May 15, 2010

Death of Emily Dickinson

The end of Emily Dickinson's life was full of grief. In April 1882, a minister she befriended named Charles Wadsworth died and, six months later, her mother died. A little over a year later, her favorite nephew died too. In March 1884, her friend Otis Phillips Lord (a judge, whom some speculate may have been a romantic interest) died. Dickinson wrote, "The Dyings have been too deep for me, and before I could raise my Heart from one, another has come."

On May 15, 1886, Dickinson herself died of a form of kidney disease called Bright's disease. She was 55 years old. She requested that all her letters be burned; she left no specific instructions about her manuscript poems, which were found later. Few had ever been published.

Her funeral was held in the library at the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts, where her white coffin was decorated with vanilla-scented heliotrope, a Lady's Slipper orchid, and blue field violets. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor from whom she sought advice on her writing, read the poem "No Coward Soul Is Mine" by Emily Brontë. He had previously met her only twice but would become her greatest booster posthumously. She was buried in the family plot at West Cemetery in Amherst (pictured). The greater controversy over her poems was yet to come.

Her poems were heavily edited then re-edited posthumously, before later being restored. Her poems are usually without titles and today are often referred to by a numbering system. This one was numbered XXXI. in a 1924 edition:

Death is a dialogue between
The spirit and the dust.
"Dissolve," says Death. The Spirit, "Sir,
I have another trust."

Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay.


  1. Beautiful, engaging entry. Wasn't her body walked (by her request) several times around her house, before taken-away for burial?

    Regardless, if I may share a poem by the contemporary writer R.G. Vliet (1929-84), which seems appropriate on her death day:

    Emily Dickinson

    Who that life was
    is clear: the wrist that moved
    near the table, the white dress
    in the shadow, sidestepping the square
    sunlight on the floor lest it burn
    the hem of it. Apples are pared
    and notes sent and the black
    stud is kept in the stable.
    Fires light her pillow.
    Morningtimes the garden smokes.
    September. September. September.
    Doors are kept ajar,
    but only so. The circus is outside
    the windows. The bread rises,
    jelly is put in jars,
    the hand is on the newel.
    Shoes glide up the stairs
    and the small attic burns.

  2. Rob,
    My maternal grandfather and two of his brothers had what was then called Bright's Disease. Today = chronic nephritis or acute glomerulonephritis. There are many possible causes of this kidney inflammation, too many to write here. It is much more common in males, There are also many symptoms and effects, among them high blood pressure. My maternal grandfather and his brothers all died in their forties..

  3. Bright's disease = acute glomerulonephritis - chronic kidney inflammation, has many causes and symptoms, among them high blood pressure. My maternal grandfather and his brothers died of Bright's disease in their forties.

  4. Please see the paper by me and Polly Longsworth, "Medicine Posthumous": A new look at Emily Dickinson's Medical Conditions. New England Quarterly vol 69 (2) 299-316, 1996. There we show with reasonable likelihood that Dickinson had severe primary hypertension, not chronic kidney disease. Norbert Hirschhorn MD

  5. I and Polly Longsworth published "Medicine Posthumous": A New Look at Emily Dickinson's Medical Conditions, in New England Quarterly 69 (2) 1996, 299-316, where we show with reasonable likelihood that Dickinson had severe hypertension and not chronic kidney disease.

  6. Thanks for the tip, Dr. Hirschhorn! It's worth noting that the cause of death listed on her death certificate was "Bright's Disease" but, as many of us know, 19th century medical work and terminology can be deceiving.


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