Bettina Knapp’s “Emily Dickinson Life and Literature“, as the title suggests, explores details of Dickinson’s relationships and inner conflicts. Emily was born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusets, in a small farming community, and was raised according to strict Puritan doctrine. Since a very early age, however, she expressed views and thoughts that were at odds with the system.
Dickinson questioned the Trinitarian religious dogma and was ostracized for doing so. Even though she believed in God, she relinquished the hope of an afterlife. Her free thinking attitude ignited feelings of guilt and led to an inner struggle that found safe ground in her poetry. Bettina Knapp analyses many of her poems, ferreting out the thoughts and ideas that Dickinson hid in her verses.
Emily’s self-confinement was a release from the social rebuff she had to endure. Through her poetry, Emily found the strength she craved for, the medium that allowed her to explore the inner folds of her mind, the freedom that she sought to develop her own ideas. It was in her writing that she found the unconditional love and companionship she yearned for.
Emily excelled in her studies at the Amherst Academy, where she also made many friends. Traveling was difficult in those days and Dickinson nurtured many of those friendships through her passionate correspondence with them. These letters helped her to assuage her sense of isolation and expressed some of the yearnings of her intimate nature.
A society that treated women with contempt, expecting them to be obedient to men and to put up with the shame of being abandoned, did not award Dickinson the confidence she needed to get married. When one of her male epistolary friends, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, proposed to her, she declined. The intense love she felt for him never became physical. Fearing the devastation and shame of being deceived, she sought exile in the inner world of her poetry.
Emily took good care of her parents as they aged, but her relationship with them had always been ambivalent. Her mother, who was a homemaker without intellectual interests, did not have a close bond with her kids. Her father was cold, distant and remote, and Emily strived to gain his attention and acceptance.
Knapp cautions us that no matter how much critics attempt to be objective when interpreting her poetry, they are still trapped by their own personal views; they tend to project their own perspectives in the analysis of her poems. Nevertheless, Knapp’s interpretations stem from her deep understanding of Dickinson’s life. She unveils the irony of her verses and intersperses a few fragments of Emily’s letters in a fascinating narrative.
Emily Dickinson did not gain the attention of her contemporaries, but her poetry, an invaluable legacy to the world, enables us to fathom her subtle response to a restrictive society.
The power of poetry is expressed by Dickinson in the following quote:
“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 of the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry”.