This Is My Letter to the World

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This Is My Letter to the World

Emily Dickinson c. 1862

Author Biography

Poem Text

Poem Summary

Themes

Style

Historical Context

Critical Overview

Criticism

Sources

For Further Study

“This Is My Letter to the World” is believed to have been written in 1862, the year during which Dickinson first began to share her poetry with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a minister, writer, and editor who had a special interest in struggling young writers. Although Higginson was not successful in helping Dickinson present her work to the world during her own lifetime, he did offer her advice and personal support throughout her prolific writing career. This poem was finally published four years after Dickinson’s death, in a collection edited by Higginson called Poems by Emily Dickinson.

It is usually unwise to assume that the poet is the same as the speaker in a poem; however, “This Is My Letter to the World” is strikingly descriptive of Dickinson’s literary career. Although Dickinson wrote some 1,800 poems, only seven of them were published in her lifetime, and those were all greatly altered by editors who did not always comprehend Dickinson’s unconventional poetic style. Dickinson may have been frustrated by the poor reception that her work received from her contemporaries, but she also seemed to recognize that true genius is often misunderstood in its own time. As the poem indicates, Dickinson kept writing her poetry with the confidence that some day its proper audience would discover it.

Author Biography

Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather

was the founder of Amherst College, and her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political offices. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister, Lavinia, while her elder brother, Austin, and his wife lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.

Poem Text

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me—
The simple News that Nature told—
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed               5
To Hands I cannot see—
For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—
Judge tenderly—of Me

Poem Summary

Lines 1-2

In these lines, the “letter” is a written message, quite possibly meaning this poem or a whole body of poetic work. The letter is addressed to the world, which could be the planet Earth or the whole natural universe; the reading public or the whole human race. It is not clear which specific meaning is intended here, and it is possible that all these meanings are implied. The letter is unrequited, for the speaker never received any letters from the world. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the experience of the artist who is lonely and misunderstood. If the speaker is writing poetry, perhaps the world, or the public, has never appreciated the poet’s unique talents and creative vision. However, the speaker is not discouraged. Even if the communication is in only one direction, it still continues.

Lines 3-4

Here, the speaker humbly stresses the simplicity of the “news,” or new information, contained in the writing. The speaker goes on to claim that the letter’s contents were inspired by the “tender

Media Adaptations

  • There are a variety of recordings available of fellow poets reading Dickinson’s work. Audio cassettes include “Fifty Poems of Emily Dickinson,” “Dickinson and Whitman; Ebb and Flow,” “Heaven Below, Heaven Above,” “The Enlightened Heart” and “Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson,” all of which are available from the Audiobooks.com website.

Majesty,” or delicate power, of nature itself and not by the author’s will alone. If the speaker is an artist, then this statement is in keeping with the philosophy that art is an imitation or celebration of the natural world, and that the artist’s will has less to do with the creative process than the powers of creation itself. In other words, nature and the whole of creation speak through the artist’s work. This surrender of power can be seen both positively and negatively, for it can mean that the speaker accepts the role of the godhead in all human creativity, or it can mean that the speaker is afraid to take responsibility and risk misunderstanding and ridicule.

Lines 5-6

In the first line of the second quatrain, the pronoun “Her” refers to nature, in this case perhaps Mother Nature. The poem’s speaker has captured nature’s message in poetry, and that message is “committed,” or delivered for safe keeping, to “Hands” that the speaker will never meet. Here, “Hands” is an example of a figure of speech called synecdoche, for the whole future generation of possible readers is represented by their hands alone. This “letter” is the speaker’s legacy to posterity, and it is a great act of faith to leave one’s art to the care of strangers.

Lines 7-8

The poem ends with the speaker pleading to “Sweet—countrymen,” or future readers, for a compassionate understanding of the “letter to the world.” The speaker makes this appeal in the name of nature itself, as it is nature who is the inspiration behind the work. This request is almost pitiful, for it seems to predict a potentially negative reaction from readers. It asks the reader to think of the speaker’s predicament and to show mercy accordingly.

