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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)

Dickinson's Bookshelf

Emily Dickinson's somewhat solitary life is often misunderstood. She was neither misanthrope nor recluse, and her days were often busy. When Thomas Wentworth Higginson asked her if she ever felt any "want of employment," she replied, "I never thought of conceiving that I could ever have the slightest approach to such a want in all future time." Despite her self-imposed restrictions, she had a close circle of friends, remained informed about current events, baked all the bread in the Dickinson household, performed works of charity, and considered her books "the strongest friends of the soul." She consistently read the Bible, Shakespeare, the poetry of John Keats, and the Brontës. Here are three of Dickinson's favorite books.

Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) [by Currer Bell, pseudonym]
The three Brontë sisters published their works of fiction under pseudonyms, as it was not considered appropriate for Victorian middle-class ladies to write novels. Jane Eyre remains a beloved classic and captures the struggles of a poor orphan who passionately longs for love and experience. Dickinson's poem that begins "All overgrown by cunning moss" refers to Charlotte Brontë's grave in Haworth, England.

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems (1847)
Emerson was primarily known for his lectures and essays, but this book became one of Dickinson's most treasured. Although Susan Dickinson entertained Emerson at least twice at The Evergreens, there is no record of a meeting between him and Emily. In 1878, Emily was shocked to learn that her poem "Success is counted sweetest" was published in a magazine—and attributed to Emerson.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh (1856)
In Aurora Leigh, the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning created a verse novel that chronicles the struggles of a woman who wants nothing more in life than to be a great poet. Political, controversial, and widely popular, the poem tackled the Victorian "woman question"—what is the proper role of women in society—in a way few other works dared to do. After Barrett Browning died in 1861, Dickinson wrote three poems in tribute to her.

Collected Poetry

The three-volume Variorum Edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998), is the most reliable edition of Dickinson’s collected poems. The paperback “Reading Edition” of this collection is suggested for readers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).

Selected Poetry

Recommended editions include Final Harvest, edited by Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Back Bay Books, 1964); The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Modern Library, 2004), which includes an introduction by Billy Collins; and Essential Dickinson (New York: Ecco, 1996), which includes an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.

Emily Dickinson’s Letters

Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958.

"I had a terror — since September — I could tell to none — and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground — because I am afraid [ . . . ]

You ask of my Companions Hills — Sir — and the Sundown — and a Dog — large as myself, that my Father bought me — They are better than Beings — because they know — but do not tell — and the noise in the Pool, at Noon — excels my Piano. I have a Brother and Sister — 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. They are all religious — except me — and address an Eclipse, every morning — whom they call their 'Father.' But I fear my story fatigues you — I would like to learn — Could you tell me how to grow — or is it unconveyed — like Melody — or Witchcraft?"
—Emily Dickinson, A Letter from Emily Dickinson to Thomas W. Higginson April 25, 1862

Biographies and Literary Criticism

  • Farr, Judith, with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.
  • Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
  • Longsworth, Polly. The World of Emily Dickinson: A Visual Biography. New York: Norton, 1990.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Visit the Poetry Foundation's website for a biography and bibliography of Dickinson, along with many of her poems.

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