During her lifetime, only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published, most of them edited to make them more conventional. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered about nine hundred poems, more than half of the nearly 1,775 poems that came to form the Dickinson canon. She took these to a family friend, Mabel Todd, who, with Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published 115 of the poems in 1890. Together they published a second group of 166 in 1891, and Todd alone edited a third series in 1896. Unfortunately, Todd and Colonel Higginson continued the practice of revision that had begun with the first seven published poems, smoothing the rhymes and meter, revising the diction, and generally regularizing the poetry.
In 1914, Emily Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published the first of several volumes of the poetry she was to edit. Although she was more scrupulous about preserving Dickinson’s language and intent, several editorial problems persisted, and the body of Dickinson’s poetry remained fragmented and often altered. In 1950, the Dickinson literary estate was given to Harvard University, and Thomas H. Johnson began his work of editing, arranging, and presenting the text. In 1955, he produced the variorum edition, 1,775 poems arranged in an attempt at chronological order, given such evidence as handwriting changes and incorporation of the poems in letters, and including all variations of the poems. In 1960, he chose one form of each poem as the final version and published the resulting collection as The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Johnson’s text and numbering system are accepted as the standard. His job was thorough, diligent, and imaginative. This is not to say, however, that his decisions about dates or choices among variants must be taken as final. Many scholars have other opinions, and since Dickinson herself apparently did not make final choices, there is no reason to accept every decision Johnson made.
Dickinson’s poetry is at times sentimental, the extended metaphors occasionally too cute, the riddling tone sometimes too coy. Like any poet, that is, she has limitations; and because her poetry is so consistent throughout her life, those limitations may be more obvious than in a poet who changes more noticeably. They do not, however, diminish her stature. If she found her place in American literature only decades after her death, it is a place she will not forfeit. Her importance is, of course, partly historical: With Whitman she changed the shape and direction of American poetry, creating and fulfilling poetic potentials that make her a poet beyond her century. Her importance, however, is much greater than that. The intensity with which she converted emotional loss and intellectual questioning into art, the wit and energy of her work, mark the body of her poetry as among the finest America has yet produced.
Themes and form
One of Emily Dickinson’s poems (#1129) begins, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” and the oblique and often enigmatic rendering of Truth is the dominant theme of Dickinson’s poetry. Its motifs often recur: love, death, poetry, beauty, nature, immortality, and the self. Such abstractions do not, however, indicate the broad and rich changes that Dickinson obliquely rings on the truths she tells. Dickinson’s truth is, in the broadest sense, a religious truth.
Formally, her poetry plays endless variations on the Protestant hymn meters that she knew from her youthful experiences in church. Her reading in contemporary poetry was limited, and the form she knew best was the iambic of hymns: common meter (with its alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines), long meter (four lines of tetrameter), and short meter...
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(four of trimeter) became the framework of her poetry. That static form, however, could not contain the energy of her work, and the rhythms and rhymes are varied, upset, and broken to accommodate the feeling of her lines. The predictable patterns of hymns were not for Dickinson, who delighted in off-rhyme, consonance, and, less frequently, eye-rhyme.
“I like to see it lap the Miles”
Dickinson was a religious poet more than formally, but her thematic sense of religion lies not in her assurance, but in her continual questioning of God, in her attempt to define his nature and that of his world. Although she was always a poet of definition, straightforward definition was too direct for her: “The Riddle we can guess/ We speedily despise,” she wrote. Her works often begin, “It was not” or “It was like,” with the poem being an oblique attempt to define the “it.” “I like to see it lap the Miles” (#585) is a typical Dickinson riddle poem. Like many, it begins with “it,” a pronoun without an antecedent, so that the reader must join in the process of discovery and definition. The riddle is based on an extended metaphor; the answer to the riddle, a train, is compared to a horse; but in the poem both tenor (train) and vehicle (horse) are unstated. Meanwhile, what begins with an almost cloying tone, the train as an animal lapping and licking, moves through subtle gradations of attitude until the train stops at the end “docile and omnipotent.” This juxtaposition of incongruous adjectives, like the coupling of unlikely adjective and noun, is another of Dickinson’s favorite devices; just as the movement of the poem has been from the animal’s (and train’s) tame friendliness to its assertive power, so these adjectives crystallize the paradox.
