Death is one of the foremost themes in Dickinson’s poetry. No two poems have exactly the same understanding of death, however. Death is sometimes gentle, sometimes menacing, sometimes simply inevitable. In “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –,” Dickinson investigates the physical process of dying. In “Because I could not stop for Death –,“ she personifies death, and presents the process of dying as simply the realization that there is eternal life.
In “Behind Me dips – Eternity,” death is the normal state, life is but an interruption. In “My life had stood – a Loaded Gun –,” the existence of death allows for the existence of life. In “Some – Work for Immortality –,” death is the moment where the speaker can cash their check of good behavior for their eternal rewards. All of these varied pictures of death, however, do not truly contradict each other. Death is the ultimate unknowable, and so Dickinson circles around it, painting portraits of each of its many facets, as a way to come as close to knowing it as she can.
Dickinson is fascinated and obsessed with the idea of truth, and with finding it in her poems. She knows that this is close to impossible—like “To fill a Gap” teaches, answering one question just leads to further questions—yet she also posits that a kind of truth can be found, if done so circuitously, as in “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant –.”
This is reflected in how she deals with all of her other themes. Her poems come back to these central themes again and again, but they are never treated in exactly the same way. She discovers new sides to each of them, comes at them from new angles, and by investigating each theme again and again in seemingly contradictory ways, she is finding the truth in her “Circuits.”
Dickinson also clearly shows that truth is found more easily in negative or painful emotions. In “I like a look of Agony,” she shows how she can only trust people who are dying, because that is the one thing that cannot be faked. Her own grief and others’ is powerful to her, because, while it may not be pleasant, she has found something honest. And this drives her poetry—the experience of these painful emotions allows her to represent them faithfully, and thus write honest poetry.
Dickinson wrote many poems dealing with fame and success. These poems almost always elucidate the negative sides of these ostensibly positive things. In “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” to gain fame one must advertise oneself, use one’s own name and identity as marketing tools. This fame, also, is made meaningless by the fact that its audience is an unthinking “Bog.”
“Success is counted sweetest –“ does not present quite so wholly negative a vision of fame and success. Success here, however, is dangerous, for it takes away the speaker’s ability to appreciate that success. This represents a general lessening of the successful person’s emotional realm, and if this success is in the field of poetry, that will certainly lead to weaker poems in the future.
This focus on the negatives of fame and success makes it seem like Dickinson did not want them for herself, that she was happier unpublished and unknown. This is belied, however, by the simple fact that she wrote about them so frequently. She may have known very well the dangers of them, but clearly still found fame and success enticing and fascinating.
Grief is virtually omnipresent in Dickinson’s poetry. Other characters are few and far between in these poems, but grief is practically Dickinson’s primary companion. When other people do appear, it is often only grief that allows Dickinson to feel connected to them. She only trusts people who display “a look of Agony,” because it is the only emotion that she knows must be true -- thus it is only with the dead and dying that Dickinson’s wall of distrust collapses.
In “I measure every Grief I meet,” grief does not just bring Dickinson closer to others because she can trust it, but rather because it is a bond between them, and knowing they are grieving too makes her burden of grief somewhat lighter. Thus, in “I like a look of Agony,” and “I measure every Grief I meet,” it is only grief that allows Dickinson to feel that she is a part of the community.
Dickinson also shows another positive side of grief—it gives her strength. In “I can wade Grief –“ she makes it clear that happiness only intoxicates her, makes her stumble and ostensibly lose her great perceptive abilities. Grief, however, emboldens her, makes her able to face anything, and gives her the strength and perceptiveness to write the poetry that she does.
Dickinson’s poetry is highly interested in faith, in God, in religion. The fact that she so often wrote in a traditionally religious hymnal stanza form emphasizes this fact. God is essential to her, yet she is unwilling to just accept the traditional dogma, and so explores other possibilities for faith in her poetry, just like while she follows stanza form, she breaks conventions of rhyme and punctuation.
Often, many of her poems about nature seem to be the most religious. “There’s a certain Slant of light –“ presents this light as almost a divine vision, and shows how nature can be very closely tied to God, yet can also distance the reader from him. “The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings –,” shows that it is the ugly, eccentric creatures who can bring us closest to an understanding of God.
Her poems never claim to any understanding of the divine, however. What she is most certain of is God’s inscrutability. Indeed, it is only her relationship to him that she can fully investigate. In many of her poems in which there is another figure besides the speaker, it is often unclear whether this figure is God or a lover, and these poems can often be read either way. This elucidates the profound closeness with God that Dickinson searched for.
