November 2, 2011

The Dickinson Project--Introduction & Poem No. 12

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts.  With the exception of a short stint at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in South Hadley, she spent her entire life in Amherst, most of it in her family home.  Frankly, she brings new meaning to the term "prolific poet".  Emily Dickinson wrote just under 1,800 poems, of which less than twelve were actually published during her lifetime (it is unclear if there were 7 or 10 poems published).

Shortly after Emily's death on May 15, 1886, at the age of 55, her younger sister, Lavinia found bundles of her poems, neatly sewn together in fascicles.  Can you imagine opening a trunk or a drawer and finding what arguably must be regarded as one of the greatest American literary treasure troves ever discovered?  Anyway over the next few weeks and months I plan to bring much, much more of Emily Dickinson's personal life to the forefront in this writing project.  Truth be known, I am awaiting the arrival of Richard B. Sewall's seminal biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson (1998).

I think the other point I'd like to make before I post the first poem tonight, is that Dickinson was not only quite unique in her time, but is still considered so.  This is a woman who used words sparingly but powerfully.  She didn't title any of her poems.  She was extraordinarily unconventional in her use of capitalization and punctuation (e.g., her use of dashes is important in establishing rhythm and meter as the poem is read or recited).  Dickinson also was unique in her use of slant rhyme (aka half rhyme) in her poetry.  "Slant rhyme" is defined in Webster's New World Dictionary as, "rhyme in which there is close but not exact correspondence of sounds (e.g., lid, lad; wait, made)".  Why don't we just go ahead and put up one of Emily's poem, and we'll use it to explore some of this stuff--

The morns are meeker than they were--
The nuts are getting brown--
The berry's cheek is plumper--
The Rose is out of town.

The Maple wears a gayer scarf--
The field a scarlet gown--
Lest I should be old fashioned
I'll put a trinket on.

(circa 1858)
There it is, short and ever so sweet.  What a wonderful portrait of the fall season in just these precious few words.  I just love the couplet "The berry's cheek is plumper--/The Rose is out of town."  It is just brilliant!  It feels like a happy little portrait of fall too, and leaves me with the impression that Emily loved seeing the changing seasons across the local landscape from her Amherst vantage points.

Okay, lets look at some of the technical aspects of this little poem.  First, there is what most of us recognize as some normal rhyming in the first stanza (i.e., Lines 1 and 3, and Lines 2 and 4).  Things get a little 'hinky' in the second stanza though, don't they?  Lines 2 and 4 are a great example of Emily's use of a slant rhyme (i.e., gown and on).  I also have to wonder if the last two lines aren't Emily having a little fun at her own expense.  She was known as a severely plain little woman who typically wore a white dress, and maybe she thought that she ought to add something to compete with that "gayer scarf" and "scarlet gown" of the autumn foliage.

Before you bail on me, just take a moment and read the poem aloud.  Use Emily's dashes at the end of her line to put that fractional pause in too.  Those dashes are ever so important and perfectly guide the poem's flow and rhythm.  See what I mean? 

Okay, I think this enough for now.  Rest assured that we will not only continue to explore the aesthetic and technical aspects of Emily's poetry, but we'll look at potential literary and artistic influences upon her work.  We're going to explore her relationships with family and friends over the course of her life too.  Oh, and I wanted to mention that over on the right side you can find a box for "The Dickinson Project", and in this box I will be keeping a listing of the references and resources that I will be using here.  Finally, I'm really excited to be starting this project, and because of it I know that I'm only going to fall even more in love with Emily Elizabeth Dickinson and her poetry.  I hope you do too!



  1. Thank you! Thank you! I really loved reading this post. This short poem was so succinct and vibrant. And your analysis and relevant information helped understand it better. (I did wonder at the last line until I read your explanation about the way Dickinson used to dress.)

    If this is a sample of how you're going to treat this and the Shakespeare sonnet project, I'm doubly thrilled. I think, in your desire to explore these writers, we're going to gain a lot too. :)

    Do you have some sort of button we can use to promote these projects of yours on our blogs?...

  2. This is awesome! You chose such a fitting November poem to begin this project. I love the way you analyze the lines, and I'm really, really looking forward to learning about Emily's life and relationships. Thanks for sharing this!! :-D

  3. When I think of Dickinson's poems I usually think of darker topics but this one is so warm and lovely. And you're right, she can do so much with so few words.

  4. Loved seeing your post today; it's finally nice and mild in Boston, almost autumnal, so the poem you chose fits perfectly. I'm quite passionate and protective of my ED so I'm especially looking forward to your thoughts on her and work.

  5. Loved this post! Thanks for providing the introduction and commentary as well.

  6. I loved this and am looking forward to more! I know very little about Dickinson and her poetry.

  7. Thank you for fascinating post Chris. I am quite the novice when it comes to poetry appreciation, and so I eagerly look forward to your upcoming posts. You have pitched this just right for someone who is new to Dickinson and not super confident with poetry generally. Thanks again.

  8. Thanks, everybody! It was great to read all of your responses and reactions to our first Dickinson poem. I think we are going to have loads of fun with this project. I am hoping that all of you will enjoy each and every step on our journey! Cheers!