About Dickinson’s Writings: An Introduction

“We dont have many jokes tho’ now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that its pretty much all real life. Fathers real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt.”
—Emily Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, December 15, 1851 (L65)

Despite Dickinson’s humorous depiction of a home life that was less than poetical, in truth her “real life” contained much poetry. 

Emily Dickinson composed almost 1800 poems, but fewer than a dozen were published in her lifetime.  This section of the web site explores many aspects of her poetry and offers tips for reading her poetry. It also introduces her letters, a rich source of information and insight into the poet's life and mind.

About citations from Dickinson's work:

Dickinson's letters and poems are cited frequently throughout the website.  Please note the following:

“Fr” followed by a number refers to an Emily Dickinson poem as published in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, Mass. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).

“L” followed by a number refers to a letter written by Emily Dickinson as published in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958).

In this section:

The Poet at Work

Fascicle 84

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Dickinson's Fascicle 84

Related Topics:

 

When, where, and how did Emily Dickinson put pen (or pencil—she used both) to paper to create her work?

Material evidence, such as envelopes and other scrap paper, suggests that Dickinson wrote down ideas for poems wherever she was inspired—in the kitchen or outdoors, for example—but contemporary accounts indicate that her formal writing was done in her bedroom, a place that, as she once described to her niece Martha, afforded her "freedom." (Bianchi, p. 66).

Located in the southwest corner on the second floor at the Homestead, the poet's bedroom included a small work table with a single drawer. There, she could work late into the night on her poetry and letters.

Niece Martha described her aunt's "way of writing" as taking place not only "upstairs in her own room, watching with her plants lest they freeze in zero midnights," but also "by the little table in the dining-room" (Bianchi, p. 60). From the dining room Dickinson could see the plants in her conservatory.

Other relatives recalled hearing Dickinson compose her poems aloud. Her cousin Louisa remembered: "I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me" (Scharnhorst, p. 485, as quoted in Woman's Journal 1904).

More typically, Dickinson shared poems with family and friends through correspondence. After her death, her survivors were surprised to find that the poet had kept even more of her work private.  Among her papers were forty handmade booklets (now referred to as "fascicles") in which she gathered more than 800 of her poems.

Works cited:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932.

Scharnhorst, Gary. "A Glimpse of Dickinson at Work." American Literature 57.3 (1985): 483-5.

The Manuscripts

Page from a fascicle

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

A page from one of Dickinson’s fascicles. The page on the right includes the poem “I heard a Fly buzz when I died.” Click here to enlarge

Emily Dickinson’s material legacy consists of about 2500 poem manuscripts and about 1000 letter manuscripts. For many poems Dickinson left more than one copy. She may have recorded it in a fascicle and also sent a copy to a friend, or she may have sent a copy to more than one recipient.

For other poems, no manuscript in Dickinson’s hand survives. Scholars must rely on transcripts of poems and letters made by others (such as her Norcross cousins) from the now-lost manuscripts.

Dickinson’s existing letters are thought to represent only about a tenth of her correspondence, but the range and scope of the surviving letters give scholars useful insights into her composition practice.

Fascicles and Other Methods of Recording Poetry

During Dickinson’s intense writing period (1858-1864), she copied more than 800 of her poems into small booklets, forty in all, now called “fascicles.” Dickinson made the small volumes herself from folded sheets of paper that she stacked and then bound by stabbing two holes on the left side of the paper and tying the stacked sheets with string.

Among her papers were fifteen unbound gatherings of poems, which scholar R. W. Franklin terms “sets.” The sets contain about 250 poems.

Letter to Helen Hunt Jackson

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Letter from Emily Dickinson to author Helen Hunt Jackson. Dickinson sent Jackson the poem “A Route of Evanescence.” Click here to enlarge

In addition to the fascicles and sets, Dickinson had other methods of recording her poetry. Dickinson sometimes copied poems onto individual sheets of paper. Folds in the paper may suggest that Dickinson intended to send it to a recipient but for whatever reason decided not to. R. W. Franklin refers to these as “record” or “retained” copies.

