Skip to main content

Emily Dickinson: Great American Poet

I have loved and studied Emily Dickinson's poetry since high school, through eight years of college and over four decades of teaching.


Emily Dickinson's Life and Poetry

Emily Dickinson has been called "One of the great figures of American literature" and "one of the great poets of all time." She is surely one of the three great poets in American literature, the other two being Whitman and Frost; to me, she is the very greatest.

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. She died there, in the same house on May 15, 1886, the oldest of three children with a younger, brother, Austin,and younger a younger sister, Lavinia. She was descended from sound New England stock, including her grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who founded Amherst Academy, later to become Amherst College

.She said of her father that he had a "pure and terrible" heart and of her mother that she "did not care for thought." There were problems with her brother, Austin, over an affair with one of her friends. She and her sister, Lavinia, shared housekeeping chores and were full time caregivers for their mother in her latter years following a stroke.

She attended Amherst Academy for seven years, receiving an excellent education for the time and where she received an award as an outstanding student. The year after leaving Amherst Academy, she attended Mount Holoyke Female Seminary, but did not return to the school after that one year (1847-1848), possibly because of ill health or because she was needed at home for housework.

She began writing poems as a teenager and sent at least five poems in letters to different people during that time and continued writing through the years. In 1558 she began to make small booklets of her poems by folding pages in half and arranging the pages of these poms so the order of the lines were correct from poem to poem in the booklets. She then sewed the pages together with needle and thread through the spine of the booklets. No members of her family or friends knew that the booklets or other poems existed until they were discovered by Lavinia, after her death.. These booklets, called "fasciles" and, other loose poems numbered 1775 according the arrangement of Thomas H. Johnson's, in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, the definitive addition of her poetry published by Harvard University.

Emily Dickinson's Home

Emily Dickinson's Home. Her room was on the second floor on the left corner of the house in this picture.

Emily Dickinson's Home. Her room was on the second floor on the left corner of the house in this picture.

The Homestead, The Dickinson Home, Where Emily Dickinson Was Born and Died

Emily Dickinson lived in the house pictured above for all of her life except for 10 years when the family lost control of it and for the year of school at Mount Holyoke, plus trips to Boston for eye treatment, and once to Washington,D.C, where her father was serving in the U.S. Congress, with a stop in Philadelphia, and possibly other minor excursions.

One person with influence on Dickinson's early development as a poet was Ben Newton, who is described as being poor, who worked in her father's law office. He gave her a valued of Emerson's poems and said of him that he was "a friend who taught me Immortality." Other important people in her life included Susan Gilbert, a childhood and adult friend for some time, and who married Austin, Dickinson's brother. They were close for a time, but Dickinson called her 'pseudo sister' after their relationship fractured.

When Dickinson was in Philadelphia in 1855, she met Rev. Charles Wadsworth, an outstanding preacher of the time, with whom, it seems Dickinson fell in love, even though he was married with a family . He moved to San Francisco, and later returned to the east, and they met after his return, but nothing further came of the relationship, except, of course, that some of her poems on love may have been about her relationship to him. The final love of Dickinson's latter life was apparently Judge Otis Philips Lord, a friend of her father. Letters reveal that they considered marriage, but it never took place.

Another really important person in Dickinson's literary life was the literary critic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She asked him in a letter once if her poems were "alive". He seemingly did his best to help her, it is said, without ever being able to fully understand her or her poetry completely. She said in a letter to him, "Of our greatest acts we are my ignorant. You were not aware that you saved my life". I found no other comments on these statements by either Dickinson or Higginson.

One way of looking at Dickinson's reclusive life in her middle and later years was that she fell in love more than once, but did not marry any of the men in her life, so she put her passion and energy into writing poetry, along with her household duties. She invented a new kind poetry for herself, often following the rhyme scheme a-b-a-b and in the line length and rhythm of the hymns of the church which she attended, but with great variations in these basic patterns and wonderful creative use of the language in her everyday life, but with her unique creativity and talent. Her vocabulary was extremely rich and exquisitely used in her poems.

Below is a small selection of some of her public domain poems. This means that they are early ones, which I have arranged by categories to display at least some of the height and breadth and depth of her wonderfully unique poetic talent.

