© Paul P. Reuben
Chapter 4: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Outside Links: | ED Lexicon | Dickinson Electronic Archives | The Homestead/Museum | The ED International Society | ED: Early Feminist Essays | Poems about ED | ED Online |
Page Links: | Primary Works | Her Poetry | ED and the Civil War | ED Poems Set to Music |
Selected Bibliography: | Biographical 1980-1999 | Biographical 2000-Present | Critical 1980-1999 | Critical 2000-Present |
| A Brief Biography |
| Study Questions | MLA Style Citation of this Web Page |
Johnson Edition Poems: 1-100 101-200 201-300 301-400 401-500 501-600 601-700 701-800 801-900 901-1000 1001-1100 1101-1200 1201-1300 1301-1400 1401-1500 1501-1600 1601-1700 1701-1775
Site Links: | Chap 4: Index | Authors Alphabetical List |Table Of Contents |Home Page | August 13, 2012
Amherst College Library
(Appears in Sewall's book with the following credit: "Frontispiece. Emily Dickinson. From the daguerreotype (3 1/8" x 2 1/4") Amherst College Library. [Courtesy of the Trustees of Amherst College]")
with permission from
the Columbia Bartleby Library
(E-Mail from John Lancaster, Curator of Special Collections, Amherst College Library: " ... the lower photo, which is actually our image, retouched to add ruffles and curl ED's hair, ... the original of the retouched image is in the Houghton Library at Harvard University." 6/11/98)
"Could you believe me--without? I had no portrait, now, but am small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur--and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves--Would this do just as well?" - ED to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, July, 1862, Letter 268 (Johnson)
Top Primary Works
Acts of light, Emily Dickinson: poems by Emily Dickinson; paintings by Nancy Ekholm Burkert; appreciation by Jane Langton. Boston: New York Graphic Society, 1980. PS1541 .A62
Copland, Aaron. Twelve poems of Emily Dickinson, set to music. Voice and piano. NY: Boosey & Hawkes, 1951. M1621.4 .C784 D5
Franklin, R. W. ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981.
- - -. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. PS1541 .A1
- - -. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999.
Hart, Ellen L. and Martha N. Smith. eds. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Paris P, 1998. ISBN: 0963818368
Johnson, Thomas H. ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1955.
- - -. ed. Complete Poems. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. PS1541 .A1
- - -. ed. Selected Letters. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971. PS 1541.Z5 A32
- - -, and Theodora Ward. eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1979. PS1541 Z5 A3
Miller, Ruth. The poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan UP, 1968. PS1541 .Z5 M5
Rosenbaum, S. P. ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978. PS1541 .Z49 R6
Todd, Mabel Loomis, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. eds. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1890. (115 poems altered by Higginson)
- - -. Poems, Second Series. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1891. (166 poems altered by Higginson)
Todd, Mabel Loomis. ed. Letters of Emily Dickinson. Cleveland, World Pub. Co., 1951. PS1541.Z5 A3 (first published in 1894 includes 102 new, complete or parts, poems)
- - -. ed. Poems, Third Series. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1896. (168 poems)
"Emily Dickinson." Voices & visions [videorecording]; a presentation of the South Carolina Educational Television Network; produced by New York Center for Visual History. Santa Barbara, CA: Intellimation, 1988. Video Cassette No. 3. PS305 .V65x
Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Vendler, Helen (introd. and commentaries). Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2010.
Top Her Poetry
Emily Dickinson had no abstract theory of poetry. It is not certain if she was familiar with the poetic theories of Edgar Allan Poe, Coleridge, Emerson, Whitman and Matthew Arnold. When editor Thomas Higginson asked her to define poetry, she gave a subjective, emotional response: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"
Whatever her own views of poetry, critics have associated her work with other traditions in literature:
1. The 17th Century Metaphysical Tradition: She read a great deal and enjoyed the writings of 17th century authors. Example #585
2. The Emersonian Tradition: She frequently voices ideas of independence and individualism, of reaction against conformity and obeisance to tradition, providing us a poetic variation upon the theme of self-reliance. There is also the romantic notion of the relationship between beauty and truth. "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." - John Keats. Example # 449.
3. The New England Tradition: It has been characteristic of New England people to be shy, withdrawn, to say little, but to convey much. Emily never writes a long poem, but tends toward epigrammatic, the concentrated, carefully wrought, gemlike lyric, whose mastery of ambiguity, of allusion, of compressed syntax, of the lyric outburst, is a central concern.