Themes

Alienation and Loneliness

One of the central themes of “This Is My Letter to the World,” is alienation; many readers agree that the poem seems to be written by a speaker who has waited so long for outside contact she finally decides to complete the message for herself. The poem, like many found after her death, balances a love for solitude with a loneliness for outside contact, or as Dickinson says of herself in another piece, it is a “Joy to be Hidden but a Disaster not to be Found.”

During Dickinson’s time and still today, the act of writing can be a lonely process. She did not care about being published, a process that involves sending poems out to a magazine editor you have never met and waiting months for a response. A majority of her communication with other human beings was done through letters, so it seems a natural metaphor for Dickinson to use in representing her alienation—writing a letter to the world after waiting a whole life for the world to write her first.

Unlike Whitman, who populated his poems with the many individuals he knew and observed during his lifetime, Dickinson’s poem is devoid of individuals. Instead she writes from a point of view so isolated from her readers we appear small on her world’s horizon, a mass of “Sweet—countrymen.” Dickinson, typically awkward with human contact, even seems to diminish her own poetic role as a creator in the poem, referring to herself instead as a kind of journalist reporting “the simple news that nature told.”

Art and Experience

Many critics consider this speaker’s “letter to the world” a metaphor, or analogy, for the role of art itself as a message from poet to reader, dancer to audience, painter to those who stand and gaze with arms crossed. How many times have you heard the question “what is art?” Unlike the cliche answer—that there is no answer, only something to be pondered over espresso in museum coffee shops—a simple but accurate response may be that

Topics for Further Study

  • Dickinson packs whole volumes of interpretation into a poem the size of a matchbook. Although she wasn’t known to read Japanese haiku, her ability to “spread out” in such a small space is reminiscent of the three-line form. Read Basho’s “Falling upon Earth,” included in Volume 2 of this textbook series. Which poem do you feel is more effective at expressing the poet’s emotions? Why? Discuss your answers.
  • Write your own letter to the world, in paragraph form, speaking to a reader who will find your note 50 years after your death. Fill more than half a notebook page. Then go back and circle the phrases and lines which surprised you the most while you were writing, and “cut and paste” these into a poem on a separate sheet. The poem must fit in two quatrains (four-line stanzas) and each line may not exceed seven words. Proper punctuation is strictly prohibited except for the use of a long dash (—). Compare your results and discuss.

it is a form of communication between two human beings. Or more specifically, an inside person speaking to another inside person. The most powerful art is that which carries an emotion from deep within one person and places it quickly and honestly into another at an equal emotional depth. In “This is My Letter to the World,” Dickinson imagines that other person, her reader, as “Hands I cannot see,” distant and hidden, but open and waiting nonetheless for the letter. This image of hands may remind us of another of her poems, in which she describes writing poetry as “spreading wide my narrow hands / To gather Paradise.” These same narrow hands, in turn, carry paradise to us, her anonymous readers.

The common poetic device of “metaphor,” literally takes its meaning from the Greek meta, “over, across, behind,” and phoreo, “to bring, carry, bear.” If you travel to Athens, you can watch the huge moving company vans with the word metaphora lettered across their sides grow smaller down the street. So art carries its heavy cargo of emotions from one human to another, a package delivered from narrow hand to narrow hand. There is risk involved in art as well, the artist’s emotions gathered from such a personal center, so easily bruised. Perhaps any artist’s biggest fear is to have one’s work rejected or ignored. Dickinson ends this poem with perhaps this same fear, evident in the form of a plea for us to please receive the news she reports from Nature, but “For love of Her—countrymen—/ Judge tenderly—of Me.”

Style

“This Is My Letter to the World” is a lyric written in two quatrains, or four-line verses, arranged in alternating lines of eight and six iambic syllables, the so-called common meter of the English hymns Dickinson knew from childhood. The uncomplicated syllabic and rhyme systems of common meter allowed Dickinson to showcase the power of language without distraction, and more than half of her published poems employ this traditional hymn form.

