illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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The blend of Romanticism and Realism in Emily Dickinson's poetry

Summary:

Emily Dickinson's poetry blends Romanticism and Realism by combining emotional depth and individualism with a keen observation of everyday life. Her work often explores intense personal experiences and emotions, characteristic of Romanticism, while simultaneously presenting them in a straightforward, unembellished manner that reflects Realist principles. This fusion creates a unique and powerful poetic voice.

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What is the blend of romanticism and realism in Emily Dickinson's poetry?

As your question implies, a primary characteristic of Emily Dickinson's poetry is a blend of at least two literary traditions--romanticism or naturalism, on one hand, and realism, on the other. Dickinson's poetry find its settings not in the structures and belief systems of formal religion but in settings created by nature and nature's God.  Her tendency to look within herself for her religion is also a product of her readings of the transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau.

For example, in her poem "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church--," Dickinson places herself squarely in the romantic/naturalistic tradition when she writes

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church--/I keep it, staying at Home--/With a Bobolink for a Chorister--/And an Orchard, for a Dome--

As in many of her poems, here Dickinson argues that she does not need formal religion in order to "keep the Sabbath," a phrase normally associated with a person's going to a formal church service.  Instead of finding religion within the confines of a conventional church, Dickinson finds religion in her home, specifically, in her own backyard.  The sexton, a person who usually assists a minister during church service, has become, in Dickinson's personal "church," a singing bird, and the dome of the church is an orchard rather than a steeple.  Dickinson worships--as many romantics did--nature and nature's creations.

Dickinson's poems could also be relentlessly realistic.  When she writes that 

I like a look of Agony,/Because I know its true--/Men do not sham Convulsion,/Nor simulate a Throe--

she has entered poetic territory that is unique for her time and place.  The very fact of the poem is testament to Dickinson's interest in realism--no female poet of her time wrote so starkly about the human condition and on such a personal level.  The subject itself--a preference for the real over the "politically correct"--startled her readers as her poems began to be circulated after her death simply because such themes were not the usual or accepted subjects of poetry.  Her ability to articulate reality, as she does in this poem, made her poetry seem at odds with her time, and we still consider many of her poems to be "modern" in their attachment to realism.

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Discuss the elements of Romanticism and Realism in Emily Dickinson's poems.

Emily Dickinson wrote over 1700 poems during her lifetime. It would be impossible to define her Romantic or Realistic characteristics in all of her poetry. That said, I will offer multiple examples of poems which illustrate her use of each. 

Romantics tended to focus upon nature and imagination. They found peace in the countryside and valued intuition over reason. Dreams and personal emotions were important. Poems which illustrate characteristics typical of the Romantic period are "Nature, the Gentlest Mother," "Two Butterflies Went Out at Noon," and "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass." 

"Nature, the Gentlest Mother" includes very vivid imagery regarding nature. The speaker tells of rampant squirrels, impetuous birds, and fair conversations as the sun sets. "Two Butterflies Went Out at Noon" depicts butterflies dancing above a stream. They go on to fly over the ocean and never be seen at any port. Their disappearance remains a mystery to the speaker. Lastly, "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" is a poem about a snake. The grass splits as the snake slithers through, commanding nature in its own way. The snake's presence takes the speaker's breath away. 

Realism depicts life as it really is. Realists require true to life settings, characters, and situations. They act as observers, refusing to intervene on behalf of the characters (in order to make things easier). Poems which illustrate Dickinson's Realism are "The Soul Selects Her Own Society," "I'm Nobody,"  and "I Can Wade Grief." 

"The Soul Selects Her Own Society" illustrates the idea that life is what it is. Unmoved by either emperors or chariots, the "her" of the poem is stone. Nothing else matters. In "I'm Nobody," the speaker sets up an immediate paradox. This illustrates the general confusions in life (things which seem impossible can be possible). This is a realism in life. Similar to "I'm Nobody," "I Can Wade Grief" speaks the to reality of life. Grief exists; "power is only pain"; and weights (troubles, trials, and tribulations) will hang from us. 

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