Life and background
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born into a prominent Massachusetts family. Her father was a state legislator, a congressman and a judge. She was brought up in the Congregational Church, a Puritan form of Christianity, which emphasises personal moral responsibility, and the notion of God as severe in his justice. Even though she ceased quite early to believe many of the tenets of this faith and was greatly afflicted by religious doubt, her Puritan upbringing profoundly affected her poetry.
She was an exceedingly private person. In her twenties she began to live a reclusive life, and after the age of thirty she never again left the confines of her house and garden and she rarely received visitors. She did however maintain some friendships through regular correspondence.
In keeping with her private nature, she only published ten poems during her lifetime. After her death, her sister discovered in her room a huge collection of poems, 1,775 in all, neatly bound in booklets.
Unfortunately for her poetical reputation, most of her early editors ironed out the eccentricities of grammar and punctuation that make her work so remarkable. They even altered what they held to be inappropriate phrases, so as to make the poems more conventional and refined. It was not until the 1950s that the reading public first got to see her work faithfully rendered. She is now widely regarded as one of the most important and innovative poets of the last century.
In one of her later poems, Dickinson says, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant". This is as good a summary as any of what her poetical purpose was. She has the keenest of eyes for the material and moral features of the world, but her perspective is always oblique. She is profoundly psychological, but she often captures the experience of mood or emotion through strange narratives, improbable images and unlikely juxtapositions of different worlds or ideas.
Consider her astounding account of the sensation of nervous breakdown through the account of one witnessing, from the darkness of her coffin, her own funeral and burial (I Felt a Funeral in my Brain). Or her unconventional depiction of the strangeness and mysteriousness of the natural world by referring to a snake under the disarmingly off-hand title of "a narrow fellow in the grass''.
The unorthodoxy of her ideas is reflected in the eccentricities of form in her poems. She mostly uses the rhythms of the Christian hymn, yet her vision is far from being traditionally Christian. The soul, for her, is an almost tangible thing that seeks to discover the unity of things, but this is much more a philosophical and emotional quest than a religious activity.
The technical irregularities in Dickinson's poems are there for a purpose. Again it has to do with approaching the world in a "slanted" or oblique way. Her departures from standard grammar, her almost arbitrary use of capital letters, her heavy dependence on imperfect rhyme, and her occasional breaks from regular metre - all of these have the effect of constantly defying expectation, of making the world new by refusing to be predictable, of forcing the reader to be alert and to imagine the different, the exotic, even the impossible. Her poetic voice is unique, and her reputation as one of the great poets of modernity is safe.