The poem rhymes in the second and fourth lines of each stanza with words that share a common long “e” sound, including a repeated “Me,” and there are other echoing “e” sounds throughout. Dickinson’s abundant use of consonants, another device that enhances her rhyme, is demonstrated in the poem’s many “s,” “t,” “n,” and “d” sounds.

Historical Context

Emily Dickinson may be one of the few poets we read today who seems to resist her historical context, yet for that same reason she is one of the most personally accessible. With some poets, our full understanding of their work depends heavily upon our understanding of the historical and cultural context surrounding it before each line can expand like thin sponges dipped in water. Our understanding of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” for example, grows as we learn about the conservative political environment of America in the 1950s; similarly, our reading of Gwendolyn Brooks is informed greatly by our understanding of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

Compare & Contrast

  • 1862: Congress passes the Homestead Act, which gives 160 free acres of Western land to any individual who could productively farm the soil for five years. The arid climate and nutrient-poor soil proved stubborn to yield produce, and many farmers failed.

    Today: Many Western farmers successfully raise cattle on the difficult land, though some feel government regulations today hinder their ability to conduct their farming.

  • 1862: President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that on January 1, 1863, that all persons held as slaves in the United States would be free.

    1865: Freedom of slaves did not actually take effect until the Confederacy was defeated in the Civil War. Almost immediately, laws were enacted that required blacks to be treated differently than whites in almost all social circumstances.

    1964: After increasing gains made in the cause of equality, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 put an end to legal discrimination in public accommodations, unions, and federally funded programs.

    Today: We have laws to punish racial discrimination, although American attitudes still show extreme racial consciousness.

But Dickinson, who rarely left her small village of Amherst and, later in her life, never left her small room in her father’s house, wrote poems with far more inward vision than out. The extent of her seclusion was to the point that when her father died in 1874, she did not attend his funeral; rather, she listened to the service at the nearby cemetery through a window in her upstairs bedroom. She would write many poems about death in that room, having listened to numerous funerals sitting at her desk by the window, though she would never reveal the source of that procession or the Civil War that raged in the South during her lifetime. The context surrounding Dickinson was simple: wooden chair, white dress, a fly buzzing against a glass pane. Her gaze was deeply inward, and in the closely held mirror of her poetry, we perhaps find it easiest to see ourselves.

Many critics categorize Dickinson with Walt Whitman, another poet living and writing at the same time, though the two never met or even acknowledged each other’s existence. Some critics call them the parents of American poetry as we know it today. In the late 1850s, during the same years Emily Dickinson scratched out “This Is My Letter to the World” (the poem itself on the page no larger than a matchbook), bundled it tightly with the other hundreds of poems and tucked it into a corner chest in her room, Whitman was writing, self-publishing, revising, and publishing again his manifesto-length “Song of Myself.” Both poems come from the same autobiographical center and aim themselves directly at the reader; Emily’s a quick arrow, Whitman’s a sawed-off shotgun blast: he would publish seven different editions of the poem during his lifetime. When Dickinson’s friend and future editor Thomas Westworth Higginson wrote to ask her if she had read Whitman’s work, she replied “You speak of Mr. Whitman—I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.”

We do know from the same exchange of letters that she did read Keats, Browning, Ruskin, the Book of Revelation, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. From Emerson we can guess she gained her eagerness to treat Nature as an emblem. Most of our understanding of Dickinson’s life is through the collected correspondences with Higginson. Through these letters we have a glimpse inside her quiet life and the few delicate relationships she tended. That one act of courage on her part in writing Higginson and including a few of her poems—her first “Letter to the World”—initiated a correspondence which would grow to reveal a patchwork of the life of whom William Carlos Williams would later call his “Patron Saint” of poetry.

Critical Overview

“This Is My Letter to the World” has received special attention from critics because of the verse’s apparent relevance to Dickinson’s career as a writer. The great Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson, editor of the first complete edition of Dickinson’s poetry and author of the influential book Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, views the poem as one of Dickinson’s “verses on the function and status of the poet.” According to Johnson, the poet is “blessed, but isolated,” performing the role of an interpreter of nature for the benefit of the world from which she is alienated.

