Emily Dickinson (1830—1886)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

Emily Dickinson (1830—1886)

We know so little about Emily Dickinson that the recent discovery of what may be a photograph of her has been front-page news. Although she wrote almost 1,800 poems (they are usually published with numbers for titles and sometimes referred to by their first lines), very few were published in her lifetime, and the only reliable information we have about her outward life is that she was reclusive and eccentric. About her inward life, however, we know a good deal, since her poems deal obsessively with the interior world of a brilliant, passionate, extravagant, absolutely honest and original poet. She was so much a poet that the poetry spills over into the prose of her letters, but she was also so much of a poet that it is impossible to imagine her writing a reasoned critical essay on poetry.

Some of her marvelous letters contain revelations about her reading, writing, and thinking; these come from letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a mentor:

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive? The mind is so near itself it cannot see distinctly, and I have none to ask. Should you think it breathed, and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude… .

While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb. You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter [1862], sir. I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does of the burying ground, because I am afraid. You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations. I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education. When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion. Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land. You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano… .

Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft? You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful. I read Miss Prescott’s “Circumstance,” but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her. Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them “why” they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world. I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me… .

My dying tutor told me that he would like to live till I had been a poet, but Death was much of mob as I could master, then. And when, far afterward, a sudden light on orchards, or a new fashion in the wind troubled my attention, I felt a palsy, here, the verses just relieve… .

My business is circumference. An ignorance, not of customs, but if caught with the dawn, or the sunset see me, myself the only kangaroo among the beauty, sir, if you please, it afflicts me, and I thought that instruction would take it away… .

’Twas noting some such scene made Vaughan humbly say, “My days that are at best but dim and hoary.” I think it was Vaughan… .

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?


POEM 131

Besides the Autumn poets sing,

A few prosaic days

A little this side of the snow

And that side of the Haze—

A few incisive Mornings—

A few Ascetic Eves—

Gone—Mr. Bryant’s “Golden Rod”—

And Mr. Thomson’s “sheaves.”

Still, is the bustle in the Brook—

Sealed are the spicy valves—

Mesmeric fingers softly touch

The Eyes of many Elves—

Perhaps a squirrel may remain—

My sentiments to share—

Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind—

Thy windy will to bear!

POEM 312

[Written after the death of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in 1861.]

Her—“last Poems”—


Silver—perished—with her Tongue—

Not on Record—bubbled other,

Flute—or Woman—

So divine—

Not unto its Summer—Morning

Robin—uttered Half the Tune—

Gushed too free for the Adoring—

From the Anglo-Florentine—

Late—the praise—

’Tis dull—conferring

On a Head too High to Crown—

Diadem—or Ducal Showing—

Be its Grave—sufficient sign—

Nought—that We—No Poet’s Kinsman—

Suffocate—with easy woe—

What, and if, Ourself a Bridegroom—

Put Her down—in Italy?

POEM 441

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me—

The simple News that Nature told—

With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see—

For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—

Judge tenderly—of Me

POEM 448

This was a Poet—It is That

Distills amazing sense

From ordinary Meanings—

And Attar so immense

From the familiar species

That perished by the Door—

We wonder it was not Ourselves

Arrested it—before—

Of Pictures, the Discloser—

The Poet—it is He—

Entitles Us—by Contrast—

To ceaseless Poverty—

Of portion—so unconscious—

The Robbing—could not harm—

Himself—to Him—a Fortune—

Exterior—to Time—

POEM 544

The Martyr Poets—did not tell—

But wrought their Pang in syllable—

That when their mortal name be numb—

Their mortal fate—encourage Some—

The Martyr Painters—never spoke—

Bequeathing—rather—to their Work—

That when their conscious fingers cease—

Some seek in Art—the Art of Peace—

POEM 613

They shut me up in Prose—

As when a little Girl

They put me in the Closet—

Because they like me “still”—

Still! Could themself have peeped—

And seen my Brain—go round—

They might as wise have lodged a Bird

For Treason—in the Pound—

Himself has but to will

And easy as a Star

Look down upon Captivity—

And laugh—No more have I—

POEM 657

I dwell in Possibility—

A fairer House than Prose—

More numerous of Windows—

Superior—for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—

Impregnable of Eye—

And for an Everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors—the fairest—

For Occupation—This—

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise—

POEM 1126

Shall I take thee, the Poet said

To the propounded word?

Be stationed with the Candidates

Till I have finer tried—

The Poet searched Philology

And when about to ring

For the suspended Candidate

There came unsummoned in—

That portion of the Vision

The Word applied to fill

Not unto nomination

The Cherubim reveal—

POEM 1212

A word is dead

When it is said,

Some say.

I say it just

Begins to live

That day.

POEM 1247

To pile like Thunder to its close

Then crumble grand away

While Everything created hid

This—would be Poetry—

Or Love—the two coeval come—

We both and neither prove—

Experience either and consume—

For None see God and live

POEM 1263

There is no Frigate like a Book

To take us Lands away,

Nor any Coursers like a Page

Of prancing Poetry—

This Traverse may the poorest take

Without oppress of Toll—

How frugal is the Chariot

That bears a Human soul!

POEM 1409

Could mortal lip divine

The undeveloped Freight

Of a delivered syllable,

’Twould crumble with the weight.

POEM 1472

To see the Summer Sky

Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie—

True Poems flee—