Emily Dickinson’s Life and Poetic Life

Biography, Literary Themes, and Critical Explications of Selected Poems

Emily Dickinson remains to be one of the most prolific poetesses in the world of literature. Dickinson’s poetic achievement was recognized from the moment her first volume was released in 1890s, but never has she enjoyed more approval than she does today. Since the time, Thomas Johnson compiled a body of 1775 poems in 1955; the poems of Emily Dickinson, interest for her work has soared from all quarters. Readers instantaneously discovered a poet of huge intricacy and literary complexity whose work eludes categorization. For instance, though Emily uses the standard ballad meter associated with hymnody, her poetic works are in no way constrained by that custom; instead poetess performs like the jazz artist who utilizes and meter to revolutionize reader’s opinion of those structures. Moreover, her fierce defiance of fictitious and social power has long fascinated to feminist criticizes, who steadily place Emily in the company of well-known writers such as Elizabeth Browning, Anne Bradstreet among others. This paper aims at exploring the life of Emily Dickinson and her literal work.


Emily Dickson was born in 1830, in Amherst, in the state of Massachusetts, where she lived until her time of death in 1886. She lived most of her days in the family residential home constructed in 1831 by Samuel Dickinson, his grandfather (Emily 45). Samuel Dickinson’s role in the establishment of Amherst academy and college in 1814 and 1821 respectively started a tradition of public service that was continued by both her father and brother. All the Samuel Dickinson men’s were attorneys with huge political ambitions (Emily 26). However, Dickinson’s home became the center of the Amherst society and the location of annual Amherst college registration receptions. The outcome of growing up in a home with vigorous political activities is apparent in the Dickinson’s letter written in 1852 to a close friend. A section of the letter states “why can’t become a delegate of the Whig convention… I don’t know all about Tariff and law, and Daniel Webster”. The letter attests the confidence and frustration; the Dickinson family tradition has prepared Emily Dickinson, a poet a life of political activity and public service, only to deny her the opportunity on the basis of her sex.

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It is mysterious that a lady who led such a complex and apparently uneventful life eventually managed to acquire the rich views that enabled her to write more than 1700 poems unlike any other in the English language. Each one is recognizably her own, and many are masterpieces. The events in Emily’s life, therefore, hold a special surprise for the reader of her literal work. By the time she wrote a letter, Dickinson has already graduated from Amherst and completed one year study at Holyoke. Although she was referred to as Queen Recluse by her close friends, her life was not nearly so privileged as those terms implies. From the moment, the poetess enrolled to the school, and Emily Dickinson distinguished herself as an original and critical thinker who according to his brother’s words impressed teachers. Emily’s Composition was unlike anything ever heard before, and she always produced a sensation, whose imagination sparked both teachers and the scholars (Emily 34).

In 1847 to 1848, Emily spent the years studying at Mount Holyoke seminary school under Mary Lyons; it is during that time Emily acquired limited notoriety as a person unwilling to confess her faith on Christ in public. The action designated her as a person with no hope for salvation; as a result, she keenly felt her isolation.

Overview of Her Works

Dickinson’s works are mainly described by many scholars as being exceptional. She uses the outstanding techniques so as to initiate a homogenizing outcome on others. She aims at having a significant impact on the society that never seemed to recognize besides appreciating her works. Emily Dickinson works are mainly dominated by several recurrent issues within the society such as gender, health, literacy, class, ambition, spirituality and privation (Wolf 23). A critical analysis of her past life demonstrates how Dickinson wrote in an environment that consistently put her under pressure. Her life is characterized by endless pressure from all issues that any female author would incur. Many critics describe the poetess as being anomalous, and her contemporary works are thought to be homogenous. However, very few people have appreciated her excellent art.

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Dickinson writing has never been perceived to be emotional though she used it to address many contemporary issues in the current American society. Her poems are immensely used across the globe as sensitization and awareness platforms. Moreover, poems do not concentrate on one single issue but many occurrences evident in contemporary people’s lives. She does not focus on providing only pleasure in her poems but also integrates other issues such as politics and affection. Therefore, readers are entertained as well as being sensitized on numerous issues that many people fear to address. No one can describe her works as ruthless, but her style of addressing issues is uncomfortable to many (Wolf 78). Dickinson uses themes of precaution, consolation and regret to deeply attack and sensitize the community on the issues of public concern.

