in full Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
born Dec. 10, 1830, Amherst, Mass., U.S.
died May 15, 1886, Amherst
American lyric poet who lived in seclusion and commanded a singular
brilliance of style and integrity of vision. With Walt Whitman,
Dickinson is widely considered to be one of the two leading 19th-century
Only 10 of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 1,800 poems are known to have
been published in her lifetime. Devoted to private pursuits, she sent
hundreds of poems to friends and correspondents while apparently keeping
the greater number to herself. She habitually worked in verse forms
suggestive of hymns and ballads, with lines of three or four stresses.
Her unusual off-rhymes have been seen as both experimental and
influenced by the 18th-century hymnist Isaac Watts. She freely ignored
the usual rules of versification and even of grammar, and in the
intellectual content of her work she likewise proved exceptionally bold
and original. Her verse is distinguished by its epigrammatic
compression, haunting personal voice, enigmatic brilliance, and lack of
The second of three children, Dickinson grew up in moderate privilege
and with strong local and religious attachments. For her first nine
years she resided in a mansion built by her paternal grandfather, Samuel
Fowler Dickinson, who had helped found Amherst College but then went
bankrupt shortly before her birth. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a
forceful and prosperous Whig lawyer who served as treasurer of the
college and was elected to one term in Congress. Her mother, Emily
Norcross Dickinson, from the leading family in nearby Monson, was an
introverted wife and hardworking housekeeper; her letters seem equally
inexpressive and quirky. Both parents were loving but austere, and Emily
became closely attached to her brother, Austin, and sister, Lavinia.
Never marrying, the two sisters remained at home, and when their brother
married, he and his wife established their own household next door. The
highly distinct and even eccentric personalities developed by the three
siblings seem to have mandated strict limits to their intimacy. “If we
had come up for the first time from two wells,” Emily once said of
Lavinia, “her astonishment would not be greater at some things I say.”
Only after the poet’s death did Lavinia and Austin realize how dedicated
she was to her art.
As a girl, Emily was seen as frail by her parents and others and was
often kept home from school. She attended the coeducational Amherst
Academy, where she was recognized by teachers and students alike for her
prodigious abilities in composition. She also excelled in other subjects
emphasized by the school, most notably Latin and the sciences. A class
in botany inspired her to assemble an herbarium containing a large
number of pressed plants identified by their Latin names. She was fond
of her teachers, but when she left home to attend Mount Holyoke Female
Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley, she found
the school’s institutional tone uncongenial. Mount Holyoke’s strict
rules and invasive religious practices, along with her own homesickness
and growing rebelliousness, help explain why she did not return for a
At home as well as at school and church, the religious faith that
ruled the poet’s early years was evangelical Calvinism, a faith centred
on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved
only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the
vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Questioning this tradition soon
after leaving Mount Holyoke, Dickinson was to be the only member of her
family who did not experience conversion or join Amherst’s First
Congregational Church. Yet she seems to have retained a belief in the
soul’s immortality or at least to have transmuted it into a Romantic
quest for the transcendent and absolute. One reason her mature religious
views elude specification is that she took no interest in creedal or
doctrinal definition. In this she was influenced by both the
Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the mid-century tendencies
of liberal Protestant orthodoxy. These influences pushed her toward a
more symbolic understanding of religious truth and helped shape her
vocation as poet.
Development as a poet
Although Dickinson had begun composing verse by her late teens, few of
her early poems are extant. Among them are two of the burlesque
“Valentines”—the exuberantly inventive expressions of affection and
esteem she sent to friends of her youth. Two other poems dating from the
first half of the 1850s draw a contrast between the world as it is and a
more peaceful alternative, variously eternity or a serene imaginative
order. All her known juvenilia were sent to friends and engage in a
striking play of visionary fancies, a direction in which she was
encouraged by the popular, sentimental book of essays Reveries of a
Bachelor: Or a Book of the Heart by Ik. Marvel (the pseudonym of Donald
Grant Mitchell). Dickinson’s acts of fancy and reverie, however, were
more intricately social than those of Marvel’s bachelor, uniting the
pleasures of solitary mental play, performance for an audience, and
intimate communion with another. It may be because her writing began
with a strong social impetus that her later solitude did not lead to a
Until Dickinson was in her mid-20s, her writing mostly took the form
of letters, and a surprising number of those that she wrote from age 11
onward have been preserved. Sent to her brother, Austin, or to friends
of her own sex, especially Abiah Root, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Gilbert
(who would marry Austin), these generous communications overflow with
humour, anecdote, invention, and sombre reflection. In general,
Dickinson seems to have given and demanded more from her correspondents
than she received. On occasion she interpreted her correspondents’
laxity in replying as evidence of neglect or even betrayal. Indeed, the
loss of friends, whether through death or cooling interest, became a
basic pattern for Dickinson. Much of her writing, both poetic and
epistolary, seems premised on a feeling of abandonment and a matching
effort to deny, overcome, or reflect on a sense of solitude.
