Emily Dickinson’s literary work is considered to be a piece of timeless art and there is a universal consensus that she is one of the most prolific American poets of all times. Dickinson has written around 1800 poems, which is an achievement on its own. However, a fairly limited amount of her work was published during her life.
If you are looking to write a college essay on the poems of Emily Dickinson, this is the guide you need to bank on. Here are 10 interesting facts about her poems that will assist you in writing a detailed and informative essay for your college curriculum:
- At the age of 18, Emily Dickinson and her family became friends with a young attorney, Benjamin Franklin Newton. Many historians have refuted the idea that Dickinson and Newton did not share a romantic relationship, though what they did share was a deep personal understanding. Newton was considered by Dickinson as her tutor and preceptor. He was the one who introduced her to the work of William Wordsworth and gifted her Ralph Waldo Emerson’s book of poems, which according to her own admission, heavily influenced her work. Although Newton died of tuberculosis, he was one of the very first to predict her greatness as he wrote this in his last letters to Emily, stating that he had wished to live long enough to watch her reach greatness.
- Emily Dickinson was not only a keen reader of the bible, but also showed great interest in the contemporary literature at the time. Her work was also influenced by Lydia Maria Child’s Letters from New York, which was yet again a gift from Newton. Dickinson’s brother brought a copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Kavanagh for her, despite her father’s disapproval. Similarly, a friend gave her a copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre in 1849. Although it is uncertain how much of her work was influenced by Jane Eyre, Emily did name her new found dog Carlo, which was also the name of St. John Rivers’ dog, a character in one of Eyre’s works
- Emily Dickinson became more and more secluded and withdrawn over the years, but this was also the peak of her career. She would start working in the summer of 1858 which would become her legacy. She started reviewing her work and put together clean copies of her previously written work. Around the same time she put her manuscripts together. Between 1858 and 1865, she wrote the Forty Fascicles which amounted to 800 poems. It was only after her death that this work was discovered.
- She became friends with editor-in-chief of Springfield Republican, as well as the owner, Samuel Bowles and his wife Mary, in the late 1850s. The two visited the Dickinson family on a regular basis. Emily sent them dozens of letters and a little over 50 poems. It is debated among scholars that their friendship influenced Emily to write some of the most intense pieces. That was one of the reasons why Bowles published her poems in his journal.
- Between 1858 and 1861, Emily Dickinson wrote some mysterious letters that have caused a lot of debate in the literary community. She wrote a trio of letters titled “The Master Letters”, which were drafted to a man whose identity has still not been discovered. In the letters, she referred to this unknown man simply as “Master”.
- The work she did before 1861 was considered very conventional and extremely sentimental in nature. The publisher of “The Poems of Emily Dickinson”, Thomas H. Johnson, was only able to track 5 poems written before 1858. Two out of five of these poems are a mockery of love written in a humorous style, while the other two are simple lyrics; one of these two lyrical poems is about Emily missing her brother, Austin. She wrote the last one to portray her fear of losing friends and sent it to one of her closest friends, Sue Gilbert.
- The period between 1861 and 1865 was the one where Emily Dickinson was the most active. This is when Emily went through a lot of seclusion and personal loss, which also reflected in her work. All the poems written between this period were very strong and highly emotional. According to the author, Johnson, she wrote around 86 poems in the year 1861, 366 in the year 1862, 141 in the year 1863 and roughly 174 in the year 1864. After 1866 however, her work simmered down as she had written more than two-thirds of her poetry before this year.
- Emily Dickinson’s poems had a morbid touch to them. Her poems portray her fascination with disease, the process of dying and death itself. She showed a vigorous obsession with death through her poems, as they refer to death through drowning, crucifixion, suffocation, freezing, shooting, premature burial and death by guillotine. The most insightful poems about death by Dickinson are “Funeral in The Brain” and “Death Blow Aimed by God”. Other poems showed her curiousness about starvation and thirst.
- According to Suzanne Juhasz, Emily Dickinson believed that her mind and spirit were places she could not only visit, but live in. Dickinson considered this place private and called it the “Undiscovered Continent” or the “Landscape of the Spirit”. The poem called “Me From Myself — to Banish”, is a clear example of this.
- Dickinson was fascinated with the flowers and this was one of her main poetic themes. Her references to gardens in her poems supposedly depict a fictional realm where flowers represent actions and emotions. She used flowers such as anemones and gentians to represent humility and youth. Her poem “My Nosegays Are for Captives” is an example of this theme.
These facts will most certainly help you kickstart research on your college essay. You’ll now be able to focus on a single topic but if you need additional tips, head on over to our 20 topics on poems by Emily Dickinson for a college essay as well, which also contains a sample essay at the end and also our complete writing guide.
Dickinson, E., & Franklin, R. W. (1999). The poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Bloom, H. (1999). Emily Dickinson. Broommall, PA: Chelsea House.
Buckingham, W. J. (1989). Emily Dickinson’s reception in the 1890s: A documentary history. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.
McNeil, H. (1986). Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books.
Farr, J., & Carter, L. (2004). The gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Crumbley, P. (1997). Inflections of the pen: Dash and voice in Emily Dickinson. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.
Habegger, A. (2001). My wars are laid away in books: The life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House.
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Essay on the poetry of Emily Dickinson
View: Poems of Emily Dickinson
It is well known that in her lifetime Emily Dickinson only had a very small number of poems published (fewer than 20) and even these were heavily edited for the benefit of contemporary sensibilities. However the prospect of fame and prestige seemed to hold little if any motivation to one of America’s greatest poets, who preferred instead the anonymity and privacy of near seclusion. It was not until shortly after her death in 1886 that her friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson co edited and produced a complete set of her poems. Even publishing the poetry of Emily Dickinson was not straightforward as she used unusual punctuation, often preferring dashes to commas. Her unusual script was difficult to decipher and most problematically she often listed several alternative phrases for the same poem with no clear guidance about which the poet preferred.
