© 2021, by M. Keith Booker
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson lived her entire life there in her family home. She became more and more reclusive as she grew older, writing her poetry mostly in isolation and publishing almost none of it during her lifetime. She carried on an extensive correspondence, but seldom interacted with people in person later in her life. It was not until after her death that the extent of her writing or the extremely innovative nature of it came to be known. Her poems are generally brief and untitled, making trenchant observations about life, death, and art in short lines marked by unconventional capitalization and punctuation. She is especially known for her frequent use of dashes and slant rhymes [words that employ similar sounds but do not rhyme perfectly], though many of her poems use more conventional rhyme schemes.
Dickinson’s cache of poems was discovered by her younger sister Lavinia after the poet’s death. An initial compilation of her poems was published in 1890, though it was heavily edited for both style and content. Many references to a “Susan” (presumably her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson) were removed from this initial compilation, probably to prevent the suggestion that Emily had romantic feelings for her brother’s wife. Many Dickinson scholars believe that Susan was the love of Dickinson’s life, though little is actually known about Dickinson’s sexuality. It is, however, generally believed that she carried on at least one romantic correspondence—with Otis Phillips Lord, a widowed Massachusetts Supreme Court judge nearly twenty years her senior. However, their letters did not survive, so the exact nature of their relationship is not known.
A complete collection of Dickinson’s nearly 2000 poems (largely unmodified from the originals) did not become available until the 1955 publication of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Since that time, her reputation has grown to the point that she is among the best-known of all American poets, among general readers and scholars alike. The latter, in fact, have paid major attention to her work, establishing her as an important proto-modernist innovator. Other poets have paid attention as well, and her influence on American poetry has become pervasive. She has also entered popular culture, most recently and extensively in the Peabody Award–winning Apple TV+ series Dickinson, which treats the life of the young poet in an intentionally anachronistic postmodern way that calls attention to the extent to which her poetry and her very identity were ahead of their time.
Because Dickinson’s poems are so brief and so numerous, her poetic importance lies more in her overall body of work than in specific poems, though many individual poems are quite well known. (For convenience, her poems are generally referred to by titles consisting of their first lines.) The best known of all her poems is probably “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”:
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
Here she deftly figures hope as a sort of bird that dwells within us, never ceasing to sing, regardless of what might happen to us in life. And it keeps providing support via that song, never asking for anything in return. This poem also illustrates the way in which Dickinson’s famous dashes are often quite functional and not merely decorative. The final dashes that end the first two stanzas, in particular, suggest the ongoing nature of hope. On the other hand, Dickinson’s stanzas often end in this odd way, suggesting that they capture brief moments in time, while time marches on around them.
Sometimes, Dickinson’s poems are essentially autobiographical, as when she cheerfully addresses her life in obscure isolation in “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”—but in a way that invites others to “join” her in her solitude, while humorously comparing those who would announce themselves more publicly to an incessantly croaking frog:
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
This sardonic frog reference points to the way in which Dickinson, like so many poets, often writes about nature. However, she does so in her own distinctive way. For example, in what is probably her best-known poem about nature, she writes not about birds or trees or flowers, but about a snake:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality –
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone –
Among other things, one might note that the speaker in this poem is clearly identified as male (“Yet when a boy”), something that occurs frequently in Dickinson’s poetry, perhaps suggesting her own fluid sense of gender identity. Meanwhile, the entire poem is related in an essentially comic manner that gets quite a bit of mileage out of the conceit of viewing the snake as a “fellow,” while making several playful references to the mysterious and elusive nature of the animal. Indeed, even the ending twist, in which the speaker admits to finding snakes frightening to bone, has an almost comic tone to it—though it (like so much of Dickinson’s poetry) can be read in different ways.
Dickinson also writes about more conventionally lovable animals, as in her famous poem about a stealthy cat unsuccessfully stalking a bird, a poem that will seem especially familiar to anyone who has actually observed this phenomenon, as the cat slinks forward with growing excitement and anticipation, only to have the bird fly away at the last second, leaving the cat with one last sight of its retreating feet:
She sights a Bird—she chuckles—
She flattens—then she crawls—
She runs without the look of feet—
Her eyes increase to Balls—
Her Jaws stir—twitching—hungry—
Her Teeth can hardly stand—
She leaps, but Robin leaped the first—
Ah, Pussy, of the Sand,
The Hopes so juicy ripening—
You almost bathed your Tongue—
When Bliss disclosed a hundred Toes—
And fled with every one—
Not all of Dickinson’s poems are quite so cheerful, however. One of her favorite themes is death, a topic that seems to have occupied her throughout her life. One of her best-known poems about death even features a posthumous speaker:
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
Note that here the entire poem ends with a dash, suggesting the never-ending nature of death. The poem includes the expected mourners and perhaps a nod toward religion (the “King” could be Christ, or just Death himself), but its most striking image is the fly (an image that Dickinson often used in her poetry). This fly could be a macabre image, given that flies are often thought of as buzzing about corpses (and are, for that matter, sometimes associated with Satan). Flies are also associated with death. When people are dying in large numbers, we say that they are “dying like flies.” But the line “With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –” is quite playful, as Dickinson uses her trademark dashes to suggest the irregular, jerky, flitting motion of a fly, much as she uses them to suggest the stop-and-go motion of the cat in the poem above. In this way, this last poem potentially undermines the seemingly momentous nature of death by juxtaposing it with the lightness and triviality of an everyday housefly, suggesting that death is really the most common and ordinary thing in the world.
Finally, Dickinson’s best-known poem about death is probably the following, in which Death is personified as a coachman who collects the again posthumous speaker and takes him or her into the afterlife. The opening two lines of this poem might be the most widely-quoted in all of her work:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –
Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –
Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –