Online Texts for Craig White's Literature Courses

Emily Dickinson

Styles, Subjects, Life

Poe, Dickinson, Whitman styles compared

Emily Dickinson (1830-86)
(daguerrotype taken app. 1846)

*The genre of Dickinson’s poetry is lyric poetry.” This term is also applicable to Poe, Whitman, and others. Contrast to dramatic poetry (Shakespeare) or epic poetry (Homer, Milton).

Dickinson's Styles         

“micro” or small-scale styles:

Gothic tones or stylings may be associated with Dickinson’s “legend” and with her subject matter.
Diokinson wouldn’t typically be called a gothic writer, but her poems often feature imagery or subjects that may be gothic,
e.g. light / dark, death, enclosed spaces, mysterious sounds.

paradoxical combinations of abstract / concrete figures or phrases; odd juxtapositions of differing dynamics or dimensions of thought;
e. g., "fainter hammers" . . . "quartz contentment" . . . "hour of lead" . . . "a Plank in Reason" . . .

sudden shifts of identity or metaphor--e.g. "Burglar! Banker--Father!"; "feathers . . . rowed . . . Oars . . . Butterflies" (compare ephemerality)

synesthesia (one sense interpreted in terms of another, as in hearing colors or seeing tastes): "Resonance of Emerald" (sound-sight mixed)

Personification of Nature or God—"He fumbles at your Soul"; "you may have met Him [A narrow Fellow in the Grass]"

“macro” or larger-scale structures:

4-line stanzas or quatrains—models may be church hymns as well as traditional English ballad forms, but always variable.

some "true rhymes" but more often "slant rhymes," "half-rhymes," "off-rhymes"; examples:

"pausing/kneeling; Gate/Mat";  "One/Stone"; "away/Civility"; "Ring/Grain/Sun";

dashes—variously thought to represent changes in rhythm, pauses, or beats, but no final or inclusive answer; the dash does whatever it does in one place, which may or may not be the same function in the next place.

definite beginning, open ending

Dickinson’s poems often begin with quite definite images and tightly organized syntax (or sentence forms). 

However, as the poems progress, they frequently “open up” in both style and subject. Images become less precise and more suggestive. Syntax, phrasing, and punctuation become freer or sketchier (often with more dashes). 



Overview of thought and style: Dickinson's poems are nearly always good but also original or unique, so no single theme or rule applies from one poem to another.

Dickinson's most consistent quality of thought and style is that—like her idea of God, Truth, or Being—her thought and style refuse to be pinned down or reduced to a single truth or technique. What is true in one place may not be true in another. Such a quality maintains poetic interest but also makes Dickinson's poetry hard to teach or test.

Terms for such an elusive or changeable quality include “ephemeral,” “evanescent,” “mercurial,” or "transient"—-that is, something that, as soon as you think you have it, gets away from you again. 

These qualities don't diminish Dickinson's high seriousness, as all serious poetry constantly explores new thoughts or feelings or ways to express the inexpressible. 

Dickinson's poetry continues to delight by consistently surprising the reader and by always evading a simple, final conclusion or meaning.

Instead of a simple wrap-up or moral lesson, Dickinson's poetry—like the greatest literature—continues to produce fresh meaning no matter how many times any of her poems is read.

Similarly, Dickinson's poetic technique can be ambiguous or amorphous as her poems' structures move back and forth between formal or fixed-verse and modern variations.

  • Formal or fixed-verse:

    • Her stanza forms mostly follow the four-line stanzas of the English ballad form, as do most popular songs even now. Dickinson probably learned the form through hymns at her family's church and through her wide reading in 19th-century poetry.

    • Dickinson's stanzas are mostly but not invariably regular, using iambic meter and an ABAB rhyme scheme.

  • Variations on formal or fixed verse:

    • Dickinson sometimes varies the length of her stanzas or the lengths of the lines. A series of 4-line stanzas may suddenly shift to a 5-line stanza, then resume the 4-line stanzas till the end of the poem.

    • Dickinson is most modern in her use of rhyme. Her poems often start with true rhymes, but the farther the poem develops, the more she experiments with half-rhymes, slant-rhymes, or sight-rhymes. Modern poets since Dickinson use partial or half-rhymes because rhyming "lightens" poetry too much, making it sing-songy and sugary in a way that discourages serious thought or feeling. Partial rhymes, on the other hand, are complex and ambiguous like poetic truth.

    • Dickinson also uses odd punctuation and mechanics to make her poems unpredictable and thoughtful, particularly the dash.

