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The Poetry of Emily Dickinson

by Richard Pettinger

It is well known that in her lifetime Emily Dickinson only had a very small number of poems published (fewer than 20) and even these were heavily edited for the benefit of contemporary sensibilities. Initially it was thought that only a small number of poems were published but extensive research has found that a few more poems were published than initially thought. However the prospect of fame and prestige seemed to hold little if any motivation to one of America’s greatest poets, who preferred instead the anonymity and privacy of near seclusion. It was not until shortly after her death in 1886 that her friends Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson co edited and produced a complete set of her poems. Even publishing the poetry of Emily Dickinson was not straightforward; she used unusual punctuation, often preferring dashes to commas. Her unusual script was difficult to decipher and most problematically she often listed several alternative phrases for the same poem with no clear guidance about which the poet preferred.

The initial translations of Emily Dickinson’s poems have been criticised over time for straying from the intent of the originals. However in 1955 Thomas H. Johnson was able to republish the poetry of Emily Dickinson, leaving them as close to the originals as possible. He also reduced the manuscript variants of the poems to a single text each. The total number of poems was 1,775 and this numbering has been a way of categorizing them.

Many poems of Emily Dickinson, especially the earlier ones suggest to readers that she suffered some kind of romantic disappointment to some particular person This has led many biographers to endlessly speculate about possible lovers, although there is little conclusive proof for anyone in particular. It is also worth bearing in mind that when Emily Dickinson uses the prefix “I” in her poetry it is often uncertain whether she refers to herself or more generally the reader. Nevertheless from around 1862 there is an increased emphasis on a shift from human love to a mystical devotion. In the absence of meaningful human attachments she shifts her focus to perhaps the only real alternative – the Divine Mystery.


“Title divine – Is Mine! he wife – without the sign!”


"Behind Me – dips Eternity- Before Me – Immortality - Myself – the term between"

To some extent the poetry of Emily Dickinson offers ambiguities and the reader is in a position to choose for himself the interpretation that he likes. However her poetry is particularly thought provoking frequently touching on themes of death and immortality. In many ways Emily Dickinson was ahead of her time in her style and contemplations. Many later modern poets expressed the influence her poetry had upon them. Although nearly anonymous in her lifetime she is now widely regarded as one of the greatest female poets and one of America’s greatest religious poets.

It is interesting that there are some similarities with the poetry of William Blake. Blake was another visionary who was unappreciated during his lifetime, only after his death were his poems widely circulated becoming some of the best known. Like Dickinson, Blake also touches upon the mystical elements of life and immortality.

For more read original full article at Poetseers - Emily Dickinson Poetry

Richard is an economics teacher in Oxford and is a member of the Sri Chinmoy Centre. Richard edits a site on spiritual Poems and the poetry of Sri Chinmoy

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Book: Reflection on the Important Things