Some scholars such as Higginson describe Dickinson’s style of writing as use of extreme social threat. He perceives her use of hyperbole as the actual response to world’s issues. Dickinson uses carefully presented self-characterization of the human mind that is possessed by want. The poetess has described the want as infinity, and it is the greatest force behind what people do. Therefore, the main concern in most of her poems is human satisfaction of wants. She focuses on what is generated, disparaged, pursued and consumed in the concept of aesthetic experience.

Want is not only manifested in writings but also in her life as a teenager. Her life and teenage character portrays a woman who has an increasing hunger to device means for self-transformation. The idea of self-transformation is evident when Dickinson is separated from her brother so as to start her own life (Wolf 45). One may wonder whether Emily Dickson ever presented herself as an element of public illumination through her writing. The poetess was not much into public recognition, but she was a well-known since her poems left a lot of impact among many individuals.

Explication and Analysis of Some Poems by Emily Dickinson

‘Just Lost, When I Was Saved’

The poem was composed by Dickinson in the 1860s. It was one of the central poems that were published by Dickinson’s sister after Emily had died. The title was selected based on an earlier note that Dickinson had written to her cousins one day before she passed on. The author selected the theme based on the fact that Emily had suffered a terminal disease for long, but was on the verge of recovery. Many assume that she was entirely convinced that she would recover from illness (Dickinson & Alexandra 45). The poetess, therefore, decided to write a consolation note to her cousins to give them hope on her recovery. Nobody thought that the note would turn out to be the title of the poem.


The poem is not the first one that Emily wrote about death. She wrote many poems that concentrate on a proleptic view of death. In the contemporary poem, Dickinson uses direct narration to express her attitude on death as unavoidable occurrence in every man’s life. She uses imagery to represent different faces of death as part of human experience. Dickinson, however, uses a living narrator to represent the various aspects of death (Dickinson 34). The persona is a third person narrator who seems to stand behind a seal, but appears to see the things to come in the future. In her poem, Emily presents the mystery of death as something that is unseen and unheard. The poetess uses the biblical illusion to represent the words as written in 1 Corinthians by Saint Paul.

She uses a humanistic tone, especially, in the first two lines, and expresses what any person could feel if something gets lost when it seems close to the owner. Emily utilizes repetition to express her feelings and attitude. The third line repeats the words that Emily had initially used in the first two lines. Dickinson uses story to show that meeting with death is hard to everyone. It is a comparison in disguise as explained in the third line to show that death is as a hero fighting an opponent. In addition, the first lines compare death or eternity as a predator that comes to eat unprepared victim. The lines also show the insistence of death to claim the life of the narrator.

However, Emily involves ‘breath’ inline four that allows her to pause and overcome the impact of death. With a pause, Dickinson can continue narrating her feelings on the death. She further continues to wish if she had the power to make the message reach many people. What is clear is a picture of an influential poet who appears resilient even at the brink of death. According to the poem, she brings out an example of a person who should not easily succumb to death (Dickinson & Martha 89). The poetess uses the symbol of a hero to represent the menace of death and rebirth. The metaphor is clearly demonstrated through manifestation of death and rebirth as a consistent hero’s experience.

‘How Many Times These Low Feet Staggered’

Dickinson wrote this poem with a dull tone than the previous one. Though, the two were written almost at the same time, Emily puts a housewife symbol in the second one. To achieve the varied tone, Dickinson affects the alteration of trochees and dactyls. She uses the metaphor of staggering to demonstrate the extent to which the woman staggered. Dickinson uses hyperbole deliberately to illustrate that the woman staggered so many times that no one could count the times. Indeed, she concludes that only a soldered mouth could state the number of times in which the woman staggered. The exaggeration is further extended in the description of the staggering stating that even a mute corpse and sealed coffin could tell the struggles that the woman went through. However, Emily extends the idea of death with a perception that corpses do not labor.

Dickinson in addition uses imperatives to shift a woman’s burden to the reader. She repeatedly uses the words try and lift (Dickinson 23). Therefore, one can conclude that Emily uses repetition to make the reader relate with the poem. In addition, she uses irony to compare the house duties of a woman with the weight of the corpse and the coffin. Dickinson also applies several symbols such as death, predatory flies and disease. All the above symbols are believed to have mercilessly battered the woman’s window that was once clean. The poetess further uses imagery of the sun and the ceiling portraying them as fearless. These are the main elements that have attributed to the woman’s agony and despair. Nevertheless, the woman does not seem to succumb to the oppression. In the end, the poetess uses double application of indolent where the woman is described as lazy, but free from suffering.

