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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Saluting Emily

Today is the birthdate of one of America’s all-time greatest poets, Emily Dickinson, who wrote the famous lines:  “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.”  

Dickinson was not famous in her own short lifetime (she died at age 56).  It was only after her death that her sister discovered nearly 1,800 poems written by this reclusive Massachusetts writer.

While Dickinson was a prolific writer, fewer than a dozen poems were published while she was alive, and that work was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson's poems are unique for her era.  Written in short lines, they often lack formal titles, contain unconventional capitalization and punctuation, and often use slant rhyme (a type of rhyme formed by words with similar but not identical sounds, also called approximate rhyme)

The first collection of her poetry was published in 1890, four years after her death.  A complete collection The Poems of Emily Dickinson was not published until 1955.

A native of Amherst, she studied at Amherst Academy for 7 years, then spent a short time at Mount Holyoke’s “Female Seminary” before returning to the family home where she spent most of the rest of her introverted and reclusive life.  Considered an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were carried out by correspondence where the themes of her poetic writing, particularly death and immortality, also can be seen.

Just before she died, it is believed she penned the famous lines, often seen and used both in and out of the writing world:  “Because I could not stop for death, He kindly stopped for me; the carriage held but just ourselves, and immortality.”  Her writing, indeed, gained her the immortality she sought.

Here’s “Hope” in its entirety:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I've heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.

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