother was always there for her. It is perhaps a message of hope.
Emily Dickinson died on May 15th 1886.