4. The Nature Poetry Tradition: Possible influence of William Cullen Bryant and Henry Thoreau.
The Character of Her Verse
1. Highly compressed, compact, shy of being exposed.
2. Her style is elliptical - she will say no more than she must - suggesting either a quality of uncertainty or one of finality.
3. Her lyrics are her highly subjective. One-fifth of them begin with "I" - she knows no other consciousness.
4. Ambiguity of meaning and syntax. Wrote Higginson: "She almost always grasped whatever she sought, but with some fracture of grammar and dictionary on the way."
5. Concreteness - it is nearly a theorem of lyric poetry that it is as good as it is concrete. Even when she is talking of the most abstract of subjects, Emily specifies it by elaborating it in the concreteness of simile or metaphor. Examples #341, 712.
6. Use of poetic forms such as alliteration, assonance, and consonance; also onomatopoetic effects, #465.
7. Obscurity. Higginson said " ... she was obscure, and sometimes inscrutable; and though obscurity is sometimes, in Coleridge's phrase, a compliment to the reader, yet it is never safe to press this compliment too hard."
Themes In Emily Dickinson's Poetry
A few themes occupied the poet: love, nature, doubt and faith, suffering, death, immortality - these John Donne has called the great granite obsessions of humankind.
Love: Though she was lonely and isolated, Emily appears to have loved deeply, perhaps only those who have "loved and lost" can love, with an intensity and desire which can never be fulfilled in the reality of the lovers' touch. Examples: #511, 478, 640.
Nature: A fascination with nature consumed Emily. She summed all her lyrics as "the simple news that nature told," (#441); she loved "nature's creatures" no matter how insignificant - the robin, the hummingbird, the bee, the butterfly, the rat (#1356 "The rat is the concisest tenant"). Only the serpent gave her a chill - #986. Other poems: #130, 214, 285, 318, 322, 328, 333, 526, 1463.)
Faith And Doubt: Emily's theological orientation was Puritan - she was taught all the premises of Calvinistic dogma - but she reacted strenuously against two of them: infant damnation and God's sovereign election of His own. There was another force alive in her time that competed for her interests: that was the force of literary transcendentalism. This explains a kind of paradoxical or ambivalent attitude toward matters religious. She loved to speak of a compassionate Savior and the grandeur of the Scriptures, but she disliked the hypocrisy and arbitrariness of institutional church. In one of her poems she approached God in prayer, but she could only worship, she could not pray (#564). At times she came to God in great confidence as in #1052. In another she addresses Him progressively as "Burglar, Banker, Father." (#49) There are other lyrics which express grave doubt as in # 338, 185 and 376. Other examples are #324,, 1207.
Pain And Sufferin: Emily displays an obsession with pain and suffering; there is an eagerness in her to examine pain, to measure it, to calculate it, to intellectualize it as fully as possible. Her last stanzas become a catalog of grief and its causes: death, want, cold, despair, exile. In #241, Emily says "I like a look of Agony." Examples # 252, 258, 650.
Death: Many readers have been intrigued by Dickinson's ability to probe the fact of human death. She often adopts the pose of having already died before she writes her lyric - #712 and 465. She can look straight at approaching death - # 1100 and 547. Other examples # 49, 182, 1078, 1624, 1732
Structural Patterns (from S. W. Wilson's "Structural Patterns in the Poetry of ED." American Literature 35: 53-59.)
Major pattern is that of a sermon: statement or introduction of topic, elaboration, and conclusion. There are three variations of this major pattern:
