Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Peggy McIntosh and
Ellen Louise Hart
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students may have problems with the appearance of the poems--with the
fact that they are without titles; that they are often short and compact,
compressed; that the dash is so often used in the place of traditional
punctuation. Some students will be put off by the grammatical elisions
and ellipses, and some by the fact that the poems often do not quickly
display a central, controlling metaphor or an easily identifiable narrative
theme. Students who are already intimidated by poetry may find the poems
difficult and unyielding. Some, however, may find Dickinson's brevity and
conciseness startling and enjoyable. Those who have false notions that
everything in poetry means or symbolizes something else, and that the reader
must crack the code and come up with a "solution" to each poem's
meaning, will be frustrated by Dickinson or will read the poems with atrocious
insensitivity. Dickinson's work requires intense concentration, imagination,
and unusually high tolerance for ambiguity.
Some students may want to dismiss Dickinson as an "old maid"
or as a woman who "missed out on life" by not marrying. One student
asked, "Why didn't she just move to Boston and get a job?" Students
want to know about Dickinson's life and loves, her personal relationships
with both men and women; they are curious about why she chose not to publish;
they are interested in her religious/spiritual life, her faith, and her
belief in immortality. They want to know what the dilemmas of her life
were, as they manifested themselves in her writing: What her psychic states
were, what tormented her, what she mourned, what drove her close to madness,
why she was fascinated with death and dying. Addressing these questions
allows the opportunity to discuss the oversimplifying and stereotyping
that result from ignorance of social history as well as insistence on heterosexism.
Students should be prepared for the poems by being encouraged to speculate.
An instructor can invite students to explore each poem as an experiment,
and to ease into the poetry, understanding that Dickinson was a poet who
truly "questioned authority" and whose work defies authoritative
readings. All of her difficulties as listed above can be seen as connected
with her radically original imagination.
Students can be directed toward approaching these poems with "lexicon"
in hand, as Dickinson wrote them. Here is the perfect opportunity for an
exercise with the OED. Students can be asked to make a list as they read
of words that begin to seem to them particularly Dickinsonian; "Circumference,"
for example. They can also list characteristic phrases or images. The selection
of poems can be parceled out in certain groupings in which linked images,
emotions, or descriptions of natural phenomena are easily recognizable.
Students can be assigned to write journals in which they record their
first impressions and discoveries, as well as later commentary on poems
and further stages of interpretation. Asking people to read poems out loud
will help them to learn to hear the poet's voice and to tune their ears
to her rhymes, rhythms, and syntax. Above all, the instructor should not
pretend assurance about Dickinson's meanings and intentions.
It works well to have students make a selection of poems on a theme
or image cluster, and then work in groups with the selected poems, afterwards
presenting their readings. Such group work can create flexibility while
giving students confidence in their own perceptions.
Another presentation that is very useful is the kind of demonstration
Susan Howe gives and which some other teachers now use. Make a copy of
a Thomas Johnson version of a poem and then make a typed transcription
of the same poem using Franklin's Manuscript Books. This can lead
to interesting discussions of editing questions involved with Dickinson:
how to represent the line breaks and the punctuation; how to render these
unpublished poems in print.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Students need to know something about Dickinson's life, her schooling,
religious upbringing and subsequent rebellion, her family members, and
the close friends who became the audience for her poems. (Much of this
is outlined in the headnote.) They will be helped by having some historical
sense of women and men in nineteenth-century New England. They need information
on women's habits of reading and writing, on friendships among women, religious
revivalism, and life in a small college town like Amherst. Awareness of
class, class consciousness, and social customs for families like the Dickinsons
and their circle of friends will help prevent questions like the one cited
above on why Dickinson didn't just move and "go for it" in a
city. Students should be discouraged from discussing the poems as "feminine"
or as demonstrating "the woman's point of view."
A discussion of homophobia is necessary. Here the headnote should be
helpful. The love poems are not exclusively heterosexual. Students should
be encouraged to examine the erotics of this poetry without being limited
to conventional notions of gender. Dickinson uses a variety of voices in
these poems, writing as a child (often a boy), a wife-to-be, a woman rejected,
and as a voice of authority which we often associate with maleness. These
voices or roles or "poses," as they are sometimes called, need
to be identified and examined. Here are the multiplicities of self. Do
we need to reconcile these voices? What happens when we don't? Students
may reflect on or write about multiplicities of experience, perspective,
and voice in themselves.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Information should be provided about other American and British writers
publishing at this time, those whom Dickinson read, those especially popular
at the time but not as well known, as well as those still recognized: Emerson,
Helen Hunt Jackson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Dickens.
