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Emily Dickinson and Loneliness

Emily Dickinson died 134 years ago, having lived out her last years in complete solitude. She had asked her family to burn her poetry because she did not want the world to see it. After her death, her sister Lavinia opened a wooden chest and inside, poems upon poems upon poems. Her family went on to publish them, and now we have them with us today, to read, to learn from, to cry over, as all good poetry incites strong emotion. 

Let’s jump to the present day. Me. I am 18 years old. Not alone. Not a hermit. Surrounded by friends and family, with social media connecting me to thousands of souls a single click or post away. Being alone does not have to be a bad feeling, it is just an objective reality. But like I said, I am not alone. I am however, intensely lonely, in an age where you cannot be far from people for very long. It is not a failure on anyone else’s part to communicate love and care. I just constantly feel that something is lacking within me. 

So I go to Emily Dickinson. To understand what loneliness is and to understand what I can do to overcome it, or if I even should overcome it. Maybe there is no need to hate being lonely. Maybe it is a good thing. Let’s find out. Here is the poem, “The Loneliness One Dare not Sound,” written by Dickinson when she was around 31 years old.

From the first line, the L in loneliness is capitalized, which comforts the reader by conveying that loneliness is a universal feeling, and I am, oddly, not alone in being lonely. Emily Dickinson talks to me, and she tells me, why are you so scared to confront your loneliness? Is it its depth? The fear that if I face it, I will die, and all the worst things in the world would happen? She describes it as a horror, bringing to mind images of blood and fear, demonstrating how visceral emotional pain can be. We are scared to be soul searching, in an era where the minute we have a thought it goes online. Maybe you can’t understand yourself if you directly share a thought the minute it comes to your head. Maybe there is something to be said for reflection, for asking yourself the difficult questions, no matter how scary they are, no matter how intensely they reveal your flaws, as opposed to constantly living within superficialities. 

We get to the last stanza, where Dickinson has an epiphany. Loneliness builds into our personality, it defines who we are, and that is not necessarily always a bad thing. She uses the word “illuminate” in contrast to the word “seal”. Loneliness is the “Maker of the soul.” This is reminiscent of Rilke speaking of the great aloneness that every creative person experiences, because to create is to acknowledge, to acknowledge that you have your own individual voice that stands different and in contrast to the myriad other voices out there. By creating, and adding to the general dialogue, I distinguish myself, and moreover I make myself. Thus, being lonely doesn’t mean that I am lacking something essential. It just means that I will keep seeking to create and do more,which is essential to the continuation of my existence. It means that I need to ask myself who I am, and be okay with it. Mostly, it means that I am complete, with my loneliness, because it is not a hole but a tangible fulfillment of my psyche. Loneliness is a tool, and I must be careful how I use it: it can both illuminate or seal.

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