National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

by Emily Dickinson

I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough.


Emily Dickinson, age 16 (Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections)

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –,” “Because I could not stop for Death –”, and “I dwell in Possibility –” are some of the most memorable opening lines in American poetry, written by an artist who was virtually unknown during her 55 years of life.

Filled with original metaphors and unexpected syntax, Emily Dickinson’s poetry sometimes reads like a riddle. She regularly employs paradox—a statement that seems like a contradiction but actually is not—in order to get at the truth from an unpredictable angle. Twenty-first century readers must occasionally renounce a literal way of reading in order to appreciate her “certain Slant of light.”

Her gift for figurative language—imagery, metaphor, personification, simile—emerges throughout her almost 1,800 poems in brilliant and subtle ways. Although she was not conventionally religious, her poetry often borrows the metrical patterns of the hymns and psalms of her childhood. Dickinson uses punctuation and capitalization of nouns uniquely. Her idiosyncratic use of the dash especially emphasizes her ideas. She rarely wrote a poem of more than twenty lines, and this brevity itself suggests her view of poetry: that it should “stun” and surprise, pleasing the reader with “Bolts—of Melody.”

Her “flood subject” was immortality and she often wrote about death. Certainly Dickinson’s life was filled with sorrow, and she grieved the deaths of many friends and family. But her poetry is also filled with the insightful happiness of a woman who had loved deeply and who relished the beauty of nature. Her belief in the promise of eternal life sustained her, and one of her poems begins: “Forever — is composed of Nows —.”

As the poem below suggests, even after a poet dies, each age becomes a lens—like the lamp's glass or the sky's suns—“Disseminating” the poem’s “Circumference,” spreading light from age to age.

The Poets light but Lamps —
Themselves — go out —
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns —
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference —
—Emily Dickinson

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