Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit Eleven: I'm nobody! Who are you?

Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886)

Her poetry is split: half romantic, half gothic (themes of nature and of death)
transcendentalism, romanticism along with domestic realism

ED often writes of the common place, the ordinary, the daily, the mundane

wrote nearly 1800 poems, around a dozen published when she was alive, anonymously.
In some senses, she didn't want publication, was a recluse in Amherst, Massachusetts. But she did send some of her writing to be examined by publishers/editors.

She withdrew from potential love relationships, perhaps because they could detract from her poetry composition

in decade of the 1860's she averaged writing one poem per day

her definition of good poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can 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 way I know it. Is there any other way?"

Elements of Style for Dickinson's poetry:
compactness (thimble size, cosmic dimensions)
assumption of a personae in poem (not Dickinson the writer speaking, but a created "voice" for that poem)
puns/paradox, especially with dictionary definitions

she loved to use "scale" from microscopic to universal
operated from 'points in space' and circumference

circumference: "a projection of her imagination into all relationships of humanity, nature, and spirit"
self as "center" of space
elliptical: she left things out, short hand, used dashes and fragmented syntax - makes the reader work for meaning

Poems of definition
radical definition poems, like a hummingbird or the frost
some poems are like simplistic riddles: I like to see it lap the miles

she is a word poet
She knows her dictionary; she writes, "For several years, my only companion was my lexicon..."
in 1840 Webster format, columns arranged with denotations, connotations
explicit meaning vs. abstract expressions always working in her poems

Subjects: death, pain, loss, renunciation, nature
though a death poet, not morbid, she looks death in the eye, honestly

themes and subjects often used include:

seasons and nature
death and problematic afterlife, loss, renunciation, dying
kinds and phases of love and passion
poetry as a divine art
the self examined life

Emersonian: examination of the small taken to the cosmic (transcendental)
Adamic poet, a namer of things
riddle poems
quarrels with God (institutionalized religion)
doubts about her own afterlife

3 Reasons ED Wrote About Death
*lifespan was short in 1800's, saw many die, family, children & neighbors, along with a number of her "mentors"
*father's home (her home) across from largest Amherst church, many funerals that she would have seen
*Amhurst graveyard two blocks behind her house

psychological, inevitable human experience
Question: is there consciousness after death???

processes/phases of the mind
Dickinson is "woman thinking," derived from Emerson's notion of "man thinking"

many poems depict the bursts of the mind's insight into the nature of reality

Dickinson very much a word poet, love of etymology and the original meaning of words displayed
like Thoreau, loved to use puns
liked to mix one syllable, Anglo Saxon words with multi-syllable Latin based words

fewer masculine rhymes, internal feminine and half rhymes, liked to use slant rhymes or eye rhymes
elliptical: leave words out, reader fills in missing words/concepts/meanings
oxymoron: opposites coming together, dazzle gradually

Language giving voice to silent significances of nature

she didn't like consistency, often edited poems over and over
or looked at same subject in different ways
different attitudes, or attitude shift, see Poem 216 (Johnson) two versions

"sumptuous destitution" and "dazzle gradually" are playful oxymorons

another major motif: self concealment and self revelation

Many poems move in Three Stages:
1. first couplet: an assertion, introduce subject
2. a qualification, exploration of an idea
3. a resolution, sometimes of denial or doubt

Simplistic Ballad Stanza (the simplicity of the verse form freed her to concentrate on the subject matter)
alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter
typically four lines per stanza, end rhyme of second and fourth lines match
iambic: an unaccented and an accented set of syllables combined

he KIND -ly STOPPED for ME

Her poems can be sung to Amazing Grace, The Yellow Rose of Texas, Theme from Gilligan's Island or any popular ballad.

Mentors in her life that she corresponded with:
1. Benjamin Newton, law student
2. Charles Wadsworth, Philadelphia minister, he married and moved to S.F. 1861
3. Thomas Higginson, a writer & editor
4. Samuel Bowles, newspaper editor in Springfield, MA

Had a deep friendship with her sister in law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson

Her Letters
Her prose is just like her poetry
much ellipsis, symbol, metaphor
circumference: she tries to take everything in

Revision of Poetry, later style versus her style in earlier poems:
more use of ellipsis
shows instead of tells
more compact, more concentrated
becomes much more private

Emersonian: use of natural images to represent spiritual
low, mean, common, answer to Emerson's call in The Poet
subject matter becomes part of poet's imagination
poet is Adamic, the namer, the creator, can do with the universe what she will

Since Dickinson almost never "titled" her poems, we refer to them today by their first line or with either the "Johnson" numbers, from his 1955 The Poetry of Emily Dickinson, or the more recent and more authoritative "Franklin" numbers, from his 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson. These numbers attempt to arrange the poems in the order in which they were written, though this is very difficult to know, in many cases.

Questions and Considerations


Works Cited


Other Resources

Dickinson Electronic Archives

"Emily Dickinson." Digitial American Literature Anthology.

"Emily Dickinson's Life," Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois.

Emily Dickinson, "The Game of Interpretation" Norton Anthology of Poetry, 5th ed.








Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University