Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Book Cover

Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

With Writing Prompts for Students

Edited by William E. DeLamater

Published by eReadia

Introduction by Heather Flood

Table of Contents
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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Editor's note: These poems were selected as the most accessed of Emily Dickinson's poems at several websites. The biographical introduction to the life of Emily Dickinson was written by Heather Flood.

Cover drawing courtesy of Wikipedia.

Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Introducing Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10th 1830. She was given the same Christian name as her mother, who before marriage was Emily Norcross. Her father Edward Dickinson had graduated from Yale, and had become a prominent lawyer and a politician. Her grandfather, Samuel Fowler Dickinson, had made his mark on the town of Amherst by founding Amherst College. Emily was born second, her elder sibling being William Austin (whom Emily would call ‘Aw’). Later a sister would join them, Lavinia. Emily therefore belonged to a well connected if not hugely affluent, but certainly comfortable, Massachusetts family. She, rather atypically, was to devote herself to what has been described as a largely hermit-like existence and to the craft of writing.

Emily grew up in a house built by Samuel, her paternal grandfather. Known as ‘the Homestead’, this was a substantial dwelling, added to by her father in 1855, and today a museum. It was to remain Emily’s home throughout her life, apart from a spell of a few years spent in a house in North Pleasant Street, in which Emily’s bedroom window had a view of the town’s cemetery. Here, frequent burials took place. Significantly, the theme of death recurs in Emily’s poetry.

Her first school was Amherst Academy where she spent seven years, commencing from the age of nine. Emily shone academically, studying Latin, classical literature, the works of Virgil, history, botany and mathematics. This was an uncommonly broad spectrum for the time. In early childhood she also took up piano and was considered to be very proficient.

Suffering several bouts of illness during those youthful years, Dickinson also had a keen awareness of death. She referred to it as the "deepening menace". One incident which left lasting mental scars was the loss of friend Sophia Holland, who was Emily’s second cousin. She died as a result of typhus. The grief displayed by Emily caused some alarm and led to one of her rare absences from home, when she was sent to Boston to stay with relatives. This episode meant that her studies at Amherst Academy were interrupted.

For a brief period, Emily was educated away from whom. Both she and her sister Lavinia became boarding pupils at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley. Emily embarked on her stay there at the age of seventeen but remained less than a year. No clear account survives to explain her premature departure from Mount Holyoke in 1848. Ill health and homesickness are both suspected of being the cause. At any event, it was her brother who was dispatched on a mission to collect her and bring her home.

Her serious poetry-writing career commenced upon her return to Amherst. This was interspersed with baking and other household pursuits.

The town of Amherst witnessed a religious revival in 1845, and this led to a large number of young people professing their Christian faith. Emily for a time was under the influence of this movement. During that period, she wrote: "I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior."   Her church attendance subsequently tailed off, as is demonstrated in the poem opening: "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – / I keep it, staying at Home".

One of the few journeys that she made occurred in 1855 when with her younger sister Lavinia Emily made a journey to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia. In the latter of these two cities Emily struck up another important acquaintanceship. This was with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. Later to be dubbed by her "my closest earthly friend", Wadsworth in 1860 came to Amherst to visit Emily. Many have speculated that he was the inspiration for certain lovelorn outpourings noticeable in poems written subsequently.

Among her formative influences there numbered a handful of older men who played the role of mentor. With members of the legal profession in the family, it is unsurprising that Emily formed a friendship with a young acquaintance of her father’s, the lawyer Benjamin Franklin Newton. He influenced the direction of her writing and wrote in a letter that he knew she would gain recognition. Sadly, Benjamin was among those friends who died prematurely.  

The public perception locally of Emily was of a reclusive young woman who frequently dressed entirely in white. Her chief companion was her dog, Pablo, a Newfoundland. She was to develop into a prolific letter writer and it was by this means that she conducted the majority of her friendships. Evidence from her letters suggests that she had a closer bond with her father Edward than with her mother Emily. There is much evidence to that she had a thorough grounding in a wide variety of literary texts, from the works of Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, Longfellow and contemporary writer Lydia Maria Child.

Meanwhile, in the now enlarged family home, Edward annually hosted a reception at the start of the Amherst College academic year which Emily attended. Emily’s very close friend Susan Gilbert married Emily’s brother in 1856. The couple spent their married life in a neighboring house, ‘The Evergreens’, presented to them by Edward, now also a museum.

Here, regular guests included Samuel Bowles who was editor of the Springfield Republican, and eminent writer and philosopher as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emily’s friendship with Bowles developed and critics have considered whether he is the romantic subject of some of her poems. Others with whom she exchanged letters throughout her life were, Abby Wood, Abiah Root and Jane Humphrey.

