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The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

by Emily Dickinson

I find ecstasy in living—the mere sense of living is joy enough.


Emily Dickinson, age 16 (Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections)

Note: All poems cited in this transcript are from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.) Copyright 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

The Poets light but Lamps -
Themselves - go out -
The Wicks they stimulate -
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns -
Each Age a Lens
Disseminating their
Circumference -

Josephine Reed: That was poet Mary Jo Salter, reading Emily Dickinson's “The Poets light but Lamps.” Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Now, poet and president of the Poetry Foundation, John Barr, discusses Emily Dickinson. It's part of our American Literary Landmarks Series, a celebration of the nation's great poets and the historic houses that informed their work. Here's John Barr.

John Barr: Welcome to American Literary Landmarks. Today we're going to talk about Emily Dickinson. From her private room in the town of Amherst, Emily Dickinson created an original body of poetry unlike anything else in American literature. Her poems, sometimes as cryptic as puzzles, are filled with surprising syntax, unexpected metaphors, and sublime paradoxes that, “tell the truth, but tell it slant.”

Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in the family home called the Homestead, on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. Emily was the second child in the family. Her brother Austin was a year and a half older, and her sister Lavinia was born a few years later, in 1833. Her father, Edward, was a prosperous, civic-minded attorney who had been educated at Amherst and Yale. He served in the Massachusetts state legislature, and was even a representative in the U.S. Congress for one term. Emily's mother and namesake, Emily Norcross Dickinson, maintained a busy household at the Homestead, raised the children, and supported the lives of her husband and family.

Of her parents, Dickinson wrote, “My mother does not care for thought, and father - too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind.” Emily's childhood was similar to many young girls of the age. Her schooling, however, was far superior to what most young women received in the nineteenth century.

She studied at Amherst Academy, an excellent secondary school, for seven years, before entering Mount Holyoke female seminary for a year. That was the longest time Emily ever spent away from family and friends.  

We don't know why she left the seminary after so short a time, but whatever the reason, Emily came back to live with her family for good.

In those days, young unmarried women were expected to take over the family's domestic duties, and this was no exception for Emily. Quote, “God, keep me from what they call ‘households,'” unquote, she wrote to a friend. Being the daughter of a prominent family, she would be expected to receive visitors, and visit others on behalf of her family. That was a task neither she nor her mother enjoyed, and Emily declined as often as possible.

When she was in her early twenties, Dickinson became serious about her writing. Her output was daunting and creative, her discipline rigorous. In letters to her brother, she mentions her ambition: quote, “I have dared to do strange things, bold things,” unquote. Since this spirit differed so from the roles expected of women in the era, she couched her desires in the language of temptation. Quote, “I have heeded beautiful tempters,” unquote.

Every great poet writes in a voice that is unmistakably his or hers. When we hear the high, tragic diction of Homer or Yeats, or the urgent but colloquial voice of Dante, who speaks to us in The Inferno as if we saw him on the street just yesterday, or the boisterous, almost overly familiar diction of Walt Whitman, we don't need to know the poet's name to know who it is speaking. Emily Dickson's voice is equally unmistakable. We hear it as if it is coming from the next room. It is a contemporary voice—quiet, contemplative, but also passionate. In fact, the voice is slyly provocative. It never plays into our expectations; rather, it uses the unexpected as a principal conversational tactic. The rhymes are there so we know it's a poem, but they are there sparingly. The rhythms are there, as well, but they are not mechanical, like a metronome. Her poems wear form, but they wear it lightly. They suffer form, but are not beholden to it. Take, for example, her poem “There is no Frigate like a Book.”

Mary Jo Salter reads...

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry -
This Travers may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll -
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul.

John Barr: This poem by Emily Dickinson allows us to watch a great poet at work. It's a poem many Americans have seen or heard, even if they don't read poetry or are not sure who wrote it. As much as any single poem, it is “out there” in American culture. This little poem has eight lines, and it rhymes with every other line, so the rhymes would be “away,” “Poetry,” and “Toll,” “Soul.”

There are no difficult words in the poem; they come out of our everyday speech. But the words themselves are noticeably energetic. In that first line, it's not a sailing ship, but a “Frigate,” a distinct word for a specific kind of sailing ship. And it's not just any carriage horses, but “Coursers.” We know it's a poem we're hearing, and not prose, because the lines are metrical. They have a recurrent iambic beat. In a nice touch, those first rhymes do not close down their lines at the end. The word “away” is just the open vowel sound you want to express, in terms of sound, the open-ended possibilities of travel. Like any good poem, the sound in the line should reinforce the thought in the lines.

