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Most Iconic Poems by Emily Dickinson

Mohammad Yasir is a postgraduate student at IIT and a published author with a passion for English and Urdu literature.

Introduction

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, c. early 1847

Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, c. early 1847

Emily Dickinson was one of the most prolific poets of the English language who received little recognition in her own life, but is now regarded as an icon by all who've heard of her. She had a penchant for isolation and much of her friendships were based on naught more than written correspondence. Some say it is these quirks that give rise to her stellar skills, while some say it's the other way round.

The vocabulary in her poems has an idiosyncratic tint and her works carry a personal touch, serving as a window into her character. Further, unusual capitalization and an extensive use of dashes, combined with the most beautiful imagery I have personally come across are some of the factors that lead to the remarkable style and grace in her poetry.

Today, let us look at five of the most iconic works attributed to this famous poet, starting with one that perfectly captures the unusual themes she is known for.

1. Because I Could Not Stop For Death

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

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We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

Because I could not stop for death is a testimonial to the often dark and morbid themes that garnished most of Dickinson's works. It has fascinated admirers over the ages and is also one of her longest poems.

While the idea behind it feels macabre at first, the poem itself tells the remarkable and ethereal story of a soul passing the threshold into the hereafter. Dickinson personifies Death as a country gentleman with a trustworthy and courteous nature and recounts of his civility and slow carriage. In fact, this personification of Death is counted among one of the most interesting characters of literature.

Read the full poem here. And if you want further analysis, let me recommend this excellent article.

2. Wild Nights – Wild Nights!

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!"

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem "Wild Nights – Wild Nights!"

Wild Nights carries an eloquent and potent imagery, comparing the passion of love to the sea. It is unknown if the poem is written out of love unrequited or in holy dedication to God and its theme has been debated since it first saw the light of day. Compelling arguments in favor of both the choices make it impossible to decide which one is correct, but one thing is for certain: the poem truly lives up to its name. The intoxicating description of passion in an age as reserved as that of Dickinson's is a testimonial to just how Wild and tenacious her work could be.

Read this masterpiece of passion at this page.

3. I'm Nobody! Who are you?

First posthumous publication of the poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

First posthumous publication of the poem "I'm Nobody! Who are you?"

Most people attribute Dickinson's works with something morbid, dark, deep, or, at best, soulful. However, this poem showcases her light-hearted side. The message is short and concludes in just two stanzas. The poet is inviting the reader to the safe and friendly world of anonymity.

The metaphor of a frog singing to the bog makes this poem one of the most pleasing epitomes of poetry. You could say that Dickinson had a wry sense of humor since the second stanza is clearly a reference to how the "somebodies" are like croaking frogs and how dreary it sounds to have to keep up one's status.

4. This is my letter to the World

This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me–

The simple News that Nature told–

With tender Majesty

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Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see–

For love of Her– Sweet– countrymen–

Judge tenderly– of Me

It is widely known that Dickinson had a reclusive nature. While the volume of her work is evidence to her immense creativity, almost all of her work was published posthumously, most likely because of her reluctance to get anything published.

This is my letter to the World is a nod to all the generations that would come to admire Dickinson's art.

5. Tell all the truth but tell it slant

Tell all the truth but tell it slant–

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind–

Tell all the truth but tell it slant is one of the most iconic phrases ever coined in English literature. In fact, the poem also seems like the motto that the poet lived by since her poems often tackle themes one might consider less than pleasant. And yet, not one of them has failed the task that all poetry must serve. Dickinson tells the truth about topics like grief, sorrow, even death, but never overpowers her readers in a single shot. Instead, if you peruse a little deeper, the dazzling idea behind each poem shines through.

We turn not older with years, but newer every day

— Emily Dickinson

© 2022 Mohammad Yasir

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