Dickinson’s closest friendships usually had a literary flavour. She
was introduced to the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson by one of her
father’s law students, Benjamin F. Newton, and to that of Elizabeth
Barrett Browning by Susan Gilbert and Henry Vaughan Emmons, a gifted
college student. Two of Barrett Browning’s works, A Vision of Poets,
describing the pantheon of poets, and Aurora Leigh, on the development
of a female poet, seem to have played a formative role for Dickinson,
validating the idea of female greatness and stimulating her ambition.
Though she also corresponded with Josiah G. Holland, a popular writer of
the time, he counted for less with her than his appealing wife,
Elizabeth, a lifelong friend and the recipient of many affectionate
In 1855 Dickinson traveled to Washington, D.C., with her sister and
father, who was then ending his term as U.S. representative. On the
return trip the sisters made an extended stay in Philadelphia, where it
is thought the poet heard the preaching of Charles Wadsworth, a
fascinating Presbyterian minister whose pulpit oratory suggested (as a
colleague put it) “years of conflict and agony.” Seventy years later,
Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the poet’s niece, claimed that Emily had
fallen in love with Wadsworth, who was married, and then grandly
renounced him. The story is too highly coloured for its details to be
credited; certainly, there is no evidence the minister returned the
poet’s love. Yet it is true that a correspondence arose between the two
and that Wadsworth visited her in Amherst about 1860 and again in 1880.
After his death in 1882, Dickinson remembered him as “my Philadelphia,”
“my dearest earthly friend,” and “my Shepherd from ‘Little Girl’hood.”
Always fastidious, Dickinson began to restrict her social activity in
her early 20s, staying home from communal functions and cultivating
intense epistolary relationships with a reduced number of
correspondents. In 1855, leaving the large and much-loved house (since
razed) in which she had lived for 15 years, the 25-year-old woman and
her family moved back to the dwelling associated with her first decade:
the Dickinson mansion on Main Street in Amherst. Her home for the rest
of her life, this large brick house, still standing, has become a
favourite destination for her admirers. She found the return profoundly
disturbing, and when her mother became incapacitated by a mysterious
illness that lasted from 1855 to 1859, both daughters were compelled to
give more of themselves to domestic pursuits. Various events outside the
home—a bitter Norcross family lawsuit, the financial collapse of the
local railroad that had been promoted by the poet’s father, and a
powerful religious revival that renewed the pressure to “convert”—made
the years 1857 and 1858 deeply troubling for Dickinson and promoted her
In summer 1858, at the height of this period of obscure tension,
Dickinson began assembling her manuscript-books. She made clean copies
of her poems on fine quality stationery and then sewed small bundles of
these sheets together at the fold. Over the next seven years she created
40 such booklets and several unsewn sheaves, and altogether they
contained about 800 poems. No doubt she intended to arrange her work in
a convenient form, perhaps for her own use in sending poems to friends.
Perhaps the assemblage was meant to remain private, like her earlier
herbarium. Or perhaps, as implied in a poem of 1863, This is my letter
to the world, she anticipated posthumous publication. Because she left
no instructions regarding the disposition of her manuscript-books, her
ultimate purpose in assembling them can only be conjectured.
Dickinson sent more poems to her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert
Dickinson, a cultivated reader, than to any other known correspondent.
