Topics on this Page
My Approach to Dickinson
Themes in her Poems
The Poet of Dread
Syllabus for Dickinson
Almost unknown as a poet in her lifetime, Emily Dickinson is now recognized as one of America's greatest poets and, in the view of some, as one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. The past fifty years or so have seen an outpouring of books and essays attempting to explain her poetry and her life. Some critics have used her life to try to explain her poetry, and others have tried to explain her life by referring to her poems, which they assume are autobiographical. Psychologically-oriented readers have subjected her to psychoanalytical diagnoses and labels, such as "a helpless agoraphobic trapped in her father's house"; her poetry has been interpreted as the last gasp of New England Puritanism; feminist critics see her as a victim of patriarchy in general or her father in particular; gender critics find homosexuality in her life and writings. These are just a few examples of the theorizing which Emily Dickinson and her poetry have inspired.
The large number of poems she wrote (over 1700 of them) makes
it easy for critics to find support for their theories. And the fact
that her life, her poems, and her letters are often difficult, if not
impossible to understand invites speculation.
Emily Dickinson can be seen as eccentric (my view)
or as psychologically unbalanced or even crazy (less tolerant views).
For example, from her late teens through her twenties she adopted the
more childish spelling of her name, "Emilie"; her letters repeatedly
express the wish
to remain a child. She didn't learn to tell time until her mid-teens,
because, she claimed, as a child she hadn't understood her father's
explanation and didn't want him to know. She wore only white for almost
her entire adult
life. Of course there is a great deal of conjecture about her love life
her never marrying: are the references in her poems and letters to
men whom she was in love with, or are the men and love imaginary? She
increasingly reclusive in her thirties until finally she almost never
the house. Her behavior at social gatherings in the Dickinson home,
she still attended them, was distinct. She asked whether a guest would
have a glass of wine or a rose. One guest described her manner of
at such occasions: "a moment when conversation lagged a little, she
sweep in, clad in immaculate white, pass through the rooms, silently
curtseying and saluting right and left, and sweep out again."
As a recluse, she occasionally stayed in her room rather than meet even close friends and rushed away when strangers visited; sometimes she talked with friends while hidden behind a partially open door. She stayed in her room and listened to her father's funeral service, which was held on the lawn of her home. She stayed in the next room to listen to a young woman play her piano and then sent her notes of appreciation. Even when ill, including when she was dying, she kept aloof; her doctor had to diagnose her as she walked by an open door. This does not mean that she cut herself off entirely from people; she had an extensive and active correspondence and saw an occasional, special visitor; she loved her brother's children and lowered baskets of baked goods via a pulley outside her window for neighborhood children.
And throughout her seclusion, Dickinson wrote poetry in her room. Some critics speculate that her withdrawal enabled her to write her poetry; it gave her both the space to write (her room) and the time to write by freeing her from woman's duties. Not even her sister Lavinia, on whom she depended, knew the extent of Emily's writing, not until she came across over 1700 poems after Emily's death.
I don't think the general reader has to be concerned with all these issues. If they catch your attention, by all means pursue them. But what matters is that Emily Dickinson's poetry speaks powerfully to us. It captures her insights and recreates meaningful events in living; it helps us to understand and even to re-live our own experiences through her intensity and with her emotional and intellectual clarity.
We will be looking at her poems from this perspective. For the most part, we will discuss poems that I think all of you can (ultimately, at least) relate to. Though we will not be considering her most obscure or mystifying poems, you may still find the selected poems difficult and confusing; it is my aim, online and in class, to help you develop the skills to read her poetry, so that at least some of the poems come alive for you.
One textual matter needs comment before you proceed to the discussion of her poetry. Emily Dickinson did not name her poems; the titles were assigned by early editors of her poems. Because your textbook uses these titles and because many editors also use them, I include them in the online lessons and study guides. However, I refer to the poems, in this overview and in any other discussion of Dickinson, by the first line.
Like John Keats, Emily Dickinson is a passionate poet. Though she lived in seclusion, she lived a passionate life. Within the confines of the family home, the garden, and her circle of family and friends, she felt with her whole heart, thought with intensity, and imagined with ardor, and she shared herself in her poetry and in her letters. She wrote of her life, "I find ecstasy in living, the mere sense of living is joy enough" (letter, 1870). Her intensity is reflected in the dramatic quality of both her poetry and her life.
