By the time Emily Dickinson was 35, she had composed more than 1,100 concise and powerful poems that astutely described the nature of love and art, pain and grief, joy and loss, the idea of heaven and the beauties of earth. She recorded about 800 of these in small handmade booklets (sometimes called “fascicles”), very private “publications” that she shared with no one.
Dickinson did share a portion of her poems with family and select friends whose literary taste she admired. Her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, received more than 250 poems throughout the two women's forty-year friendship; and to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her cherished correspondent (and editor after her death), Dickinson sent about 100 of her finest. The few poems published in newspapers during her lifetime were altered and printed anonymously—apparently without her prior consent. In 1863, her most prolific year, she wrote “Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man –.” During her life, most of her poems were known only to their author.
After her death in 1886, Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, found a chest of poetry in Emily’s bedroom. According to R. W. Franklin, this previously unread “mass of manuscripts” contained “forty fascicles, ninety-eight unbound sheets, and seven or eight hundred individual manuscripts.” In 1890, the family published the first volume of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, which met with surprising success: it went through eleven editions in two years. Other editions followed, all with Dickinson’s original words and punctuation either altered or omitted. Harvard University acquired the rights to Dickinson’s work in 1950. In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson published the first edition of Dickinson’s collected poetry that was faithful to the poet’s original manuscripts.
R. W. Franklin’s 1998 edition—titled The Poems of Emily Dickinson—is now considered the most reliable source. It contains all 1,789 of her known poems, including manuscripts and poems that have been identified since 1955.
“Truth is such a rare thing it is delightful to tell it,” Emily Dickinson once told Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and in 1,789 poems, she expresses her truth in ways often mysterious and elliptical.
Dickinson’s joy for the natural world pervades her work. Hundreds of poems express her inquisitive wonder at the sun, moon, sea, birds, flowers, bees, and butterflies. One example is “The Moon is distant from the Sea,” where she compares the relationship between the moon and sea to her feelings for one she calls “Signor.”
Dickinson describes turbulent psychological states—especially grief, passion, and mourning—with poignant metaphors that help articulate what cannot be literally stated. In the erotic poem “Wild nights—Wild nights!,” the compass and map are forsaken as the poet longs for her beloved. The poem “After great pain, a formal feeling—comes” conveys the abstractions of grief with powerfully evocative figurative language, for as anyone who has lost a beloved knows, nerves do “sit ceremonious, like Tombs” as the shock of tragedy sets in. When she says in another poem that “Crumbling is not an instant’s Act,” she describes the kind of despair that builds slowly, a state that time does not always heal.
This despair sometimes takes a spiritual form, and many of her poems deal with God, the Bible, and heaven in unorthodox ways. Despite social pressure during the fervor of the Second Great Awakening, Dickinson would not publically “declare for Christ” and stopped attending church with her family. But her poetry does not necessarily reject God or deny personal faith. A poem like “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—” may, upon first glance, appear to disavow the rituals of Sunday rest and worship. Instead, Dickinson actually says that she keeps this holy day, but at home or in her garden, rather than in a public place.
In contrast to her well-known contemporary Walt Whitman, who often dealt with larger issues of democracy or war in his poetry, Dickinson is a poet who describes inner states of mind. However, several of her lyrics composed during the Civil War years employ images of battle, including one popular poem “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed.” Despite an external “Victory” due to the acquisition of the enemy’s “Flag,” the poem paradoxically suggests that only those dying on the battlefield can hear a song of triumph.
If one mark of a great writer’s work is that it moves us to return to it again and again whether for enchantment, wisdom, or consolation then Emily Dickinson is surely one of our greatest writers. In her verse, we experience the “Transport” or pleasurable excitement that she herself looked for in poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way[?].”
"There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul —"
—Emily Dickinson, from "There is no Frigate like a Book"