Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe explains the summary of the poems of Emily Dickinson.

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Summary



It's all I have to bring today—

Using understatement, the speaker says all she has to bring to the reader is the poem and her heart. She then adds she's bringing all the fields and meadows as well. She urges the reader to tally up the vast amount of things she's bringing, including the bees in the clover.

Heart! We will forget him!

The speaker addresses her heart, proposing she and her heart forget an unnamed "him," presumably a male object of romantic love. She will forget the light, while her heart must forget his warmth. The speaker's heart must first forget him before the speaker can and urges the heart to tell her immediately when it is done, for she remains in danger of remembering him.

Success is counted sweetest

Success is most appreciated and best understood by those who have failed. In the second stanza the speaker introduces the analogy of war to suggest victors in battle cannot understand the notion of success as well as those who have been defeated. Dying on the battlefield, the defeated soldier hears the sounds of triumph denied to those who have lost the battle.

She died—this was the way she died

The speaker describes a woman's death. After she stops breathing, she takes her things and heads for the sun. She arrives at a gate, a portal between mortality and immortality, from which she vanishes. The speaker presumes angels must have come and brought her into heaven.

"Faith" is a fine invention

The speaker asserts faith is acceptable as long as one can rely on the evidence gathered by one's senses. However, when one cannot, it is better to rely on science when it matters most.

Two swimmers wrestled on the spar—

Two swimmers are wrestling or struggling in the ocean on a spar (ship's beam), floating on the waves. After a long night, one swims toward land and is safe. However, the other dies. Ships pass by his body, floating with face upturned, eyes pleading, and hands thrown up in a gesture of begging.

I taste a liquor never brewed—

Using the language and imagery of intemperate drinking, Dickinson describes the effect of nature on the speaker, who becomes intoxicated by its beauty. Drunk on the air, dew, and blue of the skies, the speaker vows to continue imbibing even after fellow revelers in nature—bees and butterflies—cease their drinking. Her quest for the beauty of nature will not stop until she reaches the sun, an event that will draw the attention even of lofty seraphs and saints in heaven.

Wild nights—Wild nights!

In this poem to an absent lover, the speaker reveals if she were with him, they would enjoy wild nights together. She compares her desire to be with her lover with fruitless rowing on a windy sea when a compass and charts are useless. Her heart is in port, and she longs to moor for the night. If she were with him tonight she would be in paradise.

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—

Hope, characterized as a bird, sits delicately inside a person and cheers or charms the individual's soul. Hope is sweetest when things are most desperate, and it survives in the worst of circumstances. The speaker says she has had hope in the most difficult situations, always there for her and never asking for anything in return.

There's a certain Slant of light,

The poem describes winter afternoon light as oppressive and heavy and suggests it causes internal feelings of melancholy. There is nothing to be learned from it but despair. When the afternoon light comes it creates shadows, and then when it departs (that is, when darkness comes) it becomes unreachably distant.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

This poem describes the process of a mental breakdown or possibly a fainting spell in the form of a deceased person describing her own funeral. At the beginning the speaker seems to hear the solemn steps of mourners, whose treading is then replaced by the beating sound of a funeral service. She then hears the creaking of a coffin being carried and then the overwhelming tolling of a bell, at which point the speaker seems to diminish to but an ear hearing this sound, which is then replaced by silence. Finally reason breaks down, after which point she ceases to be conscious of anything.

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

The speaker announces she is "Nobody," and then, having ascertained her silent interlocutor is another "Nobody," she admonishes the "Nobody" not to "tell" they are two nobodies, for they might be noticed for being as they are. She is glad not to be a Somebody, finding such "public" status distasteful because one constantly must reveal oneself to others.

The Soul selects her own Society—

The speaker describes the way one ("the Soul") chooses friends or companions, selecting those with whom she will associate and then shutting herself off from everyone else. No matter how grand or important any subsequent visitor might be, she will be unmoved. The speaker has known the soul to choose just one companion and then firmly close off her attention to others.