Like Keats, Dickinson saw writing poetry as an exalted calling (or profession) and dedicated her life to poetry. She was willing to give the name of poetry only to verse that moved the reader profoundly:
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?
Writing poetry may have served Dickinson as a way of releasing or escaping from pain--from the deaths of loved ones, from her inability to resolve her doubts about God, from the terrors, however faint, which she saw within herself, in others, and in the world outside yet nearby. To say that she may have sublimated her pain into poetry does not invalidate her view of the power of poetry; both may be true and exist at the same time. Perhaps the sublimation of pain, as well as other powerful emotions, into poetry is one source of the power that it has to move readers profoundly. If this theory is valid, shouldn't it also apply to other literary forms--novels, plays, movie scripts, and television dramas?
Dickinson was concerned with the essence of living. She distilled or eliminated the inessential from experience until what was left was pure, what was left was the quality or qualities that made the thing or experience itself, that distinguished it from all other things or experiences. This was one way she achieved the absolute. Henry W. Wells explains another result of her concern with essence, "Life is simplified, explained, and reduced to its essence by interpreting the vast whole in relation to the minute particle."
In her poems, Dickinson adopts a variety of personas, including a little girl, a queen, a bride, a bridegroom, a wife, a dying woman, a nun, a boy, and a bee. Though nearly 150 of her poems begin with "I," the speaker is probably fictional, and the poem should not automatically be read as autobiography. Dickinson insisted on the distinction between her poetry and her life: "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse, it does not mean--me--but a supposed person."
Finally, I would like to point out that Dickinson's sense of whimsy and sense of humor, at their best, manifest themselves in charmingly playful poems which have a childlike quality. At their worst they are childish and cloying.
Her seeking the crux of experience affected her style. As part of her seeking essence or the heart of things, she distilled or eliminated inessential language and punctuation from her poems. She leaves out helping verbs and connecting words; she drops endings from verbs and nouns. It is not always clear what her pronouns refer to; sometimes a pronoun refers to a word which does not appear in the poem. At her best, she achieves breathtaking effects by compressing language. Her disregard for the rules of grammar and sentence structure is one reason twentieth century critics found her so appealing; her use of language anticipates the way modern poets use language. The downside of her language is that the compression may be so drastic that the poem is incomprehensible; it becomes a riddle or an intellectual puzzle. Dickinson said in a letter, "All men say 'what' to me"; readers are still saying "What?" in response to some of her poems.
Her seclusion may have contributed to the obscurity of her poetry. One danger of living alone, in one's own consciousness, is that the individual may begin to create private meanings for words and private symbols, which others do not have the key to. So language, instead of communicating, baffles the reader. Dickinson does fall into this trap occasionally.
Dickinson was enamored of language; she enjoyed words for their own sake, as words. One of her amusements was to read Webster's Dictionary (1844) and to savor words and their definitions. This interest gives a number of her poems their form--they are really definitions of words, for example "Pain has an element of blank," "Renunciation is a piercing virtue," or "Hope is the thing with feathers." Sometimes consulting the 1844 dictionary clarifies a line, for a meaning appearing in her dictionary may no longer be used.
Her linguistic mastery and sense of the dramatic combine in the often striking first lines of her poems, such as "Just lost when I was saved!," "I like a look of Agony," and "I can wade grief." Look at the first lines of the poems in your textbook for other examples.
Dickinson consistently uses the
Knowing other stylistic characteristics may help you read her poetry: She uses the dash to emphasize, to indicate a missing word or words, or to replace a comma or period. She changes the function or part of speech of a word; adjectives and verbs may be used as nouns; for example, in "We talk in careless--and in loss," careless is an adjective used as a noun. She frequently uses be instead of is or are. She tends to capitalize nouns, for no apparent reason other than that they are nouns.
To casual readers of poetry, it may seem that Dickinson uses rhyme infrequently. They are thinking of exact rhyme (for example, see, tree). She does use rhyme, but she uses forms of rhyme that were not generally accepted till late in the nineteenth century and are used by modern poets. Dickinson experimented with rhyme, and her poetry shows what subtle effects can be achieved with these rhymes. Dickinson uses identical rhyme (sane, insane) sparingly. She also uses eye rhyme (though, through), vowel rhymes (see, buy), imperfect rhymes (time, thin), and suspended rhyme (thing, along).
