The death this month of playwright William Luce, who wrote the one-character play “The Bell of Amherst,” has shined the spotlight anew on the life of Emily Dickinson. Julie Harris earned her fifth Tony Award for best actress for her portrayal of the reclusive Amherst poet and reprised the role on public television later in 1976.
More recently, The Apple TV Plus series “Dickinson” frames the poet’s story in a more modern setting (think twerking and a Lizzo soundtrack).
Dickinson is recognized as one of the greatest poets who ever lived — and one the most written about — but much of her life still remains a mystery. Here are four things to know.
Her output was prodigious: Dickinson composed almost 1,800 poems, but fewer than a dozen were published in her lifetime. Among them, one of her most famous, began:
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Dickinson’s family discovered the rest of the trove after her death in 1886, at age 56, and her legacy was left to competing heirs and editors.
How she defined poetry: To Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a man of letters, minister, and mentor of sorts to Dickinson, she wrote: “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?”
What about her ‘sickness’? At 16, Dickinson entered what was then known as Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, but was forced to withdraw after seven months because of an unspecified illness. Several of her poems touch on a handicap, and certain lines indicate that Dickinson may have had spells.
My lost by sickness — Was it Loss?
Or that Etherial Gain —
One earns by measuring the Grave
Then — measuring the Sun.’
One theory is that she suffered from epilepsy. Some of the medications prescribed for her, like glycerin, were then used to treat the disorder.
Romance: While Dickson’s work includes soaring love poems, her inspiration has been shrouded in mystery. Among the writings found after her death were three unsent letters to an unnamed “Master.”
After Dickinson’s father died in 1874, she grew close to Otis Phillips Lord, a Salem judge and friend of her father who was 18 years her senior. Her tender and playful letters to Lord hint at their romantic connection.
“My lovely Salem smiles at me. I seek his Face so often — but I have done with guises. I confess that I love him — rejoice that I love him — I thank the maker of Heaven and Earth — that gave him to me — the exultation floods me. I cannot find my channel — the Creek turns Sea — at thought of thee.’’
It is widely believed that Lord proposed to her, but she did not assent.Sources: The Emily Dickinson Museum and news reports.