A second critic, William Robert Sherwood, examines the poem more closely in his book Circumference and Circumstance. According to Sherwood, the poem illustrates Dickinson’s decision “to avoid the complications of notoriety, to trust to fame.” Sherwood believes that Dickinson’s religious background influenced her decision to avoid seeking popularity in her own lifetime. He explains that “the distinction Emily Dickinson made between fame and notoriety” relates to “the Puritan discrimination between the elect and the unregenerate.” In the Puritan tradition, the elect are those chosen by God, and the unregenerate are those who have not been spiritually reborn and who seek their approval from other people instead of from God. In addition, Sherwood argues that Dickinson was far too dedicated to her art to sacrifice her integrity in order to achieve public success. Because Dickinson felt that great art is divinely inspired, “the very source of poetry made its exploitation a sacrilege.”

Inder Nath Kher, in his book The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, believes that the poem illustrates a paradox, or seemingly contradictory statement. Kher explains that “the artist withdraws from his fellow men into the world of art, only to enter more deeply into dialogue with humanity.” For Kher, the poem represents the difficult decision that the artist makes when choosing “the tragic position of being neglected by the world she aims to transform.” Later in his book, Kher goes on to explain that the poem illustrates “the importance of creative self-reliance” and teaches the reader that one must first acquire self-knowledge before attempting to know the world.

Criticism

Chris Semansky

Chris Semansky teaches writing and literature at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon, and is a frequent contributor of poems and essays to literary journals. In the following essay, Semansky discusses how “This Is My Letter to the World” provides insights into Dickinson’s poetic identity and philosophy.

Written in 1862, the year she tackled the subject of poethood in many of her verses, “This Is My Letter to the World” provides us with a glimpse into how Dickinson thought about the art of poetry and about her own identity as a poet.

In his Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose, David Higgins notes that for Dickinson the act of letter writing and of composing poetry were virtually interchangeable: “When she wrote letters she chose appropriate fragments and worked them into her prose. Sometimes the letter as a whole would pass through two or more drafts before it satisfied her. Meantime she would have chosen poems from the scrap basket or from her ‘packets’ and fitted them also into her letter. The final writing—the letter her correspondent actually received—might look spontaneous, but it was the last of several creative stages.” Letter writing is frequently an intimate act, even more so in the mid-nineteenth century. That Dickinson used the genre of the letter as a kind of model for some of her poems (and vice versa) gives us an idea of the intimate relation she had to writing both letters and poetry.

Rather than a complaint that she was ignored by others, Dickinson’s opening lines must be read as a statement of faith. The “world” for Dickinson is not society or friends or her family, but rather an imagined space in which her relationships to these entities are negotiated, but never defined. A virtual recluse in her father’s house, Dickinson derived much of her emotional sustenance from her correspondence. In his Emily Dickinson, critic Paul Ferlazzo writes:

What she may have lost in the spontaneity and warmth we associate with lively human exchange, she made up for with a deepened verbal precision and psychological investment. In some cases she was able to carry on a more enriching emotional communication through the mail than many of us are able to do in our more immediate face-to-face contacts. She seemed to thrive on the power of the disembodied idea, on the essence of the mind captured on paper and unemcumbered by matter.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Walt Whitman, who lived and wrote during the same period as Dickinson, handled similar themes in an entirely different style. His Leaves of Grass, a book-length poem, is widely available and anthologized.
  • It was common practice for publishers to freely edit and change a writer’s poems before going to print; in some cases, as with Dickinson, what readers viewed barely resembled the poems as she intended. When Harvard University acquired the rights to the Dickinson estate in 1950, they published the poems true to the original manuscripts. All 1775 poems are available in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, published by Little, Brown and Co.
  • A good deal of biographical insight into Dickinson’s life can be discovered by reading The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas Johnson and published in 1958 by Harvard University Press.

