Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Themes

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Death

Emily Dickinson is known for writing objectively and frankly about death. Neither sanitized nor romanticized, her accounts of death and dying often chronicle the moment a living person ceases to exist: the moment of "unbecoming." Death is simply an ending of life. Dickinson's interest in death is clearly evidenced by the many poems in which she refuses to look away from a person who has died, such as "She died—this was the way she died" and "Two swimmers wrestled on the spar—."

"I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" is a poem that deprives a deathbed scene of its expected emotional climax and solemn significance by bringing the reader's attention to the annoying and mundane buzzing of a fly. At a moment of what should be heightened spiritual awareness, the fly is "interposed ... / Between the light"—which, for Dickinson, often represents truth or understanding—and the dying speaker. By keeping her focus on the intrusive fly rather than on the beatific expression of the dying speaker, Dickinson not only highlights the ordinariness of death but also brings in a bothersome creature associated with bodily decomposition.

Arguably the best known of her poems on this topic is "Because I could not stop for Death—." What begins as a pleasant, unthreatening carriage ride with the gentlemanly figure of Death becomes something cold and lonely by the end of the poem: the speaker has gone through a transformation in her understanding of death as welcome, even congenial, and now sees it as cold and isolating.

Nature

To a great extent observing and writing about nature was Emily Dickinson's mission: indeed, her "letter to the World" is "the simple News that Nature told." For someone interested in what she could see and who favored empiricism over faith, experiencing the world of nature was, in fact, a sacred act. She famously wrote in #324 (not discussed in this guide), "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—," "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church— / I keep it, staying at Home— / With a Bobolink for a Chorister— / And an Orchard, for a Dome—." In much of her poetry she expresses a preference for the world that can be observed over the world that must be believed in. Her heaven is here on earth.

Many of her poems celebrate the beauty of nature. In "It's all I have to bring today—" the speaker's heart is filled by what she sees around her: meadows, fields, clover, and bees. The speaker in "I taste a liquor never brewed—" goes further and is completely intoxicated by the dew, the air, and the blue of the sky. As a keen observer, however, she doesn't romanticize nature: she not only loves nature but also describes it with keen accuracy. In "A Bird, came down the Walk—" she clearly admires the bird's graceful movements but doesn't hesitate to show him cruelly biting a worm in half before devouring it, nor does she shrink from describing the way a fly buzzes around a soon-to-be corpse in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—."

Poetry

Dickinson was acutely conscious of the importance of literature in general and poetry in particular. Fascinated by the capability of the imagination, she considered literature its vehicle, with greater power and potential than anything else in the material world. For Dickinson, who never traveled abroad and rarely left Amherst, literature was an essential part of life. In #1263, "There is no Frigate like a Book," she writes there is no conveyance, manufactured or natural, like literature: "There is no Frigate like a Book," nor are there any "Coursers like a Page / Of prancing Poetry." Similarly in "It's all I have to bring today—" she asserts her poem is capable of bringing the reader all the beauty of nature, and states in #441 her poetry is her "letter to the World."

Not surprising, Dickinson praises the power of poetry over prose. Poetry gives her greater freedom, whereas prose is too confining. The potential of poetry is limitless for Dickinson. In "I dwell in Possibility—" the word possibility stands for poetry: "I dwell in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose—." The speaker in the poem recounts the reasons poetry is superior to prose. To Dickinson a poet has special powers, and in "This was a Poet" (#448, not discussed in this guide) she defines a poet as one who "Distills amazing sense / From ordinary Meanings."

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