Getting Started with Emily Dickinson

By Fariha Uddin - English Student @ Keble College, Oxford

What comes to mind when ‘Emily Dickinson’ is brought up in a conversation? A recluse, perhaps? Or maybe her uncontrollable nature of using dashes in an arbitrary manner? Whichever comes to your mind, her poems are complicated in meaning and style no matter how simple they appear at first. And shedding light into some context is the best way forward in understanding her poetry, to some extent at least.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson continued her education after primary school in Amherst Academy which had connections with Amherst College. There, she learned about astronomy, chemistry, natural history, zoology, and mathematics to name a few. Her extensive knowledge of those subjects is reflected in her poems and letters. On the subject of religion, she was skeptical. Dickinson in a letter to Jane Humphrey wrote the following after not joining the church like her brother, Austin: “I am standing alone in rebellion”. Her doubts about religion become clearer in the same letter: “I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is?”. Faith, religion, death, night-time, and immortality are images which frequently show up in her poems alongside those influenced by her knowledge of birds and flowers.

Although she wrote about 1800 poems, only ten was published during her lifetime. Dickinson, instead, had her own form of personal and private publication. She gathered her poems and put them into booklets called ‘fascicles’ by binding them with string. Not only did Dickinson create her own form of publication, but she also defined what poetry meant for her: “[if] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me[,] I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Perhaps we should also apply the same principles whilst judging Dickinson’s poetry?

Moving away from context, Dickinson’s poetry is about her varied experiences and observations of life. These are reflected in her choices of expression being “both concrete and abstract, formal and colloquial, Latinate and Anglo-Saxon, technical and common, literal and figurative” (David Porter in The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry). Within those expressions, Porter suggests that a single word carries all the meaning without contextual help from neighbouring words. Capitalisation also sets apart certain nouns which carry the central ideas of the poem too. Nouns are also separated using dashes and Porter’s take on the dash is to “denote an expressive suspension”. In other words, suspending thought and feeling through the isolation of particular nouns. As you can tell, Dickinson’s use of idiosyncratic punctuation and nouns are aspects which set her apart from poets of her time. Consider the poem “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”, for example.

I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody! How public – like a Frog – To tell one's name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!

Some of her (best) poems, including the one above, are the following: “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun”, and “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”. Dickinson’s poems do not have titles, so the first line from each poem takes on the role.

Further reading:

  1. Bragg, Melvyn, ‘Emily Dickinson’, In Our Time podcast,

  2. ‘Emily Dickinson’ in Poetry Foundation,

  3. For images of surviving manuscripts, see ‘Emily Dickinson Archive’,

  4. For her letters, see ‘Emily Dickinson’s Letters’ in The Atlantic,

  5. Martin, Wendy, The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson, (Cambridge University Press, 2002). See chapters titled ‘Introduction’ and ‘Emily Dickinson and poetic strategy’.