Emily Dickinson. Her poetry as a way to make sense of the world

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2014

12 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

A. Introduction: Dickinson's approach to make sense of the world

B. Emily Dickinson: Influence and Strategies
I. Biographical, Historical and Cultural Facts
II. Poetic Themes and Strategies
1. Dickinson's Attitude towards Live, Love and Marriage Illustrated by Poem #199: “I'm “wife” – I've finished that”
2. The Relationship Between the Human and the Natural World Illustrated by Poem #328: “A Bird came down the Walk”
3. Dickinson's investigative Religious Poetry Illustrated by Poem #465: “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –”

C. Conclusion: Dickinson's Poetic Contribution to American Literature Works Cited

A. Introduction: Dickinson's approach to make sense of the world

As the first female poet who was included into the regularly male canon of poetry, Emily Dickinson is one of the few popular American poets of the 19th century. Another equally influential contemporary American poet may only be Walt Whitman, whose main work was the poetry collection Leaves of Grass of 1855.

Emily Dickinson's collection of poems contains nearly 1800 pieces. They cover a variety of different topics. The motifs of life, love, marriage, nature, faith and death run through her poems like a thread. Dickinson has her very own view on the human ability to make sense of the world. Looking at the world theologically more liberal than other contemporary authors, because she is estranged from religious beliefs, she doubts the ideals of adjustment and perfection and thus tries to attain truth by holding the view that the world is in constant progression.1

In order to describe this view appropriately, I will first of all give an overview of biographical, historical and cultural facts of Emily Dickinson. After providing this background information, I will introduce some of Emily Dickinson's poetic themes and strategies and analyse selected poems of her. The analyses are intended to underline my findings and serve to give an overview of the stylistic elements Dickinson uses to illustrate her view on the human ability to make sense of the world. I will conclude my outcome by explicating to what extent Emily Dickinson's poetry has been a poetic contribution to American Literature until today.

B. Emily Dickinson: Influence and Strategies

In the following, I will provide some biographical facts and background information on the historical and cultural circumstances, Emily Dickinson was influenced by during her lifetime. This serves to emphasize on the way in which she developed her very own approach to make sense of the world which she gradually secluded from. After that, I will analyse three selected poems of Emily Dickinson in order to turn out in how far she used poetic themes and strategies to attain her very own truth.

I. Biographical, Historical and Cultural Facts

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. She spent her whole life until her death in 1886 in this town. She never got married during her lifetime. Dickinson began writing poems when she was in her late twenties (cf. Byron 91). During this time, her mother fell ill and Emily started to isolate from the world outside her bedroom gradually (cf. Byron 92). Living in times of the Civil War, illness and death were omnipresent. In this way, Emily Dickinson was confronted with dying since her childhood (cf. Bennett 72). After the death of her parents in 1874 and 1882, “Dickinson became increasingly reclusive; in time, even old friends were not accepted as visitors” (Byron 92). It is not fully resolved why she decided to live a life in isolation but it can be assumed that it was a mixture of agoraphobia, an unrequited love to a man she called 'Master' in a series of romantic letters, and the escape from social obligations women during this time period were imposed upon in combination with the time she gained instead for writing (cf. Byron 92).

The point of social obligations leads me to the attributes of nineteenth-century American women and the way in which Dickinson opposed against this ideals in order to reach mental and spiritual freedom. Guided by the movement of Transcendentalism, women “were responsible for maintaining moral and spiritual values and for providing a haven from the strife of the world outside the home: their supreme virtues were considered piety, submissiveness, propriety and domesticity” (Byron 95). Dickinson disagreed with this part of the Transcendentalists' ideology. Her attitudes towards life, love and marriage were shaped by these doubts in many of her poems (cf. Byron 95). In the next part of the body of my term paper, I will investigate poem #199, called “I'm “wife” – I've finished that”, to illustrate her doubts referring to these topics.