Repeatedly professing eternal allegiance, these poems often imply that
there was a certain distance between the two—that the sister-in-law was
felt to be haughty, remote, or even incomprehensible. Yet Susan admired
the poetry’s wit and verve and offered the kind of personally attentive
audience Dickinson craved. On one occasion, Susan’s dissatisfaction with
a poem, Safe in their alabaster chambers, resulted in the drafting of
alternative stanzas. Susan was an active hostess, and her home was the
venue at which Dickinson met a few friends, most importantly Samuel
Bowles, publisher and editor of the influential Springfield Republican.
Gregarious, captivating, and unusually liberal on the question of
women’s careers, Bowles had a high regard for Dickinson’s poems,
publishing (without her consent) seven of them during her lifetime—more
than appeared in any other outlet. From 1859 to 1862 she sent him some
of her most intense and confidential communications, including the
daring poem Title divine is mine, whose speaker proclaims that she is
now a “Wife,” but of a highly unconventional type.
In those years Dickinson experienced a painful and obscure personal
crisis, partly of a romantic nature. The abject and pleading drafts of
her second and third letters to the unidentified person she called
“Master” are probably related to her many poems about a loved but
distant person, usually male. There has been much speculation about the
identity of this individual. One of the first candidates was George
Henry Gould, the recipient in 1850 of a prose Valentine from Dickinson.
Some have contended that Master was a woman, possibly Kate Scott Anthon
or Susan Dickinson. Richard Sewall’s 1974 biography makes the case for
Samuel Bowles. All such claims have rested on a partial examination of
surviving documents and collateral evidence. Since it is now believed
that the earliest draft to Master predates her friendship with Bowles,
he cannot have been the person. On balance, Charles Wadsworth and
possibly Gould remain the most likely candidates. Whoever the person
was, Master’s failure to return Dickinson’s affection—together with
Susan’s absorption in her first childbirth and Bowles’s growing
invalidism—contributed to a piercing and ultimate sense of distress. In
a letter, Dickinson described her lonely suffering as a “terror—since
September—[that] I could tell to none.” Instead of succumbing to
anguish, however, she came to view it as the sign of a special vocation,
and it became the basis of an unprecedented creativity. A poem that
seems to register this life-restoring act of resistance begins “The
zeroes taught us phosphorus,” meaning that it is in absolute cold and
nothingness that true brilliance originates.
Though Dickinson wrote little about the American Civil War, which was
then raging, her awareness of its multiplied tragedies seems to have
empowered her poetic drive. As she confided to her cousins in Boston,
apropos of wartime bereavements, “Every day life feels mightier, and
what we have the power to be, more stupendous.” In the hundreds of poems
Dickinson composed during the war, a movement can be discerned from the
expression of immediate pain or exultation to the celebration of
achievement and self-command. Building on her earlier quest for human
intimacy and obsession with heaven, she explored the tragic ironies of
human desire, such as fulfillment denied, the frustrated search for the
absolute within the mundane, and the terrors of internal dissolution.
She also articulated a profound sense of female subjectivity, expressing
what it means to be subordinate, secondary, or not in control. Yet as
the war proceeded, she also wrote with growing frequency about
self-reliance, imperviousness, personal triumph, and hard-won liberty.
The perfect transcendence she had formerly associated with heaven was
now attached to a vision of supreme artistry.
In April 1862, about the time Wadsworth left the East Coast for a
pastorate in San Francisco, Dickinson sought the critical advice of
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, whose witty article of advice to writers, A
Letter to a Young Contributor, had just appeared in The Atlantic
Monthly. Higginson was known as a writer of delicate nature essays and a
crusader for women’s rights. Enclosing four poems, Dickinson asked for
his opinion of her verse—whether or not it was “alive.” The ensuing
correspondence lasted for years, with the poet sending her “preceptor,”
as she called him, many more samples of her work. In addition to seeking
an informed critique from a professional but not unsympathetic man of
letters, she was reaching out at a time of accentuated loneliness. “You
were not aware that you saved my Life,” she confided years later.
