The American poet Emily Dickinson died in Amherst, Massachusetts, on this date in 1886 (books by this author). She had been in ill health for about two and a half years, and was confined to her bed for the last seven months of her life. Medical historians now believe that she was suffering from severe high blood pressure — she complained of headaches and nausea, and near the end of her life she struggled to breathe, eventually lapsing into a coma. She would not allow her doctor, Otis Bigelow, to come to her bedside, but would only consent to walk past the doorway. “Now, what besides mumps could be diagnosed that way!” he is said to have exclaimed. He listed her cause of death as “Bright’s disease,” which was a catchall diagnosis that included kidney disease as well as hypertension. Besides her physical ailments, she suffered greatly from the deaths of several close friends over the last years of her life; the most traumatic appears to have been that of her eight-year-old nephew in 1883.
Emily’s friend and sister-in-law Susan Gilbert Dickinson wrote the poet’s obituary for The Springfield Republican: “A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see.” Dickinson had left specific instructions for her burial. Her casket was carried by the family’s six Irish hired men, on a route that wound its way past her flower garden, through the barn in back of the house, and through a field of buttercups.
Very few of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime, and what was published was done so anonymously. After her death, Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, discovered hundreds of poems that she had written over the years. The first volume, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published in 1890.