Before the emergence of Transcendentalism, there was the literary and philosophical movement of Romanticism which started with the French Revolution in 1789 and ended around Emily Dickinson's year of birth. According to nature, Dickinson questioned the Romantics' and Transcendentalists' idea of the relationship between the human and the natural world insofar, as she regarded nature for example “as … completely indifferent in such lyrics as “Apparently with no surprise” (1624)” (Byron 94). Nevertheless, she appreciated the beauty of the natural world on its own just like the virtues of the human, material world. Different from the Romantics and the Transcendentalists, she was convinced of the existence of paradise on earth and did not search for it beyond the secular (cf. Byron 95). In order to turn out that for Dickinson the human and natural worlds existed on their own and without any mystical boundaries, I am going to analyse poem #328 (“A Bird came down the Walk”) in the subchapter after next.

Dickinson spent her youth during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement. This movement was marked by the purification of the English Protestantism from Roman Catholic influences. The so-called 'Elect' were predestined by God to salvation. Thus, Puritans had a very strict way of living in order not to be condemned. Dickinson grew up in an influential and well-educated Puritan family. After attending Amherst Academy for thirteen years, she went to a female school for one year, called Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she revolted against this imposed religious orientation (cf. Byron 93). “At Mt. Holyoke she had … stood up alone against her whole spiritual environment there” (Pollitt 51). Emily Dickinson's religious independence was also marked by the fact that she never converted. In this way, she was not eligible for membership in church. Nevertheless, her Puritan heritage formed the background for biblical topics and images in her poems (cf. Byron 94). “The question of religious faith remained a subject which preoccupied her throughout her whole life” (Byron 91) and “[h]er religious poetry is at once an exploration of key ideas: death, immortality and the nature of God, and a protest, vehement and passionate” (Bennett 20). With regard to faith and God, Vivian Pollack also states that “[i]f Dickinson were cling to faith, it had to be in a wounded God” (69). To illustrate the issues being presented, I will, as a last point of the body of my term paper, analyse Emily Dickinson's poem #465 (“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –“).

Although Emily Dickinson produced her work in isolation, it is unquestionable that she referred to the cultural and historical circumstances around her. Even though she never picked out central topical subjects like the aforementioned Civil War or the abolition of slavery, she addressed various important, sensitive and profound topics regarding the world outside her four own walls (cf. 93).2 In order not to get beyond the scope of my term paper, I will in the following analyse only three of Emily Dickinson's 1789 poems and give my careful consideration to life, love and marriage first of all, secondly to nature and thirdly to religion for the sake of underlining her approach to make sense of the world.

II. Poetic Themes and Strategies

Emily Dickinson's poetic strategies are different from those of other popular American poets of the 19th century. Typically, she uses common metre (a four-line sequence of alternating iambic trimeters and tetrameters) with the rhyme scheme abab or abcb. Rhythmically, she breaks up the metre by using long dashes, slant rhymes instead of exact rhymes and enjambment (cf. Byron 74). Another stylistic device which distinguishes Dickinson from other contemporary authors is her knowledge of the German language and thus the capitalisation of nouns. In order to create tonal impressions, she uses dashes very generously (cf. 72). Full stops, commas, exclamation marks, question marks or quotation marks are used, too, but only rarely. Thus, they also create great effect when used (cf. 73).

1. Dickinson's Attitude towards Live, Love and Marriage Illustrated by Poem #199: “I'm “wife” – I've finished that”

I'm “wife” – I've finished that –

That other state –

I'm Czar – I'm “Woman” now –

It's safer so –

How odd the Girl's life looks

Behind this soft Eclipse –

I think that Earth feels so

To folks in Heaven – now –

This being comfort – then

That other kind – was pain –

But why compare?

I'm “Wife”! Stop there!

(Johnson 94)


This poem obviously deals with a woman being married. At first sight, it seems like the speaker is very content with the fact of being a “wife”. But one can also read the poem like a subliminal message of doubting this institution. Glennis Byron also observes that Emily Dickinson is ambivalent concerning marriage (cf. 95).

