Hans van Lemmen
Among the finest poets America has ever produced, Emily Dickinson lived a life of quiet solitude. A master of the short lyric poem, her preoccupation with death and immortality permeated many of her greatest works. It is Dickinson’s handwritten draft of “I died for beauty – but was scarce” that we have reproduced here.
Among the finest poets America has ever produced, Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) lived a life of quiet yet intensely passionate solitude. A master of the short lyric poem, Dickinson had a preoccupation with death and immortality that permeated many of her greatest works.
Born to a prominent Massachusetts family, Dickinson studied at the Amherst Academy and briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to the family home. Unlike the rest of the Dickinson clan, who were very active in the community, Emily spent much of her life in a self-imposed isolation. Never married, she became reluctant to leave her house – and eventually even her bedroom – and maintained most of her relationships by written correspondence.
In her solitude, Dickinson was a prolific poet. While her friends and family were likely aware of her passion for poetry, the breadth of her writing was not discovered until after her death in 1886 when Lavinia, Emily’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems. Containing short lines, lacking titles and often using unconventional capitalization and punctuation, her work was entirely unique for the era.
Fewer than a dozen of Dickinson’s nearly 1800 poems were published during her lifetime. The first proper collection of her poetry was published in 1890 by her personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, though it was heavily edited to fit writing and societal conventions of the day. Finally, in 1955, the mostly unaltered The Poems of Emily Dickinson was released to a captivated world.
For someone known as an eccentric, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dickinson devoted much of her writing – both in her letters to friends and in her poetry – to the subjects of death and mortality. “I died for beauty – but was scarce” is considered one of Dickinson’s major works and is no exception to this theme. The poem follows Dickinson’s typical ACBC rhyme scheme, as the speaker narrates her own death (dying for Beauty) and her post-mortem conversation with a man who died for Truth. It is an allegorical death fantasy in the realm of Keats (recalling “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” from Ode on a Grecian Urn).
Today, Dickinson’s work is studied and beloved around the globe. Though much of the initial reaction to her work centered around her eccentricities, her poetry is now considered on its merits. Critics such as Harold Bloom have placed Dickinson alongside Robert Frost and Walt Whitman as a major American poet and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1973. Of late, interest in Dickinson’s life and poetry has seen a fresh resurgence, with two high-profile films and an Apple TV+ television show celebrating the author being released in recent years.
Emily Dickinson has long served as a source of inspiration for us here at Paperblanks. In fact, one of our earliest journals featured her work on the cover. We are thrilled to bring Emily Dickinson back to the Paperblanks collection with this new Embellished Manuscript design.