1. The poet makes her initial announcement of topic in an unfigured line (examples: #241, #329)
2. She uses a figure for that purpose (#318, #401).
3. She repeats her statement and its elaboration a number of times before drawing a conclusion (#324).
Top ED and the Civil War
"Since Emily Dickinson's full maturity as a dedicated artist occurred during the span of the Civil War, the most convulsive era of the nation's history, one of course turns to the letters of 1861-1865, and the years that follow, for her interpretation of events. But the fact is that she did not live in history and held no view of it, past or current. Walt Whitman projected himself into the world about him so intensely that not only the war but the nation itself is continuously the substance of his thought in prose and verse. The reverse was true for Dickinson, to whom the war was an annoyance, a reality only when it was mirrored to her in casualty lists. Such evidently was true in some degree for all the Dickinsons, since Austin, when drafted exercised his privilege of paying the five-hundred-dollar fee to arrange for a substitute. Emily wrote Mrs. Bowles in the summer of 1861: 'I shall have no winter this year-on account of the soldiers-Since I cannot weave Blankets, or Boots-I thought-it best to omit the season.' Only once again does she make any general allusion to the mighty conflict, the repercussions of which are clearly audible even after the lapse of a century. 'A Soldier called-,' she wrote Bowles just a year later, 'a Morning ago, and asked for a Nosegay, to take to Battle. I suppose he thought we kept an Aquarium.' The attitude of mind that could prompt such shallow facetiousness can be understood in the light of her personal intent in living. Years later, on the eve of the first election of President Cleveland, she made clear to Mrs., Holland the nature and extent of her concern with social history. 'Before I write you again, we shall have had a new Czar. Is the Sister a Patriot? George Washington was the Father of his Country' - George Who?' That sums all politics to me.' The rejection of society as such thus shows itself to have been total, not only physically but psychically. It was her kind of economy, a frugality she sought in order to make the most of her world; to focus, to come to grips with those universals which increasingly concerned her."
Top Selected Bibliography: Biographical 1980-1999
Dickenson, Donna. Emily Dickinson. Dover, NH: Berg, 1985. PS1541 .Z5 D48
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992. PS1541 .Z5 F27
Garbowski, M. M. The House Without a Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1989.
Knapp, Bettina L. Emily Dickinson. NY: Continuum, 1989. PS1541 .Z5 K6
Lease, Benjamin. Emily Dickinson's Readings of Men and Books: Sacred Soundings. NY: St. Martin's P, 1990.
McNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. NY: Pantheon Books, 1986. PS1541 .Z5 M25
Mossberg, Barbara A. Emily Dickinson: When a Writer is a Daughter. 1982. PS1541 .Z5 M67
Wolff, Cynthia G. Emily Dickinson. NY: Knopf, 1986.
Selected Bibliography: Biographical 2000-Present
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. NY: Random House, 2001 (paperback: NY: Modern Library, 2002).
Kirk, Connie A. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2004.
Mitchell, Domhnall. Measures of Possibility: Emily Dickinson's Manuscripts. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2005.
Pollak, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. NY: Oxford UP, 2003.
Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. NY: Knopf, 2008.
Top Selected Bibliography: Critical 1980-1999
Barker, Wendy. Lunacy of Light: Emily Dickinson and the Experience of Metaphor. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.
Benfey, Christopher. E. D. and the Problem of Others. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts P, 1984.
Boswell, Jeanetta. Emily Dickinson: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources, with Selective Annotations, 1890-1987. Jefferson, NC: Mc Farland & Co., 1989.
Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.
Dickie, Margaret. Lyric Contingencies: Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens. Philadelphia: U of Penn. P, 1991. PS303 .D53
Diehl, Joanne F. Dickinson and the Romantic Imagination. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1981. PS1541 Z5 D5
Duchac, Joseph. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: An Annotated Guide to Commentary Published in English, 1978-1989. NY: G. K. Hall & Co., 1993. PS1541 .Z5 D82x
Eberwein, Jane D. ed. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 1998.
Farr, Judith. ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. NY: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Ferlazzo, Paul J., ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1984. PS1541 .Z5 C7
Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller. eds. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1998.
Martin, Wendy. An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1984. PS310 .F45 M3
Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.
Myerson, Joel. Emily Dickinson: a descriptive bibliography. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1984. Z8230.5 .M96
Paglia, Camille. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. NY: Vintage, 1991.
Phillips, Elizabeth. Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1996.
Porter, David T. Dickinson, the Modern Idiom. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1981. PS1541.Z5 P626
Sanchez-Eppler, Karen. Touching Liberty: Abolition, Feminism. and the Politics of the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
Smith, Martha N. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992. PS1541 .Z5 S67
Smith, Robert M. The Seductions of Emily Dickinson. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1996.
Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson's Poetry. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981. PS1541 .Z5 W38
Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven: Yale, 1984.
Top Selected Bibliography: Critical 2000-Present
Benfey, Christopher. A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade. NY: Penguin, 2008.
Coghill, Sheila. ed. Visiting Emily. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2000.
Conrad, Angela. The Wayward Nun of Amherst: Emily Dickinson and Medieval Mystical Women. NY: Garland 2000
Cooley, Carolyn L. The Music of Emily Dickinson's Poems and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2003.