Finding Emily Dickinson on PBS

Some Dickinson Poems

As with all of the poets whom I have studied over the past six decades taking and teaching high school and college English classes, I have found that the subject matter of Dickinson's poems fall mostly into a few subject areas. Some are observations of everyday life and her relationship to the world around her, especially, its people, nature, religion, andnlove, as well as suffering and death.

Since Dickinson did not use titles for her poems, the first lines, or parts of them, are used as the titles for each of them. Of the 1775 poems in Johnson's presentation on a particular subject, such as love, different poems say much the same thing, or sometimes, take a very different view of the same subject. I have selected the poems discussed below to show Dickinson's ideas on particular subjects were expressed as well as to indicate some examples of her absolutely wonderful and unique poetic techniques used in expressing her ideas.

Much Madness Is Divinest Sense

Much madness is divinest sense

To a discerning eye;

Much sense the starkest madness.

Scroll to Continue

'Tis the majority

In this, as all, prevails.

Assent,--and you are sane;

Demur.--you're straightway dangerous,

And handled with a chain.

If we apply this poem to her Emily Dickinson's life, it says that she simply could not accept her society's standards for her life, in whatever her way her standards diverged form those of her society. She rejected some of the standards of the society around her, surely its Puritanical obsessions with religion and its dogmas as well as its overly strict religious activities. This rejection was surely true in relation to her year at Mount Holoyke.

The story of her year there is very important. The headmistress at Mt. Holoyke, which Dickinson attended before her return home for good was very religious, and asked the girls there whether they were sure of their salvation, hopeful or not hopeful. At the beginning of the year, about 80 were not hopeful. At the end of the year that number was down was about 30. Emily Dickinson was one of those. She did not return the next year, as was true of many other students at the school.

This poem's structure is unusual, being a five line stanza followed by a three line stanza. Most often, Dickinson's poems are in different numbers of four line stanzas lines.The rhyme scheme in this poem is irregular. There are "half rhymes," in the beginning of the poem where the last words in lines do not quite rhyme, such as in "sense" and "madness"; however, she slams the the door firmly on the meaning of the poem in the last stanza; using the words "sane" and "chain" saying that one must go with majority rule to be called "sane" or be different and be declared to be "mad" (crazy, to people today) and be restrained with "a chain," how people in mental institutions were treated at that time.

Dickinson asked her brother, Austin,in a letter once, "What makes a few of us so different from others? It is a question I often ask myself." To my knowledge, she found no answer, but seems to me to have been reasonably happy with her poetic life, which made her wonderfully different from others.

I'm Nobody! Who are You?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?

There's a pair of us -- don't tell!

The'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the livelong day

To an admiring bog!

This poem expresses Dickinson's willingness to be an outsider in her society. The speaker addresses some other person, not identified in the poem, except to say the the speaker and the other person, are alike in their desire not to be ruled by their society. The question is why do they not want to be part of society. The answer is that the speaker, and presumably the other person in the poem, do not want to be "somebody" and to be saying their names, which have to be repeated "the livelong day" to a "bog", a "swamp" of other people in the area, even if the other people are "admiring" of them. They simply do not want to be the center of attention. This is essentially the kind of reclusive life that Dickinson lived as she grew older. Regarding her poems, even when she sent poems out for possible publication, "editors" of the poems always changed word and punctuation in them to make them more acceptable to be like the usual poetry of the day.

He Preached upon "Breadth"

He preached upon "breadth" till it argued him a liar,

The broad are too broad to define;

And of "truth" until it proclaimed him a liar,--

The truth never flaunted a sign.

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence

As gold the pyrites would shun.

What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus

To meet so enabled a man!

Two people are compared here, a preacher, many of whom Dickinson surely had heard in her lifetime, and Jesus. The first is "counterfeit,"pretending to be like the "innocent Jesus," who was obviously admired by Dickinson, but the other as false as "fool's gold" when compared to genuine gold.

