Books + Comics

Birthday Tribute: Emily Dickinson

My sister in solitude.

Illustration by Minna

For decades, Emily Dickinson rarely left her room. She sat at a simple desk by her bedroom window on the top floor of her family’s house at 280 Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts, and wrote poems. Only about 10 of the almost 1,800 poems she wrote were published during her lifetime, and those were probably submitted to journals and publishers anonymously, without the poet’s knowledge, by friends or relatives. When she passed away in 1886, at the age of 55, her family found a hidden treasure trove: massive bundles of papers and handmade chapbooks filled with the many, many powerful poems that distinguish her as one of the greatest literary talents of the 19th century.

Her compact, riddle-like verses about nature, mortality, and the soul will probably be dissected and discussed in schoolrooms and lecture halls for as long as English is spoken, and possibly longer than that. But although her art is held in the highest regard, her biography has been sentimentalized with romantic theories about why she lived her adult life the way she did: avoiding most human contact, rarely venturing past her house and its garden, and, after her father died in 1874, dressing head to toe, every day, in white. She’s often described as a fragile woman-child, a wraithlike spinster, a proto-goth weirdo. People speculate as to her mental, physical, and emotional health. There are volumes of scholarship devoted to hypotheses about what might account for her self-imposed isolation: Was she heartbroken? Agoraphobic? Epileptic? Blind? There had to be something wrong with her—why else would a person want to spend so much time alone?

I was recently in the car with my dad when the Beach Boys’ “In My Room” came on the radio. “It’s Rosie’s song,” he said, turning it up:

There’s a world where I can go
And tell my secrets to
In my room…

It’s been more than a decade since I lived at home, but he’s still right. As long as I can remember, I’ve longed to be by myself. Growing up, I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom, and I guarded my space like a dog with a bone. I wanted to shut my door to my raucous family, the pressures of friendships and social interactions, daily worries and long-term fears, the basic humiliations of being a human person in this world. This was hard for my family to understand. When I’d lock the door, they’d all want in: my brothers were convinced they were missing out on something truly thrilling, while my parents outlawed locked doors on safety grounds. (I never really understood this—what did they think I was going to do, rug-burn myself to death? Get tangled in the curtains and suffocate? Bleed out from a horrific stepping-on-a-Lego-induced wound? OK, that last one at least seems possible.) My only peace was late at night, after everyone went to sleep. I’d read with my flashlight so that my dad wouldn’t know I was awake (staying up late: also taboo). At night I could focus my thoughts and finally find the privacy I craved.

I’ve never been a big reader of poetry—I tend to think in cascading sentences, and I find line-breaks hard to follow—but I’ve always thought of Emily Dickinson, who was born 182 years ago today, as my own personal patron saint of creative solitude (and zines—she made zines that she called fascicles!).

Others may see Emily’s reclusiveness as a symptom of a problem—but I always saw it as a solution to one. It was the 19th century, and Emily Dickinson, a woman, wanted to be a writer. So she retreated from the obligations that would have absorbed her time and energy: marriage, motherhood, keeping up appearances, the social expectations that came with her family’s privileged station. One afternoon while her niece was visiting, Emily made as if to lock her bedroom door with an invisible key, and said: “It’s just a turn—and freedom.” For Emily, solitude meant not imprisonment, but the opposite: a release from expectation.

Writing poetry made another kind of liberation possible: it gave her the opportunity to inhabit multiple, shifting selves beyond the limited identity her class and culture offered her. Poetry allowed her to see beyond the confines of her room, and indeed herself. “The Brain has Corridors—surpassing / Material place,” she wrote in one poem (like most of her poetry, it has no title). Emily didn’t write for fame our fortune; she wrote for herself, because it was the only way she saw to leave the narrowness of human experience—the walls of so many rooms—behind.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

(c. 1862)

Folks don’t like it when you tell them you need to be alone. The very notion is confusing to many (maybe most?) people. Friends and family can feel hurt, or even angry, when you choose being with nobody over being with them. And maybe they’re even scared for you: spending too much time alone makes you vulnerable to loneliness, the gloomy sister of solitude. But Emily Dickinson didn’t spend all that time in her room feeling sorry for herself—her separation was a means to an end.