Poetry in Dickinson’s poems is an expansive, greatly liberating force. In “They shut me up in Prose –,“ society tries to limit the speaker to the acceptable female roles, shutting her in closets or in prose to prevent her from expressing herself. These limitations, however, only inspire her further, and fuel her to write her poetry. This they cannot limit, no matter how they try, for poetry is limitless, as she shows us in “I dwell in Possibility –“ — it is a house with no roof but the sky.
This metaphor of poetry as house also allows Dickinson to transform what oppresses her—those female tasks of running the household—into a setting for what frees her—her poetry. This metaphor also allows Dickinson to take possession of poetry—it is not solely a male vocation, in the realm of politics and wars, but also a female vocation, situated in the house and garden.
Dickinson’s poetry exhibits a profound intensity of emotion, and her poems also focus on this as a subject, extolling the virtues of such intensity. In “I like a look of Agony,” she shows that only the most intense emotions can be trusted, can be exhibited for others with honesty—and thus, only the most intense emotions belong in poetry.
“Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” shows, however, that while positive, this level of emotional intensity is neither easy to produce and experience, nor is it easy to observe. In this poem, the speaker must enact a painful forging process to refine her emotions to this heightened level, and while it is glorious, almost divine when she does, it is still a challenging thing for the reader to observe.
“The first Day’s Night had come” shows just how dangerous such intensity of emotion can be; why the reader must “dare” to witness it. In this poem, the speaker’s emotions are so overpowering that she cannot maintain a whole, incorporated identity, and she loses her mind. Thus while most of Dickinson’s poems extol the honesty in heightened emotions, we see that there is a risk in all of this.
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Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but only for one year. Throughout her life, she seldom left her home and visitors were few. The people with whom she did come in contact, however, had an enormous impact on her poetry. She was particularly stirred by the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she first met on a trip to Philadelphia. He left for the West Coast shortly after a visit to her home in 1860, and some critics believe his departure gave rise to the heartsick flow of verse from Dickinson in the years that followed. While it is certain that he was an important figure in her life, it is not clear that their relationship was romantic—she called him "my closest earthly friend." Other possibilities for the unrequited love that was the subject of many of Dickinson’s poems include Otis P. Lord, a Massachusetts Supreme Court judge, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.
By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost complete isolation from the outside world, but actively maintained many correspondences and read widely. She spent a great deal of this time with her family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was actively involved in state and national politics, serving in Congress for one term. Her brother, Austin, who attended law school and became an attorney, lived next door with his wife, Susan Gilbert. Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia, also lived at home for her entire life in similar isolation. Lavinia and Austin were not only family, but intellectual companions for Dickinson during her lifetime.
Dickinson's poetry was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town, which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.
She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as John Keats. Though she was dissuaded from reading the verse of her contemporary Walt Whitman by rumors of its disgracefulness, the two poets are now connected by the distinguished place they hold as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice. While Dickinson was extremely prolific as a poet and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime. The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890 and the last in 1955. She died in Amherst in 1886.
Upon her death, Dickinson's family discovered forty handbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or "fascicles" as they are sometimes called. Dickinson assembled these booklets by folding and sewing five or six sheets of stationery paper and copying what seem to be final versions of poems. The handwritten poems show a variety of dash-like marks of various sizes and directions (some are even vertical). The poems were initially unbound and published according to the aesthetics of her many early editors, who removed her unusual and varied dashes, replacing them with traditional punctuation. The current standard version of her poems replaces her dashes with an en-dash, which is a closer typographical approximation to her intention. The original order of the poems was not restored until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of the paper itself to restore her intended order, relying on smudge marks, needle punctures, and other clues to reassemble the packets. Since then, many critics have argued that there is a thematic unity in these small collections, rather than their order being simply chronological or convenient. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press, 1981) is the only volume that keeps the order intact.
The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems (New Direction, 2013)
Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems (Little, Brown, 1962)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1960)
Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (Harper & Brothers, 1945)
Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1935)
Further Poems of Emily Dickinson: Withheld from Publication by Her Sister Lavinia (Little, Brown, 1929)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1924)
The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime (Little, Brown, 1914)
Poems: Third Series (Roberts Brothers, 1896)
Poems: Second Series (Roberts Brothers, 1892)
Poems (Roberts Brothers, 1890)
Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932)
Letters of Emily Dickinson (Roberts Brothers, 1894)