Dickinson’s last trips from Amherst were in 1864 and 1865, when she
shared her cousins Louisa and Frances Norcross’s boardinghouse in
Cambridge and underwent a course of treatment with the leading Boston
ophthalmologist. She described her symptoms as an aching in her eyes and
a painful sensitivity to light. Of the two posthumous diagnoses,
exotropia (a kind of strabismus, the inability of one eye to align with
the other) and anterior uveitis (inflammation of the uvea, a part of the
iris), the latter seems more likely. In 1869 Higginson invited the poet
to Boston to attend a literary salon. The terms she used in declining
his invitation—“I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or
town”—make clear her refusal by that time to leave home and also reveal
her sense of paternal order. When Higginson visited her the next year,
he recorded his vivid first impression of her “plain” features,
“exquisitely” neat attire, “childlike” manner, and loquacious and
exhausting brilliance. He was “glad not to live near her.”
In her last 15 years Dickinson averaged 35 poems a year and conducted
her social life mainly through her chiselled and often sibylline written
messages. Her father’s sudden death in 1874 caused a profound and
persisting emotional upheaval yet eventually led to a greater openness,
self-possession, and serenity. She repaired an 11-year breach with
Samuel Bowles and made friends with Maria Whitney, a teacher of modern
languages at Smith College, and Helen Hunt Jackson, poet and author of
the novel Ramona (1884). Dickinson resumed contact with Wadsworth, and
from about age 50 she conducted a passionate romance with Otis Phillips
Lord, an elderly judge on the supreme court of Massachusetts. The
letters she apparently sent Lord reveal her at her most playful,
alternately teasing and confiding. In declining an erotic advance or his
proposal of marriage, she asked, “Dont you know you are happiest while I
withhold and not confer—dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we
consign to Language?”
After Dickinson’s aging mother was incapacitated by a stroke and a
broken hip, caring for her at home made large demands on the poet’s time
and patience. After her mother died in 1882, Dickinson summed up the
relationship in a confidential letter to her Norcross cousins: “We were
never intimate Mother and Children while she was our Mother—but…when she
became our Child, the Affection came.” The deaths of Dickinson’s friends
in her last years—Bowles in 1878, Wadsworth in 1882, Lord in 1884, and
Jackson in 1885—left her feeling terminally alone. But the single most
shattering death, occurring in 1883, was that of her eight-year-old
nephew next door, the gifted and charming Gilbert Dickinson. Her health
broken by this culminating tragedy, she ceased seeing almost everyone,
apparently including her sister-in-law. The poet died in 1886, when she
was 55 years old. The immediate cause of death was a stroke. The
attending physician attributed this to Bright’s disease, but a modern
posthumous diagnosis points to severe primary hypertension as the
Dickinson’s exact wishes regarding the publication of her poetry are in
dispute. When Lavinia found the manuscript-books, she decided the poems
should be made public and asked Susan to prepare an edition. Susan
failed to move the project forward, however, and after two years Lavinia
turned the manuscript-books over to Mabel Loomis Todd, a local family
friend, who energetically transcribed and selected the poems and also
enlisted the aid of Thomas Wentworth Higginson in editing. A
complicating circumstance was that Todd was conducting an affair with
Susan’s husband, Austin. When Poems by Emily Dickinson appeared in 1890,
it drew widespread interest and a warm welcome from the eminent American
novelist and critic William Dean Howells, who saw the verse as a signal
expression of a distinctively American sensibility. But Susan, who was
well aware of her husband’s ongoing affair with Todd, was outraged at
what she perceived as Lavinia’s betrayal and Todd’s effrontery. The
enmity between Susan and Todd, and later between their daughters, Martha
Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham (each of whom edited
selections of Dickinson’s work), had a pernicious effect on the
presentation of Emily Dickinson’s work. Her poetic manuscripts are
divided between two primary collections: the poems in Bingham’s
possession went to Amherst College Library, and those in Bianchi’s hands
to Harvard University’s Houghton Library. The acrimonious relationship
between the two families has affected scholarly interpretation of
Dickinson’s work into the 21st century.
In editing Dickinson’s poems in the 1890s, Todd and Higginson
invented titles and regularized diction, grammar, metre, and rhyme. The
first scholarly editions of Dickinson’s poems and letters, by Thomas H.
Johnson, did not appear until the 1950s. A much improved edition of the
complete poems was brought out in 1998 by R.W. Franklin. A reliable
edition of the letters is not yet available.