There is a solitude of space

A solitude of sea

A solitude of death, but these

Society shall be

Compared with that profounder site

That polar privacy

A soul admitted to itself—

Finite infinity.

(c. 1855)

When you make something out of nothing—a poem, a novel, a dress, a painting, a robot, a song—you have to be able to silence all the voices telling you do it differently, you suck, forget it, let’s have lunch, let’s watch a movie, let’s bury our bad feelings and self-doubt with food or drink or ill-advised eBay purchases. You have to be able to say no to everyone and be OK with what you have left. Solitude can be a revolutionary act. “The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door.” Emily taught me that. ♦

36 Comments

  • litchick December 10th, 2012 3:08 PM

    I keep seeing the sentence “The Soul selects her own Society” in the index of one of my textbooks. I’d been meaning to check it out, I really like it!

    Love the article as a whole, too! :)

  • dandelions December 10th, 2012 3:18 PM

    Emily Dickinson would have been the best blogger in those times. She was special.

  • Blythe December 10th, 2012 3:18 PM

    My parents also don’t let me lock my door for safety reasons, and since I’m disabled, it’s not like I can’t say there’s no way I’m going to hurt myself, because I theoretically could. But they always walk in without knocking and UGH.

  • DreamBoat December 10th, 2012 3:24 PM

    Emily Dickinson will always be in my top favorite poets. I can totally understand her solitude and her poetry is incredible. People in her time thought it was too simple, but it has stood the test of time and is beautiful and sad and amazing.
    Happy birthday, Emily! Always in my heart, girlfriend <3

    http://psychedelicdaisy.blogspot.com

  • Mary the freak December 10th, 2012 3:25 PM

    I haven’t know about her before. And I have never read a better poem. This is truly awesome.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • koolkat December 10th, 2012 3:28 PM

    This is wonderful <3

  • GlitterKitty December 10th, 2012 3:44 PM

    This is amazing and beautiful. I didn’t really know that much about her but she does sound a little odd… I understand why she was doing it (or at least why people believe she did) but it still seems very strange. Maybe it was all part of her artistic vision.

  • SiLK December 10th, 2012 3:54 PM

    I was just writing some Emily Dickinson into my journal! I can really identify with her poetry, as I am yet to be able to enjoy love poems. Go Rookie mind-reading and living under beds so you can creepily know my every actions! :)
    “There is no frigate like a book/ To bear us lands away…”

  • Emma S. December 10th, 2012 3:58 PM

    Lovely, Rose.

  • insteadofanelephant December 10th, 2012 5:42 PM

    a release from expectation, i like that.

    blog: instead of an elephant
    Creative Director: Thread Magazine

  • wallflower152 December 10th, 2012 5:49 PM

    Three awesome ladies born today. Emily Dickinson in 1830, Ada Lovelace in 1815 and my mom in 1960. : ) If you’re into awesome historic ladies you should research Ada Lovelace “the enchantress of numbers” she was the daughter of Lord Byron and was a mathematician and computer programmer before computers were even invented. How anyone could do this is mindblowing. But my favorite out of all these is definitely my mom. : ) <3

  • sophiethewitch December 10th, 2012 6:17 PM

    When I was younger Emily Dickenson was one of my favorite poets. Then during my angsty-depressed-melodramatic phase I forgot about her, because I thought her poetry was too optimistic. Thank you for reminding me about her poetry now that I can appreciate it again.

  • Gorda December 10th, 2012 6:39 PM

    Crying because I understand.

  • decemberbaby December 10th, 2012 6:43 PM

    Dickinson is amazing, and I definitely feel (or imagine I feel, but that’s just as powerful) a similar connection to her.

    But I actually just commented to say that I’m struggling through a lot of difficult schoolwork that requires creative thinking (writing papers and such), and that last paragraph really helped me. Thanks, Rose :P

  • soretudaaa December 10th, 2012 7:07 PM

    HEY ARNOLD EPISODE ANYONE.

  • taste test December 10th, 2012 8:44 PM

    agh, I love emily dickinson. her poetry is so beautiful and so ahead of its time. the first poem of hers I read was “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” in like 6th grade, and even though the textbook page was covered with cutesy cartoon frogs that made the poem seem kind of dumb on first glance, I loved it instantly once I read it.

