Emily Dickinsons Poetry Essay Research Paper EMILY

Emily Dickinsons Poetry Essay, Research Paper



Emily Dickinson is regarded as ?one of the greatest American poets that

have ever existed.?(Benfey 5) The unique qualities of her brief, but

emotional, poems were so uncommon that they made her peerless in a sense that

her writing could not be compared to. Her diverse poetic character could be

directly connected to her tragic and unusual life. The poems that she wrote were

often about death and things of that nature, and can be related to her

distressed existence. Dickinson?s forthright examination of her philosophical

and religious skepticism, her unorthodox attitude toward her sex and calling,

and her distinctive style?characterized by elliptical compressed expression,

striking imagery and innovative poetic structure?have earned widespread

acclaim, and her poems have become some of the best loved in American


Although only seven of Dickinson?s poems were published during her lifetime

and her work drew harsh criticism when it first appeared, many of her short

lyrics on the subjects of nature, love, death, and immortality are now

considered among the most emotionally and intellectually profound in the English


Biographers generally agree that, ?Emily Dickinson experienced an emotional

crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860?s.?(Cameron 26) Dickinson?s

antisocial behavior became excessive following 1869. ?Her refusal to leave her

home or to meet visitors, her gnomic sayings, and her habit of always wearing a

white dress earned her a reputation of eccentricity among her neighbors.?(Cameron

29) Her intellectual and social isolation further increased when her father died

suddenly in 1874 and he was left to care for her invalid mother. The death of

her mother in 1882 followed two years later by the death of Judge Otis P. Lord,

a close family friend and her most satisfying romantic attachment, contributed

to what Dickinson described as an ?attack of nerves?.?(Cameron 29)

Emily Dickinson?s distressed state of mind is believed to have inspired her

to write more abundantly: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed over 300


?Her absorption in the world of feeling found some relief in associations

with nature; yet although she loved nature and wrote many nature lyrics, her

interpretations are always more or less swayed by her own state of being.?(Benfey

22) ?The quality of her writing is profoundly stirring, because it betrays,

not the intellectual pioneer, but the acutely observant woman, whose capacity

for feeling was profound.?(Bennet 61)

All seven of the poems published during her lifetime were published

anonymously and some were done without consent. ?The editors of the

periodicals in which her lyrics appeared made significant alterations to them in

attempt to regularize the meter and grammar, consequently discouraging Dickinson

from seeking further publication.?(Fuller 17)

When her poetry was first published in a complete unedited edition after her

death, Emily was acknowledged as a poet who was truly ahead of her time.

However, there is no doubt that critics are justified in complaining that, ?Her

work was often cryptic in thought and unmelodious in expression.?(Bennet 64)

Today, an increasing number of studies from diverse critical viewpoints are

devoted to her life and works, thus securing Dickinson?s status as a major


?There?s a certain slant of light? is a poem in which seasonal change

becomes a symbol of inner change. The relationship of inner and outer change is

contrasted. ?It begins with a moment of arrest that signals the nature and

meaning of winter. It tells that summer passed but insists that the passing

occurred so slowly that it did not seem like the betrayal that it really was.?(Bloom

122) The comparison to the slow fading of grief also implies a failure of

awareness on the speaker?s part. The second and third lines begin a

description of a transitional period, and their claim that the speaker felt no

betrayal shows that she had to struggle against this feeling. The next eight

lines create, ?A personified scene of late summer or early autumn. The

distilled quiet allows time for contemplation.?(Eberwein 354) The ?twilight

long begun? suggests that the speaker is getting used to the coming season and

is aware that change was occurring before she truly noticed it. ?These lines

reinforce the poems initial description of a slow lapse and also convey the idea

that foreknowledge of decline is part of the human condition.?(Bloom 124) The

personification of the polite but coldly determined guest, who insists on

leaving no matter how earnestly she is asked to stay, is convincing on the

realistic level. ?On the level of analogy, the courtesy probably corresponds

to the restrained beauty of the season, and the cold determination corresponds

to the inevitability of the year?s cycle.?(Bloom 122) The movement from

identification with sequestered nature to nature as a departing figure

communicates the involvement of humans in the seasonal life cycle. ?The last

four lines shift the metaphor and relax the tension. Summer leaves by secret

means. The missing wing & keel suggest a mysterious fluidity?greater than

that of air or water. Summer escapes into the beautiful, which is a repository

of creation that promises to send more beauty into the world.?(Eberwein 355)

The balanced picture of the departing guest has prepared us for this low-key


A number of Emily Dickinson?s poems about poetry relating the poet to an

audience probably have their genesis in her own frustrations and uncertainties

about the publication of her own work. ?This is my letter to the World,?

