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In Honor of Emily

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“Hope is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson is the first poem I remember reading and analyzing as part of a school assignment. 

The first time I read it, I definitely did not “get it”. I honest to goodness remember my initial reaction to my teachers’ analysis of the poem itself. It was the first time I asked myself the question… how do we know that that is what the author wanted us to read into it? How do we know for sure that she meant for the bird to signify the innocence of the emotion of hope? With some authors it is harder than others – as some authors left… well… less of a trail of breadcrumbs for us to follow. One of those authors was Emily Dickinson – the recluse who, to this day, inspires many with her words, whilst we know relatively little about her innermost thoughts during her most productive literary period. On today the anniversary of her death, we’d like to give a brief background on this interesting poet and focus not on exactly what her words mean to us, but rather on the lasting legacy she left behind. 

emily3Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10th, 1830. She was the second of three children, with one elder brother named Austin and a younger sister, Lavinia. Her father was not only a lawyer by trade, but a trustee of Amherst College, where his father had been one of the founders of the school. With their background in education, the Dickinson children were given a thorough education for the time, certainly when it came to the two girls. At the age of 10 Emily and her sister began their studies at Amherst Academy, which had begun to allow female students a scant two years before their studies began. Emily remained at the school for seven years, studying math, literature, latin, botany, history, and all manner of respected academia. Upon finishing her studies at the Academy in 1847, Dickinson enrolled in the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College). Although the Seminary was only 10 miles from her home, Dickinson only remained at the school for 10 months before returning home – for reasons many have tried to unearth but none can be sure of. 

emily2Though throughout her late teens Dickinson seemed to enjoy life in Amherst socially, and was certainly already writing poetry (a family friend Benjamin Franklin Newton hinted in letters before his death in this time that he had hoped to live to see her reach the success he knew possible), by her twenties Emily was already feeling a melancholy pull, exacerbated by her emotions when it came to death, and the deaths of those around her. Her mother’s many chronic illnesses kept Emily often at home, and by the 1860s (Dickinson’s 30s) she had already largely pulled out of the public eye. By her 40s, Dickinson rarely left her room, and preferred to speak with visitors through her door rather than face-to-face. Unbeknownst to any, Dickinson worked tirelessly throughout this period on her poetry, and by the end of her life had amassed a collection of roughly 1,800 poems neatly written in hand sewn journals. That being said, less than one dozen of her poems would be published during her lifetime. The first book of her poetry, published four years after her death on May 15th, 1886 by her sister Lavinia, was a resounding success. In less than two years, eleven editions of the first book had been printed, and her words spread across nations. 

“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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It is only now, in researching her life and rereading a few of her best-loved poems that I can see the answer to my question of long ago. We don’t know what Emily Dickinson wanted each word to signify. We don’t need to know. It is the way her poetry made and makes the public feel that gave it the popularity it still holds to this day. “Hope”, indeed. 

Today we honor Emily Dickinson and her lasting impact on the world of poetry. 

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Happy Birthday, Lady Lazarus

By Margueritte Peterson

“I am terrified by this dark thing/ That sleeps in me; / All day I feel its soft, feathery turnings, its malignity.” The author of this quote, and many similar to it, was a haunted being. She struggled with depression throughout her life and eventually succumbed to the constant pain she felt and ended her life. Many think of her and immediately think “that lady put her head in an oven” (don’t lie… you did, didn’t you?). Banish it from your mind for a moment! Today, we’d rather focus on her fascinating life and haunting poetry instead. Her being, of course, Sylvia Plath.  Though you may not think that writing a blog on Sylvia Plath at Halloween-time is very… original, we are going to do it – as today would have been her 83rd birthday. Plath was an extremely influential person – not just in words, but in her struggle to have her poems heard – despite seeming to have the world against her!

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A young Sylvia Plath.