Crumbley, Paul. Winds of Will: Emily Dickinson and the Sovereignty of Democratic Thought. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2010.
Eberwein, Jane D. and Cindy MacKenzie. eds. Reading Emily Dickinson's Letters: Critical Essays. U of Massachusetts P, 2009.
Farr, Judith, and Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
Finnerty, Páraic. Emily Dickinson's Shakespeare. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2006.
Gardner, Thomas. A Door Ajar: Contemporary Writers and Emily Dickinson. NY: Oxford UP, 2006.
Gordon, Lyndall. Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family's Feuds. NY: Viking, 2010.
Heginbotham, Eleanor E. Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson: Dwelling in Possibilities. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2003.
Howe, Susan and Weinberger, Eliot. My Emily Dickinson. NY: New Directions, 2007.
Jackson, Virginia. Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2005.
Jeffs, William P. Feminism, Manhood, and Homosexuality: Intersections in Psychoanalysis and American Poetry. NY: Peter Lang, 2003.
Keane, Patrick J. Emily Dickinson's Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2008.
Kearns, Michael. Writing for the Street, Writing in the Garret: Melville, Dickinson, and Private Publication. Columbus: Ohio State UP, 2010.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. NY: Facts on File, 2007.
MacKenzie, Cynthia, and Penny Gilbert. Concordance of the Letters of Emily Dickinson. Boulder: UP of Colorado, 2000.
Mamunes, George. "So has a Daisy vanished": Emily Dickinson and Tuberculosis. McFarland, 2008.
Martin, Wendy. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge UP, 2002.
Messmer, Marieta. A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson's Correspondence. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2001.
Mitchell, Domhnall. Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2000.
- - -. Measures of Possibility: Emily Dickinson's Manuscripts. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 2005.
Peel, Robin. Emily Dickinson and the Hill of Science. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2010.
Spengemann, William C. Three American Poets: Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Herman Melville. Notre Dame, IN: U of Notre Dame P, 2010.
Vendler, Helen. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2004.
Wardrop, Daneen. Emily Dickinson and the Labor of Clothing. Durham, NH: U of New Hampshire P, 2009.
Wheeler, Lesley. The Poetics of Enclosure: American Women Poets from Dickinson to Dove. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2002.
| Top |Emily Dickinson: A Brief Biography
A student project by Adele Anderson
Allen Tate said of Emily Dickinson: "There is none of whom it is truer to say that the poet is the poetry." Whether that is the case or not, is open to debate. There are, however, very few poets of whom so little is known about as Emily Dickinson. The people of Amherst, where Dickinson spent her life, referred to her as The Myth - the recluse of whom they caught nary a glimpse and whose predilection for white dresses was well known.
Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. Her grandfather, Samuel Dickinson nearly went broke in the process of founding Amherst College. Dickinson's father, Edward, was a successful lawyer, treasurer of the college and a pillar of the community. Her mother, Emily, spent the last years of her life as an invalid. Little is known about her, though there is speculation about the quality of her relationship with her middle daughter. Dickinson had an older brother, Austin and a younger sister, Lavinia, generally referred to as Vinnie. Although married to Susana Gilbert (a friend and, as some speculate, a lover of Dickinson), he had an affair with his neighbor, Mabel Todd, who eventually published the first edition of Dickinson's poems in 1890.
In his biography The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson, John Evangelist Walsh gives a detailed account of the relationships between Todd, Austin Dickinson and his wife, and Emily Dickinson. It seems that Todd pursued acquaintance with Emily Dickinson rather vigorously, yet in vain. Although invited into the Dickinson home to sing and play the piano for Dickinson's invalid mother, Todd never managed to meet Dickinson face to face.
Little information regarding Dickinson's childhood is known. Her father seems to have been the most important figure in her early years. According to Donna Dickenson in Emily Dickinson, Edward Dickinson, although he "valued his daughters' education " had little sympathy towards the women involved in the suffragist movement, calling them "a class of females some sentimental, some belligerent, some fist-shakers, some scolds." (Dickenson, 7)
Some biographers mention that Dickinson spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Others, like Dickenson, claim Amherst Academy as the site of Dickinson's formal education. Regardless of the particular institution, the subjects Dickinson studied cover a wide field, from algebra, chemistry, anatomy to Latin, Greek (ancient) and geography (Dickenson, 7). Biographers agree that Dickinson's sojourn at school was brief - one year - a brevity usually ascribed to her overwhelming homesickness. One biographical article, from www.greatwomen.org mentions that during the year she spent at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson stubbornly and successfully resisted conversion during a religious revival. Whether this display of independence contributed to her departure from school or not, is open to debate. However, once she returned to her father's house in Amherst, Dickinson rarely left it.
