Emily Dickinson is a monumental figure, a true icon, to the realm of poetry in the 19th century. A time when transcendentalism ruled upon the civilized world and when American poetry was masked by European influences, Emily Dickinson broke off of conventional norms and established her own style of poetry. Through her reclusive upbringings to her untimely death, Emily Dickinson has invoked her unique style and language into her poetry that has established herself into one of the founders of modern American poetry.
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Emily Dickinson’s external and internal life was nothing less than unadventurous (Context 909). She read widely English literature and would often think deeply about what she read. She expressed a particular fondness for the poetry of John Keats and Robert Downing, the prose of John Ruskin and Sir Thomas Browne, and the novels of George Elliot and Charlotte and Emily Bronte. One of her most favorite books is the King James translation of the bible, which contained influences of both Walt Whitman and of her own.
One of Dickinson’s styles involves the influence of religion. Dickinson’s adaptation of
hymn meter unifies with her adaptation of the traditional religious doctrines of orthodox
Christianity. Although her poems reflect a Calvinist heritage – particularly in their probing self-analysis – she was not an orthodox Christian. (Context 911) Her religious views, like her life and poetry, were distinctive and individual. Even when her views tend toward orthodox teaching, as in her attitude toward immortality, her literary expression of such a belief is strikingly original. In addition, Dickinson’s mischievous humor contrasts sharply with the menacing gravity characteristic of much Calvinist-inspired religious writing. Finally, her love for nature separates her Puritan precursors, allying her instead with such transcendentalist contemporaries as Emerson, Whitman, and Thoreau, though her vision of life is starker than theirs.
One notable poem of Dickinson’s is Success is Counted Sweetest. The speaker starts off by saying that “those who ne’er succeed” put the greatest rate on success: They “count” it “sweetest.” To comprehend the cost of a nectar, the speaker says, one has to sense a “sorest need.” (Dickinson 914) She says that the associates of the “victorious army” are not able to define triumph as well as the conquered, failing man who hears from a distance the melody of the victors. (Dickinson 914)
Several of Emily Dickinson’s most notable works seem to take the structure of brief ethical proverbs, which emerge as apparently straightforward, but in reality describes complicated moral and psychological truths. Success is counted sweetest is a fine example. Its first two verses convey its moralistic point in which “success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed;” people tend to desire things in a greater aspect when they do not possess them. (Dickinson 914) The following lines then develop that manifest truth by submitting two pictures that illustrates it: the “nectar” is an emblem of conquest, and lavishness, and “success” can best be understood by someone who “needs” it. (Dickinson 914) The conquered, failing man comprehends triumph better than the victorious army does. The poem demonstrates Dickinson’s
ardent consciousness of the complex facts of human desire, and it shows the beginnings of her abrupt, firm style, whereby intricate connotations are condensed into tremendously short expressions. (Dickinson 914)
I taste a liquor never brewed is another such poem by Dickinson in which her views are vividly depicted. The speaker in Emily Dickinson’s I taste a liquor never brewed is describing a spiritual state that she experiences through her soul awareness; the state is so overwhelmingly invigorating that she feels as if she had become intoxicated by drinking alcohol. However, there is vast difference between her spiritual intoxication and the literal, physical intoxication of drinking an inebriating beverage. The poem consists of quadruple four-line stanzas. The second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyme, with the first rhyme pair “Pearl” and “Alcohol” being seemingly a slant rhyme. (Dickinson 917)
Emily Dickinson’s style of writing contributes to the irony of her life; she uses dashes profusely throughout I taste a liquor never brewed. Dashes are meant for interruption; thus, she seems to be questioning herself as she writes the poem. There are many dashes in this poem, indicating many pauses throughout; this could be for added dramatic effect or simply for interruptions. Dashes allow the reader time to think and feel (as shown after the first line). The dashes create the impression of a struggling voice, as if a violent wind is carrying some of the words away from the reader. The dashes help to make the speaker’s voice in the poem seem distant, as if he or she is speaking from somewhere else, even another dimension away. She uses simple diction which creates a “down to earth” feeling of hope. Her verses are very short which can indicate her short life. As a young woman, Emily Dickinson was a very intelligent and conscientious. (Context 909) However, over time, she decided to seclude herself from the rest of
the world, only talking to certain family members. Her father was a very strict man whose heart was pure and terrible. Because of that, she became very shy and grew a discomfort in social
situations. She gradually became more and more self-conscious and decided to go out less and
less. Eventually, she lived all alone in her family’s house and would not leave to see anyone. However, she still managed to keep in touch with a few close acquaintances through letters. The only time she ever let anyone inside her room was when she became terminally ill and needed a doctor to come see her. Even so, she only allowed the doctor to examine her from a distance.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce truly portrays Dickinson’s thoughts on life and death. The speaker says that she died for Beauty, but she was barely accustomed to her tomb before a man who died for Truth was placed in a tomb beside her. When the two gently told each other the reasons for their death, the man announced that Truth and Beauty are the same, and thus, he and the speaker were “Brethren.” The speaker says that they met at night, “as Kinsmen,” and conversed between their tombs until the moss arrive at their lips and enclosed the names on their tombstones. (Dickinson 926)
The bizarre, allegorical death fantasy of I died for Beauty recalls Keats’, but its approach of appearance belongs exclusively to Dickinson. In this brief lyric, she is able to invoke a feeling of the disturbing physicality of death, “Until the Moss had reached our lips-,” the great impracticality of martyrdom, “I died for Beauty. . . One who died for Truth,” a specific type of romantic nostalgia signified with the yearning for divine friendship, “And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night-,” and a cheerfulness about the hereafter with scarcely sublimated horror about the reality of loss: it would be pleasant to possess a companion with similar interests; it would be terrible to lie in the cemetery and talk through the walls of a grave. (Dickinson 926) As the poem progresses, the high impracticality and desire for friendship steadily surrender to silent, chilly death, as the moss sneaks up the speaker’s carcass and her headstone, demolishing both her ability to speak (covering her lips) and her identity (covering her name). The definitive result of this poem is to portray that every feature of human life, whether it be ideas, feelings, or identity
itself, is ultimately obliterated by death. However, in the process of creating the obliteration steadily-something to be “adjusted” to in the tomb-and by depicting a speaker who is unaffected by her own bleak condition, Dickinson devises a picture that is bizarre, persuasive, terrifying, and at the same time, soothing. (Dickinson 926) This is one of her most extraordinary declarations about death; in addition to several of Dickinson’s poems, it has no comparisons to the works of any other writer.
