Why Is Emily Dickinson Famous?

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Last Updated on January 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 984

Before exploring what it is precisely about Emily Dickinson's poetry that's so well-loved, it's essential to consider what it is about good poetry, in general, that attracts attention. One might say that the best poetry shows a unique way of looking at the world, creatively uses a colorful vocabulary, or perhaps is both relatable and original. Any of these features, and many more besides, can combine to make a good poem. 

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Dickinson's fame is a result of her ability to engage with all of these techniques and more, so as to provide something for any kind of reader. In her nearly 1,800 poems, the American poet wrote about topics that appeal to a wide variety of readers of all ages and backgrounds. Emily Dickinson's poetry is undeniably original in its subject matter while also pushing the boundaries of what can be considered poetry, abandoning traditional restraints and conventional topics. She is often described alongside Walt Whitman as one of the most influential American poets of the 19th century.

So, why has her legacy endured? Let’s look at three reasons why Emily Dickinson is famous.

Emily Dickinson Pushed Boundaries 

Without a doubt, Dickinson's choice to push the boundaries of poetry is one reason she became—and remains—so popular. She challenged what readers of poetry had come to expect from its writers. She chose to use a first-person speaker or persona throughout much of her work, allowing readers insight into what many assume are her own thoughts and feelings. She was unafraid to talk about religion, relationships, and love in ways that were shockingly frank for their time. Her approach to the latter was often tinged with longing, disappointment, and in many cases, the inevitability of death. 

Wild Nights- Wild Nights!” is a great example of how Dickinson’s verse challenges readers. Here are a few lines from the poem: 

Rowing in Eden -

Ah - the Sea!

Might I but moor - tonight -

In thee!

This poem is usually read in one of two ways: the first, and most obvious, is that the speaker, perhaps Dickinson, is talking to and about her lover. The second is that Dickinson is talking to God. Taking these two interpretations into account, readers may be left wondering what Dickinson's speaker is longing for: intimacy with her lover or an increased closeness with God. 

In this poem and many more, Dickinson uses "I," "me," and "my"—first-person pronouns—to define her speakers' experiences. This allows the reader to project themselves into situations they might otherwise never find themselves in. Dickinson’s speakers are keen and often witty. They see the truth of their circumstances and are unwilling to conform to the rules of society. Their relative isolation allows Dickinson's speakers to pass judgment on the society they're alienated from.

Dickinson’s use of poetic forms was incredibly influential, inspiring many writers to free themselves from the confines of traditional verse. She experimented with formal elements like capitalization, rhyme, and punctuation. Her work is noted for its seemingly random use of dashes and its unusual capitalization. While scholars are unsure why she chose to punctuate her poems this way, it's commonly believed that the dashes serve to draw emphasis or break up thoughts and that the capitalized terms were those most important to her. 

Dickinson also uses a great deal of half-rhyme, also known as near rhyme or slant rhyme. This literary device refers to words that almost rhyme but don't quite fit the category of a “perfect rhyme.” One of the best examples of this technique comes from Not any higher stands the Grave.” In the text of this poem, Dickinson creates half-rhymes in the following lines: 

Not any higher stands the Grave
For Heroes than for Men —
Not any nearer for the Child
Than numb Three Score and Ten —

 

This latest Leisure equal lulls

The Beggar and his Queen

Propitiate this Democrat

A Summer's Afternoon —

The identical consonant endings of “Queen” and “Afternoon” make them a perfect example of half-rhymes. This technique is now usually associated with Dickinson's pioneering use of it. 

Emily Dickinson Expressed the Inexpressible

Throughout her poetry, Dickinson was unafraid to take on topics that seem impossible to define. With often complex language and syntax, Dickinson creates images that feel like hope, look like fear, and read as though love or death is present in the room. Often, when symbolism enters her poems, as it does in poems like “Hope is the thing with feathers,” the symbol and the subject—in this case, hope—merge. Her poems buildup line by line until, before readers know it, they’ve reached their ends, and their images coalesce into more questions. She frequently uses juxtaposition in her poetry, presenting two things, and, in their comparison, speaking about an experience without defining it. 

The complexity of some of her poems allows them to speak to readers on significant and varied levels. Poems like “I'm Nobody! Who are you?” often remind readers of their own experiences in society, whether they lived in the 19th or 21st century. 

Emily Dickinson Enjoyed Privacy 

Unfortunately, in some eyes, Dickinson did not achieve any measure of the fame she deserved until after her death. This is mostly because she chose not to publish—or even title!—most of her poems. Dickinson has come to define the reclusive artist, someone who pursues art for its own sake or for their own private purposes. She was someone who seems to have cared far more about writing for pleasure than for money or fame. She was happy to live in anonymity. 

It is this romanticized image of Emily Dickinson—alone in her house, loverless, friendless, and experience-less, dressed only in white—that's often associated with her work. As is frequently the case with other “tragic” authors, Dickinson's life, which certainly was by no means friendless, was interesting enough to add another level to her poetry and modern fame.  

Discussion Topics

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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

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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).

Achievements

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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 central figure—at once firmly in a tradition and, at the same time, a breaker of tradition, a revolutionary who freed American poetry for modern thought and technique.

Form and Content

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In Emily Dickinson: Her Letter to the World, Polly Longsworth has created a portrait of the enigmatic nineteenth century writer with the sincerity and attention to detail that a loving neighbor might use in recounting a special and private anecdote to a friend. Beginning with the Amherst College commencement in August of 1845, Longsworth takes the reader down the streets of Amherst, Massachusetts, and into the Dickinson homestead. Considered a mansion by Noah Webster’s definition, this residence housed the creative genius that the world later came to know as Emily Dickinson.