Poems in Letters

Dickinson shared about 500 of her poems with more than forty correspondents. She was particularly generous with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson; her correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson; her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross; and family friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

Poem fragment

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

A poem fragment  Click here to enlarge

This private form of distribution seems to have appealed to the poet more than did formal publication. Sometimes she sent the same poem to more than one reader, as in the example of “A Route of Evanescence,” which she shared with at least six recipients.

The format of the poems in letters varied. Often the poems were sent with a letter on separate sheets of paper. At other times Dickinson introduced the poem with a note on the same page. In still other cases, the line between letter and poem is more difficult to distinguish.

Worksheets/Fragments

Among the most intriguing documents that Dickinson left to posterity are about 100 fragments or scraps. Some contain prose; others, poetry; some are without genre, what Dickinson scholar Marta Werner calls “extrageneric.” The papers are both literally scraps—torn or reused paper—and, more figuratively, fragments of partial ideas or less finished poems than appear in fascicles or other retained manuscripts.

The Publication Question

“I had told you I did not print”
—Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson (L316)

"Flowers" in the Springfield Republican

Image: Amherst College Library

"Flowers - well, if anybody" (Fr95) as published in the Springfield Republican

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Did Emily Dickinson want to publish her poetry? No one knows for sure. Throughout her life, her work circulated among family and friends, some of whom had influence to shepherd a few poems toward publication. Between 1850 and 1866, ten Dickinson poems appeared in newspapers, all anonymously and probably without her knowledge.  (For a list, click here.)

Late in the poet’s life, public awareness of her work increased. Helen Hunt Jackson, the well-known author, successfully finagled Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest” into A Masque of Poets (1878), a collection of anonymous verse to which Jackson also contributed. Jackson scolded Dickinson for refusing to publish: “You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud” (L444a).

Subsequently Thomas Niles, publisher of Masque, broached the subject of publishing a collection of her poetry. Dickinson avoided giving an answer. Around the same time, in 1880, an Amherst charity approached her for poems to “‘aid unfortunate Children.’” Uncharacteristically, she did not reject the possibility outright. Instead, she “hesitated” and then selected several poems for consideration. It remains unclear whether the poems were ever published.

Questions related to publishing Dickinson's work became much more complicated after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered a large collection of manuscripts (now known as the fascicles) that Emily had never mentioned.   The dramatic story is fraught with emotional intensity, differing loyalties, and personal sacrifice.  To learn more, see The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson's Poems.

Publications in Dickinson's Lifetime

Publications in Dickinson's Lifetime (one letter and ten poems)

Below is a list of poems known to have been published during Dickinson's lifetime.  Scholars believe that Dickinson did not authorize any of these publications.  All poems were published without attribution.

1850
“Magnum bonum, harem scarum”
A valentine letter published in Amherst College Indicator, February (L34)
1852
“ ‘Sic transit gloria mundi,’ ”
Published in Springfield Daily Republican (February 20)
Titled “A Valentine”
1858
"Nobody knows this little rose - "
First published Springfield Daily Republican (August 2)
Titled “To Mrs -, with a Rose.”
1861
“I taste a liquor never brewed- ”
First published Springfield Daily Republican (May 4)
Titled “The May-Wine”
1862
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers - ”
First published in Springfield Daily Republican (March 1)
Titled “The Sleeping”
1864
"Blazing in Gold, and quenching in Purple”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (February 29)
Titled “Sunset”
"Flowers-Well- if anybody”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (March 2)
Titled “Flowers”
"These are the days when Birds come back- ”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (March 11)
Titled “October”
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church- ”
First published in Round Table, New York (March 12)
Titled “My Sabbath”
“Success is counted sweetest”
First published in Brooklyn Daily Union (April 27, untitled)
1866
"A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
First published in Springfield Daily Republican (February 14)
Titled “The Snake”
1878
"Success is counted sweetest” (only known publication in a book)
Published in A Masque of Poets (Boston: Roberts Bros.)

The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson's Poems

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886, she was unknown as a poet outside of a small circle of family and friends. Dickinson’s poetic legacy consisted of almost 1800 poems, and no instructions about what to do with them.

