Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Context

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New England Roots

Experts agree her New England roots shaped Emily Dickinson. Dickinson's family had lived in New England since 1630, when one of her Puritan forebears (English Protestants who left England for the Americas in search of religious freedom) sailed from England. In 1659 one of her ancestors moved west to the Connecticut River Valley to found the town of Northampton. A century later her great grandfather settled in what became Amherst, Massachusetts, where her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, was born and lived for years. The first member of the family to go to college, he became a lawyer and helped found Amherst College. Although he left Amherst, Emily Dickinson and her family remained. Because her father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent member of the community, many people came to the Dickinson home, where Emily was expected to entertain visitors.

Shaped by Puritan values —thrift, practicality, hard work, education, and simplicity—Amherst was Emily Dickinson's world, her own house and garden at its center. In addition to her outdoor garden, she grew plants year-round in a conservatory her father had added to their house. Dickinson thrived artistically in this environment. Her poetry frequently concerns the cultivation of plant life in her garden, the natural surroundings, and town events, including the deaths of townspeople. She lived near the town cemetery and saw friends and neighbors buried there. The experience of death caused her considerable grief, leading her to question the idea of a merciful God and pushing her to question the personal relationship many people close to her felt toward religion. While most people in her day believed in the possibility of life after death, she starkly resisted this idea in poems such as "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—," "She died—this was the way she died," and "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain." In all of these poems, the end of life represents the end of human consciousness, not the reunion with God her friends and family believed in.

Faith

Much of Dickinson's life was shaped by her relationship to—and reaction against—her Protestant upbringing. Like most families in Amherst, the Dickinsons belonged to the First Congregational Church, based on Calvinist principles. John Calvin (1509–64) and his followers stressed simplicity and opposed praying to the saints or the Virgin Mary and having icons in church—and many considered musical instruments idolatrous. Calvinist churches offered to worshipers a radical simplicity and lack of distraction, focusing on the Bible as the sole source of the authority of God's word. In addition they stressed the idea of a personal, individual relationship with God, with no intervention from anyone else. To foster that relationship, ministers encouraged people to examine their souls for sin scrupulously and regularly. According to Calvinist theology, only a portion of those who gave their souls to Jesus Christ would be saved by him—these were called the elect—but all people needed to prepare their hearts and minds for the possibility of salvation through constant self-evaluation and a sincere conversion experience, even though they might not be predestined for it.

Like most members of the Amherst First Congregational Church, the Dickinsons attended regularly and held daily religious services in their home. The heightened religious atmosphere around Dickinson provided both a gift and a challenge. On the one hand her poetry shows a strong unwillingness to believe in things unseen, such as the concept of heaven and the mercy of God. Further she embodies the essence of simplicity in her unornamented, direct style of writing. Dickinson used her religion's tradition of self-examination to ask thoughtful questions that led to deep insights about her inner world. In "The Soul selects her own Society—", she examined the way human beings can develop deep and singular attachments to others. And she used the certainty of the beliefs of the people around her to challenge her own. In "Much Madness is divinest Sense—", for example, she postulates that what people commonly take as common sense is foolish, while unusual opinions can be deeply wise.

During Dickinson's years in Amherst, the town and its surrounding area went through a period known as the Second Great Awakening (1790–1820), when evangelists urged people to publicly declare their allegiance to God. At least eight separate waves of religious revivals took place during the poet's lifetime, and both friends and family members converted at these events. Dickinson, too, felt considerable social pressure to follow suit, but self-examination never led her to strong feelings of religious faith. She could not make a public statement of her faith and be honest about it. So she remained silent, much to the annoyance, and even distress, of her evangelized father and others around her. Without making a public confession of her faith, she could not take communion in her church and eventually stopped going altogether.

Poetic Form and Meter

Dickinson's religious education is credited as the source of the distinctive meter (pattern of rhythm) of her poetry. Many English poets, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and William Wordsworth, whose work Dickinson knew, typically wrote in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter consists of five two-syllable units, or iambic feet, each of which contains one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. So a line of iambic pentameter contains 10 syllables with alternating unstressed and stressed syllables resulting in five beats. Dickinson, however, most frequently wrote her poems using ballad meter: lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet, or eight syllables), alternating with lines of iambic trimeter (three iambic feet, or six syllables) in four-line stanzas (groups of lines). Ballad meter is a variation of common meter, the basis of most hymns in The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs (1859), Massachusetts pastor Samuel Worcester's edition of English Christian minister Isaac Watts's hymns, which Dickinson heard in church as she was growing up. Moreover, as an accomplished pianist she may well have played hymns on the piano for visitors or for her own pleasure. Thus many of her poems, such as "Success is counted sweetest" and "Two swimmers wrestled on the spar—," can be sung to the tune of "The Yellow Rose of Texas," or indeed that of traditional hymns, such as "Amazing Grace."

