Home Arts & Lit Discover… Emily Dickinson

Discover… Emily Dickinson


If you haven’t yet come across Emily Dickinson’s fascinating and innovative poetry, now’s your chance.

Photo Credit: Amherst College Library
Photo Credit: Amherst College Library

If you were asked to name pioneering female writers in the 19th Century, the likely names that first come to mind include Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Elizabeth Gaskell, and possibly poets such as Christina Rossetti. However, one writer who I believe is given was too little prominence is the poet Emily Dickinson. If you were to read Dickinson’s poetry, with no knowledge of authorship, the themes and style would be place her in a far more modern context. Maybe my personal dislike for Austen (controversial, I know, but I just cannot reconcile myself with the clinginess of females supposed to embody female autonomy!)

Her poetry is charectorised by extensive use of dashes, sporadic capitalisation and lack of titles – I love these idiosyncracies, for how they reflect her innovative and expressive style. She She was also astonishingly prolific, writing over a thousand poems in her lifetime and only having a handful published. I recently did an essay discussing the similarities between Dickinson and the Confessional Poets of the 1960s, as it is their unflinching self-reflexivity, which makes them such a compelling and emotive read. In poem #53, she describes how “God gave a loaf to every bird/But just a crumb to me” (#53), and it is the poignant simplicity of lines such as these, which really resonate with me. Her challenging of religious ideas, given her position as a cleric’s daughter, is quite remarkable. Moreover, in placing the “I” so explicitlyat the heart of her poetry, she boldly opposed the taboo ideas regarding ‘the self’, particularly in women.

emily dickinsonThe myth of Emily Dickinson has gained almost as much fame as her poetry, with the image of her as a spinster dressed in white. She is a highly intriguing figure, given the fearlessness exhibited in both writing and life; she never married, and refers in a letter to her ‘mentor’ Thomas Higginson as having “no tribunal”. She was an enigma, selecting “her own society” as she wrote, and remainted fiercly independent. This is illustrated in the conclusion of #53: “I deem that I — with but a Crumb —Am Sovereign of them all”, also displaying a refreshing degree of innocence in Dickinson, and contrasting to her more bleak poems such as “I could not stop for death”.

Potentially my favourite poem is one of Dickinson’s own. Although there are many poems that may be more complex in language and structure, every time I read this I do not fail to be amazed by how the images are at once so simple, yet provoke such an profound response. It is a piece that could be analysed exhaustively, exploring all the implied ‘greater meanings’ behind her words; however, I will end with just the opening lines, and encourage everyone to go and read the whole poem. If you want a 19th Century writer whose voice is on of true ingenuity, it can be found in Emily Dickinson.

“I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –“

Sophie Harrison

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