Books of Dickinson's poetry

"The Single Hound, Poems of a Lifetime" (left) by Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and "Poems" (right) by Emily Dickinson edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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What was done with them, how Dickinson went from unknown to internationally-famous poet, is a story fraught with emotional intensity, differing loyalties, and personal sacrifice. None of the principal characters, all of whom had personal connections to the poet, ever expected to be involved in such an effort. Yet their sometimes competing contributions affirmed the vitality of Dickinson’s verse and ensured its immortality.

After discovering hundreds of Emily’s poems shortly after her death, the poet’s sister Lavinia resolved that the poetry must be published. She later wrote: “I have had a ‘Joan of Arc’ feeling about Emilies [sic] poems from the first” (Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, December 23, 1890, as quoted in Bingham, p. 87). Lavinia approached two of the poet’s friends--sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson --for help.

Susan did not pursue publication quickly enough for Lavinia, and Higginson was otherwise occupied. To fulfill her vision, Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, the vivacious young wife of an Amherst College professor. Todd was a momentous choice, for she was deeply involved in a love affair with Austin Dickinson, Susan’s husband and Emily's brother.

An accomplished artist and musician, Todd brought much-needed vitality and commitment to preparing Dickinson’s poetry for publication. After finally enlisting Thomas Wentworth Higginson as co-editor, Todd completed Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890, just four years after the poet’s death. The two editors made changes to the poems, regularizing punctuation, adding occasional titles, and sometimes altering words to improve rhyme or sense.

Encouraged by the first collection's success, Todd and Higginson published a second volume, Poems of Emily Dickinson, Second Series (1891). Public curiosity about the previously unknown poet prompted both editors, but especially Todd, to promote the work through lectures and journal articles. Todd alone edited a collection of Dickinson’s letters (1894) and a third volume of poems Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series (1896).

In 1898 a painful lawsuit between the Dickinson and Todd families over a small piece of land brought Mabel Todd’s involvement with the Dickinson family to an abrupt end. For more than thirty years she refused to raise the lid of her camphorwood chest filled with the Dickinson poems in her possession.

When Mabel Loomis Todd ceased her work on Dickinson’s poems, a period of quiet ensued in the publication story. Lavinia Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Susan Dickinson all died, and Martha Dickinson Bianchi began to assume a larger role in shaping her aunt's legacy. Having inherited Dickinson’s manuscripts from both Lavinia and Susan, Martha edited at least six volumes of Dickinson’s poetry. With a lighter editorial hand than her predecessors, Bianchi did not title the poems and kept their rhyme schemes intact. Incensed by publications about her aunt that she judged inaccurate, Bianchi wrote several memoirs to assert her unique perspective as “the one person now living who saw [Emily Dickinson] face to face” (Bianchi, p. xxii).

Eventually, Mabel Loomis Todd returned to Dickinson's work, motivated to counter Bianchi's efforts with the publication of her aunt's poetry. With her daughter Millicent’s help, Todd began to edit the poems that remained in her possession, a project that she did not live to see finished. Her daughter completed the work on her mother's behalf, and in 1945 published Bolts of Melody.

At last, most of Emily Dickinson’s poems were in print, yet no single edition contained them all. That situation changed with The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by literary scholar Thomas H. Johnson and published in 1955. Returning to Dickinson’s original manuscripts rather than using other editors’ transcriptions, Johnson more accurately presented all the poems (albeit in print) as Dickinson had written them. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson arranged the poems chronologically, carefully studying changes in the poet's handwriting to do so, since she rarely dated her work. The Poems of Emily Dickinson allowed readers to study her development as a poet, initiating a tremendous surge in Dickinson research.

Later in the 20th century, Ralph W. Franklin focused attention on Dickinson’s manuscripts, raising provocative questions about the poet’s writing practices. Franklin reassembled Dickinson’s fascicles in a facsimile edition, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, in 1981, while his 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson, a complete edition in print of Dickinson's poems, refined Johnson’s work.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932.

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestors' Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1945.

Franklin, R. W. "Introduction." In The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1-43.

Horan, Elizabeth. "To Market: The Dickinson Copyright Wars." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1996), 88-120.

