Emily Dickinson

Above all else, Dickinson’s poetry struck me because of her ability to incorporate such deep, emblematic meaning into so few words and stanzas. Her unconventional use of punctuation and capitalization as well as the strange enjambment and sentence structure found in her poetry is certainly part of the reason these poems are so loaded.

The dashes at the end of most lines provide a visual separation of the poems’ rhythm and draw attention to the few lines that do not end in dashes – they “melt” more easily into the following line instead of causing the reader to “rest” rhythmically between lines. Most of her poems also end with a dash, which is reminiscent of an ellipsis to me. The poem doesn’t ever really seem to end, as if Dickinson is directly prompting us to reflect upon its meaning or perhaps even continue it in our own minds.

And what up with her strange capitalization? I was most deeply affected by it in poem 620. Dickinson capitalizes the last words of her first four lines: “Sense”, “Madness”, “Eye”, and”Majority”. To me, such capitalization implies a deeper meaning associated with the words. Maybe she’s trying to draw greater attention toward the mainstream’s idea of what madness and sense is and what traits are associated with these words; the true definitions of “Madness” and “Sense” may be more subjective. The fact that these words are capitalized practically sanctifies them – they appear to hold boundless meaning. The capitalized word “Chain” at the end of the poem was particularly affecting. To the poet, those who stray from the majority are seen as prisoners, perhaps “bound” to isolation or confinement because of their strangeness. This is pretty appropriate considering Dickinson was kind of a nutbar and spent the majority of her later life in isolation. What does Dickinson’s unconventional use of capitalization mean to you? What capitalized words struck you as especially meaningful in any other poems?

As for Dickinson’s actual lyrics, I noticed a pattern of associating human characteristics with more mechanized, inhuman objects or ideas. 372 separates the body into parts in order to describe the aftermath of great trauma. The nerves are immobile like tombs, and the feet move mechanically. The body seems to be its own funeral procession. Poem 764 is a complete metaphor that describes life under the obedience of a greater power (perhaps a lover, a muse, or even God?) to be like the relationship of a gun and a hunter. Just as the aforementioned poem, Dickinson’s final stanza deals with human mortality. The poem may be separating mortal existence from the immortal soul. This theme continues in poem 598, which deems the mind to be as powerful as God; it is nothing less than a vessel that interprets and humanizes Divine thought and inspiration. Once again, mechanization of human traits is apparent, with the brain’s absorption of knowledge of God’s world being likened to a sponge’s ability to absorb water in a bucket.


So, what do you make of Dickinson’s poetic style? How does it highlight her poetry’s meaning? Do her common themes of mortality and death lead you to draw deep conclusions about our existence, or are they too sad and morbid – simply a result of her lack of social interaction and insane desire to isolate herself? This is kind of an elementary question, but which poems most stood out to you and why? What clues or insight do they give you regarding Dickinson’s life and experiences?

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2 Responses to Emily Dickinson

  1. vlevasseur11 says:

    I really enjoy Dickinson’s use of capitalization because it makes me look more closely at the definitions of the words she capitalizes and how the capitalized words relate as a whole. For example in 372 she draws together words that evoke the cold (Freezing, Snow, Chill) and the effects the cold can have (Stupor). In 373 I thought that the words she capitalizes emphasize a contrast between religion, music/art, and science (Species, Music, Sound, Crucifixion, Faith vs. Evidence, Pulpit, Sagacity).
    The poem that stood out to me most was 764. After reading it I was compelled to think of Dickinson as a strong women, who knew what kind of power her poetry has. Her skills are so good they are perhaps deadly (i.e., like a “Loaded Gun”). When she says “And every time I speak for Him/The Mountains straight reply,” I thought she could be implying that she speaks for God and has a deep connection to the natural world. She seems to have a troubled relationship with God, and is skeptical (“To foe of His–I’m deadly foe…On whom I lay a Yellow Eye”), but believes he has control over her fate. However, this poem in particular might have several meanings and could be interpreted as if she is taking about protecting someone she loves.

    • GJF says:

      Interesting how you’re reading poem 764. It’s a really fascinating poem and I’d love to hear what others think is going on in this poem in which she sees her life as a loaded gun–do people see this as an empowering image or is she being controlled by the master? Is the “Master” (capitalized here) human or is she referring to god? Is this a loving relationship or one of rage ? And, finally, what do people make of that last stanza in which she says she has the power to kill without the power to die? Poet Adrienne Rich says this poem is a central poem to understanding the position of the woman artist (even though she also says she will never be able to completely “explain” the poem)–what do you think about her claim?

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