Emily Dickinson's Love Life

Emily Dickinson Master Letter

Image:Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

"Master" letter draft ("Master / If you saw a bullet hit a bird") Click here for larger image

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Wild nights - Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!
- From Fr269

Emily Dickinson never married, but because her canon includes magnificent love poems, questions concerning her love life have intrigued readers since her first publication in the 1890s. Speculation about whom she may have loved has filled and continues to fill volumes.  Her girlhood relationships, her “Master Letters,” and her relationship with Judge Otis Lord form the backbone of these discussions.

Dickinson’s school days and young adulthood included several significant male friends, among them Benjamin Newton, a law student in her father’s office; Henry Vaughn Emmons, an Amherst College student; and George Gould, an Amherst College classmate of the poet’s brother Austin.  Early Dickinson biographers identified Gould as a suitor who may have been briefly engaged to the poet in the 1850s, and recent scholarship has shed new light on the theory (Andrews, pp. 334-335).  Her female friendships, notably with schoolmate and later sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert and with mutual friend Catherine Scott Turner Anthon, have also interested Dickinson biographers, who argue whether these friendships represent typical nineteenth-century girlhood friendships or more intensely sexual relationships.

Found among Emily Dickinson's papers shortly after her death, drafts of three letters to an unidentified "Master" provide a source of intrigue, although there is no evidence to confirm that finished versions of the letters were ever sent.  Written during the poet’s most productive period, the letters reveal passionate yet changing feelings toward the recipient.  The first, dated to spring 1858, begins "Dear Master / I am ill"; the second, dated to early 1861, starts with "Oh, did I offend it"; and the third, dated to summer 1861, opens with "Master / If you saw a bullet hit a bird” (date attributions made by R.W. Franklin).

Judge Otis Lord

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Otis Phillips Lord

While the letters are remarkable examples of Dickinson’s exceptional power with words, they are studied as much to attempt identification of the intended recipient as for their literary mastery.  The lengthy list of proposed candidates includes Samuel Bowles, family friend, newspaper editor and publisher; William Smith Clark, a scientist and educator based in Amherst; Charles Wadsworth, a minister whom Dickinson heard preach in Philadelphia; as well as George Gould and Susan Dickinson.  Others have posited that the letters are simply literary exercises or that the author is attempting to resolve an internal crisis.  So much about Dickinson’s life remains unknown that an entirely different or as-yet unknown candidate may yet be revealed. Unless a contemporary account is discovered that clearly identifies the “Master,” the poet’s public will remain in suspense.

A romantic relationship late in the poet’s life with Judge Otis Phillips Lord is supported in Dickinson’s correspondence with him as well as in family references.  Lord (1812-1884) was a close friend of Edward Dickinson, the poet’s father, with whom he shared conservative political views.  Lord and his wife Elizabeth were familiar guests in the Dickinson household.  In 1859 Lord was appointed to the Massachusetts Superior Court and later served on the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts (1875-1882).  His relationship with the poet developed after the death of Elizabeth Lord in 1877.  Only fifteen manuscripts in Dickinson’s hand survive from their correspondence, most in draft or fragmentary form.  Some passages seem to suggest that Dickinson and Lord contemplated marrying.  The question of whether the reclusive poet would have consented to move to Lord’s home in Salem, Massachusetts, was mooted by Lord’s decline in health.  He died in 1884, two years before Emily Dickinson.

Whatever the reality of Dickinson’s personal experiences, her poetry explores the complexities and passions of human relationships with language that is as evocative and compelling as her writings on spirituality, death, and nature.

Further Reading:

For a complete text of the Master letters, see The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed.R.W. Franklin (Amherst, Mass.:  Amherst College Press, 1986).

For an account of the discovery of Dickinson's letters to Judge Lord, see Millicent Todd Bingham's Emily Dickinson:  A Revelation (New York: Harper and Bros, 1954)

Most biographies discuss the "Master" letters and Lord relationship in some detail.  Significant discussions of the Master letters include those in Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974); Cynthia G. Wolff's Emily Dickinson (New York: Knopf, 1986); and Alfred Habegger's My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001).

In addition, several works address more directly specific individuals and their qualifications for "Master."  Among them are

  • Andrews, Carol Damon. “Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly:  New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson.” The New England Quarterly, Vol. LXXXI, no. 2 (June 2008) 330-340.  Reintroduces the possibility of George Gould as the “Master” candidate.
  • Jones, Ruth Owen. "’Neighbor - and friend - and Bridegroom –‘" William Smith Clark as Emily Dickinson's Master Figure.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 11.2 (2002) 48-85.
  • Mamunes, George.   "So has a Daisy vanished":  Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis.  McFarland, 2007. Proposes Benjamin Franklin Newton as Master.
  • Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Ed. Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith. Paris Press, 1998.   Addresses the poet’s relationship with Susan Dickinson.
  • Patterson, Rebecca. The Riddle of Emily Dickinson.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1951.  Posits Kate Anthon as a love interest.