_____. "Technically Outside the Law: Who Permits, Who Profits, and Why." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 34-54.

Major Editions of Dickinson's Writings

For a list of Emily Dickinson's poems published during her lifetime, click here.

1890-1900

1890  Poems
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. 
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1891  Poems Second Series
Edited by T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd.
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1894  Letters of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd.       
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1896  Poems  Third Series
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. 
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1900-1954

1914  The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1924 The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson
By Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York.

1924 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1929  Further Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi & Alfred Leete Hampson. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1930 The Poems of Emily Dickinson:  Centenary Edition
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1931  Letters of Emily Dickinson  New & enlarged edition. 
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. 
Published by Harper & Brothers Publishers of New York. 

1934 Poems for Youth
Edited by Alfred Leete Hampson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1935  Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi & Alfred Leete Hampson.  
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1945  Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson 
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd & Millicent Todd Bingham. 
Published by Harper and Brothers of New York.

1951  Emily Dickinson's Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland
Edited by Theodora van Wagenen Ward. 
Published by Harvard University Press.

1955-

1955  The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1958  The Letters of Emily Dickinson 
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson with Theodora van Wagenen Ward 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1961 Final Harvest:  Emily Dickinson's Poems 
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1981  The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson
Edited by R.W. Franklin. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by R.W. Franklin.
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1999 The Poems of Emily Dickinson:  Reading Edition
Edited by R.W. Franklin. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

See Resources & Bibliography for more information about Emily Dickinson's manuscripts and related resources as well as a discussion of copyright issues.

Emily Dickinson's Letters

A Letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.
-  Emily Dickinson to Thomas Wentworth Higginson,  June 1869 (L33)

Emily Dickinson letter to Austin AC 597

Image:  Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Emily Dickinson to brother Austin, March 27, 1853 (L110)

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Emily Dickinson, pre-eminent poet, also distinguished herself as a writer of letters, which she regarded as a “joy of Earth” (L960). Cryptic and allusive in style, dazzling in verbal effects, and sensitively attuned to her recipients, Dickinson was a prolific and gifted epistolary artist. 

Scholars estimate that the printed editions of her letters represent only about one-tenth of the letters Dickinson actually wrote.  While others may yet be recovered, many were probably destroyed, according to the custom of the time, upon their recipients’ deaths.  Nonetheless, the thousand extant letters to about a hundred friends and family members are an extensive and profoundly revealing record of the poet's intellectual interests and emotional journeys.

The existing letters date from 1842, when Dickinson was eleven years old, until the final “Little Cousins, / Called back” letter to Louise and Frances Norcross just before her death in 1886 (L 1046).  Her early letters reveal much about her relationships with her friends and family, her changing attitudes toward her religious experiences, and her year away from home at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.  Her later letters, often more epigrammatic, include exquisite condolence messages for grieving friends, notes to her brother's family next door, and, of course, poetry. 

Very few letters to the poet remain. Dickinson had asked that her sister Lavinia, upon the poet's death, destroy the letters she had received during her lifetime.  It was while fulfilling this request that Lavinia discovered Emily's poem manuscripts. 

Even Dickinson's earliest editors recognized the significance of Dickinson’s correspondence to understanding the poet behind the verse.   All those enlisted for this first stage of introducing a remarkable poet--Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, Mabel Loomis Todd, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson--quickly identified the letters she had written to family and friends as too closely identified with the poems to be disregarded.   

To satisfy Dickinson’s readers in the 1890s, Mabel Loomis Todd prepared a two-volume edition of Dickinson’s correspondence, which she collected with Lavinia Dickinson's assistance from relatives and friends. Although highly selective and heavily edited, Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson (1894) provided insight into the poet’s family life, examples of the poet’s epistolary exchanges with prominent men of letters, and illustrated Dickinson’s practice of sending warm and engaging notes accompanied by gifts of flowers or baked goods. Missing from the early volumes were letters to key correspondents like Susan Dickinson and Judge Otis Phillips Lord, as well as some of the draft manuscripts now referred to as the “Master” letters. 

Letter to Mrs. Ward

Image:  Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Emily Dickinson to Mrs. Ward, 1860  (L218)

Subsequent editions of Dickinson’s letters focused on these omissions.  In the 1920s and '30s, Susan and Austin Dickinson’s daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published several volumes of her aunt's letters to her family.  Mabel Todd’s daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, edited volumes of Dickinson letters, too, including the poet's letters to Judge Otis Phillips Lord and letters from the poet's father Edward Dickinson to his family. 

The 1955 edition of Emily Dickinson's poetry--the first complete edition--edited by Thomas Johnson, led to the publication of the impressive three-volume The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958). Edited by Johnson and Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, The Letters of Emily Dickinson was the first work to contain all known extant letters from the poet. The availability of Dickinson's correspondence so soon after the publication of her complete poems catapulted the study of Dickinson into new realms.  Biographers have found Dickinson's letters crucial to piecing together the poet's life; among the most significant correspondences were those with brother Austin, mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and sister-in-law Susan Dickinson.  Literary scholars have examined Dickinson’s letter writing in a discussion of genre—was Dickinson writing in prose, or poetry, or some new form altogether as she developed her letter-writing skills?  The manuscript letters, which are often dated, have also aided scholars in dating the poem manuscripts, which usually did not include a date.

 As new work on Dickinson emerges, her letters will continue to offer insight into the life of the reclusive “myth of Amherst” and her poetic artistry.

Significant Editions of Letters:

1894  Letters of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. Boston:  Roberts Brothers

1924 The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson
By Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Company

1931  Letters of Emily Dickinson  New & enlarged edition. 
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd.  New Yori:  Harper & Brothers Publishers

1951 Emily Dickinson’s Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland
Edited by Theodora Van Wagenen Ward. Cambridge, Mass:  Harvard University Press

1954 Emily Dickinson:  A Revelation
Edited by Millicent Todd Bingham. New York: Harper and Bros

1932 Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences by Her Niece
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company  

1955 Emily Dickinson’s Home: Letters of Edward Dickinson and His Family
Millicent Todd Bingham. New York:  Harper & Brothers Publishers

1958 The Letters of Emily Dickinson 
Edited by Thomas Johnson and Theodora V. Ward.  Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

1965 The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family 
Edited by Richard Sewall.  Amherst, Mass.:  The University of Massachusetts Press

1986 The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson (facsimile edition)
Edited by R. W. Franklin.  Amherst, Mass.:  Amherst College Press

1971 Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters
Ed. Thomas Johnson. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

1998 Open Me Carefully:  Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson 
Edited by Martha Nell Smith and Ellen Louise Hart.  Ashfield, Mass.:  The Paris Press

Ongoing  The Dickinson Electronic Archives  (www.emilydickinson.org) currently re-editing letters included in the 1958 Johnson edition to make transcriptions available on-line

Further Reading:

Bingham, Millicent Todd.  Ancestor’s Brocades:  The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1945.

A Concordance to the Letters of Emily Dickinson.   Ed. Cynthia Jane MacKenzie.  Niwot:  University of Colorado Press, 2000.

The Emily Dickinson Journal Volume IV, Number 1, 1995.  Special Issue on Editing and the Letters.  

Reading Dickinson’s Letters.  Eds. Jane Donahue Eberwein and Cindy MacKenzie.  Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 2009.

 

Tips for Reading Dickinson's Poetry

Emily Dickinson once defined poetry this way: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire 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. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?” (L342a, 1870)

 woman reading poetry

 

Reading Dickinson's poetry often leaves readers feeling exactly this way, because she names so incisively many of our most troubling emotions and perceptions. But often, too, her poetry can make readers feel this way because it baffles and challenges expectations of what a poem should be. “All men say ‘What’ to me” she complained (L271), and many of her readers still cry “What?” in their first encounters with this dense and elusive poetry.