‘I Taste Liquor Never Brewed’

The poem uses alcohol since the early poets used Dionysus, who was the God of the wine to make dramatic poetry lively. She combines ecstasy and intoxication to bring forth her theme. Wine is used as representation, and its impact is emphasized by the rhythm of reel that was mainly a whirling dance. According to the poetess, the persona tastes never baked liquor that is stored in pearl tankards (Dickinson & Martha 56). Dickinson describes poetry that is written with a fine-distilled language as better than any brew made out of Frankfurt berries.

The poetess uses never brewed beer to describe the impact of poetry to the reader. The metaphors within a verse become drunk more easily than those who consume fine brewed beer. Dickinson also illustrates how the persona is unrepentant of the effects of poetry and drunkenness got out of it. She clearly puts it that the persona would only stop consuming the poem verses after the reappearance of the landlords of nature. The lines imply that the persona would only stop poetry intoxication after nature has eliminated him. The persona would only stop the drunkenness after the death when he/she will be applauded by angels. The current poem is a clear illustration of how editors made deliberate alteration of Dickinson’s verses. The editors aimed at creating a sequence of consonants that would enhance the taste of the poem. For example, Mabel and Higginson changed the last lines so as to enhance the rhyme of the poem. The lines were further altered by Springfield Daily Republican making the rhyme more apparent.

“I Like a Look of Agony”

This poem makes use of imagery in the description of pain and death. Dickinson’s careful selection of words creates a depiction of pain by the use of words such as Convulsion and Throe to create a hurtful scene (Dickinson & Alexandra 23). The choice of words is very crucial in relaying the right emotion of pain thereby sticking to the mood in the title. In the second verse, the inclusion of the phrase ‘the eyes glaze once’ to refer to death gives quite a disturbing image but in essence, a person who has lost a loved one can relate to it. This causes the reader to relate to this scenario and understand the exact emotion being portrayed in the poem and get a hold of the author’s objectivity. The essentiality of these unpleasant scenes cannot be underrated in reading this poem because the reader has to feel the pain and the suffering behind the words used in fully to appreciate it.

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The phrases ‘Homely pain strung’ and ‘Beads upon the forehead’ as used in verse two sparks the feeling of desolation in the reader, and they can have a picture of the pain that these phrases are describing. The aspect of representation is vital in helping the reader grasp what is being talked about in this poem (Dickinson & Alexandra 34).

The expressions and the imagery used throughout this poem bring out an element of pain and pain yet contrastively the title of the poem is ‘I Like the Look of Agony.’ Dickinson uses this to show the look of anguish is genuine. In this poem, one can capture that Dickinson is talking about general emotions and how people can hide their true feelings, but agony can never be faked.

‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’

In this poem, the reader captures the sense of death being personified. It is not depicted as some intimidating, terrifying devourer but as a gentle, graceful guide to eternity. The speaker is not afraid of death taking her away from this world. Amazingly, Dickinson considers it as a kindness because she was too preoccupied to find him time. This is emphasized in verse one when she describes how death pays one individual attention as she says that the carriage holds just the two. There is some internal rhyme in ‘held’ and ‘ourselves’ and this makes the speaker give up her life effortlessly. This is clearly seen as the reader can capture her saying that it is ‘For His Civility’ that she lays aside her ‘labor’ and ‘leisure.’

The following stanza depicts a life that is not as good as she uses contrast in that the slow carriage ride she describes is not what she sees as they are being carried away. The verse after that gives a more agreeable view of death when things just turn cold and meaner. Dickinson talks of her clothes not being warm enough to shelter from the harsh coldness of death. She still brings out the idea of the grave being a home in the next stanza. Aside from that, the poetess makes use of alliteration in the stanza that puts emphasis on material possessions ‘gossamer’ ‘tippet’ gown’ and ‘tulle,’ which causes the stanza to be less gruesome.