“It sifts from Leaden Sieves”
“It sifts from Leaden Sieves” (#311), another riddle poem, also begins with an undefined “it,” and again the movement of the poem and its description of the powerfully effacing strength of the snow, which is the subject of the poem and the answer to the riddle, is from apparently innocent beauty through detailed strength to a quietly understated dread. The emotional movement in the famous riddle poem “A Route of Evanescence” (#1463) is less striking, since the poet maintains the same awed appreciation of the hummingbird from beginning to end; but the source of that awe likewise moves from the bird’s ephemeral beauty to its power.
“It was not Death, for I stood up”
Riddling becomes less straightforward, but no less central, in such a representative Dickinson poem as “It was not Death, for I stood up” (#510), in which many of her themes and techniques appear. The first third of the poem, two stanzas of the six, suggest what the “it” is not: death, night, frost, or fire. Each is presented in a couplet, but even in those pairs of lines, Dickinson manages to disconcert her reader. It is not death, for the persona is standing upright, the difference between life and death reduced to one of posture. Nor is it night, for the bells are chiming noon—but Dickinson’s image for that fact is also unnatural. The bells are mouths, their clappers tongues, which are “Put out”; personification here does not have the effect of making the bells more human, but of making them grotesque, breaking down as it does the barriers between such normally discrete worlds as the mechanical and the human, a distinction that Dickinson often dissolves. Moreover, the notion of the bells sticking out their tongues suggests their contemptuous attitude toward humankind. In stanza 2, it is not frost because hot winds are crawling on the persona’s flesh. The hackneyed phrase is reversed, so it is not coolness, but heat that makes flesh crawl, and not the flesh itself that crawls, but the winds on it; nor is it fire, for the persona’s marble feet “Could keep a Chancel, cool.” Again, the persona is dehumanized, now grotesquely marble. While accomplishing this, Dickinson has also begun her inclusion of sense data, pervasive in the first part of the poem, so that the confrontation is not only intellectual and emotional but physical as well.
The second third of the poem changes the proportions. Although the experience is not actually any of the four things she has mentioned above, it is like them all; but now death, the first, is given seven lines, night three, frost only two, and fire is squeezed out altogether. It is like death because she has, after all, seen figures arranged like her own; now her life is “shaven,/ And fitted to a frame.” It is like night when everything that “ticked”—again mechanical imagery for a natural phenomenon—has stopped, and like frosts, which in early autumn morns “Repeal the Beating Ground.” Her vocabulary startles once more: The ground beats with life, but the frost can void it; “repeal” suggests the law, but nature’s laws are here completely nullified.
Finally, in the last stanza, the metaphor shifts completely, and the experience is compared to something new: drowning at sea. It is “stopless” but “cool”; the agony that so often marks Dickinson’s poetry may be appropriate to the persona, but nothing around her, neither people nor nature, seems to note it. Most important, there is neither chance nor means of rescue; there is no report of land. Any of these conditions would justify despair, but for the poet, this climatic experience is so chaotic that even despair is not justified, for there is no word of land to despair of reaching.
Thus, one sees many of Dickinson’s typical devices at work: the tightly patterned form, based on an undefined subject, the riddle-like puzzle of defining that subject, the shifting of mood from apparent observation to horror, the grotesque images couched in emotionally distant language. All this delineates that experience, that confrontation—with God, with nature, with the self, with one’s own mind—which is the center of Dickinson’s best poetry. Whether her work looks inward or outward, the subject matter is a confrontation leading to awareness, and part of the terror is that for Dickinson there is never any mediating middle ground; she confronts herself in relation to an abyss beyond. There is no society, no community to make that experience palatable in any but the most grotesque sense of the word, the awful tasting of uncontrollable fear.
“I know that He exists”
Dickinson often questions the nature of the universe; she senses that God is present only in one’s awareness of his absence. She shares Robert Frost’s notion that God has tricked humankind, but while for Frost, God’s trick is in the nature of creation, for Dickinson it is equally in God’s refusal to answer people’s riddles about that creation. She writes of the “eclipse” of God, and for Dickinson, it is God himself who has caused the obscurity. The customary movement in her explicitly religious poetry is from apparent affirmation to resounding doubt. Poem #338 begins with the line “I know that He exists.” While Dickinson rarely uses periods even at the end of her poems, here the first line ends with one: a short and complete affirmation of God’s existence, but an affirmation that remains unqualified for only that one line. God is not omnipresent, but exists “Somewhere—in Silence”; Dickinson then offers a justification for God’s absence: His life is so fine that he has hidden it from humans who are unworthy. The second stanza offers two more justifications: He is playing with people, and one will be that much happier at the blissful surprise one has earned. However, the play, in typical Dickinson fashion, is a “fond Ambush,” and both the juxtaposition of incongruous words and the reader’s understanding that only villains engage in ambush indicate how quickly and how brutally the tone of the poem is changing.
