Emily Dickinson, Poems - Study Guides on Works and Writers

Realism and Regionalism 1865–1914 - Gary Scharnhorst and Thomas Quirk 2010

Emily Dickinson, Poems
Study Guides on Works and Writers

3 volumes, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955)

Though only ten of her poems were published during her life, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) has emerged as one of the most prolific and original poets of the nineteenth century. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, at a time when religious revivals were sweeping New England and into a culture where young, educated women of her upper-middle-class background were expected to marry and have children, Dickinson rejected the structures of both church and marriage to devote her life to writing. She composed more than eighteen hundred poems, some of which she copied into homemade manuscript books (also known as her “fas cicles”), some of which she sent to her many correspondents, and some of which she wrote on loose sheets of paper and household scraps.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was the second child of Edward and Emily Dickinson, a couple with strong ties to the Amherst community in which they lived and to the Puritan tradition from which her father descended. Dickinson, who had an older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia, maintained a fierce loyalty to her family, only leaving Amherst on short trips (the longest of which was a year and a half spent at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary) and living in the Dickinson homestead until her death. Regardless of what seems a provincial and cloistered existence (it is rumored that she rarely left the house during her last twenty years, sometimes even refusing to leave her room when visitors called), Dickinson fostered friendships with many people, including public figures such as Samuel Bowles, the editor of the Springfield Republican, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an influential literary man and reformer.

While biographies of Dickinson often mark her correspondence with Higginson after his 1862 article “Letter to a Young Contributor” appeared in the Atlantic as the moment when Dickinson took herself seriously as a poet, she had been writing for many years and had found conversation about that writing with her closest friend and sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson. She also sent poems in letters to many of her regular correspondents, including her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross and family friends Josiah and Elizabeth Holland, displaying quite publicly the fact that she was a writer. When asked by Higginson which writers she best liked to read, she answered: “For Poets—I have Keats—and Mr and Mrs Browning. For Prose—Mr Ruskin—Sir Thomas Browne—and the Revelations.” While these authors might have been Dickinson’s favorites, she read much more widely than this short list reflects—in her letters she refers to works by, among others, William Shakespeare, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Alfred Tennyson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and the Bible—and could quote lines from poems and novels from memory.

When Dickinson died in 1886, Lavinia burned her sister’s correspondence (as Dickinson had instructed her to do); but when she came upon the box containing her poems, she took the opposite tack and sought to have them printed. After first giving them to Susan, and then becoming restless with her slow pace on the project, she turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, a young woman who, despite never having met Dickinson, was connected to the literary community. Todd and Higginson edited Poems, which was published just in time for the Christmas holiday in 1890. Although this book was met with mixed reviews, Todd and Higginson produced two more editions of Poems in 1891 and 1896, and Todd edited the first edition of Dickinson’s Letters in 1894.

Dickinson’s poems had many editions over the first half of the twentieth century, but not until 1955, when Thomas H. Johnson compiled The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, were they all printed together. Further research has challenged previous editors’ transcriptions and analyses of her writing. Most recently, Ralph Franklin edited a three-volume variorum, The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998), which most scholars regard as the most comprehensive edition of Dickinson’s poems.


