Public domain photograph of Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
A selective list of online literary criticism for the nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson, with links to reliable biographical and introductory material and signed, peer-reviewed literary criticism
Main Page | 19th-C American Writers | 19th-C Poets | About LiteraryHistory.com
Introduction & Biography
"Emily Dickinson," ed. Karen Ford. Excerpts of literary criticism from scholarly authorities on Dickinson. Includes a biography of Emily Dickinson and individual discussion of the many of her most famous poems. Modern American Poetry at Univ. of Illinois.
"Emily Dickinson." An encyclopedia-type article on Emily Dickinson. Also a selection of her most famous poems, recommended reading, and additional articles about her. The Poetry Foundation.
"Emily Dickinson." Introduction to Dickinson by professors Peggy McIntosh and Ellen Louise Hart, in the college textbook Heath Anthology of American Literature.
"Emily Dickinson." A short biographical introduction to Dickinson, with text for some of her best known poems. Additional articles on Dickinson: "Isaac Watts & Emily Dickinson: Inherited Meter." Also, a poet writing on the poet, Michael Ryan on Emily Dickinson. Academy of American Poets.
"Helen Vendler's Emily Dickinson." Podcast with Harvard Prof. Helen Vendler, interviewed by Christopher Lydon, discussing Dickinson's "bald and chilling" poems. Radio Open Source 5 Oct. 2010.
"Emily Dickinson's Letters." Article from the 1891 Atlantic Monthly magazine, written by her friend and "discoverer," Thomas Wentworth Higginson. "Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity."
Oates, Joyce Carol. "Joyce Carol Oates on Emily Dickinson." Two essays on Emily Dickinson's poetry by the famous novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Academic web site.
"The Big Read: The Poetry of Emily Dickinson." Reader's Guide includes an introduction to Emily Dickinson, a biography, background and her historical context, bibliography, and discussion questions. Teacher's Guide contains lesson plans and writing topics. National Endowment for the Arts.
"Common Questions on Emily Dickinson." Prof. Donna Campbell tackles Emily Dickinson FAQs, including what kind of meter she wrote in, why she used the dash, and how one should read Dickinson. Academic web site.
Emily Dickinson at-a-glance. A one page summary of Dickinson's biography, themes, techniques, and questions about selected poems, from Prof. Mark Canada. Academic web site.
Dirda, Michael. "Helen Vendler's new commentary on Emily Dickinson."Washington Post 9 Sept. 2010.
Wineapple, Brenda. A review of White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Reviewed by Judith Thurman in The New Yorker, 4 Aug. 2008.
Emily Dickinson's Home Information about The Emily Dickinson Museum, which includes The Homestead, where Emily Dickinson lived most of her life, and The Evergreens, home of her brother and his family, located in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Freeman, Margaret H. "Emily Dickinson." An introduction to Dickinson. Also, Letters (1842); and Poems (1842). Literary Encyclopedia, 11 January 2005 [subscription service].
The Emily Dickinson Journal. Scholarly journal sponsored by the Emily Dickinson International Society. Currently (10/27/13) offers a free sample issue.
Anderson, Susan M. "'Regard[ing] a Mouse' in Dickinson's Poems and Letters." In contrast to images of force in Dickinson's writing (volcano, loaded gun), Anderson considers one of her diminuitive images, the mouse. The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1 (1993) pp 84-102 [substantial excerpt, muse].
Denman, Kamilla. "Emily Dickinson's Volcanic Punctuation." Contrasts the volcano image in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson. The Emily Dickinson Journal 2, 1 (Spring 1993) pp 22-46 [substantial excerpt, muse].
Dickie, Margaret. "Dickinson's Discontinuous Lyric Self." On Emily Dickinson's style and poetic techniques. American Literature 60, 4 (Dec. 1988) pp 537-53 [jstor preview or purchase].
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "'The Wildest Word': The Habit of Renunciation." On the theme of renunciation in Emily Dickinson's love poems. In Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (1985) [no longer available online].
Finnerty, Páraic. "The Daisy and the Dandy: Emily Dickinson and Oscar Wilde."Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary Relations, 9 (April 2005) [free].