Indeed, brevity and intensity mark Dickinson’s letters and poems. She put so much of her life into her writing that the argument could be made that language is the real house in which Dickinson lived, not the white-shuttered house in Amherst where biographers and historians locate her. Dickinson corresponded with more than one hundred people during her life and developed elaborate rituals, not only for writing letters but for reading them as well. She describes her own finely tuned ritual of letter reading in “The Way I read a Letter’s—this—”:

The Way I read a Letter’s—this—
’Tis first—I lock the Door—
And push it with my fingers—next—
For transport it be sure—
And then I go the furthest off
To counteract a knock—
Then draw my little Letter forth
And slowly pick the lock—

The elaborately precise detail of Dickinson’s description, a staple of her verse, demonstrates an almost obsessive relation the poet had towards language. As much an act of seduction as it is an act of decoding, Dickinson’s approach to reading letters as well as writing them was to delve into the mystery of language. Rather than using accessible language, however, she frequently employed metaphors and images whose references were not always clear. What are we to make, for instance, of “That simple news that Nature told—/ With tender Majesty”? Does it refer to what the “World” never told her? And is Nature for Dickinson synonomous with the world?

There are no easy answers, for Dickinson’s own relation to poetry, to Nature, to others, to life itself, was complicated. Indeed, it would be incorrect to claim that she distinguished among them. Biographer Thomas Johnson claimed in Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography that “among artists, she best understood poets, and had intimate knowledge of the poetic process. It is coeval with love, she knows but it cannot be explained.… Her letter to the world from which she is shut away will transmit such news about nature as she has received through her senses.”

But what is this news that she is sending to the world, and what is the “Message” that nature commits to invisible hands? Dickinson’s message is that she is a poet and that she has submitted herself in faith to others, history, god, nature with faith that she will be judged favorably.

Her Message is committed

To Hands I cannot see—

For love of Her—Sweet—countrymen—

Judge tenderly—of Me

Such an attitude exemplifies the difficulty of living a life in uncertainty, yet trusting that wisdom can be gained from such a commitment. Nature, for Dickinson, was the source of wisdom and was at root inscrutable. Ferlazzo reminds us that “Dickinson believes that a separation exists between the world of nature and that of man. We live outside of nature and are permitted to observe it, experience it, and enjoy it if we can; but we are not privileged to enter into its secret.” At times conventionally religious, but most times not, Dickinson was heavily influenced by Ralph Waldo Emerson, who encouraged others to reject European values and modes of belief and to think for themselves. Emerson’s writing championed transcendentalism, a philosophy that saw in nature a realm of possibilities rather than prescriptions, an idea Dickinson heartily embraced.

Dickinson was not only comfortable writing about Nature’s inscrutability, about its “secret” but she did it with a style which itself was often difficult to comprehend. Eschewing periods for dashes, ignoring or reinventing rules of punctuation and word order, Dickinson wrote in a spare, elliptical manner, inviting readers to make their own connections among her words. An iconoclast more intent on opening up the possibilities of language rather than providing definitive interpretations of experience, Dickinson explored connections between the seen and the unseen worlds and, as Peggy McIntosh and Ellen Louise Hart write, she “indicate[d] finally that human beings in our arrangements of life seldom attain what we need, desire, and are capable of understanding.”

When Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd edited the first edition of Dickinson’s poems in 1890 they placed “This Is My Letter to the World” just after the table of contents and before the first page of selections, though no evidence has ever been produced that Dickinson intended it as an introduction to any of her poems. It has since been anthologized and reprinted countless times, and pointed to as the representative poem for how Dickinson conceived of her poetic identity. It is important to remember, though, that rather than representing an experience or an idea, Dickinson’s poems were experiences themselves. In writing about the uncertainties of “poethood,” the mystery of nature, and the (tentative) faith she had in the world, Dickinson enacted these same fears and desires. The secret of the code she wrote in, then, became the mysteries of writing and living themselves. Rather than pointing outward towards some definitive answer or truth, her poems pointed inward towards more questions.

Source: Chris Semansky, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.

Donald E. Thackrey

In the following excerpt, Thackrey considers that, for Emily Dickinson, the writing of poetry was a mystical experience.

