An Overview of the Poetry of Emily Dickinson



Very little is known about Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) other than that she had a normal rearing in a Calvinist, New-England background; that at school she formed some extravagant attachments, and, at the age of 23 she cut herself off from the outside world, except for some correspondence with a few friends.  She spent years without putting her foot outside the grounds of her house and yet, like Hopkins, she made a huge contribution to the world of literature after her death.  With her contemporary, Walt Whitman, she helped to usher in a new age of poetry.  No one is sure why she resorted to live a life of seclusion; some say, without much proof, that she had an unhappy love affair; perhaps she did so from choice.  Judgement of her work is often made in an atmosphere of wonder, similar to that of judges of Shakespeare’s work: ‘How could this country boy from Stratford have written such plays?’  However, having studied her work, I’m sure you’ll agree that she had a unique perspective on life, death, love, nature and friendship.  She didn’t use titles for her poems, she didn’t need them because her lines spoke volumes and  still speak volumes to us today.

She was a Calvinist, living in a narrow New England society, but she did not accept the Puritan idea of a frightening, punishing god: she was rather a mixture of Puritan and free-thinker, but she never doubts an after-life, although she is terrified of its nature.  Indeed, the number of her poems about death is remarkable.  She was terrified of its uncertainties.  In spite of the Calvinism in her upbringing she could say, ‘That bare-headed life under grass worries me like a wasp.’  She had, despite her reclusive nature, a morbid passion (obsession?) for writing letters of condolence and was always probing into the morbid details as to how a person died.  She was obsessed by death, ‘goings away’.  At times she seems to be looking at her own death in anticipation.  But all the time she writes as an observer.  But this pre-occupation, with its horrible uncertainties and its doubts about immortality, gave us her best works.

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