While every reader of Dickinson's poems has his or her own approach to the poetry, here are some suggestions for getting started on discoveries of her work:

  1. Stay open to linguistic surprise. The characteristics that help to make Dickinson's poetry so intriguing—the absence of titles, her dense syntax, unusual vocabulary, imperfect rhyme schemes, approaches to abstract ideas—can at first seem to obscure rather than illuminate her meaning.
  2. Read the poem again. Dickinson begins one well-known poem “Tell all the truth but tell it slant—” (Fr1263). The power of Dickinson's poetry often comes from her playful but potent sense of indirection. Trying to understand her poetry doesn’t mean solving it like a riddle, but rather coming to recognize its slippery strategies. Read the poem a third time. Set it aside and come back to it. Look at the poem with a friend.
  3. Review Major Characteristics of Dickinson's Poetry. How does the poem exemplify or confound these characteristics?
  4. Set aside the expectation that a poem has to "mean" one thing. A Dickinson poem is often not the expression of any single idea but the movement between ideas or images. It offers that rare privilege of watching a mind at work. The question of how we know anything comes alive as we read Dickinson.
  5. Try "filling in the blanks." Sometimes Dickinson's syntax is problematic—the poems are so compressed! In lines where a verb or another critical word seems to be missing, what words might create meaning? Don't feel that there is only one possibility. The variorum editions of her poetry reveal that she often thought of many alternative ways of expressing an idea. Looking at her variant wordings for a poem can help illuminate its possibilities.
  6. Don't try to make the poem "about" Emily Dickinson. Dickinson writes in the lyric style, in which the speaker of the poem is often referred to as "I." While the poem may represent the view of the poet, it also may not.
  7. Look for recurring themes, images, and strategies in Dickinson's poetry.
  8. Get out the dictionary. Emily Dickinson once wrote, “ . . . for several years, my Lexicon was my only companion” (L261). She had an exceptional command of the English language. Look up words that are unfamiliar, or that she uses in unfamiliar ways. Try the new Dickinson Lexicon, an on-line resource that defines all words used in Dickinson's poetry with definitions from the dictionary she herself owned, Noah Webster's American Dictionary of the English Language.
  9. Consult a Bible concordance. Dickinson also had an exceptional knowledge of the Bible. Sometimes an unfamiliar word or image may be an allusion to a Biblical passage. A good concordance to use is James Strong's The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, which is keyed to the King James Version, the version that Dickinson read.
  10. Read the poem aloud. Poetry is an ancient, oral tradition. Often reading a poem aloud can help to elucidate its meaning. One of Dickinson's early editors, Mabel Loomis Todd, convinced Thomas Wentworth Higginson (her future co-editor) of the power of Dickinson's poetry by reading selections aloud to him.
  11. Keep reading. Develop new strategies for reading Dickinson—and share them with us!

Below is a short list of poems that provide a good introduction to her work. 

Please note the following about quotations from Dickinson's writings:  “Fr” followed by a number refers to an Emily Dickinson poem as published in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Variorum Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, Mass. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).  “L” followed by a number refers to a letter written by Emily Dickinson as published in The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958).

Major Characteristics of Dickinson's Poetry

Using the poem below as an example, this section will introduce you to some of the major characteristics of Emily Dickinson's poetry.
Sunrise in the Valley
Sunrise in the Connecticut River Valley near Amherst

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose –
A Ribbon at a time –
The steeples swam in Amethyst
The news, like Squirrels, ran –
The Hills untied their Bonnets –
The Bobolinks – begun –
Then I said softly to myself –
“That must have been the Sun”!
But how he set – I know not –
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while –
Till when they reached the other side –
A Dominie in Gray –
Put gently up the evening Bars –
And led the flock away –
(Fr204)

Theme and Tone

Like most writers, Emily Dickinson wrote about what she knew and about what intrigued her. A keen observer, she used images from nature, religion, law, music, commerce, medicine, fashion, and domestic activities to probe universal themes: the wonders of nature, the identity of the self, death and immortality, and love. In this poem she probes nature's mysteries through the lens of the rising and setting sun.
Sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos, Dickinson writes about her subjects. Remembering that she had a strong wit often helps to discern the tone behind her words.