Dickinson's quirky variations on formal styles are widely thought to develop partly from her genius for experimentation but also partly from her isolation from contemporary publishing. Of the few poems she published in her lifetime, editors often revised her poems' punctuation (substituting more familiar punctuation for the dash), or they would normalized her expressions to avoid suggestiveness.

SUBJECTS of Dickinson's Poetry

  • confrontation or dalliance with death

  • mystical vision, sometimes expressed as sexual union (usually implied metaphorically)

  • nature as symbol of spirit  (correspondence)

  • intrusion of the infinite into everyday life

  • settings: garden, household, visions from window, church, tomb or coffin

  • casual or personal references to divinity or God

Dickinson's life or identity fascinates yet frustrates students of American literature, to the extent that many imagine a semi-fictional legend comparable to our popular visions of Edgar Allan Poe.

Dickinson homestead in Amherst MA

Born in 1830, Dickinson was a normal if precocious daughter of a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts, home of Amherst College, which her grandfather founded. Her father served as treasurer for the college, as a state legislator, and as a U.S. Congressman.

Dickinson attended the local Amherst Academy and, briefly, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning home after refusing to give testimony of her personal salvation. In her youth she attended parties with young men from Amherst College. Many biographers have speculated on potential love-interests in her life, but little evidence is available to relate particular persons or events with the subjects and passions of her poems. Feminist writers have speculated on same-sex relations within Dickinson's intimate circle.

As she matured, Dickinson became increasingly reclusive, and local people considered her eccentric. Few aside from family intimates--particularly her sister, her brother and sister-in-law--knew of her activity writing poems, sometimes more than one a day. Only a few were published in her lifetime, mostly following a correspondence with the American Renaissance editor and author Thomas Wentworth Higginson.

After Dickinson's death in 1886, Higginson and members of her family discovered her enormous production and began publishing them, usually heavily edited to conform to contemporary standards of punctuation and piety.

Painting: Children of Edward & Emily Norcross Dickinson
L-R: Emily (1830-86), Austin (1829-95), & Lavinia (1833-99)


Frustrated with these bare and unrevealing facts, readers become creative and fictionalize her life much as they do Poe's.

However, readers must beware of the biographical fallacy, the belief that a work of fiction or poetry must directly reflect events and people in the author's actual experience.

(Overall, Poe's and Dickinson's writings are far more interesting than their lives.)

Some features of the Dickinson legend:

Image of Emily Dickinson dressing all in white and staying in her room is potentially gothic—how?

What may puzzle modern Americans most about Dickinson is that her non-productivity in two ways we now define humanity.

  • She never had a money-earning job and never lived independently of her family.

  • She never married or had children.

Instead, she created art. In some regards her lifestyle may resemble that of nuns in medieval abbeys, which allowed women to have lives independent of marriage, child-bearing, and self-support. Compare Sor Juana de Cruz (1651-95) of Mexico / New Spain or Hildegarde of Bingen. (Some students will occasionally wish she had gotten married instead of writing all these poems they can't imagine wanting to read.)

Riddle Poems

A sub-genre of Dickinson’s lyrics are her “riddle poems,” which describe an object without directly naming it.  This ancient form derives from Anglo-Saxon poetry

Examples in Dickinson’s poetry:

[She sweeps with many-colored Brooms]

[It sifts from Leaden Sieves]

[I love to see it lap the miles]

[A narrow fellow in the grass]

[A route of evanescence]


Two examples of Anglo-Saxon riddle poems

(These are translations of riddle poems written in Old English or Anglo-Saxon in perhaps the 6th or 7th centuries AD/CE.)


I am greater than this world,

less than the worm, brighter than the moon,

swifter than the sun.  The seas, all the waters are

in my embraces and the bosom of the earth,

the green plains.  I touch the depths,

descend to hell, over-reach the heavens,

the native land of glory, reach widely

throughout the land of angels, fill the earth,

all the earth and sea streams,

by myself.  Say what I am called.


(answer: creation)


From Gregory K. Jember, trans. The Old English Riddles: A New Translation.  Denver, CO: Society for New Language Study, 1976, p. 38.


Silent is my garment when I tread the earth

or dwell in the towns or stir the waters.

Sometimes my trappings lift me up over

the habitations of heroes and this high air,

and the might of the welkin bears me afar

above mankind.  Then my adornments

resound in son and sing aloud

with clear melody—when I do not rest

on land or water, a moving spirit.


(answer: swan)

From Paull F. Baum, trans.  Anglo-Saxon Riddles of the Exeter Book.  Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1963, p. 22.


Dickinson homestead in Amherst MA