The initial translations of Emily Dickinson’s poems have been criticised over time for straying from the intent of the originals. However in 1955 Thomas H. Johnson was able to republish the poetry of Emily Dickinson, leaving them as close to the originals as possible. He also reduced the manuscript variants of the poems to a single text each. The total number of poems was 1,775 and this numbering has been a way of categorizing them.
Many poems of Emily Dickinson, especially the earlier ones suggest to readers that she suffered some kind of romantic disappointment to some particular person This has led many biographers to endlessly speculate about possible lovers, although there is little conclusive proof for anyone in particular. It is also worth bearing in mind that when Emily Dickinson uses the prefix ‘I’ in her poetry it is often uncertain whether she refers to herself or more generally the reader. Nevertheless from around 1862 there is an increased emphasis on a shift from human love to a mystical devotion. In the absence of meaningful human attachments she shifts her focus to perhaps the only real alternative – the Divine Mystery.
‘Title divine – Is Mine!’
‘The wife – without the sign!’
‘Empty my Heart, of Thee-
Its single Artery -
Begin, and leave Thee out-
Simply Extinction’s Date-
Empty My heart
Like much devotional poetry the interpretation of her intent could to a large extent be determined by the preconceptions of the reader. This poem however makes a strong allusion to a hidden consciousness.
I know that He exists.
Somewhere – in Silence -
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
This devotion to the eternal, mystic dimension beyond time and beyond death is also a product of her inner experiences which often left her dazzled by the hidden ecstasy of life.
Yet despite profound inner revelations, which left her with a taste of immortality, it is clear these did not become a permanent reality. It is as if she often doubted her own glimpses of a life beyond the mundane. As Sri Chinmoy observes:
‘her mind violently refused to believe in the authenticity of Emily’s illumining, fulfilling and immortalising experiences.
The mind stood adamant between the finite and the Infinite, between the body and vital and the heart and soul,
between the consciously known world and the unconsciously known world’
- Sri Chinmoy (2)
This reflects in the inherent paradoxes and apparent contradictions within her poetry.
Emily Dickinson has been described as one of America’s greatest religious poets. However it is important to understand what we mean by religious, especially in the social and religious melting pot of 19th Century America. She lived through a period of tumultuous change. 1865 was the height of the American civil war; Darwin was developing his theory of evolution, symbolic of the new scientific rationalism. Religious questions were especially prominent, her generation saw an increasing division between the puritanical Calvinism of New England and the new liberalising influence of Transcendentalism, epitomised by Emerson. It is highly likely that Emily Dickinson read Ralph Waldo Emerson although it is uncertain whether she had access to Walt Whitman. Whitman a leading light in the formation of the Early American poetry may not have been read in her household, being deemed to be too subversive.
Despite the conflicting pressures and influences of society, Emily Dickinson displayed a remarkable independence of spirit and was a unique innovator in the field of poetry; both through form and subjects. Emily Dickinson more than any other female poet, redefined the subjects and style that could be associated with a woman writer.
Her poems are revelatory of her hidden joy and are glimpses of an immortal consciousness.
‘Behind Me – dips Eternity-
Before Me – Immortality -
Myself – the term between -
Behind Me – dips Eternity
T’was my last gratitude
When I slept – at night-
T’was the first Miracle
Let in – with Light -
Yet amidst the intense inner revelations and wonderment of life there is powerful scepticism and uncertainty. She frequently alludes to being ‘shut out of heaven’. This may have stemmed from her own doubts about her inner experiences. It may also have been a reaction to her disenfranchisement with the established religion she was brought up with.
But the inherent paradox and contradiction of Emily Dickinson makes for arresting poetry; with fluidity of language and metaphor she moves effortlessly between the holiest experience and the mundane pessimism of life’s potential futility.
Her seeming fluctuations of belief and intent create a dynamic contrast within the poetry, which leaves the reader inspired to formulate his own understanding. Yet amidst this ebb and flow she at times reveals a divine experience with the mantric certainties of a true Seer poet.
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The carriage held but just Ourselves-
T is so much joy! ‘T is so much joy!
If I should fail, what poverty!
And yet, as poor as I
Have ventured all upon a throw;
Have gained! Yes! Hesitated so
This side the victory!
T’is So much Joy
The precision and feeling in her poem stretch both the imagination but also delight in encompassing the material and mundane as Ted Hughes said of her poetry
‘She grasped the ‘centre’ and the ‘circumference’ of things – to use 2 of her favourite expressions
- as surely as human imagination ever has.’
Never bogged down in philosophy or moralizing she deliberately dances from apocalyptic vision to self-abnegation and uncertainty. Such a poetic stance is not easy to manifest. Far ahead of her time she uses metaphor, language and form in a unique style, symbolic of a powerful vitality and energy that maybe unexpected from her near seclusion from life.
One cannot read the poetry of Emily Dickinson without being struck by her interest, almost obsession with death. It was not that she feared death, more so she hoped death was perhaps a solution a way forward from the impediments of human life and human frailties.
‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room – ‘
I Died for Beauty
Commentators may take different things from the poetry of Emily Dickinson but over 100 years after her death, she is held in wide regard -a Seer poet who contemplates death and immortality – engaging the reader in his own musings and contemplations.
(1) A Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse. Selected with an Introduction By Ted Hughes (1968)
(2) Philosopher-Thinkers: The Power-Towers Of The Mind And Poet-Seers: The Fragrance-Hours Of The Heart In The West
(3) Emily Dickinson – Selected Poems Everyman Library