English Literature
Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

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The Life and Poetry of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, a highly acclaimed American poet during the 19th century, made a lasting impact with her unique use of structure and dashes in her poems. Although her work gained recognition after her passing, let's explore her life and poetic style.

Early Years and Education

On December 10th, 1830, Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her family was well-respected in the town, with her grandfather being a co-founder of Amherst College and her father, Edward Dickinson, a prominent lawyer. Emily was the middle child, with an older brother named Austin and a younger sister named Lavina. Her father placed great emphasis on education, and Emily attended Amherst Academy and later Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. However, she left after one year due to the strict religious environment.

Emily Dickinson and Religion

Religion played a significant role in Dickinson's life and poetry. She grew up in a Calvinist family during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival that swept through New England. However, she rejected religion during her teenage years and refused to participate in communion or convert. Despite this, her poems often reference the Common Book of Prayer and Christian concepts, such as heaven.

Adult Life

In her twenties, Emily Dickinson became reclusive and spent most of her time at home. Some believe this was due to an affair with the married Reverend Charles Wadsworth, who later moved to California. However, they continued to correspond. Many of her poems were included in letters to her friends, including her cousin Sophia Holland and her brother's wife, Susan Gilbert. Some speculate that Dickinson and Gilbert may have had a romantic relationship, as evidenced by the 250 poems sent to her. In 1864, during a particularly creative period, Dickinson fell ill with eye pain, possibly iritis, which lasted for several years and took a toll on her mental health as she feared losing her sight. Death and illness were prevalent in her life, with many of her loved ones succumbing to tuberculosis in the 1860s-1880s. This theme of death is a recurring element in Dickinson's poetry.

Influential Literary Movements

Two literary movements greatly influenced Emily Dickinson's writing: Romanticism and Transcendentalism. Originating in England in the early 1800s, Romanticism emphasized individual experience and nature. When it reached America, it was embraced by figures such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, who used Romantic themes to explore inner experiences. Transcendentalism emerged in New England in the 1830s, following the arrival of Romanticism in America. Key figures in this movement included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. It was connected to the philosophical ideas of Plato and Immanuel Kant and focused on the belief that spirituality could not be attained through reason alone, but through self-reflection. This movement furthered the ideas of Romanticism and highlighted the connection between humanity and nature, evident in Dickinson's poems such as "Hope is the thing with feathers" (1891).


Emily Dickinson passed away at the age of 55 in 1886. Although the doctors listed Bright's Disease, an inflammation of the kidneys, as her cause of death, researchers now believe she died due to heart failure. After her death, her sister Lavina discovered her poetry, which would later achieve widespread recognition.

Notable Poems and Quotes

Here are some famous quotes from Dickinson's poetry:

  • "If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain."
  • "Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me."
  • "To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else."

Although Emily Dickinson was known for her reclusive nature during her lifetime, her posthumous works have cemented her as one of the most influential and acclaimed poets in American literature. In particular, pieces like 'A Bird, came down the Walk-' and 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' published after her death in 1891, shed light on Dickinson's unique and poetic perspective on life through themes of nature, death, and madness.

'A Bird, came down the Walk-' (1891)

'A Bird, came down the Walk-' is a stunning portrayal of an encounter between the speaker and a bird in her garden. Through keen observations of the bird's actions such as eating an angle worm, walking, and drinking, the speaker attempts to interact with the bird but is ultimately met with its flight. Dickinson masterfully weaves imagery of the bird to discuss the conflicting nature of the natural world, which can be both brutal and beautiful simultaneously.

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' (1896)

In 1861, Dickinson penned 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' a powerful exploration of death and madness. Utilizing her signature style of using dashes, the speaker describes the death of their mind or sanity and the struggle to come to terms with it. The poem evokes the agony and madness of this process, leaving a lasting impact on the reader.