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From the first stanza, she talks on the theme of immortality where that is her only another companion in the death carriage. Moreover, in the final verse, we see her having got it and time just lose meaning all over sudden where many years are no different from the day. The poem ends in eternity enacting this immortality, projecting out into infinity.

‘Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers’

The current poem was written by Dickinson in several versions. Her change of version was mainly through the influence of the views of her sister-in-law. However, Dickinson was in a dilemma on which poem to give for editing. She, therefore, decided to give two of the versions to Higginson, who changed the stanzas so as to come up with a final unique copy (Dickinson 36). Higginson came forth with a different last stanza of the second combined with two verses from the first version. Consequently, Higginson created a shorter poem than that one created by Dickinson.

The current poem is full of numerous criticisms from analysts. The theme mainly focuses on the meet who, supposedly, sleep soundly in the graves waiting for resurrection to receive the salvation that belongs to them. The poetess puts a lot of emphasis in this by the use of the words ‘confidently waiting’ to show how desperate these people were waiting in the grave for resurrection. However, Dickinson uses contrast to compare life within and outside the grave. She deliberately describes the wind as ‘laughing’ and birds singing ‘ignorantly.’ The current Emily’s poem is another one that touches on death in an ironic manner. She represents death and life in the grave as a comfortable occurrence to the dead. While many criticize her approach on matters relating to death, the poem is sometimes seen as an attempt to comfort those who are on the verge of death. It seems to give hope that people in the grave are happily waiting for the coming resurrection (Dickinson 48). On the other hand, critics argue out that Emily wrote the poem in an attempt to portray the existing difference between life in the grave and that one in the world. In addition, it is as if she is telling people that life in the world does not change when one passes on.

The conclusion of the poem is a lamentation on what lies deep within the grave. Sometimes, Emily is thought to be ridiculing the grave and those who are in it. She brings forth the idea that those who die go with all that is within their bodies including understanding. In fact, Emily’s poem laments on the amount of wisdom that is buried deep within the grave. Her unmistakable message is that one has maximally to utilize the wisdom given for the good of the existing world. The poetess insists that any wisdom buried with someone becomes waste once in the grave.

The 1861 version also represents the life as a sequence that must have a start and defined the end. She uses the phrase ‘lose their power silently’ to show that no one remains strong and powerful forever (Dickinson &Franklin 37). From the second stanza in the 1861 version, Emily notes that even the mighty drop their crowns and their power disappears. Critics have suggested that Emily was targeting those who are famous and possess strong political authority. They have a notion that political authorities will keep death away. However, the fact, as per the poem, is that death is inevitable. As the poor and voiceless pass on, the rich will accompany them.

She uses irony and contrast to ridicule those in the grave. From the second stanza, Emily symbolizes the wind as it laughs for those who are in the grave. It is humorous that the wind roars as the dead wait desperately inside the covered graves. Furthermore, Emily personifies the bees as they appear gossiping about those who lie inside the lonely graves. Finally, the birds tirelessly sing senseless songs as if ridiculing the never coming resurrection. As the dead wait, life outside the grave continues normally. In fact, powers pass and those with crowns lose them while the living ignorantly waiting for their day to join the dead. On the other hand, the dead also wait ignorantly for their resurrection.

‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light’

In the current poem, Emily Dickinson compares the winter light with despair encountered when one is searching for divine meaning. Dickinson begins by introducing harsh sound produced by church bells in a winter afternoon. One may wonder why Emily uses the word ‘oppressive.’ The word is used to show how people reluctantly responded to the bells wherever they rang. To her, the church bells are symbolic representing things that are promised, but never seen. She explains that the bells give ‘heavenly hurt’, but they didn’t have any physical scar. The poetess tries to show that the bells represent or promise a heaven that is ideal and no one is sure whether it exists. The idea of the church bell is used to introduce how human life is surrounded by misery and consistent depression in an attempt to fulfill personal dreams. To her, depression can only be described in three senses namely hearing, feeling and sight (Dickinson & Franklin 45).

Dickinson further describes the desperation and depression being more than sadness that people occasionally experience. She ironically describes depression as heaven sent and is disguised biblically. To her, the depression seems like death, and it affects both the world and its constituents. In other related poems, Emily suggests that there is a divine being and a plan for fighting depression. She suggests that people should apply logic and faith in order to overcome the despair. The poem reveals how many people live in a secret agony without any practical plans of redemption. The poetess concludes by noting that scars of depression lie within each person though they may not be physically visible to other people.