Gelpi, Albert. "Emily Dickinson's Long Shadow: Susan Howe & Fanny Howe." On the influence of Dickinson on two women Language Poets. The Emily Dickinson Journal 17, 2 (2008) [summary only, muse].
Gilson, Annette. "Disseminating 'circumference': the diachronic presence of Dickinson in John Ashbery's 'Clepsydra.'" Gilson discusses the image of circularity in the poetry of John Ashbery and Emily Dickinson. Twentieth Century Literature 44, 4 (Winter 1998) pp 484-505 [free at jstor, click "Preview" or "Read Online"].
Guthrie, James R. "'A revolution in locality': astronomical tropes in Emily Dickinson's poetry." On imagery from astronomy in Dickinson's poetry. Midwest Quarterly, 1996 [no longer available online].
Harde, Roxanne. "'Some-Are like My Own-': Emily Dickinson's Christology of Embodiment." Harde discusses Dickinson's conflicted feelings about her Christianity and the issues that would preoccupy her religious writing for the rest of her life. Christianity and Literature 53 (2004) [subcription service, questia].
Hendrickson, Paula. "Dickinson and the Process of Death." On one specific subcategory of Dickinson's poems about death. Dickinson Studies 77 (1991) [no longer available online].
Marcellin, Leigh-Anne Urbanowicz. "Emily Dickinson's Civil War Poetry."The Emily Dickinson Journal 5, 2 (Fall 1996) pp 107-12 [substantial excerpt, muse].
Mayer, Nancy. "Finding Herself Alone: Emily Dickinson, Victorian Women Novelists, and the Female Subject."Romanticism on the Net May-Aug 2005 [free].
Miller, Cristanne. "Names and Verbs: Influences on the Poet's Language." On the Bible as an influence on Dickinson's style. In Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar (1987) [no longer available online].
Morris, Timothy. "The Development of Dickinson's Style."American Literature 60, 1(March 1988) pp 26-41 [jstor, preview or purchase].
Nesteruk, Peter. "The Many Deaths of Emily Dickinson." "Death was important to Emily Dickinson. Out of some one thousand and seven hundred poems, perhaps some 'five to six hundred' are concerned with the theme of death; other estimates suggest that the figure may be nearer to a half." The Emily Dickinson Journal 6, 1 (Spring 1997) pp 25-43 [substantial excerpt, muse].
Shattuck, Roger. "Emily Dickinson's Banquet of Abstemiousness."New York Review of Books 20 June 1996 [first half of article only, nyreview].
Stonum, Gary Lee. "Emily's Heathcliff: Metaphysical Love in Dickinson and Brontë" [and Emily Brontë]. The Emily Dickinson Journal 20, 1 (2011) pp 22-33 [in free issue].
Vendler, Helen. "Emily Dickinson and the Sublime." Audio files of a lecture by Prof. Vendler, delivered at Harvard's Houghton Library on 31 March 2011 [free].
"Emily Dickinson Archive." A single open-access site brings together thousands of Emily Dickinson's poetry drafts and manuscripts, which are owned by various libraries, including Harvard University and Amherst College, which hold two of the largest collections of her papers, and the Boston Public Library. High resolution images.
Main Page | 19th-C American Writers | 19th-C Poets | About LiteraryHistory.com
1998-2013 by LiteraryHistory.com
Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson 1830–1886
Although only seven of Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime—all anonymously and some apparently without her consent—Dickinson is considered a premier American poet. Choosing the lyric as her form, Dickinson wrote on a variety of subjects, including nature, love, death, and immortality. As she honed the lyric format, Dickinson developed a unique style, characterized by compressed expression, the use of enjambment, and an exploration of the possibilities of language. In 1955 the publication of Thomas H. Johnson's edition of Dickinson's complete poems prompted renewed scholarly interest in her work. Modern criticism has focused on Dickinson's style, structure, use of language, and the various themes found in her poetry. Some critics have examined these same issues from a feminist viewpoint. Regardless of the critical angle, most modern scholars incorporate some discussion of Dickinson's life experiences into their examinations of her work.