The last half begins with “But,” and indeed 256 of Dickinson’s poems, nearly 15 percent, have a coordinate conjunction as the first word of the middle line: a hinge that links the deceptive movement of the first half with the oblique realization that takes place in the second. The lines of poem 338 then become heavily alliterative, slowing the reader with closely linked, plosive p’s before she begins the final question: “Should the glee—glaze—/ In Death’s—stiff—stare.” The quasi subjunctive, another consistent poetic stance in Dickinson, cannot mask the fact that there is no open possibility here, for death must come, the glee will glaze. Then the fun—it is God’s fun of which she writes— will look too expensive, the jest will “Have crawled too far!” Although the last sentence is in the form of a question, the poem closes with an end mark stronger than the opening period, an exclamation point that leaves no doubt as to the tone the poem takes.
This same movement appears in Dickinson’s other overtly religious poems. Poem #501 (“This World is not Conclusion”) likewise begins with a clear statement followed by a period and then moves rapidly toward doubt. Here God is a “Species” who “stands beyond.” Humans are shown as baffled by the riddle of the universe, grasping at any “twig of Evidence.” Man asks “a Vane, the way,” indicating the inconstancy of that on which humans rely and punning on “in vain.” Whatever answer man receives is only a narcotic, which “cannot still the Tooth/ That nibbles at the soul.” Again, in “It’s easy to invent a Life” (#724), God seems to be playing with humans, and although the poem begins with humanity’s birth as God’s invention, it ends with death as God’s simply “leaving out a Man.” In poem #1601, “Of God we ask one favor,” the favor requested is that God forgive humankind, but it is clear that humans do not know for what they ask forgiveness and, as in Frost’s “Forgive, O Lord,” it is clear that the greater crime is not humanity’s but God’s. In “I never lost as much but twice” (#49), an early but accomplished work, God is “Burglar! Banker—Father!” robbing the poet, making her poor.
One large group of Dickinson’s poems, of which these are only a sample, suggests her sense of religious deprivation. Her transformation of the meter and rhythm of hymns into her own songs combines with the overt questioning of the ultimate meaning of her existence to make her work religious. As much, however, as Dickinson pretends to justify the ways of her “eclipsed” God to humanity, that justification never lasts. If God is Father, he is also Burglar. If God in his omnipotence finds it easy to invent a life, in his caprice he finds it just as easy to leave one out.
“I taste a liquor never brewed”
Dickinson just as persistently questions nature, which was for her an equivocal manifestation of God’s power and whims. Although there are occasional poems in which her experience of nature is exuberant (for example, “I taste a liquor never brewed,” #214), in most of her work the experience is one of terror. A synecdochist rather than a symbolist, she describes and confronts a part of nature, that scene representing the whole. For her nineteenth century opposite, Whitman, the world was one of possibilities, of romantic venturing forth to project oneself onto the world and form an organic relationship with it. For Dickinson, the human and the natural give way to the inorganic; nature is, if like a clock, not so in its perfect design and workings, but in its likeliness to wind down and stop.
“I started Early—Took my Dog”
“I started Early—Took my Dog” (#520) is characteristic in its treatment of nature, although uncharacteristic in the romantic venturing forth of the persona. For the first third of the poem, she seems to be in control: She starts early, takes her pet, and visits the sea. The sea is treated with conventional and rather pretty metaphor; it is a house with a basement full of mermaids. Even here, however, is a suggestion that something is amiss: The frigates extend “Hempen Hands”; the ropes that moor the ships are characteristically personified, but the substitution of “hempen” for the similar sounding and expected “helpin’” (the missing g itself a delusive familiarity) suggests that the hands will entwine, not aid, the poet. As so often in Dickinson, the natural world seems to be staring at her, as if she is the chief actor in an unfolding drama, and suddenly, with the coordinate conjunction “but,” the action begins. The sea is personified as a man who would attack her. She flees. He pursues, reaching higher and higher on her clothes, until finally she achieves the solid ground, and the sea, like a docile and omnipotent train, unconcerned but “Mighty,” bows and withdraws, his power there for another day.
