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 literature.
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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 language.
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 poems.
“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 poet.
“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 conclusion.
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 89)
“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 Braziller, 1986.
Bennet, Paula. Emily Dickinson : Woman Poet. New York: Univ of Iowa Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold. Emily Dickinson (Modern Critical Views). New York: Chelsea House, 1999.
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, 1976.
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, 1996.
Stonum, Gary Lee. The Dickinson Sublime (Wisconsin Project on American Writers). New York: Univ of Wisconsin Press, 1990