How does Emily Dickenson's poem "This is my letter to the world" challenge or support the idea that true belonging comes from shared values?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Emily Dickinson’s life was one of social isolation, a product no doubt of her extremely introverted nature.  As the attached biographical material notes, hers was a very solitary existence, with only her immediate family providing continuous personal contact and support.  While her social isolation was self-imposed – after all, her kinship with her sister, brother and sister-in-law provided some of her most vibrant relationships – her poetry could reflect a recognition of the degree to which she closed herself off from the larger world while desperate to remain a part of it.  What other conclusions could one draw from her poem “This is my letter to the world?”  As she wrote in that brief message,

“This is my letter to the World

That never wrote to Me, --

The simple News that Nature told,

With tender majesty;

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see;

For love of Her, Sweet countrymen,

Judge tenderly of Me!”

In this poem, the elusive Emily Dickinson appears resentful of her own social isolation and imbued with a sense of remorsefulness regarding her ultimate reconciliation with the world and its Creator.  Many critics and analysts have interpreted Dickinson’s prose – “Her Message,” “To Hands,” “News that Nature told”—in religious terms.  The selected capitalization of certain words, especially “Hands” and “Nature” has been interpreted to suggest that Dickinson is referring to God.  Dickinson died at the age of 56 – neither terribly young nor comfortably old for the mid-19th Century.  She seemed, however, to live with a constant unyielding sense of her own mortality.  “This is my letter to the World” is a poem about wanting to be remembered fondly despite having walled herself off from the outside world (“Judge tenderly of Me”).  Another of her poems, “In This Short Life,” similarly reflects awareness of her limited time on this Earth:

“That only last an hour

How much – how little – is

Within our power”

Dickinson was a prolific poet, but almost all of her work was only discovered and revealed to the public after her death in 1886.  What her work reveals, not surprisingly, is melancholic recognition that time can be short.  She experiences the death of a close friend while only a child, and later the death of her first academic mentor, Leonard Humphrey, who died at 25 years of age.  Her mother’s illness further reaffirms the fragility of life.  She seems, in “This is my letter to the world,’ to be reaching out for the immortality her poems can – and do – deliver despite her reclusive life.  The poem appears to reaffirm the notion that belonging comes from shared values -- after all, what was more shared in mid-19th Century Massachusetts than religious conviction -- and it is on this shared value that she clings to the rest of mankind despite rarely having engaged with it.

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