Some biographers ascribe Dickinson a socially active life during her twenties. The Dickinson family was one of the oldest and most respected in Amherst, and the possibilities for social interaction were plentiful. There is no irrefutable evidence on the subject of Dickinson's early adulthood, though speculation, especially on the subject of her sexuality, continues vigorously. The author of a biographical article at www.sapho.com claims that Dickinson's "passionate love" was none other than her sister in law, Susan Dickinson, nee Gilbert, whom she might have met while at Amherst. Others have attempted to establish romantic links between Dickinson and Samuel Bowles and Judge Otis Lorde. There is no indisputable factual evidence regarding Dickinson's love life and attempts to uncover such evidence have been fruitless.
What is known for sure is that, upon her return to her father's house, Dickinson became more and more a recluse, avoiding almost all contact with others, except in correspondence. She was an avid letter writer, carrying on correspondences with a large number of friends and family. Dickinson was also a voracious reader. Yet, despite her increasing withdrawal from society, she sometimes lowered treats in a basket fastened to a rope to children waiting on the lawn under her second-story window.
Dickinson was known in Amherst as the "Myth," an eccentric woman of good family and impeccable social pedigree. For reasons known only to her, she wore nothing but white for at least two decades; most pictures, however, precious few as they are, show her wearing a dark colored dress. The picture, which seems to be the best known, and most often shown, was probably taken before the white phase.
| Top | Although Dickinson included poems in the many letters she wrote, her family was unaware of just how many she had written. They all seem to have respected Dickinson's extensive privacy, a fact which has frustrated biographers and others interested in her life for more than a hundred years.
Death, which is the subject of many of her poems, was never far from Dickinson. As Dolores Dyer Lucas points out in Emily Dickinson and Riddle, the Dickinson home was situated along the route to the Amherst cemetery, which gave plenty of opportunity to watch funeral processions go by. Death was also a visitor in the Dickinson home. Edward Dickinson, Emily's father, died in 1874, her mother in 1880. The death that most affected Dickinson, though was that of her nephew Gilbert, who died of typhoid fever at the age of eight. His death so affected Dickinson that she spent the rest of that year an invalid. She never fully recovered, losing consciousness twice over the next several months (Walsh, 34).
Despite the encouragement she received from her friends and family, who had received many of her poems in her letters to them, Dickinson herself did not publish any of her poems. She submitted a few to a magazine, but was rejected by the editor, who no doubt found her style rather unusual. After this experience, Dickinson never again attempted publication of her poetry. Eight of the almost two thousand poems she wrote were published by friends without her permission. As the editor who rejected her poems noted, Dickinson's style was unusual, even startling, especially for a woman at that time.
Her poems are not easily understood, as her choice of words and manner of punctuation seem willful at first. Critics have often used the term elliptical in describing her poetry. Some, like Lucas, see her poems as riddles. Others sift through them as if in search of a secret code, trying to find clues to the mystery that is Emily Dickinson. Most critics agree that Dickinson was quite ahead of her time, one of the first of modern American poets. She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barret Browning, although she herself never wrote sonnets. Ironically, although "she was dissuaded from reading the poetry of her contemporary Walt Whitman by rumor of its disgracefulness" (www.poets.org) and the vast differences in style and personality between the two, Dickinson and Whitman are now widely regarded as "the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice." (www.poets.ort)
Emily Dickinson died of Bright's disease in 1886, six years after the death of her mother. As described by Walsh, her funeral, for which she had given precise directions to her sister, Lavinia, some time before her death, was as singular as her life had been. Even in death, Dickinson went her own way, leaving her home through the back door, her coffin carried by "six Irish workmen, all of whom, as Mabel could not help noting, Emily had seen and talked with to the last. " (Walsh 38) The woman who became the editor of the first volume of Dickinson's poetry only four years later was denied even a glimpse of the poet's face to the very last.
| Top | Several volumes of Dickinson's poems were published, starting with the Todd edition in 1890. As if to make up for time lost, scholars and critics have published a never-ceasing stream of material regarding this most elusive and mysterious of poets. Critical articles, biographies, collections of Dickinson's letters and poems have been published in vast numbers in the last 111 years. Her poetry has been the subject of doctoral dissertations more than twenty times. Feminist scholars have opened new perspectives on Dickinson's poetry, as well as on her sexuality. Interest in and fascination with Dickinson, her life, her poetry have not yet reached their limit, and they most likely never will. With every new reading, one finds something new, surprising, startling in her poems. Her facility with language, the lyric quality and mystery of her poetry will provide many more critics, students and other interested parties with inspiration and subjects for speculation, interpretation, literary criticism.