    I also agree completely with what you said about being alone as an escape. I live in a dorm room with a roommate and the lack of a place to call my own that I can go to to reliably be alone is slowly driving me out of my mind. sigh. I feel bad about it, though, because it’s nothing my poor roommate does. it’s entirely my problem. and I know I’m a shit roommate because of it. when I’m really stressed and upset and just want to be alone I, like, have a grudge against her for existing. anyway. christmas break is coming soon and I can hole up in my real room and read and write and watch cartoons all night and no one will bother me and it will be beautiful.

  • drooliet December 10th, 2012 9:07 PM

    i’d really love to see more stuff about being alone and the positive side of that whole thing? i ate this article up, it really resonated w/ me. she makes me feel more normal

  • Catherine is a pain December 10th, 2012 9:47 PM

    This is absolutely beautiful. I wish Rookie had been around when I was 13. All I had were my books and movies to make me feel like there were actually other people in the world and in history who got me on some weird level that no one else around me could. I love you guys :)

  • clarekawaii December 10th, 2012 9:50 PM

    I’ve always felt incredibly lucky to share a birthday with Emily Dickinson. She’s always been one of my favourite poets and probably will be for years to come.

  • raggedyanarchy December 10th, 2012 10:05 PM

    Happy birthday, Emily Dickinson! May our parents learn that just because we want to be alone doesn’t mean we hate them. When I was little, I would spend hours by myself, just playing with dolls and making up stories. At my preschool, which was Montessorri, all the teachers just let me play alone, and the kids took their lead. I had a few friends, and sometimes I would play with them too. But when I switched to a private school in the 1st grade, I was sent home with “unsatisfactory” grades (we were graded by a three-letter-grade spectrum: satisfactory, needs improvement, and unsatisfactory) in all the “plays well with others” categories and was quickly deemed “weird” by all the kids in my class.

  • canadaaustin December 10th, 2012 10:42 PM

    emily freaking rocks. she got so much of everything important into those tiny little poems of hers.

    ps, my english teacher (male) was her for halloween and wore a white dress and a bonnet. it was amazing.

    • Rose December 11th, 2012 12:11 AM

      Oh my god your English teacher RULES

    • justbouton December 11th, 2012 1:22 AM

      omg yes

  • Sea goddess December 10th, 2012 10:51 PM

    Rose ahh my parents are the SAME! idk what’s their fear of my room’s door closed?! Anyways I’ve reading Emily Dickinson @ school and chose her poems for an assignment we had. I really like her peculiarity, and it’s a necessity to have our own time alone, I say this as a poet writer that I am. Happy Bday Emily :)

  • inertiacreeps December 10th, 2012 11:09 PM

    oh emily dickinson what joy you bring me!

    i’m no longer a teenage girl – i grew up on Sassy – and the articles on rookie rock. <3

  • Roz G. December 10th, 2012 11:17 PM

    SPLENDID

  • zhajean December 11th, 2012 3:04 AM

    i love this article :)

  • LilySew December 11th, 2012 3:15 AM

    I feel like an author’s/poet’s work is more enjoyable when it’s relatable either through context or subject. In this case, mine and Emily’s mutual love of solitude helps me understand her work better. This article is brilliant, :D

    http://sewoverdressed.blogspot.com.au/

  • georgiatakacs December 11th, 2012 5:32 AM

    this is beautifully written. i’m an english lit student and hadn’t looked into emily dickinson before so will definitely do so now. a beautiful piece! x

  • EithyPan December 11th, 2012 4:09 PM

    I’ve loved Emily Dickinson ever since we first learnt of her in my English Lit. Everyone else was complaining about how ‘depressing’ she is but I just love her. She’s one of the best humans! Definitely on my list of people I want to meet when I die!

  • iridescence December 11th, 2012 11:50 PM

    This is so weird. i was feeling super horrible the other day and looking through my bookcase and found an Emily Dickinson book full of her poetry and it just made me feel better. It seems like Rookie has a sixth sense about what to post.

  • Naomi December 12th, 2012 11:04 AM

    oh my gosh, i love this

  • Sall December 13th, 2012 12:05 AM

    I love your article so much

  • AnaRuiz December 24th, 2012 7:25 AM

    Poetry in general, Dickinson in specific. <3