Dickinson's poetry is very dissimilar to poetry being published at the
same time. Attention needs to be drawn to this fact and to the originality,
the intentional and consistent innovativeness, of her style. Questions
of style can also lead to observations concerning the thin line between
poetry and prose in Dickinson's letters, and about the complex and integral
relationships between the two genres throughout her writing. Students can
be invited to read letters as poems and to read poems as letters, exploring
the ways in which Dickinson's work challenges traditional notions of the
boundaries of genre.
Students need to know about the publishing and editing history of the
poems, to understand how Dickinson worked--collecting poems into packets,
identifying words for revision, sending poems to various recipients, and
apparently avoiding publication during her lifetime. There is also the
question of the editing: What did a given poem look like when early editors
published it, and when Thomas Johnson published the same poem in the variorum
edition? Students should be made familiar with Thomas Johnson's variorum
as well as R. W. Franklin's Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson.
What did the variorum edition of the poems bring to Dickinson scholarship?
What was available before? What has R. W. Franklin's publication of the
manuscript books meant? And what about Susan Howe's argument that Dickinson's
original line breaks must be honored? Some students may wish to take up
the question of how to represent in type Dickinson's marks of punctuation.
For two poems in our selection we include in footnotes all the "variants,"
or alternate word choices Dickinson noted for each poem. Using Franklin's
Manuscript Books, students can observe in detail the poet's system
for marking possible changes and listing variants. Furthermore, study of
the facsimiles in the Franklin edition will give students an opportunity
to observe the artistic conventions in Dickinson's manuscripts--lineation
and punctuation as well as her handwriting, or calligraphy, and her use
of space between letters, words, and at the end of a line. Investigation
of the manuscripts will give students the opportunity to discuss what has
been lost in her visual art in the print transcriptions of the poems. In
addition, reading the poems in the manuscript volumes encourages students
to test out the theories of some critics that these volumes are artistic
units with narrative and thematic cohesion.
It is important to point out that the number that appears at the head
of each poem in our selection is not a part of the space of the poem, and
that these numbers were never used by the poet. They were established by
Thomas Johnson in his attempt to arrange the complete poems chronologically.
Since so few of Dickinson's manuscripts can be dated, the Johnson numbers
are most often speculative. Their standard use has been as a system of
reference, and as convenient as this system may be, a less artificial way
of referring to a poem is to use the first line.
Students should look at Franklin (or photocopies of pages from Franklin)
to see how the "packets" or "fascicles" looked. Reading
poems sent in letters or with letters is a way of considering audiences,
both Dickinson's immediate audience and her writing for posterity. The
variorum edition identifies poems sent in letters; the three volumes of
Letters list many enclosed poems.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Dickinson can be read with her contemporaries, the American and British
writers of her time. She may also be read in the context of twentieth-century
New England writers, Robert
Frost and Lowell,
for example, or with current New England women writers, May Sarton and
Maxine Kumin, for example. A regional sense is a strong thread in Dickinson's
writing. She may be read in the context of experiments in modernism, in
relation to E. E. Cummings,
for example. Dickinson also fits within a continuum of American women poets
from Anne Bradstreet
and Phillis Wheatley
through Amy Lowell,
Gertrude Stein, Edna
St. Vincent Millay, H.D.,
Marianne Moore, Sylvia
Plath, Anne Sexton,
Adrienne Rich, Audre
Lorde, and Judy Grahn. (This, of course, is only one selection, which
represents many of the best-known American writers. There are other such
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
Cumbersome term papers "arguing" a single thesis on Dickinson
are usually quite out of tune with her own multifaceted sensibility and
intelligence. Reading a poem as a statement of a creed, i.e., as a "proof"
that Dickinson believed this or that, is usually fatal to common sense.
We suggest that the following 15 writing assignments on Dickinson will
suit a variety of students with a variety of learning styles.
1. All her life, Emily Dickinson seems to have felt she was encumbered
by structures that did not fit her, whether structures of religion, belief,
value, language, thought, manners, or institutions. If you share her feeling,
give some examples of her sense of the problem and then some examples of
your own sense of it, in your life.