In spite of her "modernism," Dickinson’s verse drew little interest
from the first generation of “High Modernists.” Hart Crane and Allen
Tate were among the first leading writers to register her greatness,
followed in the 1950s by Elizabeth Bishop and others. The New Critics
also played an important role in establishing her place in the modern
canon. From the beginning, however, Dickinson has strongly appealed to
many ordinary or unschooled readers. Her unmistakable voice, private yet
forthright—"I’m Nobody! Who are you? / Are you—Nobody—too?"—establishes
an immediate connection. Readers respond, too, to the impression her
poems convey of a haunting private life, one marked by extremes of
deprivation and refined ecstasies. At the same time, her rich
abundance—her great range of feeling, her supple
expressiveness—testifies to an intrinsic poetic genius. Widely
translated into Japanese, Italian, French, German, and many other
languages, Dickinson has begun to strike readers as the one American
lyric poet who belongs in the pantheon with Sappho, Catullus, Saʿdī, the
Shakespeare of the sonnets, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Arthur Rimbaud.
The standard edition of the poems is the three-volume variorum edition,
The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (1998), edited by R.W.
Franklin. He also edited a two-volume work, The Manuscript Books of
Emily Dickinson (1981), which provides facsimiles of the poems in their
original groupings. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, in three volumes
edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (1958), was reissued in
one volume in 1986, and it is still the standard source for the poet’s
letters. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan
Huntington Dickinson (1998), edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell
Smith, is a selection of the poet’s correspondence with her
sister-in-law. Facsimiles of the letters to “Master” and Otis Phillips
Lord are presented in The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (1986),
edited by R.W. Franklin, and Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of
Reading, Surfaces of Writing (1995), edited by Marta L. Werner. Emily
Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (1989), edited
by Willis J. Buckingham, reprints all known reviews from the first
decade of publication.
THE POETRY OF DICKINSON
Type of work: Poetry
Author: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
First published: Poems, 1890; Poems: Second Series, 1891; Poems:
Third Series, 1896; The Single Hound, 1914; Further Poems, 1929;
Unpublished Poems, 1936; Bolts of Melody: New Poems, 1945; The Poems of
Emily Dickinson (edited by Thomas H. Johnson), 1955; The Complete Poems
of Emily Dickinson (edited by Thomas H. Johnson), 1960.
Few of America's great poets waited so long to achieve recognition as
did Emily Dickinson. Though she wrote over 1,775 poems, during her
lifetime only seven were published, and those anonymously. When she
died, few beyond her circle of family and friends had heard of her, yet
nearly seventy years after her death she was critically acclaimed as one
of the leading poets of her time. Along with Walt Whitman, Dickinson is
credited with bringing American poetry into the twentieth century, for
her highly unusual style and her passion for expressing the truth helped
to free nineteenth century verse from its limitations of image, meter,
To neighbors in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson was an
eccentric figure, the spinster who always dressed in white and who,
after her early thirties, never ventured beyond the family home or
garden. She rarely received a visitor, and when she did, she would hide
upstairs and sometimes send down a note or poem to her guest. Some
biographers suggest that the reports of her reclusive life-style may be
somewhat exaggerated, but it is nonetheless clear that Dickinson
preferred to socialize through letters and to confide her deepest
thoughts in her poems. One of Dickinson's long-time correspondents was
Thomas Wentworth Higginson, poetry critic for The Atlantic Monthly, to
whom she initially sent a few poems along with the earnest question
whether he found the poems alive. His answer that there was life in the
poetry she claimed had saved her life; yet Higginson, a conventional
critic with traditional tastes, was generally lukewarm in his praise. He
found her poems strange and unpolished, and his reservations may have
contributed to her reluctance to have them published.
After Dickinson's death her sister discovered hundreds of poems in
Emily's room, many hand-sewn into small booklike packets. Lavinia
Dickinson persuaded Higginson and a family friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, to
published the poems, which they did in 1890, 1891, and 1896. It is
clear, however, that Dickinson's editors had no conception of the value
of her work, for they freely made changes to it, smoothing out rhymes
and meter, fixing punctuation, and revising diction—in short, making the
poems more conventional. Her books sold widely but met with little
critical success. Friends and relatives brought out more editions over
the years, but each persisted in the practice of "correcting" her work.