A reassurance: I don't expect you to memorize these categories or to write about them; I would just like you to be aware of the variety of rhymes and of Dickinson's poetic practices.
Though Dickinson's insights are profound, they are limited in topic. Northrup Frye points out, "It would be hard to name another poet in the history of the English language with so little interest in social or political events." She lived through the Civil War, yet her poems contain no clear references to that national trauma. Richard Howard comments wryly, "... there was only one event, herself."
The idea of identity or, alternately, the failure of identity runs through her poetry. One form it takes is the achievement of status or the lack of status; repeatedly she uses terms like "queen," "royal," "imperial," and "lowly." Status can be achieved through crucial experiences, like love, marriage, death, poetic expression. She insisted on the need and the right of the individual to maintain integrity; one way of doing this was to exercise inflexible principle in selecting or making choices.
In identifying themes, I briefly discuss one
theme at a time and list poems which illustrate that theme. This
approach may give the false impression that these themes are separate.
In fact, two or more of these themes may occur in the same poem, and
several themes are clearly connected, like pain and death.
The Inner World
In exploring our inner world or psychological states, Dickinson presents a drama of individual consciousness. Dickinson saw the potential danger and loneliness of that world, "the depths in every consciousness from which we cannot rescue ourselves--to which none can go with us" (letter, 1878). For the poet and critic Adrienne Rich, "Dickinson is the American poet whose work consisted in exploring states of psychic extremity"; Rich further asserts, "More than any other poet, Emily Dickinson seemed to tell me that the intense inner event, the personal and psychological, was inseparable from the universal."
Death, the ultimate experience, is for Dickinson the supreme touchstone. It reveals ultimate truth or reality; it makes clear the true nature of God and the state of the soul. She held the common Puritan belief that the way a person died indicated the state of his/her soul, a peaceful death being a sign of grace and harmony with God. When a much-admired friend died, she wrote to his minister to inquire about his state of mind while dying: "Please Sir, to tell me if he was willing to die, and if you think him at Home, I should love so much to know certainly that he was today in heaven."
Death is personified in many guises in her poems, ranging from a suitor to a tyrant. Her attitude is ambivalent; death is a terror to be feared and avoided, a trick played on humanity by God, a welcome relief, and a blessed way to heaven. Immortality is often related to death.
Pain, Separation, and Ecstasy
Pain plays a necessary role in human life. The amount of pain we experience generally exceeds the joy or other positive value contrasted with pain. Pain earns us purer moments of ecstasy and makes joy more vital. The pain of loss or of lacking/not having enhances our appreciation of victory, success, etc.; the pain of separation indicates the degree of our desire for union, whether with another human being or God. Food imagery is associated with this theme; hunger and thirst are the prerequisites for comprehending the value of food and drink.
"Pain has an element of blank"
George Whicher, a biographer of Emily Dickinson, claims, "Emily Dickinson was the only American poet of her century who treated the great lyric theme of love with entire candor and sincerity." Her poems run the gamut from renunciation to professions of love to sexual passion; they are generally intense.
God and Religion
Man's relationship to God and the nature of God concerned Dickinson throughout her life. From her schooldays on, her friends and family members experienced God's grace, conversion, and the sense of being saved. Though she came close to being converted once, she never felt God's call, a lack which caused her considerable disquiet and pain: "Tis a dangerous moment for any one when the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight--and punctual--and yet no signal [from God] comes." Her attitude toward God in her poems ranges from friendliness to anger and bitterness, and He is at times indifferent, at other times cruel.
Nature is a source of joy and beauty, which can without warning and without obvious cause become threatening, dangerous. Nature is at times (1) connected with death or with annihilation, (2) perceived as a regenerative--or renewing--force, or (3) characterized as indifferent to humanity.
Emily Dickinson has been called the poet of dread, a phrase which can be read in various ways. As you read her poetry, think about whether this is an accurate description and in what way(s) she might be a "poet of dread." Is she writing about life as something to be feared and dreaded? or are only some aspects of life to be feared and dreaded? Is it that she arouses the fears and dread of her readers? Or does the phrase mean some combination of these possibilities?
|Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
| "A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
| "After great pain a formal feeling
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
| "Success is counted sweetest"
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
| "Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
|"I started Early--took my Dog--"
"My life had stood a loaded gun"< (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall,"p. 23
Sample Midtern and Student Answers