Shy but rebellious, recluse but unapologetic and independent – she was Emily Dickinson. A renowned poet Dickinson became the harbinger of confessional poetry in English Literature. Not only that but this American poet’s poems and distinct lifestyle as a woman embodied feminism at the time when it was still beginning to gain momentum. The most important characteristic of her poems and personal life was the affirmation of a woman’s identity, independence and agency over her life. Read on to know why she is an inspiration for a modern woman like me.
Emily Dickinson was born in a family where the father was the patriarchal figure and women were expected to be confined to the kitchens. The gender roles were divided between men and women – men occupying the financial space while women were confined within marriage, religion, motherhood and domestic work. But what made Emily Dickinson defiant was her agency over her life, the right to have privacy and her vigour to challenge the dominant and regressive ideologies. She is known for living a recluse life, within her parental home, writing and challenging the social norms through her radical poems. She had privacy in her life which is a privilege for many women even today because a woman who is in love with seclusion or her own company will never allow any power to govern her life. How many women can opt to stay at her parents’ house, unmarried, throughout her life? How many women have the freedom even to choose not to marry and spend life in her own room drowned in her thoughts and passion?
Emily Dickinson valued individuality and personal space which a woman in her time and even today are expected to sacrifice if she wants to get married and live a life of significance. Her poem ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ portrays the idea of how marriage divests women of her own individuality.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
Moreover, her poem ‘I’m “Wife” – I’ve finished that’ also addresses the conflict in a woman’s life that is “eclipsed” behind the patriarchal control both before and after marriage. A girl is always made to feel insecure until she gets herself the right suitor who will then ensure her protection and security in life. However, even after marriage, a woman has to give up her individuality, which further deepens the dissatisfaction and insecurity in life.
But Dickinson was not ready to trade her individuality for any social obligation. She rarely had a social life and even gave up her faith in religion after being disillusioned by it. Dickinson proved very early that marriage is not the ultimate goal in a woman’s life and that she is self-sufficient enough to live on her own. As far as my interpretation goes, Dickinson’s introvert life which came after she had had enough interaction with the society was also a disappointment from a pretentious and patriarchal society that did not value the individuality and dignity of a woman.
Her poem ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’ expresses this disillusionment.
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
Dickinson chose her own battle, confinement and anonymity. Moreover, what also strikes me is her refusal to conform to the formats of classical poetry and create one of her own. Her writing style itself reflects depth, freedom, agency and rebellion that cannot be fathomed or controlled. Which is why she never gave titles to her poems because it would simplify the complexities of life that she versified through her poetries. Her poems were an honest confession of her thoughts, however mysterious, rebellious and strange they might be.
She changed the definition of a loner woman, which has nothing to do with insufficiency to get married but to assert your territory and choices and be a true rebel. That’s the freedom and ownership of life that I want to embody as I read and imbibe her words.
We request you to support our award-winning journalism by making a financial contribution towards our efforts. Your funds will ensure we can continue to bring you amazing stories of women, and the impact they are making and spotlight half the country's population because they deserve it.