Emily Elizabeth Dickinson

Comments & Themes


  • Emily Dickinson's earliest editors (Todd & Higginson: 1890, Higginson & Todd: 1891 and others) organized her poems into general categories such as Nature, Love Death, etc. It is true that she returned to certain themes time and again over the course of her life, and sometimes to the same subject; but it would be a simplification to limit any one poem to a single category. Dickinson's mind was "synthetic" and one of her aims in poetry seems to have been to express how everything in human experience is related. An interesting topic for discussion is to discover all the different themes that may be implied in any specific poem and how they are related.
  • A great deal of critical debate has focused on the question of whether Emily Dickinson can be considered, in the final analysis, a Christian poet or not. Although her work is so inherently ambiguous that the issue will probably never be resolved, it can be highly rewarding to examine the degree of tension between belief and doubt that characterizes so many of her poems.
    • One of Dickinson's typical themes is the virtue of renunciation. She seemed to take a masochistic pleasure in the pain of not having what she desired (love, recognition, success). Consider the ways in which her own personal psychology of renuncaition could be interpreted as an expression of Christian belief.
    • In her mature poetry, Dickinson exhibited an extreme sensitivity to the effects of the passage of time on the observing mind. What poems can you find that deal with this theme? How do they develop the idea and what emotional states do they evoke?
    • According to T. W. Higginson, Emily Dickinson once said, "If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way" (see Critical Texts, 342a). This suggests that, although there is a very high degree of intellectual control in all of her poems, her primary interest in poetry was emotional. Do you agree with her "theory" of poetry? How does it compare with the many schools of literary criticism that have sprung up in the last decades in the academic world? Do you think Emily Dickinson would have found any of these congenial to her own approach to the reading and writing of poetry?
    • The publication in 1981 by R. W. Franklin of The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson has given us the chance to examine her forty fascicles in facsimile version. It is unknown whether she prepared these little booklets only to store her poems more efficiently or as a form of vicarious self-publication. If the latter is true, then they offer a rich field of study for thematic coherence within each fascicle and among them all. Should the fascicles be read then, in a manner similar to Whitman's Leaves of Grass? Could they be interpreted as a testament to Dickinson's Christian faith? Or, alternatively, as a record of a passage from Christian belief through Romantic mysticism to a kind of proto-Existentialism in which language, or poetry, provides the only viable hope for "resurrection"?
    • Examine Dickinson's very peculiar poetic form. Although she practically "overdetermined" the use of iambic meter and rhyme, she also invests each poem with a multitude of violations of expectation (in grammar, syntax, usage and form). What is the raltaionship between form and content in her work? And in what ways do her formal innovations look forward to 20th-century poets such as Willaim Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and E. E. Cummings? Or any others you can think of?