written about 1862, the year of Emily Dickinson?s greatest productivity looks

forward to the fate of her poems after her death. The world that never wrote to

her is her whole potential audience who will not recognize her talent or

aspirations. ?She gives nature credit for her heart and material in a half

apologetic manner, as if she were merely the carrier of nature?s message.?(Bloom

297) The fact that this message is committed to people who will come after her

transfers the uncertainty of her achievement to its future observers, as if they

were somehow responsible for its neglect while she was alive. ?The plea that

she be judged tenderly for nature’s sake combines an insistence on imitation of

nature as the basis of her art with a special plea for tenderness towards her

own fragility or sensitivity; but poetry should be judged by how well the poet

achieves his or her intention and not by the poem alone, as Emily Dickinson

surely knew.?(Bloom 297) ?This particular poem?s generalization about her

isolation?and its apologetic tone?tends toward the sentimental, but one can

detect some desperation underneath the softness.?(Bloom 298)

Her poem, ?Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant–? immediately reminds

us of all the indirection in Emily Dickinson?s poems: her condensations, vague

references, renowned puzzles, and perhaps even her slant rhymes. ?The idea of

artistic success lying in circuit?that is, in confusion and symbolism?goes

well with the stress on amazing sense and staggering paradoxes which we have

seen her express elsewhere.?(Eberwein 171) The notion that Truth is too much

for our infirm delight is puzzling. ?On the very personal level for Emily?s

mind, ?infirm delight? would correspond to her fear or experience and her

preference for anticipation over fulfillment. For her, Truth?s surprise had to

remain in the world of imagination. However, superb surprise sounds more

delightful than frightening.?(Bloom 89) Lightning indeed is a threat because

of its physical danger and its accompanying thunder is scary, but it is not

clear how dazzling truth can blind us?unless it is the deepest of spiritual

truths. These lines can be simplified to mean that raw experience needs artistic

elaboration to give it depth and to enable us to contemplate it. The

contemplation theme is reasonably convincing but, ?The poem coheres poorly and

uses an awed and apologetic tone to cajole us into disregarding its faults.?(Bloom


?Success is counted sweetest,? Dickinson?s most famous poem about

compensation is more complicated and less cheerful. ?It proceeds by inductive

logic to show how painful situations create knowledge and experience not

otherwise available.?(Eberwein 18) The poem opens with a generalization about

people who never succeed. They treasure the idea of success more than others do.

Next, the idea is given additional physical force by the declaration that only

people in great thirst understand the nature of what they need. The use of ?comprehend?

about a physical substance creates a metaphor for spiritual satisfaction. ?Having

briefly introduced people who are learning through deprivation, Emily goes onto

the longer description of a person dying on a battlefield. The word ?host,?

referring to an armed troop, gives the scene an artificial elevation intensified

by the royal color purple. These seemingly victorious people understand the

nature of victory much less than does a person who has been denied it and lies

dying. His ear is forbidden because it must strain to hear and will soon not

hear at all.?(Eberwein 19) The bursting of strains near the moment of death

emphasize the greatness of sacrifices. This is a harsh poem. It asks for

agreement with an almost cruel doctrine, although its harshness is often

overlooked because of its crisp illustrated quality and its pretended

cheerfulness. ?On the biographical level, it can be seen as a celebration of

the virtues and rewards of Emily Dickinson?s renunciatory way of life, and as

an attack on those around her who achieved worldly success.?(Bloom 158)

?I heard a fly buzz?when I died?? is often seen as a representative

of Emily Dickinson?s style and attitude. The first line is as arresting an

opening as one could imagine. By describing the moment of her death, the speaker

lets you know she has already died. ?In the first stanza, the death room?s

stillness contrasts with a fly?s buzz that the dying person hears, and the

tension pervading the scene is likened to the pauses within a storm. The second

stanza focuses on the concerned onlookers, whose strained eyes and gathered

breath emphasize their concentration in the face of a sacred event: the arrival

of the ?King,? who is death. In the third stanza, attention shifts back to

the speaker, who has been observing her own death with all the strength of her

remaining senses.?(Eberwein 201) Her final willing of her keepsakes is a

psychological event, not something she speaks. Already growing detached from her

surroundings, she is no longer interested in material possessions; instead she

leaves behind whatever people can treasure and remember. She is getting ready to

guide herself towards death. ?But the buzzing fly intervenes at the last

instant; the phrase ?and then? indicates that this is a casual event, as if

the ordinary course of life were in no way being interrupted by her death.?(Bloom

365) ?The fly?s ?blue buzz? is one of the most famous pieces of

synesthesia in Emily Dickinson?s poems. This image represents the fusing of

color and sound by the dying person?s diminishing senses. The uncertainty of

the fly?s darting motions parallels her state of mind. Flying between the

light and her, it seems to both signal the moment of death and represent the

world that she is leaving.?(Bloom 365) The last two lines show the speakers

confusion of her eyes that she does not want to admit. She is both distancing

fear and revealing her detachment from life.