It was not until the 1950s, after her estate was given to Harvard
University, that through the painstaking scholarship of Thomas H.
Johnson, a more authentic version finally reached the public. Though
some controversy still exists about the dates of composition and
Dickinson's final editing choices on some poems, Johnson's edition The
Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960), along with its system for
numbering the poems, is generally accepted as the standard.
Approaching Dickinson's work, what she called her "letter to the World,"
one should bear in mind the words of the critic Allen Tate: "All pity
for Miss Dickinson's 'starved life' is misdirected. Her life was one of
the richest and deepest ever lived on this continent." The evidence for
this richness and depth, of course, is her poems. Though she often wrote
about small and common things, her reach was always broad and high,
always bringing her to confront, with searching honesty, the larger
universal themes: nature, love, death and immortality, and God. What
looked unpolished to her contemporaries— the sometimes awkward phrasing,
the skewed rhymes, the short staccato bursts set off by dashes rather
than the more grammatically polite comma—reveal a passionate thinker, a
mind that would not rest, that was continually seeking answers, and for
whom poems were not a polite parlor game but rather a lifeline. She
searched for truth and knew that the nature of truth made it impossible
to nail it down once and for all; one had to nail it down a hundred
times. This is why it is difficult to summarize "Dickinson's themes,"
such as her view of death, because for Dickinson, trying to understand
death, or love, or God, was a continuous quest. If something was
understood, why would she need to write about it again and again?
This passion to understand accounts for the sheer volume of Dickinson's
work, as well as its occasional unevenness. Generally it is some
uncontrollable feeling, such as the pain of loss, or a mind-numbing
despair, or even an ecstatic joy, that tornadolike sets Dickinson's
poetic faculties into motion. Often her subject is so volatile that it
cannot even be named, a fact reflected in her work by a frequent use of
the pronoun "it." Within those poems attempting to define the "it," the
argument often proceeds like a riddle, developed with a confusion of
imagery. It is as though she gathers words like the flying debris at the
outer edge of a storm—mixing her metaphors and throwing words together
in unlikely pairs—to give her restless subject at least some shape; or,
she mixes words just as various pigments are added to a base of paint,
and shaken, to reach an appropriate, exact color. The evidence of
Dickinson's various drafts and revisions confirms that word choices that
seemed careless to her first critics were actually quite carefully made.
The brevity of Dickinson's poems makes them appear simple, but reading
them actually requires careful attention, often to what is not said. One
of Dickinson's strategies is to make an unstated shift in perspective;
she will frequently investigate her subject by turning all around it,
considering it from differing attitudes and points of view. This
approach is manifest in the poems as a sometimes unresolvable tension of
opposites, an imbalance, a seeming resolution and then dissolution, a
dance between what can and cannot be faced or named. The destination of
this process, so turbulently awakened, is always to penetrate to the
center of this storm, a place of mastery and calm, where meaning can be
distilled. Her passion for meaning is what made this reclusive spinster
such a literary revolutionary: Dickinson had to bend language and form
in order to get at the truth. "Tell all the Truth," she admonished, "but
tell it slant."
Dickinson's truth is primarily an inner one. She was one of the first
American poets to carefully map the interior landscape of feeling,
exploring the terrain of the subconscious before it was "discovered"
decades later by Freud. Even in those poems that are descriptions of
external reality, such as her nature poems, the inner life still carries
the greater force. Her well-known "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" (#986)
culminates most powerfully when it shifts its focus from the snake, the
object observed, to the observer, who with "a tighter breathing" is
feeling "Zero at the Bone." "There's a certain Slant of light" (#258), a
description of a winter afternoon, projects the poet's despair onto the
landscape; in this Dickinson is a forerunner of the twentieth century
Imagists, creating imagery that is not ornamental but intrinsic. In
poems like "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" (#280) Dickinson openly
explores the mind, detailing the disturbing loss of reason, when feeling
has overtaken sense.
