National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
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)

The writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the discussion questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided below.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis—that is, an argument or interpretation—about the poem or poems in question. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons to support its conclusion. The thesis and evidence should be supported by references to the text.

  1. Choose two poems in which Emily Dickinson looks closely at the natural world. Research her references to botany and biology, providing your own interpretation as a result of this knowledge.
  2. The popularity of poems such as “I felt a Funeral in my Brain” or “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –” have led some readers to characterize Dickinson as a morbid poet. Does she deserve this reputation? Why, or why not? How might the many deaths and losses she endured have affected her poetry?
  3. Give a historical reading of Dickinson’s poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” by finding out about the importance of the Sabbath day to nineteenth-century Christians. Research the Second Great Awakening to provide context for this semi-autobiographical poem.
  4. Read the poetry of some of Dickinson’s contemporaries, such as American poets Edgar Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Walt Whitman, or English poets Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Choose one poet and examine his or her style and themes. How is Dickinson like this poet? How is she different?
  5. Listen to Aaron Copland’s musical treatment of several Dickinson poems including “Because I could not stop for Death –.” Dickinson loved music and was a reasonably accomplished pianist. In what ways can Dickinson be considered a musical poet? What poetic devices does she use to bring musicality to her poetry?
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