2. 1862, a year in which Dickinson wrote more than 300 poems, seems
to have been a year of great emotional intensity for her. Drawing on poems
from 1862 given in this anthology, trace some recurrent themes or designs
in the poems of that year.
3. Kathleen Raine has written: "For the poet when he begins to
write there is no poem, in the sense of a construction of words; and the
concentration of the mind is upon something else, that precedes words,
and by which the words, as they are written, must constantly be checked
If this quotation rings true for you, choose one or more poems and discuss
the "something else" and the process by which Dickinson apparently
revised toward it, using Johnson's three-volume edition, which shows all
4. You are Emily Dickinson. An acquaintance who does not know you very
well has just suggested that the time you spend alone must feel somewhat
empty. Write a fragment of a letter or a poem in which you respond as you
think she might.
5. Many of Dickinson's poems are not so much about ideas or themes,
as about the process of seeing or coming to see, or guess, or know. Trace
the elements of process in one or more poems; then imitate the sense
of process in a passage of poetry or prose of your own.
6. What do you appreciate about Emily Dickinson, and what do you think
she hoped readers would appreciate about her?
7. Read Jay Leyda's collection of documents about Emily Dickinson's
year of college in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, and read
Dickinson's letters from her year away. Compare your own college experience
with hers. Considering both the pressures on you and the pleasures you
experience, how do you differ from or resemble her?
8. Dickinson's poems have both authority and obliqueness, as suggested
in her line "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant." Discuss examples
of Dickinson's techniques of slantwise style and some of their effects
on you as reader.
9. Reading Dickinson is a personal matter, and readers' perceptions
of her change continually. On each of three different days, begin an essay
entitled "On Reading Emily Dickinson." Do not work for consistency,
but rather for a fresh account of your perception on each day.
10. For many English and American poets, moments of "seeing"
accurately have often been moments of affirmation. For Dickinson, they
were often moments of pain. Discuss any aspects of the poems on pain that
interest you, shedding light, if possible, on her words "A nearness
to Tremendousness/An Agony Procures. . . ."
11. Richard Wilbur wrote:
"At some point Emily Dickinson sent her whole Calvinist vocabulary
into exile, telling it not to come back until it would subserve her own
sense of things. . . . Of course, that is not a true story, but it is a
way of saying what I find most remarkable in Emily Dickinson. She inherited
a great and overbearing vocabulary which, had she used it submissively,
would have forced her to express an established theology and psychology.
But she would not let that vocabulary write her poems for her."
Analyze some of the religious poems that seem to you unorthodox or surprising,
and write a short piece of your own, in poetry or prose, in which you use
the vocabulary of a religious tradition in an unusual way that "subserves
your own sense of things."
12. Write four alternative first paragraphs to a paper entitled "Emily
13. Imagine a conversation between Emily Dickinson and any one of the
other women writers read for this course. What might they have to talk
about? Add a third woman (perhaps yourself) to the conversation if you
like. Draw on all the sources of evidence that you have.
14. Dickinson used traditional hymn meter, but her poems are not like
traditional hymns. Choose the words to any hymn you know, and rewrite them
until they sound as much like Dickinson as possible. You may virtually
have to abandon the original hymn.
15. Emily Dickinson's first editors thought they were doing her a favor
by changing certain words, repunctuating her poetry, and standardizing
the line breaks. Using the three-volume Johnson edition and the Franklin
manuscript books, judge for yourself, in the case of two or three poems
in which changes were made.
See the bibliography in the Emily Dickinson headnote in The Heath
Anthology. The following list should be helpful as well.
Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Howe, Susan. "Women and Their Effect in the Distance." In
Ironwood 28, "Dickinson/Spicer: A Special Issue," vol.
4, no. 2 (Fall 1986): 58-91.
Juhasz, Suzanne, Cristanne Miller, and Martha Nell Smith. Comic Power
in Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New
Haven: Yale University Press, 1960.
McNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Virago/Pantheon Pioneers,
1986. This is a short, readable critical biography of Dickinson that is
informed by the theories of feminism as well as deconstruction. This text
talks of Dickinson in current critical language. As a biography, it is
more convenient for the teacher with little time than sifting through Sewall's
book. McNeil uses Sewall's research for the text, so it is very helpful.
We recommend a run through the entire text of 181 pages; in a pinch the
introduction and the first two chapters, "Dickinson and Knowledge"
and "Dickinson and Difference," provide a starting place.
St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984.