Emily Dickinson Virtual Syllabus

This selection of essays, news articles, media, and digitized primary source material provides a free, open source introduction to Dickinson. Explore her life, poetry, and place from your own home.

1. “This is a Mighty Room”: Exploring the Poet’s Room

We begin our syllabus with a meditation on Dickinson’s room. The small bedroom in the northwestern corner of the Homestead provided creative space and sanctuary for the Poet, just as it sparks the imagination of visitors today. In this section, you will take an immersive tour of Dickinson’s room, learn about the restoration process, and reflect on how scenery from the Homestead’s windows offered so much scope for a keen-eyed writer.

Writing Prompt 1:

Choose a window in your home from which you’d like to track light, color, sound, or smell throughout the day. Return to your window every few hours and sit quietly for at least five minutes, drinking in the scene. Jot down your impressions under a time stamp. You may keep this as a list poem, or rework the most inspiring moment into a longer piece.

Writing Prompt 2:

Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s description of her aunt’s cozy room, scented with hyacinths and a crackling stove, warmly recalls the setting decades later. Describe a bedroom from your past in a series of descriptive paragraphs or a poem. It could be your childhood room, your grandmother’s room, a college dormitory or another significant space from your life.

2. “Blossom of the Brain”: Dickinson’s Education

Dickinson benefited from an exceptional education for a woman of her time at Amherst Academy and Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. Learn about her wide-ranging studies, and how they are reflected in her poetry’s rich vocabulary and ingenious allusions.

Writing Prompt 3:
  1. Take out a sheet of paper and jot down the name of a favorite subject you’ve studied in school.
  2. Write the names of the first five concepts, people, or events you can think of related to that topic. For example, if your subject was life science, you might write: the Jurassic Period, the food chain, Gregor Mendel, seed germination, and amoebas.
  3. Choose one of your brainstormed concepts and challenge yourself to make it the subject of a poem. You may need to do a little research.
Writing Prompt 4:

Dickinson was “in love” with words. What are some of your favorite words? Make a list, then challenge yourself to weave them into a poem.


3. “A Petal for a Paragraph”: The Poet’s Garden

Emily Dickinson was born in the Homestead, but she said that she was “reared in the garden” (L206). Throughout her life, Dickinson displayed a reverence for flowers. For her, gardening was more than a pastime; her flower beds and conservatory were sites of creativity where ideas could take root.

Writing Prompt 5: 

Dickinson was a master of shifting her perspective from the macro to the micro, from the movements of the heavens to the small dramas that take place right under our noses–or our feet! In “A Single Clover Plank” (F1297) she immortalizes the flight of one bee. Go outside or look outside your window and imagine the world from a new vantage point, such as a chipmunk burrow, gutter, or treetop. How does the environment shift? How would sun, rain, wind, or even sound seem different in this new place? What action can you imagine unfolding?

Writing Prompt 6: 

Read the poem “The grass has so little to do” (F379), which recounts the life, acquaintances, occupation, death, and final resting place of some hay. Think of a different plant, and tell the story of its life. Where does it reside? Who does it meet? What are its jobs (for instance, the hay “bows” and “threads the dews”). Does it make its way into our homes or into an animal’s stomach, or meet some other end? Should the tone be jovial or more solemn? Some ideas: potatoes, mint, ivy, blueberry.