Cover of The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson by Jane Yolen

The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson

Over a period of seven years, I wrote a sonnet a year about the life of my favorite poet (and neighbor!) Emily Dickinson. Not looking to get them published, not at first. Just writing them. They certainly didn’t seem to me to be something either an adult poetry publisher would want or something a children’s book publisher would feel right for their list. But they were poems I was impelled to write.

A composer friend, Jerry Noble, a man whose work I much admire, set the poems to music for soprano and piano, and the work was premiered at SmithCollege where he was a professor, to a huge audience and much applause. And that, I thought, was where they belonged.

But having lunch one day in Minneapolis with a publisher who had just brought out my of poems about the artist Marc Chagall, written with J. Patrick Lewis, serving a two-year term as the Children’s Poet Laureate, I happened to mention the seven poems. The publisher asked me to send them to him. And quickly, he said he wanted to bring them out as a book but would need at least seven more sonnets, mostly to be about Dickinson’s early life and her family.

So while the first seven poems had taken seven years to produce, the next seven were written in a great white heat of inspirations and desire in less than seven weeks.

The pictures by the great Gary Kelly simply bring the book together.

What reviewers have said:

  • “Author/poet Jane Yolen has created a collection of sonnets to pay tribute to the distinguished poetic voice of Emily Dickinson. Through this series of 15 sonnets penned by Yolen she presents the life of Emily sometimes through the voice of her sister, sometimes a friend, sometimes a critic and also by Yolen herself. Jane Yolen actually lives near the family homestead of the Dickinson family in Amherst, Massachusetts, so the setting and period have given the author the appropriate backdrop for this volume. Gary Kelley’s somber and somewhat dark paintings add the right atmosphere that surrounded Emily’s solitary life. Yolen has included biographical information throughout the book interspersed with the sonnets.”—IRA log by Karen Hildebrand, Ohio Library and Reading Consultant
  • “Yolen joins the throng of writers who have celebrated Emily Dickinson with this slim set of 15 sonnets devoted to facets of her life. The selections are constructed in various voices, each identified by the poem’s title. In the first five pieces, Emily speaks of the family’s brick house, her close relationship with her sister Vinnie, her schooling, her variance with her family’s religious beliefs, and the companionship of her dog…Some terms and phrases echo Dickinson’s poems, and each sonnet is complemented by an endnote of related biographical information. The other speakers-Vinnie, an anonymous critic, author and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Yolen herself-along with later pieces by Emily Dickinson, go on to tell of her always dressing in white, her life as a recluse, and her work. Niece Mattie reveals a playful side in the poet’s relationship with her brother’s children. Kelley’s somber, full-page paintings reflect Emily’s references to the grim mien of the Dickinson parents and also offer a sense of the poet’s contemplative life. Yolen’s personal tribute is framed in two concluding poems, a sonnet on Emily Dickinson’s still-standing house, and a brief parting poem. The choice of topics and spare lines, along with the added notes, efficiently convey a full sense of Dickinson as person and poet.”—School Librry Journal
  • “Adults and children alike will be moved by the power and beauty in these poems. Jane Yolen captures how Emily felt about her own life, and how others felt about her and her incredible gift. We see how Emily chose to live a quiet life without a husband or children, and how much she was loved and admired by those who knew her. We also appreciate why, to so many, her words are a gift, “a fine embrace.”
    At the back of the book Jane Yolen provides her readers with further information about Emily Dickinson’s life, her work, and her legacy.”—Through the Looking Glass Review
  • “…poems, illustrations and substantial notes combine well to lend a rounded portrait of this American poet every young reader needs to discover.”—Kirkus