Form and Style

Dickinson’s poems are lyrics, generally defined as short poems with a single speaker (not necessarily the poet) who expresses thought and feeling.  As in most lyric poetry, the speaker in Dickinson's poems is often identified in the first person, "I."   Dickinson reminded a reader that the “I” in her poetry does not necessarily speak for the poet herself: “When I state myself, as the Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person” (L268).  In this poem the "I" addresses the reader as "you."
Like just about all of Dickinsons' poems, this poem has no title. Emily Dickinson titled fewer than 10 of her almost 1800 poems. Her poems are now generally known by their first lines or by the numbers assigned to them by posthumous editors (click here for more information).
For some of Dickinson's poems, more than one manuscript version exists.  "I'll tell you how the Sun rose" exists in two manuscripts. In one, the poem is broken into four stanzas of four lines each; in the other, as you see here, there are no stanza breaks.
The poem describes the natural phenomena of sunrise and sunset, but it also describes the difficulties of perceiving the world around us. Initially, "I" exhibits confidence in describing a sunrise.  As the poem, like the day, continues, "I" becomes less certain about what it knows: "But how he [the sun] set – I know not – / There seemed a purple stile."
One of Dickinson’s special gifts as a poet is her ability to describe abstract concepts with concrete images. In many Dickinson poems, abstract ideas and material things are used to explain each other, but the relation between them remains complex and unpredictable. Here the sunrise is described in terms of a small village, with church steeples, town news, and ladies' bonnets. The sunset is characterized as the gathering home of a flock. The shifting tone between the beginning and the end of the poem, the speaker’s more confident telling of the sun’s rise than of how its sets, suggests that more abstract questions about the mystery of death lurk within these images.

Meter and Rhyme

The meter, or the rhythm of the poem, is usually determined not just by the number of syllables in a line but by how the syllables are accented.
Dickinson’s verse is often associated with common meter, which is defined by alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables (8686).  In common meter, the syllables usually alternate between unstressed (indicated by a ˘ over the syllable) and stressed (′).  This pattern--one of several types of metrical "feet"--is known as an "iamb."  Common meter is often used in sung music, especially hymns (think "Amazing Grace").
Below is an example of common meter from "I'll tell you how the Sun rose."
metrical scan example from "I'll tell you how the Sun rose"
However, as Cristanne Miller writes in Reading in Time:  Emily Dickinson and the Nineteenth Century, Emily Dickinson experimented with a variety of metrical and stanzaic forms, including short meter (6686) and the ballad stanza, which depends more on beats per line (usually 4 alternating with 3) than on exact syllable counts.  Even in common meter, she was not always strict about the number of syllables per line, as the first line in “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose” demonstrates.
As with meter, Dickinson’s employment of rhyme is experimental and often not exact. Rhyme that is not perfect is called “slant rhyme” or “approximate rhyme.” Slant rhyme, or no rhyme at all, is quite common in modern poetry, but it was less often used in poetry written by Dickinson’s contemporaries. In this poem, for example, we would expect "time" to rhyme with "ran."

Punctuation and Syntax

Dickinson most often punctuated her poems with dashes, rather than the more expected array of periods, commas, and other punctuation marks.  She also capitalized interior words, not just words at the beginning of a line.  Her reasons are not entirely clear.
Both the use of dashes and the use of capitals to stress and personify common nouns were condoned by the grammar text (William Harvey Wells' Grammar of the English Language) that Mount Holyoke Female Seminary adopted and that Dickinson undoubtedly studied to prepare herself for entrance to that school. In addition, the dash was liberally used by many writers, as correspondence from the mid-nineteenth-century demonstrates. While Dickinson was far from the only person to employ it, she may have been the only poet to depend upon it.
While Dickinson's dashes often stand in for more varied punctuation, at other times they serve as bridges between sections of the poem—bridges that are not otherwise readily apparent.  Dickinson may also have intended for the dashes to indicate pauses when reading the poem aloud.

Diction

Dickinson’s editing process often focused on word choice rather than on experiments with form or structure. She recorded variant wordings with a “+” footnote on her manuscript. Sometimes words with radically different meanings are suggested as possible alternatives.  Dickinson changed no words between the two versions of "I'll tell you how the Sun rose." 
Because Dickinson did not publish her poems, she did not have to choose among the different versions of her poems, or among her variant words, to create a "finished" poem.  This lack of final authorial choices posed a major challenge to Dickinson’s subsequent editors.