Critical and popular interest in Dickinson's life has been fueled by the mythology that has grown up around the limited factual knowledge available. Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer and an invalid mother, Dickinson's schoolwork was often interrupted by time spent at home learning domestic chores. Beginning in 1835, she spent four years at a primary school and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847. From there, Dickinson advanced to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, where her studies were influenced by New England Puritanism. This, together with Dickinson's Unitarian upbringing, heavily influenced her poetry's structure—the lyric form she used was a revision of the hymn quatrain—as well as its content—religious themes are the focus of many of her poems. Despite these influences on her work, though, personal faith eluded her and she remained an agnostic throughout her life.
After her year at Mount Holyoke, Dickinson returned to her family's home where she remained almost exclusively for the rest of her life. From 1851 to 1855,
she made a few brief visits to Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Biographers speculate that on one trip to Philadelphia, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, and that her disappointment from this affair triggered her subsequent withdrawal from society. This, and other rumors of romantic entanglements, are largely conjecture; however, it is known that her reclusiveness intensified over the years. Her personal habits—always wearing white, never leaving her home, refusing to receive visitors—earned her a reputation for eccentricity. In 1874, Dickinson's father died unexpectedly, leaving her to care for her invalid mother, who died in 1882. Dickinson died in 1886 after being diagnosed with Bright's disease, a kidney disorder.
Over the course of her writing career, Dickinson composed nearly eighteen hundred poems, all in the form of brief lyrics. She explored a variety of subjects: the austerity and beauty of nature, experiences of love and loss, and her own skeptical attitude toward religion and immortality, as well as her fascination with death. Drawing heavily from biblical sources and influenced by such poets as George Herbert, Shakespeare, and John Keats, Dickinson developed a highly personal system of symbol and allusion, assigning complex meanings to colors, places, times, and seasons. She experimented with compression, enjambment, and unusual rhyme schemes, and also employed an idiosyncratic use of capitalization and punctuation, thereby creating a poetic style that further distinguished her verse from contemporary American poetry.
Initial criticism of Dickinson's work, following the 1890 publication of Poems of Emily Dickinson, was largely unfavorable, yet her work received widespread popular acclaim. Willis Buckingham has noted that readers in the 1890s often praised Dickinson's "inspired" thoughts and emotions rather than her poetic technique. Modern critics, though, have come to appreciate Dickinson's accomplishments in language and poetic structure. Margaret Dickie has challenged critics who have attempted to provide a narrative analysis of Dickinson's work by studying her poetry as a whole. Dickie maintains that the poems were written as lyrics, and should be examined as such. Karen Oakes has explored Dickinson's use of metonymy to establish an intimate, feminine discourse with her readers. Other critics, such as Judy Jo Small and Timothy Morris, have analyzed Dickinson's rhyme structure, Small noting the acoustical effects of this structure, and Morris observing how Dickinson's patterns of rhyme and enjambment developed over time.
Many critics have also explored the various themes of Dickinson's poetry against the backdrop of events in her personal life. Among these are Jane Donahue Eberwein, who has studied the poems concerning love and its redemption, and Nadean Bishop, who has focused on Dickinson's spirituality, specifically the poems that seem to indicate the poet's rejection of religious dogma in favor of a private version of God and heaven. Paula Hendrickson, who has examined Dickinson's poems that focus on the precise moment of death, notes that these poems are typically treated as a subcategory of the death poem genre and are rarely treated individually.
Power is another of Dickinson's themes that has received a great deal of critical attention. R. McClure Smith has examined how Dickinson uses the trope of seduction to explore her relationship to patriarchal power. Feminist critics have also found the issue of power of great significance in Dickinson's work. Cheryl Walker maintains that while many feminist critics try to assert that Dickinson's life was "a model of successful feminist manipulation of circumstances," in fact, the poet was attracted to masculine forms of power. Paula Bennett, on the other hand, has contended that Dickinson's relationships with women were more significant than her struggles with men, male power, or male tradition. Bennett argues that Dickinson's relationship with women provided her with the comfort and safety necessary for the poet to explore her own sexuality. This contention, Bennett states, is supported by a reading of Dickinson's poems that recognizes their homoeroticism and use of clitoral imagery.
The enigmatic details surrounding Dickinson's life continue to fascinate readers and critics alike. Yet it is the technical originality of her poetry, the variety of themes she addressed, and the range and depth of intellectual and emotional experience she explored that have established Dickinson's esteemed reputation as an American poet.