Dickinson's love poems reveal a passion that belies the quiet facts of
her biography. They support the speculation that if Dickinson withdrew
from society it was not because she was indifferent to it; rather, it
was because she felt her attachments to friends and lovers so deeply.
There has been much speculation about the identity of the man for whom
Dickinson's unrequited love occasioned an outpouring of poems during her
"flood years" of the early 1860's. Many believe it was Charles
Wadsworth, a married preacher from Philadelphia who left for California
in 1862. Of course knowing whom Dickinson wrote about is ultimately much
less significant than the poetry he inspired, poems ranging from the
exuberant "Wild Nights—Wild Nights!" (#249) to the despairing "I cannot
live with you" (#640).
The subject which holds by far the greatest fascination for Dickinson is
death, about which she wrote over five hundred poems. Sometimes she
considers it from the point of view of the bereaved survivors, as in
"The last Night that She lived" (#1100) and "There's been a Death, in
the Opposite House" (#389). Other times she looks at it from the point
of view of the person dying, as in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died"
(#465) and "Because I could not stop for Death" (#712). The latter
poem's personification of Death as a gentleman caller demonstrates her
typically atypical approach. Hers is not so much a morbid fascination as
it is an intense and fearless curiosity. At times she sees death as a
horrifying cessation, but at others it is a blissful release envied by
the living. Death is for Dickinson the ultimate punctuation mark, which,
appearing at the end of life's sentence, gives it all its meaning. It is
a gateway through which one passes to a perhaps even greater type of
existence. It is also a mystery about which one can never be completely
convinced, which is perhaps why she keeps probing. This restless
questioning also characterizes her religious poetry, which vacillates
between faith in God and doubt, as when the initial conviction in "I
know that He exists" (#338) unravels during the stanzas that follow.
Dickinson also wrote poems about her craft, among them #675, "Essential
Essential Oils—are wrung—
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns—alone—
It is the gift of Screws—
The General Rose—decay
But this—in Lady's Drawer
Make Summer—When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary—
"Essential Oils" is about poetry, but more specifically, it represents
the mastery of a particular question important not only to Dickinson
but, in varying degrees, to all poets: the choice between the life of
the common man, with its sphere of social relationships, and the life of
the poet, with its demanding solitude. In "Essential Oils" the choice is
distilled, and embodied, in the metaphor of the rose. There is the rose
that blooms in a day, whose fragrance is drawn out of it by the
attentions of the sun. and the rose that is taken from the garden, so
that its essence may be concentrated into an enduring perfume. There is
no doubt in the poem about which rose Dickinson prefers. She has passed
that stage of the argument, has reached the still center of meaning, and
so sustains throughout the conviction that begins the poem.
"Essential Oils," the volatile essence that imparts the characteristic
odor of a plant, represents that very nature of a thing, which is
incapable of removal without destroying the thing itself or its
character. Poems, the volatile essence of the poet, become of
life-and-death importance; without them the poet ceases to be herself.
This necessity justifies the process by which they are gotten: They "are
wrung," a verb that implies physical and emotional pressure, the process
of suffering and pain. This is the poet's secret: Art "is the gift of
Screws." As a metaphor for the poetic process, "screws" is an image of
remarkable compression. It suggests not only the flower press but also
the pain of the medieval torture device, and as a reference to the tools
of the carpenter, it implies discipline and craftsmanship as well. The
image also suggests, in its spiral shape narrowing to a point, an emblem
for the poet's mind turning around a subject until it reaches its
center, until meaning is screwed down. This process is compared to that
other one which draws the odor from a bloom, the expressions of "Suns,"
which for Dickinson is a metaphor for the masculine principle, hence
symbolizing the warm attentions of suitors; thus the essence of the rose
becomes an image for a woman's sexual potential. A woman can express her
being through a union with a man; but the poet—"alone"—realizes her
identity through the creative process.