?Pain?has an element of Blank? deals with a self-contained and timeless

suffering, mental rather than physical. The personification of pain makes it

identical with the sufferer?s life. The blank quality serves to blot out the

origin of the pain and the complications that pain brings. The second stanza

insists that such suffering is aware only of its continuation. ?Just as the

sufferer?s life has become pain, so time has become pain. Its present is an

infinity, which remains exactly like the past. This infinity, and the past,

which it reaches back to, are aware only of an indefinite future of suffering.?(Eberwein

76) The description of the suffering self as being enlightened is ironic because

even though this enlightenment is the only light in the darkness, it is still

characterized by suffering.

?In ?This World is not Conclusion,? Emily Dickinson dramatizes a

conflict faith in immortality and severe doubt.?(Bloom 55) Her earliest

editors omitted the last eight lines of the poem distorting its meaning and

creating a flat conclusion. The complete poem can be divided into two parts: the

first twelve lines and the final eight lines.(Eberwein 89) It starts by

emphatically affirming that there is a world beyond death which we cannot see

but which we still can understand intuitively, as we do music. Lines four

through eight introduce conflict. Immortality is attractive but puzzling. ?Even

wise people must pass through the riddle of death without knowing where they are

going.?(Bloom 55) The ungrammatical ?don?t? combined with the elevated

diction of ?philosophy? and ?sagacity? suggests the irritability of a

little girl. ?In the next four lines, the speaker struggles to assert faith.

Her faith now appears in the form of a bird that is searching for reasons to

believe. But available evidence proves as irrelevant as twigs and as indefinite

as the directions shown by a spinning weathervane. The desperation of a bird

aimlessly looking for its way is analogous to the behavior of preachers whose

gestures and hallelujahs cannot point the way to faith.?(Bloom 56) These last

two lines suggest that the narcotic which these preachers offer cannot still

their own doubts, in addition to the doubts of others.

Although the difficult ?This Consciousness that is aware? deals with

death, it is at least equally concerned with discovery of personal identity

through the suffering that accompanies dying. ?The poem opens by dramatizing

the sense of mortality which people often feel when they contrast their

individual time bound lives to the world passing by them.?(Eberwein 49) Word

order in the second stanza is reversed. ?The speaker anticipates moving

between experience and death?that is, from experience into death by means of

the experiment of dying. Dying is an experiment because it will test us, and

allow us, and no one else, to know if our qualities are high enough to let us

survive beyond death.?(Bloom 137) The last stanza offers a summary that makes

the death experience an analogy for other means of gaining self-knowledge in

life. ?Neither boastful nor fearful, this poem accepts the necessity of

painful testing.?(Bloom 137)

Even this modest selection of Emily Dickinson?s poems reveal that death is

her principal subject. In fact, because the topic is related to many of her

other concerns, it is difficult to say how many of her poems concentrate on

death, but over half of them, at least partly, and about third centrally,

feature it. Most of these poems also touch on the subject of religion?although

she did write about religion without mentioning death. Life in a small New

England town in Dickinson?s time contained a high mortality rate for young

people. As a result, there were frequent death-scenes in homes. ?This factor

contributed to her preoccupation with death, as well as her withdrawal from the

world, her anguish over her lack of romantic love, and her doubts about

fulfillment beyond the grave.?(Cameron 114) Years ago, Emily Dickinson?s

interest in death was often criticized as being morbid, but in time, ?Readers

tend to be impressed by her sensitive and imaginative handling of this painful

subject.?(Stonum 83) Her poems concentrating on death can be divided into four

categories: those focusing on death as possible extinction, those dramatizing

the question of whether the soul survives death, those asserting a firm faith in

immortality, and those directly treating God?s concern with people?s lives

and destinies.

?If nothing else had come out of our life but this strange poetry we should

feel that in the work of Emily Dickinson, America, or New England rather, had

made a distinctive addition to the literature of the world, and could not be

left out of any record of it.?(Benfey 66)

Bedard, Michael. Emily. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Benfey, Christopher. Emily Dickinson : Life of a Poet. New york: George



Bennet, Paula. Emily Dickinson : Woman Poet. New York: Univ of Iowa Press,


Bloom, Harold. Emily Dickinson (Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea



Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing : Dickinson’s Fascicles. New York:

University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Dickinson, Emily. Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. New York: Little Brown

& Co,


Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. New York: Greenwood

Publishing Group, 1998.

Fuller, Jamie. The Diary of Emily Dickinson. New York: St. Martin’s Press,


Stonum, Gary Lee. The Dickinson Sublime (Wisconsin Project on American


New York: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1990.


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