illustrated portrait of English poet Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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What is the significance of nature in Emily Dickinson's poems?

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Dickinson's view of nature in her poetry can be examined through two of her poems regarding this subject: "Nature is what we see" and "Nature, the Gentlest Mother."

In "Nature is what we see," Dickinson expresses a dichotomy regarding nature: it is both simple and wondrously complex. On one hand, it surrounds us daily and through a multi-sensory approach. We see squirrels and bees. We hear the sea and thunder. Nature provides humans with a harmony; it allows for peace. Yet with all of our humanly "wisdom," we lack the ability to adequately convey the truths we know about nature. It stirs things within our souls that cannot be adequately conveyed in words, even for a poet who masterfully put emotions down on paper.

In "Nature, the Gentlest Mother," nature is seen as a protector, even over the "wayward" of humanity. Nature also interacts with humanity, whether that comes through the "impetuous bird" or the way she bends from the sky to "light her lamps" so that humans can guide themselves in the night. Nature is seen as caring, thoughtful, and affectionate toward humanity.

These characteristics can be seen in Dickinson's other poetry, as well. In "Hope is the thing with feathers," the image of a bird is one that inspires hope and freedom, providing a source of ongoing encouragement to the speaker. In "A Bird, came down the Walk," the speaker notes the innate fascination in watching a small creature gain sustenance for itself. In "Because I could not stop for Death," the speaker uses nature to convey an easy transition into the afterlife, utilizing metaphors of a setting sun and fields of grain to review the life she is leaving behind without sorrow.

Natural elements commonly appear throughout Dickinson's poetry and convey her appreciation and wonder for the natural world around her.

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Dickinson often uses nature as a reflection of humanity: of our human feelings (good or bad), our fears, our hopes, and our frailties. For example, in one poem, she claims that "'Hope' is the thing with feathers," using a metaphor to compare our own human hope with a bird. Its singing never stops. We can hear our hope singing even in the midst of a storm, and this "little Bird" keeps us warm and comforts us without ever asking a thing from us. On the other hand, in another poem, Dickinson says she "dreaded that first robin so" and describes these birds' songs as "shout[s]" that "Had power to mangle [her]." She "could not bear the bees should come" and hoped that they would stay away. For whatever reason, spring and the rebirth of nature are reflective of pain, rather than hope, in this poem. In another poem, Dickinson personifies nature, including calling frost a "blond assassin" that "beheads" flowers with its "accidental power." She seems even to condemn God as "approving" of this violence because God does nothing to intervene. This description of nature seems symbolic, perhaps, of humankind's own violence, which goes on despite the idea that God ought to disapprove of people being terrible to one another.

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Having had a strict Puritan education, Emily Dickinson was marked by restraint; however, her poetry provided the outlet that her passions craved.  Influenced by the Transcendental and Romantic Movements, Dickinson's passions found their outlet in the wonders of Nature.  She perceived the relationships among all natural things.  One critic wrote that Dickinson

perceived the relationship between a drop of dew and a flood, between a grain of sand and a desert.

Her keen observation of Nature helped Dickinson understand the universality of the human experience.  There was always an universal truth in Nature.  For Dickinson, private emotions, such as unfulfilled love, took on the importance of great and profound events in which Nature is connected.  In her poem "If you were coming in the Fall," for instance, Miss Dickinson writes,

If you were coming in the Fall,/I'd brush the Summer by/With Half a smile, and half a spurn,/As Housewives do, a Fly....

If certain, when this life was out--/That yours and mine, should be//I'd toss it yonder, like a Rind,/And take Eternity.

As a poet influenced by the Romantic Movement, Dickinson also compares the growth and actions of animal life to human development.  Dickinson spent much time observing nature in her garden and from her window, feeling a strong connection with Nature just as Thoreau and Emerson did.  In her poem "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass," the allusion to the serpent of Eden cannot be missed, so, while the poem is about Nature (the snake), the allusions to the serpent of Eden cannot be overlooked--again, the universal experience.  A reclusive person, Emily Dickinson scrutinized the natural world at her feet for the truths that would reveal.

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