A Bird, came down the Walk—

In this narrative of the speaker's encounter with a bird, she sees him first bite a worm in halves before eating it, drink dew from a blade of grass, and then allow a beetle to walk by unharmed. The bird's eyes then glance around and the speaker offers him a crumb, prompting him to take off flying, which the speaker describes as being smooth and utterly graceful.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—

After one experiences a great pain or loss, the nerves are still, the heart wonders what has just happened, the feet continue to walk mechanically unaware of what they're treading on, and the body becomes heavy and leaden. The whole experience, if one survives it, is remembered in stages, the way freezing people remember the snow.

Much Madness is divinest Sense—

Much of what people take to be madness, or insanity, is actually sensible, and vice versa: it all depends on what the majority believes. If one agrees with prevailing thought, one is considered sane. However, if one disagrees, one may be considered crazy, even dangerous.

This is my letter to the World

The speaker addresses all who would be her readers and explains her letter to the world is the "News that Nature told." In other words she is conveying the message of nature to readers unknown, and she asks those readers to judge her kindly for her message.

I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

This poem, narrated from the perspective of a deceased person, describes the person dying in the presence of others. The friends and loved ones at the deathbed have wept their tears and, in the silence, anticipate the moment God will appear to the dying person. The speaker mentions she willed away her earthly possessions, and then, just at the moment when one might expect the dying person to say something profound and significant, a fly buzzes and distracts the dying person from the "light" one is thought to see at death. The dying person's vision fails, and she is prevented from gaining any deep spiritual awareness.

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

In the first stanza, the speaker asserts the brain is wider than the sky because it can hold within itself all of the seemingly limitless sky and still have room for the reader. In the second stanza, the speaker says the brain is deeper than the sea because it can absorb all that the sea contains. In the third stanza the speaker maintains the brain's weight is just about equal to that of God, and if there is any difference it is minuscule.

I dwell in Possibility—

Dickinson uses an elaborate architectural conceit to explain her idea of poetry. The speaker dwells in a house she calls "Possibility," by which she means poetry. Poetry, she asserts, is more beautiful than prose, has more ways of viewing and engaging with the world, is built of superior materials, and has limitless potential. In her house of poetry she receives "the fairest" visitors, and all she has to do is spread her hands to gather paradise.

Because I could not stop for Death—

The speaker recounts a metaphorical journey accompanied by Death, personified as a gentleman who picks the speaker up in a carriage. She puts aside her work and her leisure, and they begin to drive slowly, passing by children at school and fields of grain. When they pass the setting sun, they seem to come to a halt. The speaker becomes aware of feeling cold and then comes upon a grave. By the end of the poem she realizes what had first seemed an unthreatening carriage ride has brought her to an eternal state of nonbeing.

My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

The speaker compares herself to a loaded gun, sitting passively until the owner identifies it as his own and carries it away. They hunt in the woods, and the gun, when shot, speaks for its master, emitting a flash of light the speaker compares to the eruption of a volcano. The gun guards its master's head at night and kills his foes. In the final stanza the gun says that although it may live longer than its master, the master must outlive the gun, because although the gun can kill it cannot die.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—

This didactic poem teaches a simple lesson: one must tell all the truth, but one must tell it indirectly because being a little circuitous will be more successful. The surprise of truth can be too bright or too startling, for human comprehension is sometimes weak. Just as adults gently explain the phenomenon of lightning to easily frightened children, the truth of things must be conveyed gradually, for to do so suddenly would be too much for people to take all at once: they would be blinded by the light of truth.

There is no Frigate like a Book

Using metaphors of travel and transportation, the speaker praises the power of literature to take readers on grand mental journeys. She begins by asserting there is no ship better than a book to take readers to distant lands, nor are there any horses that can match a page of poetry. Even people with no money may be thus transported without having to pay huge sums. Literature, she asserts, is an economical way to travel.

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