The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Analysis

Emily Dickinson

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Seventy-four years after Emily Dickinson’s death, all of her existing poems were gathered into the single volume The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, a text that represents one woman’s rebellion against her patriarchal society’s institutions and literary conventions. After the poet’s death on May 15, 1886, her sister Lavinia began the customary burning of the deceased’s papers but stopped when she discovered the locked wooden box that contained the forty handmade volumes of Dickinson’s poems, fifteen sets of unbound volumes, and hundreds of loose rough-draft poems. Thus began the disclosure of what is now commonly known as the most fantastic instance of self-publication in literary history, a career that extended from about 1858 until the early 1870’s.

Immediately after discovering the volumes, Lavinia began her attempts to get them published. First, she took some of the volumes to her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson, who apparently proceeded to study them methodically. Two years later, Lavinia decided she was moving too slowly. It is significant that, at a time when women held little power, Lavinia turned for help to still another woman, her brother’s lover Mable Loomis Todd, who was responsible for the first editions of Dickinson’s poems. By turning to Todd, the somewhat reclusive Lavinia placed herself between two formidable forces; as a result, first there was a fissure in Lavinia and Susan’s already strained relationship,...

(The entire section is 561 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When Dickinson was writing, she had few women role models. There were poets such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning whom she admired greatly, but there was no one—female or male—using language the way she was in her volumes. In midcentury America, the most popular lyrics of the day were the conventional and sentimental verses composed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and John Greenleaf Whittier (the “Fireside Poets”) and their female counterparts, such as Lydia Huntley Sigourney. In a way, Higginson was correct when in 1862 he deemed her poetry conventionally unpublishable. Dickinson herself had seen what would happen to her unique style when editors, without her permission or knowledge, conventionalized her lines. So her volumes waited, secreted in the bureau drawer.

It is significant that Lavinia, the woman who had protected Dickinson’s need for solitude, was the determined force in bringing Dickinson’s poetry to a late nineteenth century audience then ripe for change. Furthermore, two generations of women were her first editors (and biographers), thus initiating the scholarly recognition and popularity of Dickinson’s poetry. The first collection, Poems (1890), went through seven printings in one year, and the 1891 Poems: Second Series went through five printings in two years. By the third edition, Poems: Third Series (1894), Dickinson was known internationally. Today she is widely accepted as the...

(The entire section is 407 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*Amherst. Massachusetts town where Dickinson lived, about ninety miles west of Boston. Although her poems mention Amherst by name only twice, it is organic to Dickinson’s poetry. She absorbed the old-fashioned Calvinism of nineteenth century Amherst. At the congregational church she attended in childhood, sermons depicted a wrathful God and threatened everlasting punishment. Dickinson frequently chose religious subjects, and yet, with the contrariety endemic to New Englanders, she rebelled far more than she acquiesced. In a few instances, she seems to have been influenced by the New England Transcendentalists.


*Homestead. Dickinson family home on Main Street in Amherst. Most of Dickinson’s poems employ the imagery of the domestic sphere. Yet she possesses the New England Puritan typological imagination that beholds cosmic meanings in homely images. Everyday events become, through metaphor, intense psychological states. She can comment that “The Bustle in a House/ The Morning after Death/ Is solemnest of industries/ Enacted upon Earth—.” The household imagery used to describe feelings so profound provides much of the impact of her poems. Home was, to Dickinson, her natural place, and to her imaginative vision, the source of the “types” of ineffable psychological states.

*Homestead grounds

*Homestead grounds. Garden and meadow near the Dickinson home. Dickinson’s store of images brims over with the natural phenomena of her gardens. The robin, she declares, is her “Criterion for Tune—/ Because [she] grow[s]—where Robins do—.” Daisies, roses, and bees abound in her poetic garden, as well as berries, carnations, maples, gentians, butterflies, anemones, orioles, whippoorwills, and violets—all found in the immediate surroundings of the house.

*Amherst cemetery

*Amherst cemetery. Community graveyard that is within walking distance of the Homestead. Dickinson must have contemplated the cemetery many times as funeral processions passed, as some of her poems testify. A few are spoken from the grave, as shown in lines “I died for Beauty,” and “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.”


(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

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.

Bennett, Paula. Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1990. A probing, instructive discussion of feminine creativity, sexual imagery, and themes of desire.

Duchac, Joseph. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: An Annotated Guide to Commentary in English, 1978-1989. New York: Macmillan, 1993. This bibliography is organized by poem and is an easy and helpful reference tool for those wanting information on specific poems.

Ferlazzo, Paul. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Twayne, 1976. Written specifically for those new to Dickinson, this easy-to-understand text is a good introduction to Dickinson’s poetry and life.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. This collection of essays by some of the most respected Dickinson scholars is prefaced with a piece by Juhasz giving...

(The entire section is 440 words.)