In the first stanza, the nouns “Czar”3 and “Woman”, both capitalised, are comparisons for the non-capitalised noun “wife”. Dickinson seems to intend to underline that being a wife is a gift and leads to a fulfilled life. The quotation marks used with “wife” and “Woman” in combination with the different capitalisations serve to highlight those words and give the impression that only getting married makes a female human being a true, mature woman. The speaker repeats the word “that” in the first and the second line of the fist stanza which appeals to make her more content with her new state. But the last line of the first stanza gives a hint regarding the speaker's doubts about marriage. “It's safer so” does not compulsively imply the meaning of true security within marriage, but possibly the sense of social obligations and role ascriptions which bother the speaker enormously. The dashes in the first stanza of the poem appear to be placed very thoughtful. In the first line, the phrases “– I've finished that –” and “– I'm “Woman” now –“ are embedded in dashes presumably to indicate the speaker's doubts and procrastination while writing these lines. There is a dash at the end of each and every single line of the first stanza which might be a hint for the isolation a marriage can bring about in the speaker's sight. In the second stanza, there are only half as much dashes and therefore longer lines locatable. When the speaker addresses the alleged oddness of “the Girl's life” in comparison to a wife's life, she uses the metaphor “Eclipse” for marriage. The adjective “soft” in front of the metaphor seems to support the marriage tie, but an eclipse itself can indicate darkness and reclusion. It is possible that Emily Dickinson wants to highlight the wife's insignificance by the side of her husband through this metaphor. In the first two lines of the last stanza, there are dashes again. The phrase “– was pain –” is embedded in dashes again. This might be an indication for her doubts regarding her new state of being married. In the last two lines, Dickinson uses different punctuation. She asks “But why compare?”, which is a rhetorical question, standing for the fact that she prefers not to compare the state of being a girl with the state of being a wife any longer. Instead of dashes in the previous lines and stanzas, she also uses exclamation marks. It might be that the exclamation marks in the final line are a hint for her desperation and an attempt to cover her anxiety of subordinating herself to another. Furthermore, it is conspicuous that “wife” is non-capitalised in the very first line and capitalised in the very last line of the poem. The capitalisation in the last line could possibly stand for the illusive pride and greatness of being someone's spouse. Another special characteristic of the last stanza in comparison to the first two stanzas is the rhyme scheme. It changes from inexact slant rhymes to exact rhymes which might stand for the end of her girlhood, her autonomy and for the closure of the poem itself. The poem does not follow Dickinson's usual use of rhyme and metre which might also be a hint for her dissatisfaction. The rhyme scheme is aabb and the metre differs between iambic trimeter and iambic diameter. The iambic diameter occurs only in the first and the last stanza. Furthermore, an important feature to note is that every last syllable of all the lines of the poem is stressed. These masculine rhymes could also be an indication for male dominance and imperiousness.4


1 My arguments in this essay expand on Paula Barnett’s observations that “[t]he world which [Emily Dickinson's] poetry creates is a world in which nothing can be known for certain and in which, therefore, the ideals of order and perfection … give way to process and incompletion” and that “Dickinson uses her intellectual and poetic freedom to challenge traditional religious beliefs” (19).

2 I wrote part B.I in the past tense because I regarded it as contextually more logical to do so. In the following poem analyses and the conclusion, I switched from the past to the present tense again.

3 “Czar” was the emperor of Russia until 1917. More generally, “Czar” stands for someone in authority (cf. Byron 16).

4 My analysis partly bases on Glennis Byron's observations in Emily Dickinson, selected poems (cf. 14-16)

Excerpt out of 12 pages


Emily Dickinson. Her poetry as a way to make sense of the world
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglophone Studies)
A Survey of American Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
383 KB
Emily Dickinson, American Poetry, Term Paper Emily Dickinson, Emily Dickinson's Poetry
Quote paper
Nadine Rattey (Author), 2014, Emily Dickinson. Her poetry as a way to make sense of the world, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/294892


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Emily Dickinson. Her poetry as a way to make sense of the world

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free