“I dreaded that first Robin, so”
Whenever Dickinson looks at nature, the moment becomes a confrontation. Although she is superficially within the Puritan tradition of observing nature and reading its message, Dickinson differs not only in the chilling message that she reads, but also because nature refuses to remain passive; it is not simply an open book to be read—for books remain themselves—but also active and aggressive; personification suggests its assertive malevolence. In #348 (“I dreaded that first Robin, so”), the initial part of the poem describes the poet’s fear: Spring is horrible; it shouts, mangles, and pierces. What Dickinson finally manages is merely a peace with spring; she makes herself “Queen of Calvary,” and in deference to that, nature salutes her and leaves her alone.
“A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
The same accommodation with nature occurs in #986, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” where the subject, a snake that she encounters, is first made to seem familiar and harmless. Then the poet suggests that she has made her peace with “Several of Nature’s People,” and she feels for them “a transport/ Of cordiality,” although one expects a more ecstatic noun than cordiality after a sense of transport. Dickinson concludes with a potent description of her true feelings about the snake, “Zero at the Bone,” a phrase that well reflects her emotion during most confrontations, internal or external.
“Apparently with no surprise”
One of Dickinson’s finest poems, #1624 (“Apparently with no surprise”), a poem from late in her career, unites her attitudes toward nature and God. Even as Frost does in “Design,” Dickinson examines one destructive scene in nature and uses it to represent a larger pattern; with Frost, too, she sees two possibilities for both microcosm and macrocosm: accident or dark design. The first two lines of her short poem describe the “happy Flower.” The personified flower is unsurprised by its sudden death: “The Frost beheads it at its play—/ In accidental power—/ The blonde Assassin passes on—.” In common with many American writers, she reverses the conventional association of white with purity; here the killer, the frost, is blonde. Although she suggests that the power may be accidental, in itself not a consoling thought, the two lines framing that assertion severely modify it, for beheading is rarely accidental; nor do assassins attain their power by chance.
Whichever the case, accident or design, there is finally little significant difference, for nothing in the world pays attention to what has happened. “The Sun proceeds unmoved,” an unusual pun, since unmoved has the triple meaning of unconcerned, stationary, and without a prime mover; it measures off the time for a God who does approve.
Self and soul
Thus, when Dickinson turns her vision outward, she looks at essential reality translated, often appallingly, into human terms. The alternative vision for Dickinson is inward, at her own self, and despite the claims of her imperial language, what she sees there is just as chaotic and chilling as what she sees without. “The Soul selects her own Society,” she writes in #303, and she makes that society a “divine Majority.” “I’m Nobody,” another Dickinson poem (#288) begins; but in her poetry, the explicit movement is from no one to someone, from the self as beggar to the self as monarch: empress or queen. Out of the deprivation of her small society, out of the renunciation of present pleasures, she makes a majority that fills her world with aristocratic presence. However, for all that affirmation, the poems that look directly inward suggest something more; her assurance is ambiguously modified, her boasting bravado is dissipated.
Madness and reason
Occasionally, Dickinson’s poetry justifies her internal confusion in conventional terms. Poem #435, “Much Madness is divinest Sense,” makes the familiar assertion that, although the common majority have enough power to label nonconformists as insane and dangerous, often what appears as madness is sense, “divinest Sense—/ To a discerning Eye.” Usually, however, her poetry of the mind is more unsettling, her understanding more personal. “I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain” (#280) and “’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch” (#414), employing the drowning imagery of “It was not Death,” are the most piercing of Dickinson’s poems about the death of reason, the chaotic confrontation with the instability within. They also indicate the central ambiguity that these poems present, for the metaphor that Dickinson favors for the death of reason is literal, physical death: the tenor, insanity; the vehicle, death. However, one is never quite sure whether it might not be the other way around: the central subject death; the metaphoric vehicle, the death of reason. Through this uncertainty, these poems achieve a double-edged vitality, a shifting of idea and vehicle, foreground and background.
The awareness of one’s tenuous grasp on his own reason seems clearest in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” for there the funeral is explicitly “in,” although not necessarily “of,” the speaker’s brain. The metaphor is developed through a series of comparisons with the funeral rites, each introduced by “and,” each arriving with increasing haste. At first the monotony of the mourners’ tread almost causes sense to break through, but instead the mind reacts by going numb. Eventually the funeral metaphor gives way to that of a shipwreck—on the surface, an illogical shift, but given the movement of the poem, a continuation of the sense of confusion and abandonment. The last stanza returns to the dominant metaphor, presenting a rapid series of events, the first of which is “a Plank in Reason” breaking, plunging the persona—and the reader—back into the funeral imagery of a coffin dropping into a grave. The poem concludes with “And Finished knowing—then,” an ambiguous finish suggesting both the end of her life and of her reasoning, thus fusing the two halves of the metaphor. These two readings of the last line do not exhaust its possibilities, for there is another way to read it: The speaker finished with “knowing” not as a gerund object, but as the participial modifier, so that even at the moment of her death, she dies knowing. Since for Dickinson, awareness is the most chilling of experiences, it is an appropriately horrible alternative: not the end of knowing, but the end while knowing.