On a first hearing, the poem has the tidy feel of an epigram, with that strong closing rhyme of “Toll” and “Soul.” And indeed, the argument of the poem seems straightforward, or at least it does for the first four lines.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry -

John Barr: The voice in those lines is buoyant and confident, as it has searched the power of books to “take us lands away.” For Emily Dickinson, who lived from birth to death in Amherst, Massachusetts, reading was world travel, and something she did from childhood on. So far, so good. But in the second four lines of the poem, things get complicated. The poem becomes “Dickinsonian.”

Mary Jo Salter reads...

This Travers may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll -
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul -

John Barr: It may take a couple of readings, but we can figure out what the poet wants us to understand. Reading a book is the kind of travel even the poorest of us can undertake without suffering the expenses of physical travel. But why “Travers”? “Travel” is the obvious word, and scans just as well as “Travers.” We could say: “This Travel may the poorest take without oppress of Toll.” But the word “Travers” resonates differently. “Travers” is what planets do in the night sky.

And where “Travel” carries the thought of leaving home, going out somewhere to have an adventure and coming back again, “Travers” does not necessarily include the return trip. “Travers” can be a journey from one place or state of being to another, without the thought of coming home. Suddenly the poem is talking about something more than armchair travel.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul -

John Barr: The closing lines of this poem leave us watching the transit of the human soul through life. A Dickinson poem never gives us pat answers. Her individualism is characteristic of transcendentalists, a movement in the mid-nineteenth century whose geographic center, Concord, Massachusetts, was not far from her home. Many of its proponents were visitors to the Homestead, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Dickinson read avidly.

Emily Dickinson lived in tumultuous times. Her lifetime encompassed the Civil War, as well as successive waves of religious awakening that swept America in the nineteenth century. Inspired by the Concord transcendentalists, she challenged the existing orthodoxy of poetry and religious beliefs. The narrators of her poems are confident, first-person speakers, who proclaim the power of the individual conscience, rather than the dogma of organized religions.

Emily's response to organized religion was to keep her distance, although in her poetry, she is personally and deeply concerned with the questions that religions address. In her painful shyness, which later in life became a phobia, she declined to go to church in a small town where everybody went to church. Here is her answer to the social pressures that she must have felt.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying at Home -  
With a Bobolink for a Chorister -  
And an Orchard, for a Dome -  

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice -  
I, just wear my Wings -  
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,  
Our little Sexton - sings.  

God preaches, a noted Clergyman -  
And the sermon is never long,  
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last -  
I'm going, all along.

John Barr: Dickinson was a locally renowned gardener, and that comes into the first stanza: “With a Bobolink for a Chorister - and an Orchard, for a Poem.” Dickinson’s high wit is also at work in the poem: “Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice - I just wear my Wings.” Do those wings make her another bobolink in the orchard, or is she teasing, tongue-in-cheek, that she is an angel, and therefore above the fallen mortals in town, who do need to go to church? The final stanza of the poem borders on the wickedly funny. She calls God “a noted Clergyman,” whose “sermon is never long,” unlike the ones in church. The poem ends with what turns out to be a tightly reasoned argument on why God is better found in a garden than a church: “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last - I’m going, all along.”

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were contemporaries, but they never met. A comment in one of her letters suggests that Emily was aware of Whitman’s book Leaves of Grass, and did not approve of it. Whitman was unaware of Emily Dickinson, but then so was everybody else. If one imagines the two together on a stage, I fear that Emily Dickinson would have seemed quite diminutive, even elfin, compared to the barbarian standing next to her. Her intimate voice was not for big theaters, whereas Walt addressed the universe with a capital “U” when he spoke; where he declaimed, she whispered. But in the matter of literary reputations, forever is a long time. Today the two stand with equal stature as the father and mother of the American poetry that followed.

Emily Dickinson never married. Uncomfortable with large crowds, even the august assemblies in church and school eventually grew to be too much. By the end of her twenties and for the rest of her life, she had withdrawn from contact with all but immediate friends and family. But the intensity and passion inside of her did not abate. They found their outlet in the poems, sometimes written at the rate of one per day, and in her correspondence. We know from a few of the letters that she drafted that Emily held a fierce attachment, both emotional and physical, for an unidentified man addressed in her letters only as “Master.” Like the woman and the man in Shakespeare’s sonnets, the Master in Emily Dickinson’s poem is not known and may never be.

