In 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but severe homesickness led her to return home after one year. Throughout her life, she seldom left her house and visitors were scarce. The people with whom she did come in contact, however, had an enormous impact on her thoughts and poetry. She was particularly stirred by the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she met on a trip to Philadelphia. He left for the West Coast shortly after a visit to her home in 1860, and some critics believe his departure gave rise to the heartsick flow of verse from Dickinson in the years that followed. While it is certain that he was an important figure in her life, it is not certain that this was in the capacity of romantic love—she called him “my closest earthly friend.”
By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost total physical isolation from the outside world, but actively maintained many correspondences and read widely. She spent a great deal of this time with her family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was actively involved in state and national politics, serving in Congress for one term. Her brother Austin attended law school and became an attorney, but lived next door once he married Susan Gilbert (one of the speculated—albeit less persuasively—unrequited loves of Emily). Dickinson’s younger sister Lavinia also lived at home for her entire life in similar isolation. Lavinia and Austin were not only family, but intellectual companions during Dickinson’s lifetime.
Dickinson’s poetry reflects her loneliness and the speakers of her poems generally live in a state of want, but her poems are also marked by the intimate recollection of inspirational moments which are decidedly life-giving and suggest the possibility of happiness. Her work was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.