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Emily Dickinson: Poems and Poetry Analysis

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  • 0:06 Emily Dickinson as a Poet
  • 1:27 Characterizing…
  • 3:43 'Because I Could Not…
  • 6:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Stacy Redd

Stacy has taught college English and has a master's degree in literature.

Emily Dickinson was a well-known poet of the mid-1800s whose numerous works have stood the test of time. But what in the world did her poems really mean? In this video, we'll explore one of her most recognized pieces and analyze its meaning and purpose.

Emily Dickinson as a Poet

Who was Emily Dickinson? It's a reasonable question for us to ask now, over a century after she died, but it's really a question that people who knew her may have asked too. If you know anything about Emily Dickinson (and it's cool if you don't), you may know that she was a bit of a recluse. People in her hometown of Amherst, MA, generally thought her to be quite a weirdo because she rarely socialized and wore white clothing most of the time. I can't wear white because I spill on it, so I say it's a testament to her good table manners.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Massachusetts and was one of the most prolific and inspired American poets of her time. She was also one of the very few women poets of the 19th century, which is cool for her but lame for the 19th century. She wrote over 1,000 poems with various themes during her lifetime, but she had a few favorite themes that would pop up over and over again. Here, we'll examine Dickinson's life and some of her more well-known poems to see what makes her writing so unique.

Dickinson wrote more than 1,000 poems in her lifetime
Emily Dickinson Photo

I wish I had a cool story about how she had humble beginnings and overcame adversity to become a writer, but Emily Dickinson was actually born into pretty comfortable settings and was well educated for a woman of her time. Despite being intensely private, she did publish poems during her lifetime, though no one realized just how prolific she was until her sister Lavinia discovered a huge collection of previously unknown poems after Dickinson's death.

Characterizing Dickinson's Poetry

Emily Dickinson's poems were not like other poems being written at the time. Though they varied in length, many were quite short and had short lines. They were written in pretty plain language, and they frequently didn't even rhyme. (Gasp!) Emily Dickinson employed a technique called slant rhyme, which is where lines don't rhyme perfectly but instead only sort of rhyme, like in this poem, which just happens to be my favorite of hers:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul,

And sings the tune without the words,

And never stops at all.

Generally in a poem like this, you would expect the second and fourth lines to rhyme, but here they don't, or at least not quite. The similar-but-not-really-the-same sounds of 'soul' and 'all' is a great example of slant rhyme and something you can find frequently in Emily Dickinson's poems. What's also notable about this poem is that it has no title. This is another common characteristic of Dickinson's work and something that also made her poetry a little unusual. It also can make poems tricky to refer to when you don't know their title, though generally most people just use the first line of a Dickinson poem to refer to it. For example, the previous poem would just have been called 'Hope is the Thing With Feathers.'

While Dickinson did mention God in a number of her poems like many of her contemporaries, she didn't exactly write poems worshiping God and praising his infinite wisdom like the other poets of her time. To Dickinson, the individual using his or her own thoughts and senses to view and interpret the world was more important than relying on a deity. Death also shows up a lot in Dickinson's poems, sometimes even as a person. Dickinson's attitude toward death is a little more friendly than you might expect, as evidenced in one of her more well-known poems 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death'. Nature also appears frequently in Dickinson's poems, sometimes overlapping with her other spiritual themes. Animals like flies, birds, snakes and other creatures frequently make appearances, sometimes in the title roles. Dickinson uses nature as a means of examining different aspects of life, the self and higher powers. By choosing imagery and metaphors that compare creatures and natural elements to ethereal or human aspects, she gives the reader an idea of how we and the world we live in are all interrelated, though sometimes not in the most positive way.

'Because I Could Not Stop For Death'

To see how Dickinson sees death and religion, we're going to take a look at one of her more famous poems, which begins with the phrase 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death.' Dickinson didn't actually title this poem, but we know it from its first line, so that's what we're going to call it. Okay, let's read the whole poem:

Because I could not stop for Death,

He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,

And I had put away

My labor, and my leisure too,

For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove

At recess, in the ring;

We passed the fields of grazing grain,

We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;

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