Also among her small circle of friends, and possibly also recipient of her affections, was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. He edited the Atlantic Monthly to which in 1862 Emily submitted four poems along with a letter appealing to Higginson to pay her the honor of giving them his consideration. Although he turned the works down at the time (and Emily herself claimed to have no desire for publication, saying it was as unnatural to her "as Firmament to Fin"), he subsequently did publish work by Emily, but only after her death.

This reflected the pattern whereby Emily Dickinson’s work was not recognized whilst she was alive. Just a handful of poems got published and this was done without her consent. Different sources disagree, but a figure of an incredible 1700 poems is often quoted as the approximate total number of poems written by this exceptional poetess. Although she was invited by Higginson to Boston, she declined, and they never met in person.

Emily Dickinson’s poems were unconventional. This explains in part why very few were published during the late Victorian era while she was alive. Those that were published were greatly altered by editors. Absence of titles, unorthodox punctuation and slant rhymes are some of the features that made her work quite innovative. The subject matter typically included death and the life beyond.

Similarly, her poems often took a stand that questioned the puritanical notions which surrounded her upbringing. Spiritual matters often form the subject matter and in that way she owed a debt to her heroes among the English poets, among them Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats. Her outspoken, unadorned and wryly sardonic manner in poetry made her a trailblazer during a period in US literature when the tendency was to write decoratively or sentimentally. Some commentators have struggled to reconcile the idea of her solitary hermit-like habits with the topics and styles found in her writing.

It is documented that Emily’s last trip away from the family home was to Boston during a protracted period from 1864 to 1865 when she stayed with cousins there and received treatment for an eye condition. She was sternly prohibited from reading or writing until recovery was complete. Circumstances meant that Emily soon became more restricted to her home environment, as her mother was now severely ill. She required nursing from her daughters up until her death in 1882. From approximately 1874, the year in which Edward Dickinson died, Emily was rarely to be seen outside the house and garden. Soon, all outings beyond the Homestead ceased entirely. Gardening, baking, letter-writing and her poetry became Emily’s sole pursuits.

Indeed, it is gardening that one her local admiration in Amherst. Her extensive botanical knowledge impressed local townsfolk. Her own set of 424 pressed flowers bound in a volume and carefully labeled testified to this accomplishment. Friends received poems with posies of flowers attached.

Emily was now battling with an at times disabling condition of the kidneys, Bright’s Disease, ultimately to be the cause of her death. From the mid 1860s onwards, it is reported that she only conversed with outsiders by speaking through a crack at the front door. Having endured a series of losses of people close to her – one of these being the wholly unexpected demise of the young principal of Amherst Academy – Emily faced another blow when in 1878. She lost not only her mother in 1882 but also her great friend Charles Wadsworth. Sadly too her only nephew, her brother’s child Gilbert died in 1883. At just fifty-six, Emily Dickinson died on May 15th, 1886.

Emily had expressly requested that her funeral not be a church ceremony. Her life-long home, The Homestead, was instead the venue where people gathered. Her grave is in Amherst Massachusetts’s West Cemetery.

It may seem surprising that prior to her death, Emily’s family seem not to have acknowledged the prolific body of work that she produced. Fortunately for readers ever since, her sister Lavinia uncovered her work, a breathtaking quantity of poems numbering close on 1700. Lavinia, on the other hand, carried out her sister’s instructions to burn most of the vast body of correspondence with friends and scholars.

As for the poetry, just four years after Emily’s death, it was to be her cherished friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson who was to publish her first collection. There were substantial alterations and revisions, in order to make the poems fit in with the tastes of the day. It was not until 1955 that original untouched versions of her poems were finally published in one collection. Finally, in the latter half of the 20th century, Dickinson received recognition as an American poet of note.

By Heather Flood

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I'm nobody! Who are you?

I'm nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there 's a pair of us — don't tell!
They 'd banish us, you know.

How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

 

After Reading:

1. Read the biography of Emily Dickinson and comment on how this poem could be seen as an explanation of her desire to live a private life. Also, comment on how the role of the poet in society is that of a "nobody." Why is the poet a "nobody" artistically?

2. Who do you think "they" are at the end of the first stanza, and why would they banish a "nobody" like the speaker of the poem?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Because I could not stop for Death

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the School, where Children strove
At recess in the ring
We passed the fields of gazing grain
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us
The dews drew quivering and chill
For only Gossamer, my gown
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the GROUND
The roof was scarcely visible
The cornice in the ground.

Since then 'tis centuries and yet
Feels shorter than the DAY
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

 

After Reading:

1. How does Dickinson personify Death in the poem? How does this personification lead to an extended metaphor?

2. What do you think the "house" in the next to last stanza represents?

3. What is the significance of Dickinson's idea of taking a journey with Death?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

There is another sky

There is another sky,
Ever serene and fair,
And there is another sunshine,
Though it be darkness there;
Never mind faded forests, Austin,
Never mind silent fields -
Here is a little forest,
Whose leaf is ever green;
Here is a brighter garden,
Where not a frost has been;
In its unfading flowers
I hear the bright bee hum:
Prithee, my brother,
Into my garden come!