"The General Rose" is the common rose, different from the rose of the
poet. "General" carries the connotation of military ranking, an ironic
reference to the command a wife exerts over her household and the social
superiority she may enjoy. In outward form, the first line of this
stanza is very similar to the opening line of the first stanza: A
modified noun is separated by a dash from its verb. Whereas "Essential"
seems to justify and balance the pain in "wrung," however, in this line
the emotional scales are tipped, and there is nothing in the "General
Rose" to redeem it from "decay," the most negatively charged word in the
poem. "But this" redirects the argument to the strength of the poet, her
attar, the poems and fascicles she keeps in her bureau drawer. "Lady's
drawer" as an image of limited space also suggests the artistic
isolation and confinement that are necessary to preserving the poet's
essence. The scents of poems "Make Summer"—summer for Dickinson being an
emblem of fruition, when the potential of nature is realized. This fact
masters death for the poet so that it can be described with a gentle
euphemism, "When the Lady lie/ In Ceaseless Rosemary." Rosemary has long
been associated with the power of memory and was often used to scent
coffins. The poet lying in "Ceaseless Rosemary" will not be forgotten
after her death; the line is a prophetic description of Dickinson's
belated but nonetheless powerful impact on American letters.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.
A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.
A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!
The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.
The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.
Death sets a thing significant
The eye had hurried by,
Except a perished creature
Entreat us tenderly
To ponder little workmanships
In crayon or in wool,
With "This was last her fingers did,"
The thimble weighed too heavy,
The stitches stopped themselves,
And then 't was put among the dust
Upon the closet shelves.
A book I have, a friend gave,
Whose pencil, here and there,
Had notched the place that pleased him,--
At rest his fingers are.
Now, when I read, I read not,
For interrupting tears
Obliterate the etchings
Too costly for repairs.
There is a word
Which bears a sword
can pierce an armed man.
It hurls its barbed syllables, --
At once is mute again.
But where it fell
The saved will tell
On patriotic day,
Some epauletted brother
Gave his breath away.
Wherever runs the breathless sun,
Wherever roams the day,
There is its victory!
Behold the keenest marksman!
Time's sublimest target
Is a soul "forgot"!
Wild Nights! Wild Nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild Nights should be
Futile the winds
To a heart in port, --
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart!
Rowing in Eden!
Ah! the sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in Thee!
When roses cease to bloom, dear
and violets are done,
When bumblebees in solemn flight
Have passed beyond the sun,
The hand that paused to gather
Upon this summer's day
Will idle lie, in Auburn.--
Then take my flower, pray!
There's been a death in the opposite
As lately as today.
I know it by the numb look
Such houses have alway.
The neighbours rustle in and out,
The doctor drives away.
A window opens like a pod,
Somebody flings a mattress out, -
The children hurry by;
They wonder if It died on that, -
I used to when a boy.
The minister goes stiffly in
As if the house were his,
And he owned all the mourners now,
And little boys besides;
And then the milliner, and the man
Of the appalling trade,
To take the measure of the house.
There'll be that dark parade
Of tassels and of coaches soon;
It's easy as a sign, -
The intuition of the news
In just a country town.
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.
And then he drank a dew
From a convenient grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the wall
To let a beetle pass.
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad,--
They looked like frightened beads, I thought;
He stirred his velvet head
Like one in danger; cautious,
I offered him a crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home
Than oars divide the ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or butterflies, off banks of noon,
Leap, splashless, as they swim.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
God gave a loaf to every bird,
But just a crumb to me;
I dare not eat it, though I starve,--
My poignant luxury
To own it, touch it, prove the feat
That made the pellet mine,--
Too happy in my sparrow chance
For ampler coveting.
It might be famine all around,
I could not miss an ear,
Such plenty smiles upon my board,
My garner shows so fair.
I wonder how the rich may feel,--
An Indiaman--an Earl?
I deem that I with but a crumb
Am sovereign of them all.
I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing --
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears --
And as the rose appears,
Robin is gone
Yet I do not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown --
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.
Faster in a safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine -
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
In a serener Bright
In a more golden light
Each little doubt and fear,
Each little discord here
The will I not repine,
Knowing that Bird of mine
Shall in a distant tree
Bright melody for me
I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.
I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.
The only ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin, --so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird,
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.
Hi conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient, --
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind
Since that appalling day!
There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields -
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum;
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!
Come slowly, Eden!
lips unused to thee,
Bashful, sip thy jasmines,
As the fainting bee,
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars --enters,
And is lost in balms!