Aside from the large amount of printed material regarding Dickinson, a wealth of information on her life and her poetry is easily accessible on the Internet. The material ranges from literary criticism, over encyclopedia articles to web sites maintained by her fans. A search of Dickinson's name yielded 27 sites on Yahoo and 748,958 web sites listing Dickinson for a variety of reasons, from used book dealers, memorabilia, on-line auction sites to sites maintained by universities and other intellectual institutions. There is also the Emily Dickinson Society, which sponsors a journal, and has an international members' list.
Dickenson, Donna Emily Dickinson. Dover, New Hampshire: Berg Publishers Ltd., 1985.
Lucas, Dolores Dyer Emily Dickinson and Riddle. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Walsh, John Evangelist The Hidden Life of Emily Dickinson. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
Top Study Questions
1. Study a group of poems with related themes. Then write an interpretation of one of the poems that includes your expanded understanding of the way Dickinson uses the theme in other poems in the group. Choose from among the following (the poem numbers are from the Johnson edition ):
(a) poems of loss and defeat: 49, 67, 305.
(b) poems about ecstasy or vision: 185, 214, 249, 322, 465, 501, 632.
(c) poems about solitude: 280, 303, 441, 664.
(d) poems about death: 49, 67, 88, 98, 153, 182, 241, 258, 280, 301, 341, 360, 369, 389, 411, 449, 510 529, 547, 712, 784, 856, 976, 1078, 1100, 1624, 1716, 1732.
(e) poems about madness and suffering: 315, 348, 435, 536.
(f) poems about entrapment: 187, 528, 754, 1099.
(g) poems about craft: 441, 448, 505, 1129.
(h) poems about images of birds: 130, 328, 348, 824.
(i) poems about a bee or bees: 130, 214, 216, 348, 1405.
(j) poems about a fly or flies: 187 and 465.
(k) poems about butterflies: 214, 341, 1099.
(l) poems about church imagery or biblical references: 130, 216, 258, 322, 1545.
(m) poems about love: 47, 293, 299, 303, 453, 463, 478, 494, 511, 549, 568, 640, 664, 907.
(n) poems about nature: 12, 130, 140, 214, 285, 318, 321, 322, 328, 33, 441, 526, 630, 783, 861, 986, 1084, 1356, 1463, 1575.
(o) poems about doubt and faith: 49, 59, 61, 185, 217, 254, 324, 338, 357, 376, 437, 564, 1052, 1207, 1545.
(p) poems about pain and anguish: 165, 193, 241, 252, 258, 280, 305, 315, 341, 348, 365, 410, 510, 512, 536, 650, 675, 772, 1005.
(q) poems about after death or afterlife: 301, 401, 409, 413, 615, 712, 829, 964.
2. Though alone and lonely, Dickinson is said to have loved intensely. Through a selection of her poems, discuss her treatment of love.
3. Many Dickinson poems illustrate change in the consciousness of the poet or speaker. Choose a poem in which this happens and trace the process by which the poem reflects and creates the change.
4. Closely analyze the central image in one of the following poems: 754 ("My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun - "), 1099 ("My Cocoon tightens - Colors teaze - "), or 1575 ("The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings - ").
5. Locate images of size, particularly of smallness, in Dickinson's poetry. Working out from 185 ("'Faith' is a fine invention"), trace evidence that Dickinson perceived a relationship between size and literary authority. Alternatively, locate images of authority in the world (king, emperor, gentlemen) and contrast these with images Dickinson uses to create her own persona as poet.
6. 1862, a year in which Dickinson wrote more than 300 poems, seems to have been a year of great emotional intensity for her. Drawing on selected poems from 1862, trace some recurrent themes or designs in the poems of that year.
7. Write four alternative first paragraphs to a paper entitled "Emily Dickinson."
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