 

After Reading:

1. Who is Austin?

2. What kind of "garden" is Dickinson describing, where "not a frost has been"?

3. What does the speaker hear among the flowers? Is it real?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I like to see it lap the miles

I like to see it lap the miles,
And lick the valleys up,
And stop to feed itself at tanks;
And then, prodigious, step

Around a pile of mountains,
And, supercilious, peer
In shanties by the sides of roads;
And then a quarry pare

To fit its sides, and crawl between,
Complaining all the while
In horrid, hooting stanza;
Then chase itself down hill

And neigh like Boanerges;
Then, punctual as a star,
Stop—docile and omnipotent—
At its own stable door.

 

After Reading:

1. When Dickinson's friends were preparing her poems for publication, they added the title "The Railway Train" to this one. What evidence can you find in the poem that supports this interpretation? What evidence argues against assigning that name to the poem?

2. Describe the use of personification in the poem.

3. Who or what is Boanerges? Why is that significant to the poem?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

The soul selects her own society

The soul selects her own society,
Then shuts the door;
On her divine majority
Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot's pausing
At her low gate;
Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling
Upon her mat.

I've known her from an ample nation
Choose one;
Then close the valves of her attention
Like stone.

 

After Reading:

1. How do the external circumstances of Dickinson's life parallel her discussion of the soul in this poem?

2. What does "divine majority" mean in this context?

3. What metaphor does Dickinson employ to describe the way that "attention" operates?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I 've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

 

After Reading:

1. What is the "tune without the words"? In a song, how do the melody and the words work together? Can you think of different words for a song that you like?

2. Again, Dickinson personifies an abstract concept. What is the nature of the personification here? How does the word "crumb" in the last line support this conceit?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

A narrow fellow in the grass

A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides;
You may have met him, — did you not,
His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,
A spotted shaft is seen;
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash
Unbraiding in the sun, —
When, stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people
I know, and they know me;
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone.

 

After Reading:

1. "His notice sudden is": Does Dickinson mean that the speaker notices the narrow fellow suddenly or that the narrow fellow gives notice suddenly? Why does the difference matter? Why is Dickinson not clear about what she means here?

2. If the speaker feels "cordiality" toward the things of nature, why does she feel "zero at the bone" when encountering this narrow fellow?

3. Write a description in your journal of a creature without mentioning its name. Share it with others to see if the description alone can give them enough clues to guess what you are talking about.

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I died for beauty, but was scarce

I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.

He questioned softly why I failed?
"For beauty," I replied.
"And I for truth, — the two are one;
We brethren are," he said.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

 

After Reading:

1. The English poet John Keats has a famous line that reads "Beauty is truth, truth beauty." How does Dickinson's poem bring this idea to life?

2. Dickinson is renowned for her use of small but telling details in her poetry. What image does the word "Adjusted" suggest in the second line? What other meaning might the word have in this context?

3. "We talked between the rooms": write a dialog of what the two might have talked about as they lay in the tomb.

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

Some things that fly there be

Some things that fly there be, —
Birds, hours, the bumble-bee:
Of these no elegy.

Some things that stay there be, —
Grief, hills, eternity:
Nor this behooveth me.

There are, that resting, rise.
Can I expound the skies?
How still the riddle lies!

 

After Reading:

1. Rewrite the first line of the third verse, filling in the missing words. Note the elliptical grammar of this line as another indicator of Dickinson's extreme economy with language.

2. Write a new poem that uses the first line of each stanza but offers your own examples of things that fly, that stay, and that, resting, rise.

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

I taste a liquor never brewed

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove's door,
When butterflies renounce their drams,
I shall but drink the more!

Till seraphs swing their snowy hats,
And saints to windows run,
To see the little tippler
Leaning against the sun!

 

After Reading:

1. Dickinson mentions "the drunken bee." In what way is the speaker of the poem "drunken"? Is Dickinson advocating the consumption of alcohol?

2. Where are the saints and seraphs watching from? What do you think they would think of the speaker's debauch?

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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

This is my letter to the world

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me, —
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

 

After Reading:

1. Compare this poem with the first poem in this collection: "I'm nobody! who are you?" How does this poem define Dickinson's stance on the relationship between the artist and her audience? The artist and society?

2. Who are the "countrymen" the speaker mentions in the second stanza? What anxiety does the speaker feel in addressing them?

3. Find another poem in this collection that could be described as treating the "simple news that Nature told." Why does the speaker call this "news"? Explain how this idea of Nature works in the poems of Emily Dickinson that you have read.