  • 1. The 1890, 1891, and 1896 collections of Dickinson’s poems separated them into four thematic categories: “life,” “love,” “nature,” and “time and eternity.” It can be interesting for students to look at the poems included in these categories and to think about why her early editors put them there. For example, how do we know a Dickinson poem is about love? How, exactly, does Dickinson define “Eternity”? Does the accumulation of poems in the “Life” section actually project some philosophy on living? While it is true that many of Dickinson’s poems can be made to fit under these very general headings, her poems also defy simple attempts at categorization. For instance, while some read “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” as a poem about heartbreak, others read it as a poem about religious crisis. Some read the final line as a description of dying, while others read it as a release back into life. Because Dickinson often leaves out the main topic or subject of her poems, the question of what a poem is “about” is often hard to answer. For this reason, identifying poems that fit into more than one category or those that avoid categorization altogether can be a fruitful exercise.
  • 2. One way to study Dickinson’s often dense and confusing poems is to start with those that take their readers on a journey. “I started Early—Took my Dog—” is a poem that, in many ways, tells a very simple story: the “I” starts early, takes her dog, and visits the sea. We hear what happens when she gets there, who greets her, and how the “Tide” acts when she approaches. Then, when she turns from the tide, we learn that it follows her to the town, at which point it goes back to where it came from. Because we can follow the speaker of the poem on her journey to the sea and back, the poem is accessible to even the novice reader. What other poems provide visual roadmaps? What is the significance of having this kind of guide through a Dickinson poem? Where do these journeys often lead the reader? Once comfortable with the parameters of Dickinson’s journeys students are more likely to see that embedded in these simple stories are more complicated ones. In the case of “I started Early—Took my Dog—,” students might come to wonder about the seduction story present here or the one about the country versus city. What other complications lurk within Dickinson’s seemingly most simple poems?
  • 3. Once comfortable with the mappable poems, students can move onto the slightly more complicated fractured journey poems, such as “Because I could not stop for Death—.” Who are the figures on this journey? What are they doing in the same carriage? Where do they go and why do they go there? It quickly becomes clear to any reader that this poem is not a depiction of a simple carriage ride, but is the narration of how the speaker is grappling with her memory of how both space and time were ordered in her own death scene. How does Dickinson move from what seems like a simple declaration about the situation of the “I” in the present to this complicated reflection on death, eternity, and time?
  • 4. While some poems begin and end a journey (“I started Early—Took my Dog—”) and others begin and disrupt a journey (“Because I could not stop for Death—”), still other poems have no stake at all in the movement a journey requires. Instead, many of Dickinson’s poems capture the still moment of looking and hearing. “There’s a certain Slant of light,” for example, situates its reader at a certain time of day (afternoon) and at a certain time of year (winter), a moment when that “certain slant of light” can be both seen and felt. Each reader imagines some kind of light, and the poem evokes this light without revealing anything about it. What are the different senses that Dickinson employs to describe this light? If this light leaves “no scar” and is unteachable, what is Dickinson doing writing a poem about it? Is there any narrative to follow in this poem?
  • 5. One might say that the complicated nature of the light that Dickinson is describing demands a complicated explanation, and this would hold true for many of her poems. Whether she is describing watching a bird (“A Bird came down the Walk—”), imagining the specific sound a fly makes (“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died”), or describing her life in metaphorical terms (“My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—”), Dickinson finds some unexpected and startling ways of describing her experience in language so rich and with turns so abrupt. While most of her poems are written in short alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, their rhyme schemes are almost always a-b-c-b, she rarely includes a title, and she breaks with standard uses of punctuation (including, most dramatically, unconventional capitalizations and dashes); no two Dickinson poems work exactly the same way. In order to see this, students can take two poems that are ostensibly about the same thing and note all of the different formal tactics that Dickinson uses to render them unique.
  • 6. Because many of Dickinson’s manuscripts are accessible, there are also several approaches that looking at the materials themselves makes available to students. For instance, look at the manuscripts that Franklin reproduces in The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (1989) or online at the Dickinson Electronic Archives (<www.emilydickinson.org> [accessed 25 August 2009]), and grapple with the variant words and phrases that Dickinson often copied at the bottom of her poems, analyze the different choices that her editors have made when publishing her poems, and look at drafts of the same poem that Dickinson made sometimes years apart. This allows students to engage in the collaborative endeavor that is Dickinson scholarship and to see that no authoritative edition or reading of her poems can exist.


Primary Work

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith (Ashfield, Mass.: Paris, 1998).

Presents the correspondence (letters, poems, and what Hart and Smith call “letter-poems”) sent from Dickinson to her sister-in-law, arguing that this relationship constituted the most sustained, creative, and intimate relationship of Dickinson’s life.


Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Random House, 2001).

Presents the most recent and detailed research on Dickinson’s life, offering particularly rich descriptions of her family history.

Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1974).

The first major study of Dickinson’s life, with chapters largely organized around her relationships with individual family members, friends, and correspondents.


Sharon Cameron, Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).

Explores how reading poems in relation to the others bound into the same fascicle can shift our sense of what a poem is about.

Jack L. Capps, Emily Dickinson’s Reading: 1836—1886 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966).

Offers description and analysis of the books found in Dickinson’s library, the periodicals to which her family subscribed, Dickinson’s marginalia, and any mention of what Dickinson was reading that appears in her letters.

Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

Complicates Dickinson studies by arguing that twentieth-century criticism has turned Dickinson into the lyric poet she is considered to be today, as critics have engaged in a “lyric reading” of Dickinson’s highly eclectic texts and purified her poems for the purposes of literary analysis.

Mary Loeffelholz, Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991).

Examines the fraught relationship between feminist and deconstructionist studies of Dickinson’s life and works.

Marietta Messmer, A Vice for Voices: Reading Emily Dickinson’s Correspondence (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001).

Suggests that Dickinson’s letters and poems exist in a tightly bound and intergeneric exchange with one another and therefore must be studied in relation to each other.

Martha Nell Smith, Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992).

Exposes the ways in which Dickinson took herself seriously as a writer, “publishing” her work in what critics have tended to regard as private contexts, most notably her correspondence with her sister-in-law.

Marta L. Werner, ed., Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995).

Looks closely at Dickinson’s understudied late scraps, which were often written on pieces of household paper, including the backs of kitchen lists, advertisements, and bills.

—Alexandra Socarides