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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Gothic Undercurrents Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

[1617] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.), courtesy of Amherst College Library.

A lifelong resident of Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson left her hometown for only one year, when she attended Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. She was raised in an intellectual and socially prominent family and at the age of eighteen had received a better formal education than most of her American contemporaries, both male and female. Yet Dickinson led a largely sequestered existence, reading widely among works of classic and contemporary literature, devoting much of her time to writing poetry. She produced close to eighteen hundred poems, which are characterized by terse lines, “slant” rhymes, and keen observation. Because of the compressed and ambiguous nature of her work, where any given word can have multiple significations, Dickinson is sometimes called the first “modern” poet. Most prominent in her style, which is quite unlike her contemporaries’, is her use of the dash: she simultaneously separates and links words and ideas in complex ways, rather than allowing traditional punctuation to determine meaning absolutely. Dickinson’s work often grapples profoundly with topics and ideas which would have been unacceptable to her community. Her poems are often skeptical and angry, challenging many of her contemporaries’ assumptions about God, death, gender, nature, and the human body.

Except for a dozen poems, most of Dickinson’s work was not published in her lifetime. She did, however, carefully collect her poems into handmade booklets, or “fascicles,” of about twenty poems each. Her purpose in organizing her poetry this way remains unclear; she may have desired a private archive for retrieving poems she wished to revise, and it has been suggested that the fascicles are organized by theme. Scholars have long been fascinated by this and other mysteries of her intensely private life, including her sexuality: Dickinson never married, and the evidence suggests that she felt some variety of passionate affection for both men and women (especially her sister-in-law, Susan, one of only a few people to whom she privately sent poems). A half-century after her death, the three volumes of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955) and two volumes of The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958) appeared.

Teaching Tips

  • Have your students sing one of Dickinson’s poems to the tune of a favorite ballad or hymn. For example, “I could not stop for death” works nicely with the tune of “Yellow Rose of Texas,” “Amazing Grace,” or even Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.” Why does Dickinson use these forms? How does she change or challenge them?
  • Focus on the “slant” (indirection and ambiguity) as the ruling trope of Dickinson’s poetry.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Notice Dickinson’s frequent use of dashes in place of more standard punctuation like commas and periods. Why did she rely so heavily on dashes? How do they affect your experience and understanding of the poems? How would the poems change with different punctuation?
  2. Context: Unlike many of her contemporaries, Dickinson does not write poems with clear moral or ethical messages. Are her poems trying to “teach” us anything? What seems to be the purpose of these poems? Do they make you feel (and if so, feel how)? Do they make you think (and if so, think what)?
  3. Context: Dickinson’s most famous poem, #465, draws on the nine-teenth century’s fascination with death-bed scenes in literature. Unusually, however, this scene is described from the point-of-view of the deceased. What exactly does the poem’s narrator experience, both sensuously and psychologically? How does the fly affect the narrator’s experience of death?
  4. Exploration: What might Dickinson mean when she writes “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (#1129)? Why is there a danger that Truth will blind us unless it “dazzle[s] gradually”? Why does the narrator refer to children in supporting this thesis?
  5. Exploration: What, in poem #258, might “internal difference” mean? What are “the Meanings,” and why are they contained in internal difference? Why does the natural experience of a certain winter light provoke reflection on internal difference?

Selected Archive Items

[1617] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.), 
courtesy of Amherst College Library. 
Portrait of Dickinson sitting at table. Until recently, this was the only known image of Dickinson, a notorious recluse who rarely left her lifelong residence in Amherst, Massachusetts.

[2390] Anonymous, Emily Dickinson (n.d.), 
courtesy of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Recently discovered photo of Dickinson. Dickinson is often considered the first modernist poet, despite the fact that she wrote most of her poetry decades before the movement began.

[8659] Priscilla Wald, “Dickinson Reading” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Wald, associate professor of English at Duke University, reads Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

[8662] Priscilla Wald, “Dickinson Reading” (2001), 
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Wald, associate professor of English at Duke University, reads Dickinson’s “I heard a fly buzz.”

[9011] Johnson, “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (n.d.), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, American Memory Collection [CW106920]. 
The first known copy of the lyrics are dated 1836, around the time of the battle of Santa Ana in Texas. The song is credited to a black soldier; the “yellow rose” is most likely an endearing name for a mulatta woman named Emily West. “Yellow” was a common term for light-skinned mulattos, and women were often referred to as roses or flowers in popular music of the time.

[9016 – not found] John Newton, “Amazing Grace” lyrics (c. 1760-70). 
One of the most popular hymns in the English language, the words were written by English pastor John Newton, himself a “saved heathen.” Newton was a vagrant, indentured servant, petty criminal, and slave trader before his religious epiphany.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey


Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6