The first stanza says that the preacher is trying to sound profound, preaching on "breadth" and "truth" until he shows that he never really understood either. In the second stanza, she directly compares this "counterfeit" preacher with the pure ("innocent') Jesus, marveling that the religion of her day allowing such an "enabled" a man (sarcasm to the extreme) to preach and ruin the teachings of Jesus.

If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking,

I shall not live in vain;

If I can ease one life the aching

Or cool one pain

Or help one fainting robin

unto his nest again

I shall not live in vain.

In Johnson's numbering of Dickinson's poems, this wonderful little poem was written about 1864, relatively early in her poetic career. I would call this a statement of her philosophy of life, a statement of her longing for how she wanted to live, then be remembered in other people's lives.

This poem shows Dickinson to be a gentle person in her desired personality toward her fellow human beings and the creatures of nature. Toward others, she wanted to be kind and gentle, not purposefully intending to hurt any, even one person, keeping "one heart from breaking" by any action that she might take or anything that she might say. As a tiny example of what kind of action she might take to make others happy, we need only to look into her bedroom and see the basket which she used to send down her baked presents to her niece and nephew and the neighborhood children who stopped by to get them. How possibly could any one of us do better than to bless children with acts of kindness?

Then there is nature. Dickinson without a doubt knew that small birds sometimes fell from their nests without being able by themselves or with help from their parents to get back to the safety of their nests. Without human help, they would die. She wanted to prevent that suffering and death if she could. Is this attitude not worthy of any of us?

I've Seen a Dying Eye

I've seen a dying eye

Run and round and round a room

In search of something it seemed

Then cloudier become;

And then obscure with fog,

and then be soldered down,

Without disclosing what it be

'T were blessed to have seen.

This an "experience" poem, one that presents the happenings in a situation which is presented as actually having happened, leaving the reader to marvel at the meaning of what has been said. Today, about 80% of Americans die in hospitals or other medical facilities, not at home as, was no doubt the situation on Dickinson's day.

This poem seems "real" to me, that she actually had seen someone die, and the dying, in this instance, was connected to the eyes, surely the easiest part of a person's body which could be observed as moving as death overtook the person. The eye looks around the room, apparently looking for something in the person's going away.Then the eye becomes less active, becomes "cloudy", then "obscured with fog" and then "soldered". "Soldered" seems an odd word here, the heating of a metal compound to join two pieces of metal together so that, when the solder joint is cooled, it becomes solid around the other pieces of metal. This is the instant of death, when life stops, as surely as breathing ceases and heartbeat can no longer be heard with a stethoscope, nor pulse felt with finger. It can be realized in the eye.

This poem presents the stark and real instance of death to me, in a way that I would surely never have imagined on my own, I think, even if I had seen it.

Conclusion, Sources

I see Emily Dickinson's wonderful poetry, as she said, as being:

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to me--

The simple News that Nature told--

With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed

To hands I cannot see--

For love of Her--Sweet--countrymen

Judge tenderly--of Me

She said in her comment to her brother, Austin, that she had no idea why some people, like her, were different from other people. She realized this fact and had to make a choice, try to be like other people, and be sure fail to meet their expectations, or be true to herself and to the muse of poetry and create her own poetic reality of life. This she did, and raised herself above the ordinary poets of her day to establish her reputation, according to some people, as the greatest of American poets, and one of the very great poets of the English language and the world, only after she died.


Emily Dickinson Museum. (Biography,"Emily Dickinson"). Amherst, Massachusetts "Emily Dickinson"

"Emily Dickinson," Realism and Naturalism,' .American Literature (Textbook)

I visited the Homestead twice and the Emily Dickinson Museum at Amherst College.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments on Dickinson and Her Poems

John Murphree (author) from Tennessee on March 01, 2021:

Thank you for reading and commenting. She was a great poet, one of my favorites too.

Jo Miller from Tennessee on January 25, 2021:

Thanks for this well- written article about Emily Dickinson. She's one of my favorite poets.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 21, 2021:

Thanks for writing about Emily Dickinson's life and also for sharing some of her poems with us. I enjoyed reading them.

Liz Westwood from UK on January 21, 2021:

This is an interesting and well-written biographical account of a poet that I know little about. I have learnt a lot.

Related Articles