From what origin or impulse in the poet does poetry come? An answer to this question necessitates a brief glance at the poet herself. To any reader of her poems or letters, the emotional resources of Emily Dickinson seem boundless. She exhibits the capacity to experience the fullness and variety of an emotional life which the great mystics testify exists beyond the horizons of ordinary experience.…

In conjunction with a rich emotional nature can usually be found a highly imaginative life. The letters as well as the poems of Emily Dickinson testify to her imaginative powers.…

Two salient characteristics of Emily Dickinson’s mind as exhibited in her poems and letters seem to be a result of her abundant emotional and imaginative resources. As we might expect, these characteristics display a typical counterbalance in point of view. There is first of all the supremely intense joy of life. The evidence of this ecstatic joy could be accumulated from innumerable poems and letters.…

The second and probably more significant direction taken by her intense emotional and imaginative nature is a thorough awareness of the suffering in life. Suffering seemed to be a basic, unavoidable element of human life, and this fact weighed heavily on a person as capable of profound feeling as Emily Dickinson.…

Whatever the cause of suffering, the poems of Emily Dickinson give ample evidence that she had a capacity for experiencing suffering far beyond that of the ordinary person.…

One can conclude from the evidence in her poems that Emily Dickinson’s emotional and imaginative life was developed to an amazing extent. Joyous ecstasy and the antithetic bleak despair—not to mention the other shades of emotional feeling for which she is noted—possessed her life and gave to it a direction which resulted in a dedication to poetry.

The question which was probably unexpressed but was nevertheless an essential one to Emily Dickinson can now be asked. What course of action was necessary for such a person to achieve some sort of realization of her nature? First of all we must note that history has shown that artists act as if they were under a tremendous compulsion to express whatever vision they have seen.…

Thus, for Emily Dickinson, poetry was undoubtedly an unavoidable necessity. Still there were certain rational justifications for turning to poetry.…

[In his book Emily Dickinson,] Richard Chase maintains that Emily Dickinson regarded poetry as “one of the stratagems by which she was empowered to endure life,” and this view is supported by … excerpts from her letters. She strove to raise bloom on the bleakness of her lot, as one of her poems expresses it.…

If, however, poetry for Emily Dickinson began as an anodyne for life, it soon developed into something

“One can conclude from the evidence in her poems that Emily Dickinson’s emotional and imaginative life was developed to an amazing extent.”

infinitely more important to her—so important in fact, that after Emily Dickinson’s maturity, it would scarcely be possible to separate any aspect of her life and personality from her poetry. Poetry became the meaning, the very essence, of life.

Several of her poems speak specifically of poetry. The opening poem in Madame Bianchi’s volume is a significant comment.

This is my letter to the world,
That never wrote to me,—
The simple news that Nature told,
With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
Judge tenderly of me!

Nature’s simple news, of course, inspired more than just her so-called nature poems. All her poetry was dependent upon the secrets she thought of as coming from nature. But what, exactly, is poetry?…

Emily Dickinson is consistent in regarding the poet as a divine magician, dealing with familiar things, but transforming them into piercing, ravishing “pictures” that so overpower the human imagination that they can only be described in terms of “thunder,” “immense attars,” and “divine insanity.” Words, the mighty, electric elements of poetry, fuse into the incandescent instruments of the divine which one experiences as poetry. It is the use of words which effects the magical transformation of existence from “ordinary meanings” into “divine intoxication.” But notice also the implication that no one may completely experience poetry, for poetry, like love, has for Emily Dickinson the mystical significance of God. We can prove either love or poetry by the effects they have upon us; yet there remains the awareness that the essence of love or of poetry, their ultimate potentiality, is forever denied us. Thus poetry, for Emily Dickinson, in spite of the almost illimitable power of words, offers a challenge and a medium by which one can attempt to transcend the normal limits of perception (even highly-developed artistic perception) and enter into the transcendent, mystical awareness that is “intimate with madness.” The supreme worth of poetry, consequently, is self-evident.…

