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[Detail] Bird's eye view of Anniston, Ala. 1888.

Historical Context and Literature: Emily Dickinson (1810-1886)

Amherst, Mass. 1886. Burleigh Lith. Establishment.

Amherst, Massachusetts, Lucien R. Burleigh, Mapmaker, 1886.

To the right is a map of Amherst, Massachusetts in 1886, the year of Emily Dickinson's death. If you click on the map and zoom in you will be able to locate a number of sites related to Dickinson's life. See, for example, her home at 280 Main Street, and the house next door of her brother Austin and her sister-in-law and friend Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. See the First Congregational Church that Dickinson attended as a child, the railroad she alludes to in her poetry, and the West Cemetery where she is buried. The contemporary online map, Walking Tour of Amherst!, originally developed through the University of Massachusetts, will help you confirm your sitings of locations related to the life of Emily Dickinson.

  • If you had been a poet in Amherst, where would you have chosen to write? For example, your home, the public library, the university, the woods, or the commons?
  • What were the restraints that woman would have faced in being a writer in the mid-1800s? Why?

A woman who by her thirties had stopped leaving her home, Emily Dickinson found a very wide world within the confines of her small town, her home, and herself. Her writings, in sharp contrast to Mark Twain's, with their rich descriptions and dialects of the external world, depict an inner, metaphysical world through symbolism. Populated by the recurring symbols of bees, flowers, colors, and sunrises, this world takes form in Dickinson's poetry. Explore Dickinson's use of symbolism by creating a map of one of her poems or of her inner world as represented in multiple poems. You may begin with the poems below. What symbols appear in a poem? What symbols appear throughout her poetry? What actions and movement take place in the poem or in her inner world? How can you convey this movement in a map? What are the spacial relations between objects in the poems? Use your imagination and keep in mind that in its broadest sense, a map is just a representation of something and a metaphor for organizing and depicting information and ideas.


Two butterflies went out at noon
And waltzed above a stream,
Then stepped straight through the firmament
And rested on a beam;

And then together bore away
Upon a shining sea
Though never yet, in any port,
Their coming mentioned be.

If spoken by the distant bird,
If met in ether sea
By frigate or by merchantman,
Report was not to me.


This is the land the sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!

Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.