Critics and historians frequently draw a connection between Emily Dickinson’s poetry and the New England Transcendentalist movement. Dickinson was growing up and formulating her own ideas when the Transcendentalist movement was reaching its peak between the 1830s and the 1860s. Dickinson lived in Amherst, only seventy-five miles away from the center of Transcendentalism in Boston. Furthermore, Dickinson openly discussed the influence of Transcendentalism, especially the influence of the ideas in the essay called “The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, a key figure in the movement. However, literary critics point out that, although Dickinson’s poetry reflects aspects of Transcendentalism it also reflects many of the Puritan religious beliefs that Transcendentalism supposedly contradicted and replaced. Some interpret this duality as a sign that Dickinson, in her devotion to her family’s religious heritage, allowed herself to be trapped in the contradiction of embracing both modern thinking and a putatively antiquated way of thinking.
The Puritans were a religious sect emerging as a splinter faction of English Protestantism during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Protestantism itself began as a protest against the Catholic Church because of its emphasis on ceremony and on the powers of the church hierarchy, with too little attention being given to God. Puritans felt that mainstream Protestants were themselves distracted by the things of the...
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“My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close” is written in two quatrains, or stanzas of four lines each, arranged in iambs. The iamb is a metric foot of two syllables in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second stressed. It is the basis for the most common line pattern in English verse.
The first and third lines of each quatrain are in iambic tetrameter , which means that there are four iambs in each line (“tetra” meaning four). In the alternate, and rhyming, lines, Dickinson changes to a three-foot meter called iambic trimeter (“tri” meaning three). For a lesser poet, such a fixed metrical pattern might have been a creative limitation. However, Dickinson, whose genius was her ability to choose the perfect word above all others, used the simplicity of the this familiar stanza pattern to showcase the power of language without distraction.
One interesting aspect of this poem is Dickinson’s use of traditional punctuation. In many of her poems, Dickinson substitutes dashes for periods, commas and other punctuation marks. However, this poem consists of two complete sentences, one long and the other short, punctuated with a semicolon, two commas and two periods.
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Compare and Contrast
1896: Entrepreneur Henry Morrison Flagler, one of the founders of Standard Oil, dredged the south Florida swamp to extended his railway, reaching the newly-incorporated town of Miami. The year before the unincorporated territory consisted of only three houses. Flagler owned a cluster of Florida resorts, with major hotels in Daytona and Palm Beach.
1990s: Miami is the largest metropolitan area in Florida. Over 40 million tourists visit the state each year, mostly to visit the cluster of theme parks around Orlando.
1896: The first public showing of a motion picture occurred in New York, at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall.
1956: The first successful videotape recorder was demonstrated at Ampex Corp. in Redwood City, California.
1990s: Advanced home theater technology threatens to make public move viewing obsolete.
1896: The discovery of gold in the Klondike Territory, near the Alaskan border, led to a gold rush that brought miners from around the world. By the end of the next year, over $22 million had been mined, and many of Alaska’s major cities had been settled.
1973: When the OPEC oil embargo cut off the United States’ main source of inexpensive oil, Congress authorized the nine billion dollar Alaska Pipeline to pump crude oil from Alaska’s Arctic coastal plain to the accessible port of Valdez.
1990s: Oil is the main...
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Topics for Further Study
Write a letter from the point of view of one of the people involved in the two awful partings mentioned here. Imagine that in the circumstances you felt it was right to part, but that you also want to comfort the speaker of “My Life Closed Twice before Its Close.”
Some people say that bad news comes in groups of three, like the three events that this poem talks about. Do you agree? Why or why not? Use examples to support whichever side of the argument you are defending.
What exactly does the speaker mean by “Immortality”? Why do you think this word is used, rather than “God”?
Examine an example of an artistic piece that seemed to close, to reach its end, but then continued on—a movie or a song, perhaps. Analyze what you think the artist was trying to say by this, and how you think it relates to Dickinson’s point in this poem.
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In 1993, Atschul Group Corp. released a video cassette entitled Emily Dickinson.
In 1994, Kino International released a video cassette entitled The Belle of Amherst.
In 1977, Aids of Cape Cod released a film strip entitled Emily Dickinson: I’m Nobody! Who Are You?,for the “Americans Who Changed Things” series.
In 1996, Mystic Fire Audio released an audio cassette entitled Emily Dickinson, for the “Voices and Visions” series, volume two.
In 1999, Dove Audio released an audio compact disk entitled Poems of Emily Dickinson.
In 1996, EMILY released an audio cassette entitled Emily Dickinson: Selected Poems.
In 1960, Caedmon released an audio record album entitled Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson.
In 1993, Marion Woodman recorded an audio casssette entitled Emily Dickinson and the Demon Lover. The cassette was released by Sounds True Recording.
In 1998, Monterey Home Video released a video cassette entitled The World of Emily Dickinson. The video cassette belongs to The Master Poets Collection, volume 1.
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What Do I Read Next?
For thirty years Emily Dickinson corresponded with her sister-in-law and next-door-neighbor Susan Huntington Dickinson. The resulting mix of letters, notes, and poems was finally published in 1998 as Open Me Carefully, edited by Ellen Louise Hart and Martha Nell Smith, who wrote the introduction. John Donne was a metaphysical poet who died nearly two hundred years before Dickinson was born. His themes and reflections on the nature of God resemble Dickinson’s, as well as his irregular poetry patterns. One of several good collections of his works is the Modern Library 1994 publication of The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne.
Because the author herself never arranged for the publication of her works, the process of gathering her poems for publication has been slow. The current definitive text is The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, published by Little, Brown and Company, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. The paperback edition was published in 1976.
Students interested in New England Transcendentalism, which is the intellectual background that Dickinson came from, will be interested in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is considered to be the main figure of this philosophical movement. His writings have been collected in one definitive volume, Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures, published by the Library of America in 1983.
Because Dickinson was a recluse in her lifetime, the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Aiken, Conrad, "Emily Dickinson," in his Collected Criticism, Oxford University Press, 1968, pp. 156-63.
Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, eds., Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Paris Press, 1998.
Johnson, Thomas H. and Theodora Ward., eds., The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.
Lucas, Dolores Dyer, Emily Dickinson and Riddle, DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 1969.
Shackford, Martha Hale, "The Poetry of Emily Dickinson," in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. III, No. 1, January, 1913, pp. 93-97.
Stocks, Kenneth, "The Realism of Love and Death," in his Emily Dickinson and the Modern Consciousness, St. Martin's Press, 1988, pp. 102-12.
Suchard, Alan, American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Tate, Allen, "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson," in Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson, edited by Paul J. Fer-lazzo, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1984, pp. 81-93.
Tor Turther Study
Capps, Jack L., Emily Dickinson's Reading: 1836-1886, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966.
This meticulously researched book examines Dickinson's career from the point of view of what she read and what the author concludes she would have...
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