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
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).
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 himself with the world around him. For him, life was dynamic and progressive. Dickinson, however, was the poet of exclusion, of the shut door. She accepted the limitations of rhyme and meter, and worked endless variations on one basic pattern, exploring the nuances that the framework would allow. No democrat, she constructed for herself a set of aristocratic images. No traveler, she stayed at home to examine small fragments of the world she knew. For Dickinson life was kinesthetic; she recorded the impressions of experience on her nerves and on her soul. Rather than being linear and progressive, it was circular: “My business is circumference,” she wrote, and she often described the arcs and circles of experience. As carefully as Whitman defined himself by inclusion, Dickinson defined herself and her experience by exclusion, by what she was not. Whitman was a poet of explanation; Dickinson, having rejected expansion, exploited suggestion.
Different as they were, however, they are America’s greatest lyric poets. Although Dickinson was barely understood or appreciated in her own lifetime, she now seems a...
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