About Emily Dickinson
Only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime; these were heavily edited. Many of the rest were found after her death, in little packets bound together to make small books. They were regarded at first as odd, but over time have come to be seen as the work of a major poet of startling originality.
Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 into a prominent family in the farming village of Amherst, Massachusetts. The world in which she started life was devoutly evangelical; her writing echoes the form of the hymns she heard in childhood. But she was also in conflict with that world and, in her twenties, gradually retreated into herself, rarely afterwards leaving the house. In a letter to a friend she quoted ‘those guileless words of Adam and Eve: “I was afraid and hid myself”.’
‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’ conveys, with characteristic directness and strength of tone, her sense of oppression and of the fear of invasion from the outside world. In ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ she imagines death as a kindly and trusted visitor who gently interrupts her busy day and offers her a lift. The drive is leisurely and she feels completely at ease, noting the daily routine of the life left behind. She becomes aware of dampness and cold, and of her burial clothes. In the beautiful final two verses, she arrives at the grave; Death has slipped away, leaving her to Eternity. It has the simplicity of a story for a child, but its echoes lurk in the mind to both soothe and terrify.
In 1862 Emily Dickinson wrote to the critic Thomas Higginson enclosing four poems and asking for his advice. ‘Safe in their Alabaster Chambers’ was one of the four. He was fascinated, but puzzled; he thought the poem lacked form because it was imperfectly rhymed and had a spasmodic metric beat. But the poem does have a melodic pattern, stately and slow in the first verse to express the endless leisure of the dead, rapid and irregular in the second to express time passing among living generations. With brief ferocity it confronts the starkness of what death does to worlds, diadems, Doges, ‘soundless as dots’.
Emily Dickinson died in 1886 at the age of fifty-six. In accordance with her wishes, her funeral was not marked by a church service.