About the poems of Emily Dickinson



Emily Dickinson wrote short. Short does not mean sweet. When she died in 1886 aged 56 she did not have a single book of poetry to her name. She is now regarded as one the greatest poets in the American canon. Harold Bloom, the American critic, considers her as individual a thinker as Dante. How did this happen? Well, after Emily's death, her sister Lavinia opened her bureau and found neatly copied and sewn together in groups - over 900 poems - eventually 1,775 were found. She may have written 'Publication - is/ The auction of the mind ' and 'Fame is a fickle food ' – however, she had in fact tried for both. She'd sent a number of poems to the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson who declined to publish Miss Dickinson. Twice. The poems, though he recognised their brilliance, were he said 'extreme'. They were indeed - extreme works of genius. Death obsessed? Yes. It was her elective and constant companion of the imagination, as indeed was God and nature. It seems to have sickle -sharpened every sense – ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died -', 'My Life had stood -a loaded Gun-‘, ‘Because I could not stop for Death' (the titles are almost always the opening line) 'Death' is, as Henry James noted 'the distinguished thing.' and Dickinson was familiar with it. She lived through the civil war - her house overlooked a graveyard - and she was often ill.

After Wentworth's second rejection she wrote him one of the most elegant exits in literary history. 'I smile when you suggest that I delay to publish - If fame belonged to me I could not escape her - my barefoot rank is better/ You think me uncontrolled? I have no tribunal…The sailor cannot see the north but knows the needle can'. Brilliant! Her nature was so intense that perhaps normal life might have overwhelmed her. This is her reaction to the visit of a circus: 'Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel… Still I feel the red in my mind.' She withdrew to her genius, this Nun of Amhearst as she became known. Harold Bloom believes hers is a drama of erotic loss rather than of religious obsession and Lydall Gordon's biography certainly testifies to a complex erotic nature. The poems Rearrange a ''Wife's'' affection, Heart! We will forget him!, Not with a Club, the Heart is broken and the oft -quoted My life closed twice before its close are passionate poems, drenched in longing. Perhaps in Ted Hughes's haunting phrase Emily Dickinson knew 'her unusual endowment of love was not going to be asked for'.


Books by Josephine Hart     The Josephine Hart Poetry Hour

Josephine Hart's books, Catching Life by the Throat and Words That Burn are available to buy in the British Library shop.