He appears again, this time as “Signor,” in this beautiful love poem.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

The Moon is distant from the Sea -
And yet, with Amber Hands -
She leads Him - docile as a Boy -
Along appointed Sands -

He never misses a Degree -
Obedient to Her eye -
He comes just so far - toward the Town -
Just so far - goes away -

Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber Hand -
And mine - the distant Sea -
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me -

John Barr: As the moon exerts its nightly gravitational pull on the ocean tides of a coastal town, so does the Master exert his attraction on Emily, and she responds like the tide—precisely, exactly obedient to its command.

In 1874, her father passed away, and her mother’s death followed in 1882. That same year, her friend, Judge Otis Phillips Lord, proposed to her. Dickinson declined, and chose to remain at the family home. She became ill in 1883, and remained in poor health until her death on May 15, 1886, at the age of 55.

Only a handful of poems, fewer than a dozen, were published during Emily Dickinson’s lifetime, and some of these may have been without her knowledge or consent. Ironically, that anonymity has made Emily Dickinson the patron saint—or should I say matron saint—of all yet-to-be-, or perhaps never-to-be-published poets. Dickinson had a complex relationship to fame. She understood well the worth of her poetry, but that knowledge struggled against her inability to promote or even to present her poems to editors and to the public. That self-enforced self-effacement makes her the special friend of poets who write privately, or who have an aversion to self-promotion. Quote, “I’m nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody, too?” Unquote.

After her death, relatives discovered 40 hand-bound volumes totaling almost 1,800 poems. Four years later, the first volume of her poetry was published, and found an immediate audience with the reading public. It sold through six printings in six months, and eleven editions were printed in less than two years. Her work has been in print ever since. Her example permits unknown poets to believe in their work in spite of the world’s neglect, and to live in hope.

Emily Dickinson’s impact is no less powerful with today’s most published poets. She is the only modern poet I know of to occasion an anthology not of poems by her, but of poems addressed to her, or inspired by her from other poets. Emily Dickinson could not have died feeling like a success, but the sustained influence of her original thought, inventive language, and unusual meter and rhyme helped to change the course of American literature.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

Come slowly - Eden!
Lips unused to Thee -
Bashful - sip thy Jessamines -
As the fainting Bee -

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums -
Counts his nectars -
Enters - and is lost in Balms.

John Barr: One mark of great poets is that they have something to tell us at each stage of our life. We never outgrow them. The poems of William Butler Yeats, who became a literary hero to me when I was 19, have continued to illuminate each decade of my life as I grew up and grew older. The same is certainly true of Emily Dickinson. She’s the older friend the lovesick teenager needs to hear, and when a death in the family comes upon us, she is there as the most precise poet on grief in the English language.

For the poet that lives in many of us, the writer we would like to be, she articulates the mistrust of fame and the anguish of anonymity. If you’re unfamiliar with the work of Emily Dickinson, read, or better, listen to these poems as if you were listening to a close friend, someone you have known since childhood, from whom there are no secrets, who is clearheaded, inquisitive, passionate, and yes, at times difficult, as close friends can be. But this is a friend who has greatness of mind. Watching that remarkable intelligence at work in the poems, we can better make our own approaches to these unanswerable questions: Does life continue after death? And if not, is love perhaps the only human response to the fact of our mortality? She offers no glib or easy answers, but she wonders about them aloud as compellingly as any poet I know.

Mary Jo Salter reads...

Of Glory not a Beam is left
But her Eternal House -
The Asterisk is for the Dead,
The Living, for the Stars -

Josephine Reed: Thanks for joining The Big Read. The program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. This introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson has been made possible in part with support from the Poetry Foundation. It was written and Narrated by John Barr. Mary Jo Salter read the poetry of Emily Dickinson. The assistant producers were Adam Kampe, Liz Mahaffey, and Pepper Smith.

Excerpts from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 28 in A major, performed by Seymour Lipkin, used courtesy of Newport Classic, Ltd. Excerpts from the following compositions used courtesy of Naxos of America, Incorporated: Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E-flat major, and Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, performed by Alexander Rudin; Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartets No. 2 in G major, No. 3 in D major, and No. 8 in A minor, all performed by the Kodaly Quartet; Beethoven’s Violin Sonatas No. 5 in F major, and No. 9 in A major, performed by Yano Yondo and Takako Nishizaki; Edward MacDowell’s "To a Wild Rose" and "To a Water Lily", from Woodland Sketches; "To the Sea" and "From a Wandering Iceberg" from Sea Pieces; and "An Old Garden" and "With Sweet Lavender" from New England Idylls, all performed by James Barbagallo.

Thanks to Ted Libbey and Erika Koss, with a special thanks to Jane Wald, executive director of the Emily Dickinson Museum. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m the executive producer, Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening. For more information about The Big Read, go to www.neabigread.org. That’s www.neabigread.org.

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