'It was not Death, for I stood up' (1891)

Regarded as one of Dickinson's most famous works, 'It was not Death, for I stood up' (1891) holds an ambiguous meaning. Many critics believe it follows the emotional journey of the speaker after experiencing a harrowing and irrational event. The poem is rife with contradictions, reflecting the speaker's attempt to make sense of their trauma. As with much of Dickinson's poetry, themes of death and madness are explored in this piece.

'"Hope" is the thing with feathers-' (1891)

Written in 1861, "Hope" is the thing with feathers-' is a well-known Dickinson poem that uses an extended metaphor of a bird to symbolize hope. Through its lyrical style and influences from Romanticism and Transcendentalism, the poem depicts the profound impact of nature on the human soul. In contrast to many of her other poems, this piece embraces a more optimistic outlook through the theme of hope.

'A narrow Fellow in the Grass' (1866)

Published during Dickinson's lifetime in 1866, 'A narrow Fellow in the Grass' delves into themes of deceit and fear through the imagery of a snake. The male speaker recounts a childhood encounter with a snake, which has left a lasting fear of the animal in adulthood. The poem offers reflection on the relationship between man and nature and how fear can distort it.

Emily Dickinson: Themes that Define Her Poetry

In her extensive body of work, Emily Dickinson portrays a variety of themes that are prevalent throughout her poetry. Among the most frequently explored are death and madness.


The concept of death is a recurring theme in Dickinson's poems, influenced by her personal experiences and her surroundings. Living during the American Civil War and experiencing multiple losses of family and friends during the 1870s and 1880s, Dickinson's works offer poignant and profound reflections on death and mortality. Additionally, her devout religious upbringing further shapes her views on death and the afterlife.


Mental illness was heavily stigmatized during Dickinson's time, and her religious upbringing only intensified her anxiety surrounding sanity and madness. Her decision to live as a recluse in her mid-twenties further adds to the exploration of this theme in her poetry. Dickinson's works shed light on the complexities and internal struggles of the human mind, making her poems resonate with readers even today.

Exploring Religion, Nature, and Madness: The Key Themes of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson's poetry covers a range of themes, including religion, nature, and madness. Despite rejecting her Calvinist upbringing, Christian references can still be found in poems such as "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," and "Much Madness is divinest Sense." These works examine the influence of religion on themes of death and immortality.

In "It was not Death, for I stood up," Dickinson also touches on Christian traditions, reflecting her conflicted views towards religion. Meanwhile, her famous poem "Hope" symbolizes a recurring motif, depicted by a bird with feathers that "perches in the soul" and sings without words. Additionally, "Tie the Strings to my Life, my Lord," showcases Dickinson's contemplation of the afterlife and her readiness to face death. With each poem, Dickinson offers thought-provoking perspectives on religion, nature, and madness that continue to resonate with readers today.

Emily Dickinson: Influenced by Nature and Poetry Movements

Emily Dickinson, a renowned American poet from the 19th century, drew inspiration from the naturalist, transcendentalist, and Romantic literary movements of her time. These movements highlighted the deep connection between nature and the human spirit, and Dickinson's works beautifully reflect this. Her poems, such as "A Bird, came down the Walk" and "A narrow Fellow in the Grass," showcase her use of figurative language and keen observations of animals to tap into this relationship. In addition, her works also contain religious allusions to Biblical creatures, adding a unique layer to her exploration of nature.

Born in 1830 in Massachusetts, Dickinson grew up in a Puritan Calvinist family. However, she chose to lead a reclusive life and spent most of her time at her family home. Despite her solitude, she wrote nearly 1,800 poems, which were mostly published after her death. Her poetry was heavily influenced by the ideals of the Romantic and Transcendentalist movements, making her work stand out as thought-provoking and insightful.

Emily Dickinson: A Closer Look

  • Best known for: Her poetry and letters, published posthumously.
  • Main themes: Death, madness, religion, and nature.
  • Cause of death: Originally thought to be Bright's Disease, later research suggested heart failure.
  • Who was she? Emily Dickinson was a poet and writer who lived from 1830 to 1886. She was known for her secluded lifestyle and unique style of poetry.
  • Birthplace and date: Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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