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A Bird came down the Walk is another one of Dickinson’s poem for which she utilizes her style and language. The speaker witnesses a bird come down the walk, ignorant that it was being observed. The bird ate an angleworm, then “drank a Dew from a convenient Grass-,” then jumped sideways to let a beetle pass over. The bird’s anxious, round eyes looked in all directions. (Dickinson 921) Carefully, the speaker proposes to him “a Crumb,” but the bird “unrolled his feathers” and flew away-as though rowing in the water, but with a beauty more soothing than that of “Oars divide the ocean” or butterflies leap “off Banks of Noon”; the bird seemed to swim without splashing. (Dickinson 922)
Emily Dickinson’s life has shown that one does not need to travel throughout the world or live a full life in order to write great poetry. Living alone in Amherst, she considered her experience as fully as any poet who has ever lived. (Context 909) In this poem, the effortless practice of viewing a bird jump down a trail permits Dickinson to demonstrate her astonishing poetic power of surveillance and portrayal.
Dickinson eagerly describes the bird as it is devouring a worm, jabs at the grass, skips by a beetle, and peeks around horrendously. As an ordinary being alarmed by the speaker into flying away, the bird becomes a symbol for the rapid, energetic, ungraspable untamed spirit that separates nature from the human beings who intend to cultivate it. However, the most outstanding aspect of this poem is the descriptions in the final stanza where Dickinson offers one
of the most spectacular images of flying in all of poetry. By merely offering two quick contrasts of flight and by using aquatic motion, she brings to mind the frailty and variability of moving through air. The picture of butterflies jumping “off Banks of Noon,” effortlessly swimming through the heavens, is one of the most unforgettable scenes in all Dickinson’s works. (Dickinson 922)
Dickinson pursues that knowledge wherever it is to be found, no matter how it makes her feel. She reports her pursuits with such great attention to her poetry that her works offer excitement, now matter how dismal the topic. (Critics 948) Emily Dickinson was brilliant, well educated, and confident in her use of conceptual, scientific, legal and linguistic terminology; however, the truly remarkable quality of her poetry illuminates from her refusal to separate mind from body and the emotions which are bound in it. She writes close to the traditions of post-Romantic poetry and women’s poetry in that her poetry expresses strong emotion. She stands to the side of her poetry that seeks to ensure that knowledge dominates, and the matters of the heart and soul are seen as part of that knowledge, united as one. (Critics 948)
Emily Dickinson is thought of as an influential and continual figure in American culture.
Although much of the early reception centered on Dickinson’s unconventional and secluded nature, she has become widely acknowledged as an original, pre-modernist poet. (Context 909) Critics have placed her alongside Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot as a major American poet. Dickinson’s poetry is difficult to comprehend because it is far-reaching and unique in its denunciation of most traditional nineteenth-century themes and techniques. (Context 910) Her poems demand vigorous awareness from the reader, because she seems to dismiss so much with her indirect style and remarkable contracting metaphors. Even so, these obvious openings are packed with connotations if we are susceptible to her use of devices such as personification, allusion, symbolism, syntax, and grammar. Because her use of dashes is at
times confusing, it aids read her poems out loud to hear how vigilantly the words are positioned. What might seem threatening on a simple piece of paper can shock the reader with meaning when heard. Dickinson was not always consistent in her views, as they can change from poem to poem depending upon how she felt at a given moment. (Critics 948)
American poetry characteristically embodies acts of process: the Dickinsonian “process” is a passionate investigation. Her investigative process often implies narrative by taking speaker and reader through a sequence of rapidly changing images; even when all the action is interior. These investigations structure Dickinson’s poetry; the flexibility of her investigative movement is the major reason why Dickinson generally was contented with common meter. She may even have enjoyed the way her condensed discoveries press against the limits of small form. (Critics 949) All and all, form and function, Emily Dickinson exerted an influence upon American poetry beyond measure during her time despite the fact that she lived a reclusive life: An irony indeed.
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