The position of a poet in relation to the reading public is always interesting and especially so in Emily Dickinson’s case because of the unusual manner in which her poems were written, stored away, and finally edited and published. It has often been assumed that Emily Dickinson secluded herself from the world and turned to writing poetry because of an unhappy love affair. To assume that frustrated love was the sole genesis of Emily Dickinson’s unusual life and work is, I think, to underestimate her. Emily Dickinson herself suggests that her retirement may have been prompted, in part, by a desire to escape the shallow loquaciousness of ordinary social intercourse.…

It may be added, from the general tenor of her work, that the seclusion was not only to avoid certain things but also to gain a positive advantage. Her withdrawal from the world brings to mind again her ever-present tendency toward a mystical view of life. It is well known that mystics are eager to sacrifice their whole lives to a certain object, a certain vision of truth. Such sacrifices are not selfdenial in the mystical philosophy, but rather self-fulfillment. Whatever rationale Emily Dickinson conceived for her seclusion, it is certain that this privacy allowed her the time and opportunity to nourish and maintain her poetic genius.…

The position of Emily Dickinson as a poet, then, was this: to utilize the tremendous resources of her emotional and imaginative energy to create poetry which in turn provided her with an outlet or an anodyne for this energy which might otherwise have destroyed her sanity. Words, the powerful agents of thought, became the instruments by which she projected herself into first one relationship and then another with the natural world and with that other more elusive world of her mystical intuitions.…

Her goal was sometimes obscured, but she nevertheless was determined to approach a complete comprehension of the mysteries of life and death by means of mystical experience recorded and examined through the discipline of the communication of words in the framework of poetic creation. A mystical vision first experienced and then assimilated into her understanding by the expression of it in poetry established the foundation for further exploration of her consciousness which in turn led to new levels of mystical experience. Perhaps her mystical experiences may be thought of as the climb of a giant mountain slope reaching ever upward but interrupted by frequent ledges upon which she paused for orientation, a view of the ground covered, and the gathering of forces for the next ascent. Her ultimate goal will be achieved at death when she becomes the bride of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Until then her position as a poet must reflect the “compound vision” which depends upon the awareness of death.

Source: Donald E. Thackrey, “The Position of the Poet,” in Emily Dickinson’s Approach to Poetry, University of Nebraska Press, 1954, pp. 52–75.

Sources

Ferlazzo, Paul, Emily Dickinson, Boston: Twayne, 1976.

Garbowsky, Maryanne M., The House without the Door: A Study of Emily Dickinson and the Illness of Agoraphobia, Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1989.

Higgins, David, Portrait of Emily Dickinson: The Poet and Her Prose, New Brunswick, NJ:, Rutgers University Press, 1967.

Johnson, Thomas H., “The Business of Circumference: Meaning in Poetry,” in his Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 134-54.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed., Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kher, Inder Nath, “Landscapes of Absence: Mansions of Mirage,” and “Self: The Quest for Identity,” in his The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 47-84.

Kirkby, Joan, Emily Dickinson, Women Writers Series, New York: St. Martins, 1991.

Lauter, Paul, ed., The Heath Anthology of American Literature, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Rich, Adrienne, “Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson” in On Lies, Secrets and Silence, New York: W.W. Norton and Co., Inc., 1979, pp. 157-184.

Sewall, Richard B., ed., Emily Dickinson, A Collection of Critical Essays, New York: Prentice-Hall, 1963.

Sherwood, William Robert, Circumference and Circumstance, Columbia University Press, 1968, 302 p.

Smith, Robert McClure, The Seductions of Emily Dickinson, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1996.

For Further Study

Aiken, Conrad, “Emily Dickinson,” in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Sewall, Prentice Hall, Inc., 1963.

Provides a critical and biographical overview.

Boruch, Marianne, “Dickinson Descending” in Poetry’s Old Air, University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Explores biographical elements and the “cottage industry” of critics still writing about Dickinson’s life.

Dobson, Joanne, Dickinson and the Strategy of Reticence, Indiana University Press, 1989.

Views Dickinson’s verse from a perspective of contemporary feminist literary theory. Her interpretations of the poems are refreshingly different than any other published, including those in this textbook series.