From Dickinson’s early morning rising to her habit of writing after all others were asleep, the young reader is transported to the homestead in the mid-1800’s, with its privileges and its restrictions. Longsworth takes the liberty of surmising Dickinson’s thoughts regarding household chores, family relationships, social responsibilities, and the dozens of other situations that may make life either mundane or lively, depending on one’s choices.

Longsworth, as might be expected from the title, does borrow frequently from Dickinson’s letters. Therefore, in many cases, the reader knows precisely what she was thinking—or at least what she chose to express on paper. Yet the sense of won-der that pervades Dickinson’s mind, heart, and soul is felt in the mystery that was the essence of the woman herself. Many questions remain unanswered and serve as a foundation for the research of other biographers. Some may ask why she never married or why, for the last decade and more of her life, she dressed only in white and refused to venture from her house. Others may wonder why she seemed disinterested in publishing her poetry when writing seemed as breath itself to her, who the man was who broke her heart, and what exactly she believed about God. All these questions are introduced gently in this book, as a friend might select flowers from a private garden to form a bouquet.

Although Dickinson chose the life of a recluse in her middle years, she certainly was not alone. Longsworth breathes life into both her siblings, Lavinia and Austin, as well as into their dominating father and shadowy mother. Her sister-in-law, Sue, and her children were willing recipients of Dickinson’s homemade bread, cookies, notes, and poetry. Throughout her life there seemed to be a stream (and later a trickle) of writers, publishers, preachers, and educators passing through the Dickinson homestead, as well as brother Austin’s home next door. Although Dickinson shared special bits of poetry with selected individuals, she did not actively pursue the publication of her verses. Those few that she or others submitted were tampered with, so that they better suited the rules of convention. Because such editing greatly angered Dickinson, her writing remained private until her death. Longsworth utilizes the discovery of the verses to bring her book to a dramatic conclusion, as she declares that Dickinson’s private poetry became her “letter to the world.”

Bibliography

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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.

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877. Boruch, a gifted writer and poet, pays tribute to Dickinson in this lively, conversational discussion. She criticizes the parasitic “cottage industry” that feeds off speculative details of Dickinson’s life and praises and explains Dickinson’s heavy use of dashes. Includes a good explication of “I Heard A Fly Buzz” and notes to other criticism throughout. Contagious interests and excellent writing.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57. This essay, one of seven in a special Dickinson issue, declares Dickinson’s significance in Western literature and urges readers to read her as a poet, without constant reference to useless biographical information. Carruth explains four poems with great skill and sincerity, without overusing intellectual jargon.

Dickenson, Donna. Emily Dickinson. Oxford, England: Berg, 1985. A well-researched and accessible literary biography meant to fill the gap between the detailed scholarly criticism and the outdated popular image of Dickinson as the lovelorn recluse. The author does not try to make the poet’s life explain her poetry, nor does she stretch the poetry to fit the life. The notes after each chapter indicate useful avenues for further study.

Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960. The text of the three-volume edition with the variant readings omitted.

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. The definitive editions of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. They have been arranged in the most accurate chronological order possible and numbered. In 1890, the first collection of Dickinson’s poems was brought out by Mabel Loomis Todd and Higginson, with two more volumes in 1891 and 1896, all in disorderly, random selections, with gross editorial violations of the poet’s spelling and syntax. Johnson has therefore done an invaluable service to American literary scholarship by taking Dickinson’s jottings, scribbles, and semifinal drafts and sorting them out. Even so, his choices of alternative language have sometimes been questioned by other Dickinson specialists.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. “Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts.”

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Edited by a founding board member of the Emily Dickinson International Society as well as a professor of English. Covers a wide range of topics, from people important in Dickinson’s life to her stylistic traits.

Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984. This collection, edited and introduced by a leading Dickinson scholar, contains thirty-two essays that range in publication date from 1890 (Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s “Preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson”) to 1984. Includes a solid gathering of writings by well-known critics, Dickinson scholars, and both nineteenth century and contemporary fellow poets. A brief, comprehensive, and well-documented survey, with two essays written especially for the collection.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998. A collection of up-to-date essays covering Dickinson’s poetry, poetics, and life. Useful reference with extensive bibliography.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983. The title essay is a twenty-page introduction by the editor who explains how feminist criticism can correct some partial or “false” criticism that has always split Dickinson into “woman” and “poet”—elements that should go together. The feminist perspective is based on the assumption that gender informs the nature of art. Supplemented by a bibliography.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986. In this short critical biography intended for the general reader, as well as the student or specialist, the author reveals how strongly Dickinson distinguished between oral expression, which is restrained by convention, and written self-expression. Includes a bibliography, an index, and eight pages of plates.

Robinson, John. Emily Dickinson: Looking to Canaan. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1986. Accurate facts, deft insights, and a readable prose style make this volume of the Faber Student Guide series a useful introduction. Robinson reveals a Dickinson who sought to escape from history and time and whose work was satiric, yet defined by Protestant ethics.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974. By far the most comprehensive Dickinson interpretive biography. Sewall devotes his first volume to Dickinson’s family, his second to her friends, and intertwines her life with both circles with great tact, sympathetic understanding, and impressive learning. The prose is clear and often eloquent. One of the most admirable modern literary biographies.

Sewall, Richard B., ed. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1963. A rich and diverse collection of critical essays, displaying an almost bewildering range of interpretive views. Such important critics and scholars as Charles Anderson, R. P. Blackmur, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and George Whicher are represented.

Wineapple, Brenda. White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. New York: Knopf, 2008. Emily Dickinson often sought literary advice from Thomas Wentworth Higginson, sending her poems to him and corresponding with him for twenty-four years. This book provides the history and details of their friendship and the significant role he played in publishing her poetry.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Knopf, 1986.

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