Death is not merely metaphorical for Dickinson; it is the greatest subject of her work. Perhaps her finest lyrics are on this topic, which she surveyed with a style at once laconic and acute, a tone of quiet terror conveyed through understatement and indirection. Her power arises from the tension between her formal and tonal control and the emotional intensity of what she writes. She approaches death from two perspectives, adopts two stances: the persona as the grieving onlooker, attempting to continue with life; her own faith tested by the experience of watching another die; and the persona as the dying person.
In such poems as “How many times these low feet staggered” (#187), where the dead person has “soldered mouth,” and “There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House” (#389), where the windows of the house open like “a Pod,” the description of death is mechanical, as if a machine has simply stopped. The reaction of the onlookers is first bewilderment, then the undertaking of necessary duties, and finally an awful silence in which they are alone with their realization of what has occurred.
“The last Night that She lived”
Poem #1100, “The last Night that She lived,” best illustrates all these attitudes. It oscillates between the quietly dying person—whose death is gentle, on a common night, who “mentioned—and forgot,” who “struggled scarce—/ Consented”—and those, equally quiet but less capable of giving consent, who watch the death occur. First there is the conventional idea that they who watch see life differently: Death becomes a great light that italicizes events. However, as the poem continues with the onlookers’ random comings and goings and their feelings of guilt over continuing to live, there is little sense that their awareness is complete.
After the death, Dickinson provides one stanza, neatly summarizing the final understanding: “And We—We placed the Hair,” the repeated pronoun, the little gasp for breath and hint of self-dramatization, fills part of the time with what must be done. Then there is nothing left to do or to be said: “And then an awful leisure was/ Belief to regulate.” The strange linking of “awful” with “leisure,” the disruption of syntax at the line break, and the notion that the best belief can do is regulate leisure, all suggest in two lines the confusion and disruption for those who remain alive.
“Because I could not stop for Death”
By consensus the greatest of all Dickinson’s poems, “Because I could not stop for Death” (#712), explores death from the second perspective, as do such poems as “I Heard a Fly buzz—when I died” (#465) and “I died for Beauty” (#449), in which one who has died for beauty and one who has died for truth agree, with John Keats, that truth and beauty are the same—the poet adding the ironic commentary that their equality lies in the fact that the names of both are being covered up by moss.
“Because I could not stop for Death” unites love and death, for death comes to the persona in the form of a gentleman caller. Her reaction is neither haste to meet him, nor displeasure at his arrival. She has time to put away her “labor and . . . leisure”; he is civil. The only hint in the first two stanzas of what is really occurring is the presence of Immortality, and yet that presence, although not unnoticed, is as yet unfelt by the persona. The third stanza brings the customary metaphor of life as a journey and the convention of one’s life passing before his eyes as he dies: from youth, through maturity, to sunset. Here, however, two of the images work against the surface calm: The children out for recess do not play, but strive; the grain is said to be gazing. “Grazing” might be the expected word, although even that would be somewhat out of place, but “gazing” both creates unfulfilled aural expectations and gives the sense of the persona as only one actor in a drama that many are watching.
Again, as is common in Dickinson, the poem is hinged by a coordinate conjunction in the exact middle. This time the conjunction is “Or,” as the speaker realizes not that she is passing the sun, but that “He passed us.” The metaphoric journey through life continues; it is now night, but the emotions have changed from the calm of control to fright. The speaker’s “Zero at the Bone” is literal, for her clothing, frilly and light, while appropriate for a wedding, is not so for the funeral that is occurring. The final stop—for, like the first two stanzas, the last two are motionless—is before the grave, “a House that seemed/ A Swelling of the Ground.” The swelling ground also suggests pregnancy, but this earth bears death, not life. The last stanza comments that even though the persona has been dead for centuries, all that time seems shorter than the one moment of realization of where her journey must ultimately end. Death, Dickinson’s essential metaphor and subject, is seen in terms of a moment of confrontation. Absence thus becomes the major presence, confusion the major ordering principle.