Discussion Topics (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Emily Dickinson lived a life constrained in many respects. What liberating experiences of her life—including self-created ones—contributed materially to her poetry?
How have editors of Dickinson’s poetry both obscured and clarified what she actually wrote?
Examine three or four Dickinson poems with a theme of love. What particular effects of imagery and tone distinguish these poems?
Repeat the above process with respect to poems on the theme of death.
What factors account for the inclusion of weakly sentimental poems in her canon? Would the publication history of her poems be one of these factors?
Dickinson’s favorite stanza is basically that of many familiar hymns of her time. What differences in rhythm and phrasing do you note between the hymns and her poems?
Compare the different versions of “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers.” Is it possible to determine the direction her revisions took or in fact which versions are revisions?
Other literary forms (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
In addition to her poetry, Emily Dickinson left behind voluminous correspondence. Because she was so rarely out of Amherst—and in her later life so rarely left her house—much of her contact with others took place through letters, many of which include poems. Like her poetry, the letters are witty, epigrammatic, and often enigmatic. They are available in The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958, 3 volumes; Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward, editors).
Achievements (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Reclusive throughout her life, Emily Dickinson garnered little recognition for her poetry during her lifetime, but her legacy to American literature in general and poetic form in particular is an achievement few have surmounted. As surely as William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway, different as they were, brought American fiction into the twentieth century, so Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson brought about a revolution in American poetry. By the mid-nineteenth century, American lyric poetry had matured to an evenly polished state. Edgar Allan Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Herman Melville were creating poetry of both power and precision, but American poetry was still hampered by certain limiting assumptions about the nature of literary language, about the value of regular rhythm, meter, and rhyme, and about imagery as ornamental rather than organic. For the medium not to become sterile and conventionalized, poets had to expand the possibilities of the form.
Into this situation came Dickinson and Whitman, poets who—except in their commitment to writing a personalized poetry unlike anything the nineteenth century had thus far read—differ as widely as do Faulkner and Hemingway. Whitman rid himself of the limitations of regular meter entirely. Identifying with the common man, Whitman attempted to make him into a hero who could encompass the universe. He was a poet of the open road; Whitman journeyed along, accumulating experience and attempting to unite...
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Form and Content (Masterplots II: Juvenile & Young Adult Biography Series)
In Emily Dickinson: Her Letter to the World, Polly Longsworth has created a portrait of the enigmatic nineteenth century writer with the sincerity and attention to detail that a loving neighbor might use in recounting a special and private anecdote to a friend. Beginning with the Amherst College commencement in August of 1845, Longsworth takes the reader down the streets of Amherst, Massachusetts, and into the Dickinson homestead. Considered a mansion by Noah Webster’s definition, this residence housed the creative genius that the world later came to know as Emily Dickinson.
From Dickinson’s early morning rising to her habit of writing after all others were asleep, the young reader is transported to the homestead in the mid-1800’s, with its privileges and its restrictions. Longsworth takes the liberty of surmising Dickinson’s thoughts regarding household chores, family relationships, social responsibilities, and the dozens of other situations that may make life either mundane or lively, depending on one’s choices.
Longsworth, as might be expected from the title, does borrow frequently from Dickinson’s letters. Therefore, in many cases, the reader knows precisely what she was thinking—or at least what she chose to express on paper. Yet the sense of won-der that pervades Dickinson’s mind, heart, and soul is felt in the mystery that was the essence of the woman herself. Many questions remain unanswered and serve as a...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Barnstone, Aliki. Changing Rapture: Emily Dickinson’s Poetic Development. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2006. A study of Dickinson’s poetry that challenges the notion that she wrote at the same level and in the same style throughout her career. This work chronicles her progression as a writer and breaks her poetry into four distinct stages that exemplify her growth and changing style from youth through old age.
Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877. Boruch, a gifted writer and poet, pays tribute to Dickinson in this lively, conversational discussion. She criticizes the parasitic “cottage industry” that feeds off speculative details of Dickinson’s life and praises and explains Dickinson’s heavy use of dashes. Includes a good explication of “I Heard A Fly Buzz” and notes to other criticism throughout. Contagious interests and excellent writing.
Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57. This essay, one of seven in a special Dickinson issue, declares Dickinson’s significance in Western literature and urges readers to read her as a poet, without constant reference to useless biographical information. Carruth explains four poems with great skill and sincerity, without overusing intellectual jargon.
Dickenson, Donna. Emily Dickinson. Oxford, England: Berg, 1985. A well-researched and accessible literary biography meant to fill the gap between the detailed scholarly criticism and the outdated popular image of Dickinson as the lovelorn recluse. The author does not try to make the poet’s life explain her poetry, nor does she stretch the poetry to fit the life. The notes after each chapter indicate useful avenues for further study.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960. The text of the three-volume edition with the variant readings omitted.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. The definitive editions of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. They have been arranged in the most...
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