Sylvia Plath was born in October of 1932 and was raised in Massachusetts. Despite her father’s sudden death shortly following her 8th birthday, Plath did not begin to show signs of her mental illness until college. As an 8 year old child Plath survived and thrived through a tumultuous year – first with her father’s death, then her family’s relocation to Wellesley, MA, and also with her first published poem in the Boston Herald’s Children’s Section. Sylvia blossomed in academic environments and in 1950 when she began to attend Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, she discovered a whole new world, finding she loved being a part of an academic community. She became editor of The Smith Review and interned, as a guest editor, at Mademoiselle magazine during the summer after her junior year – a highly sought after position. Her mental illness finally seemed to surface during this time, when Plath was distraught after not meeting poet (and one of her idols) Dylan Thomas during one of his trips to New York. She quickly spiraled into depression, and at the end of the summer she made her first documented suicide attempt by taking sleeping pills and laying down in the crawl space beneath her mother’s house – where she was found 3 days later.

A happy Plath and Hughes after the birth of their daughter, Freida, in 1960.

A happy Plath and Hughes after the birth of their daughter, Freida, in 1960.

Now, I know I said that we would be focusing on her fascinating life and poetry rather than her suicide, but bear with me! The events in this particular summer were of great inspiration a decade later when Plath began and published her first and only novel, The Bell Jar. (There is a method to my madness, you can see.) But let us not get ahead of ourselves. Despite her intense summer and a stay at McLean Hospital receiving insulin and electric shock therapy in the fall, Plath recovered and graduated the following June with high honors. She received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge, where she continued to study poetry and was constantly published in the university paper, Varsity. The following February, Plath’s life would be turned upside down by her passionate romance with a fellow poet, Ted Hughes. The pair were married after a short four-month courtship. Hughes was described by Plath as a singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer with “a voice like the thunder of God” (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). Plath and Hughes moved to Massachusetts shortly after their wedding so that Plath could teach creative writing at her alma mater, Smith College. Hughes, during this time, taught at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. After spending a couple years in America, the couple moved back to London, where their first child, Freida Hughes, was born in 1960.

plath3It was at this time that Sylvia’s first large book of poetry was published by William Heinemann, named The Colossus and Other Poems. It received mixed reviews (overall better in the UK than it was received in the US), but did not gain enough enthusiasm to raise Sylvia Plath to the point of literary fame. She finished her novel The Bell Jar in 1962 (though it would not be published for another year) and the couple moved to Devon, England, to a small house in the English countryside. Later on in 1962, Plath and Hughes separated after she became aware of his affair with Assia Wevill, the beautiful woman renting their old flat in London with her husband. After moving back to the city with the children, Plath rented a small flat in a house that was once lived in by William Butler Yeats. Plath, renting the flat on a five year lease, thought this a good omen. The poet experienced a final burst of creative energy in the winter of 1962, writing many of the poems that would eventually be contained in Ariel, her posthumously published book of poetry. The Bell Jar finally hit the shelves in January of 1963, published under a pseudonym, but, like The Colossus, was not the great success Plath’s ego needed. In February of 1963, Plath ended her life.

Her work continues to be immensely popular, but many fans of the author’s brutal poetry know very little of her previous works. By the time Plath entered Smith College, she had written over 50 short stories and had them published in local papers and school publications. Also part of her poetry works were her “landscape poetry” – much of which was centered around Northern England (Yorkshire) and is not given as much credit as her later works. Much of her writing is also contained in her private diaries, which were first published in 1982, though her mother published a book of her correspondence home, letters Plath wrote between 1950 and 1963. In 2000 a new book of Plath’s journals was published, when Hughes gave the rights to publish the journals still in his possession (as executor of Plath’s estate), of which over half was new material to the public eye. Though the last of Plath’s journals were destroyed by Hughes, an act condemned often by Plath’s fans – as he said he did not ever want his children with Plath to see her desperate and depressed last months of thought.

plath5Plath’s style has been difficult for scholars to describe, as her writings ran the gamut of emotion and subject. Death and resurrection was a consistent theme throughout her writings in The Colossus, where as in Ariel her more vengeful poems focus more on the rage and despair she felt as she coped with her mental illness. Her poems are almost autobiographical in nature, as she used herself as the subject for almost all of her work. Perhaps this is why she is so popular with readers – though Plath struggled using her personal self as fodder for her poems, she continued to do so. She unabashedly offered herself as a model for her poems – a difficult undertaking for any author. On this her 83rd birthday, we honor Plath and her contribution to the world of poetry – for giving other writers (as many have since given her credit in helping shape their own work) the strength to delve into their own psyche and use it in their compositions.

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