‘The Soul Selects her Own Society’

The poem was published in 1890, and it focuses on how each chooses the components of the environment. In addition, the poetess notes that particular individuals are responsible for renunciation of their own beliefs and traditions (Johnson 56). Critics had always suggested that Dickinson wrote this poem in 1862 when she decided to alienate herself from the bigger world. In some deep analysis, it is thought that the poem was a total reflection of Emily’s life. The main emphasis in the poem is the need to make decisions on what is good in life. The kind of life that one lives are purely dependent on one’s choices.

The persona represents the need to live one’s life through a strategic use of words. She uses the words ‘religious majority’ as well as ‘The Soul’ in line one and three respectively. Dickinson notes that the human mind has the freedom to shut its door not only to the majority, but also to those who are presumably holy. She insists that one doesn’t have to join the club of the elites so as to be honorable. She uses hyperbole to emphasize that she would not even recognize an emperor kneeling at the door. She criticizes the society of the elect for discriminating against other people. The poetess carefully describes the soul as being neither solipsistic nor nihilistic. In this manner, the soul can choose one entry and close the door to all others. She compares the soul with a stone that is deaf to its surrounding. The statement implies that human beings should act such that they don’t, succumb to the surrounding pressure.

She finally compares life with a woman who is not at home to answer calls from all potential callers (Johnson 48). The woman can only attend to none or just but a few callers. The decision to answer or not to answer the call depends on the woman. Dickinson further notes the uniqueness of each person and the need to lead unique lives. In addition, she suggests the need for women not to give into the force from the community.

‘A Bird Came Down the Walk’

The current poem was published in 1891, and it focuses on distrust, cruelty and ingratitude all within an idyllic, placid setting. The analysts have described the poem as the only one that Dickinson wrote to express her feeling and perception on the nature. She uses juxtaposition to compare the superficial gentility of nature with the barbarity of the world. The narrator reveals the reality with the picture of a bird flying just to see a worm. The bird promptly captures the worm and devours it (Dickinson & Ted 24). The bird then drinks water from the dew available on the grass. The poetess deliberately uses the words ‘water on the grass,’ just as people drink water using a glass. The bird looks around as if checking if anybody was seeing it. The bird and the worm are used symbolically by Dickinson to reflect what they world looks like.

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Both the bird and the narrator appear to be cautious since each one of them has certain concerns. The bird, on one side, fears that somebody might see its cruelty and the narrator, on the other side, feared that she might be the next target for the bird (Johnson 67). The bird, noticing that nobody was on the lookout, walks away as if all was well. Critics have classified the poem as a perfect picture of the real world. The real world consists of cruelty, barbarism and selfishness. That is a true nature.

‘I Heard a Fly Buzz- When I Died’

The current poem was published in 1896, and it gives a critical outlook at death and what lies in between life and death. In the poem, Dickinson makes use of Synesthesia and paronomasia. Like in the previous poem, a fly eagerly and desperately waits for the corpse. The narrator cries until all tears are dried and the language used to describe the whole scenario is both legal and theological. However, the poetess does not illustrate the full enlightenment of death. It is as if death has certain mysteries that should not be revealed to man.

‘I Cannot Live With You’

The current poem was published in 1890 and is described as the most famous love poem among the ones written by Dickinson (Dickinson & Ted 34). Critics argue that the poem was a real picture of the love affair between Dickinson and Charles Wadsworth. It is argued that this poem reflected Dickinson’s dual understanding of life. She notes that it was impossible to live the one you love since this would be life (Emily 23). According to the narrator, life is eternal. She notes that the cups of humans didn’t have the ability to hold sacramental wine, and they are discarded by the housewife once they have been broken. The persona cannot die with the beloved since there are many intruders who keep on looking on. In the same case, she points out that the world is full of intruders who constantly interfere with other people’s love affairs.


It is clear that it would require a century to analyze all Emily Dickinson’s poems. However, it is also obvious that Emily Dickinson’s poems are full of significant points that are applicable in almost all life experiences. The poetess makes use of varied poetic devices and writing styles to personify non-living elements so as to bring life’s issues to reality. She has used secret language to address sensitive issues such as death, love and selfishness among others.


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