Hymn meter, also known as common meter, consists of alternating lines of four iambic feet and three iambic feet in four-line stanzas. In other words a typical four-line stanza has a syllable count of 8-6-8-6, with the eight-syllable lines (the lines in iambic tetrameter) rhyming with each other, and the six-syllable lines (the lines in iambic trimeter) rhyming with each other. It would probably be more accurate, however, to say Dickinson typically wrote in ballad meter, which is metrically less strict and in which only the second and fourth lines—those in iambic trimeter—of each stanza rhyme. However, at the same time as she embraced the form of common meter, giving her poetry a terseness far greater than that of the English poets she admired, she also subverted it, often using fewer or more syllables than strict common meter allows.

There has been much speculation about Dickinson's idiosyncratic use of dashes. Sometimes she uses dashes as pauses, like other punctuation. But since she uses dashes along with other punctuation it's hard to assign any consistent meaning to the use of a dash in this way. At other times a dash may seem to connect two words, seem to stand in for a word left out, or might seem to indicate emotional intensity. However, since her use of dashes is so inconsistent it's hard to be sure what her dashes signify. Dickinson also tended to capitalize some common nouns in a way a reader might assume is meant to indicate emphasis. But again, because she did so inconsistently and sometimes erratically, it's hard to assign any definite meaning to her use of capitalization.

Dickinson was an original poet in other ways as well. She used a number of different kinds of rhyme considered unharmonious in her day though perfectly comfortable to modern readers. Most notable is her use of "slant rhyme," or half rhyme, in which the words are similar but the rhyming syllables don't sound exactly the same, such as teen and tone; grape and great; man and ten.

Another feature of Dickinson's poetry is the identity of the speaker. As lyric poetry, Dickinson's works typically reveal the emotional state of a single speaker, and many poems are written from the point of view of an I. But like speakers in most poetry, the I is not necessarily the poet. As she explained in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse—it does not mean—me—but a supposed person." So, for example, the I who passionately desires her lover in "Wild Nights—Wild nights!" is a very different individual from the I carried off by death in "Because I could not stop for Death—."

Publication

During Dickinson's lifetime only 10 of her poems were published—anonymously and without her permission. Most had changes such as altered punctuation to fit conventional ideas.

After her sister's death, Lavinia Dickinson found a stockpile of Emily's poems in a drawer and decided they should be published. She gave them to Susan Gilbert, Austin Dickinson's wife, to edit, but after two years she had made little progress. Lavinia then gave them to Mabel Loomis Todd, an energetic woman and Austin's mistress, to edit. From 1888–89 Todd spent many hours transcribing Dickinson's difficult handwriting and typing hundreds of poems. She selected 116 for publication; put them into categories such as nature, life, love, and time and eternity; and edited them with the help of Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Many critics have taken issue with the aggressive editing—added titles; changed punctuation, spelling, and sometimes words; and added line breaks. Meanwhile Thomas Wentworth Higginson wrote an introduction telling the story of the mysterious Amherst woman and used his contacts to find a publisher. The first book of Dickinson's poetry appeared late in 1890 and sold out immediately.

Emily Dickinson's poetry became quite popular, but for a long time it was underestimated, seen as more appropriate for common folk and children than for people of taste. But eventually well-known American poets, such as Allen Tate (1899–1979) and Hart Crane (1899–1932), read her work with fresh eyes and began to champion her writing for its sophistication and subtlety. Later American poets such as Elizabeth Bishop (1911–79) added their voices to her defense. As more scholars began to study her work, she gained recognition as a truly original American voice.

With this recognition came new scholarship. Finally in 1955, professor Thomas H. Johnson, using the first fair copy (a neat and exact copy of a corrected draft) of Dickinson's poems, published a new version of her complete works, ignoring Higginson's and Todd's questionable edits. He restored Dickinson's line breaks, dashes, original words, and original spellings. Instead of titles, he attempted to number the poems in chronological order. Then in 1998 scholar R.W. Franklin published a new edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, using the last fair copy of her poems and a different numbering system based on his understanding of the dates. Both systems are used today.

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