The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;
And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.
Generally considered among the greatest American poets, Emily Dickinson has been read, studied, and admired by generations of literature students and poetry lovers. This modestly priced edition presents over 100 of her best-known and most-loved poems, reprinted from authoritative early editions. Unflinchingly honest, psychologically penetrating, and technically adventurous, the poems include such favorites as "The Chariot," "I taste a liquor never brewed," "The Snake," "I'm nobody, who are you?" "A Book," "There's a certain slant of light," "Hope," and many more.
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Today Emily Dickinson is recognized not only as a major poet of the American nineteenth century but also as one of the most intriguing poets of any place or time, in both her art and her life. The outline of her biography is well known. She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and, except for a few excursions to Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston, spent her entire life there, increasingly limiting her activities to her father's house. "I do not cross my Father's ground to any House or Town," she wrote, referring to a personal reclusiveness that was noticeable even to her contemporaries. In the front corner bedroom of that house on Main Street, Dickinson wrote over 1,700 poems, often on scraps of paper and on the backs of grocery lists, only a handful of which were published in her lifetime and then anonymously. She was known to give poems to friends and neighbors, often as an accompaniment to the cakes and cookies she baked, sometimes lowering them from an upstairs window in a basket. Her habit of binding groups of poems together into little booklets called fascicles might indicate she felt her poems were presentable, but most of her poems never went farther than her desk drawer where they were discovered by her sister after Dickinson's death in 1886 of kidney failure. In her lifetime, her poetry remained unknown, and although a few small editions of her poems were published in the 1890s, it was not until 1955 that a reliable scholarly edition appeared, transcribing the poems precisely from the original manuscripts and preserving all of Dickinson's typographical eccentricities (see Note). Convincingly or not, she called publication "the auction of the mind" and compared thepublic figure to a frog croaking to the admiring audience of a bog.
It is fascinating to consider the case of a person who led such a private existence and whose poems remained unrecognized for so long after her death, as if she had lain asleep only to be awakened by the kiss of the twentieth century. The quirky circumstances of her life have received as much if not more commentary than the poems themselves. Some critics valorize her seclusion as a form of female self-sufficiency; others make her out to be a victim of her culture. Still others believe that her solitariness has been exaggerated. She did attend school, after all, and she maintained many intimate relationships by letter. Moreover, it was less eccentric in her day than in ours for one daughtershe had a brother who was a lawyer and a sister who marriedto remain home to run the household and assist her parents. Further, all writers need privacy; all must close the door on the world to think and compose. But Dickinson's separatenesswhich has caused her to be labeled a homebody, a spinster, and a feminist icon among other thingstook extreme forms. She was so shy that her sister Lavinia would be fitted for her clothes; she wore only white for many years ("Wear nothing commoner than snow"); and she rarely would address an envelope, afraid that her handwriting would be seen by the eyes of strangers. When asked of her companions, she replied in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself that my father bought me."
However tempting it is to search through the biographical evidence for a solution to the enigma of Emily Dickinson's life, we must remember that no such curiosity would exist were it not for the poems themselves. Her style is so distinctive that anyone even slightly acquainted with her poems would recognize a poem on the page as an Emily Dickinson poem, if only for its shape. Here is a typical example:
'T is little I could care for pearls
Who own the ample sea;
Or brooches when the Emperor
With rubies pelteth me;
Or gold, who am the Prince of Mines;
Or diamonds, when I see
A diadem to fit a dome
Continual crowning me.
From the Hardcover edition.
Table of Contents
A bird came down the walk
A clock stopped-not the mantel's
A door just opened on a street?
A drop fell on the apple tree
After a hundred years
A light exists in spring
A little road not made of man
"A long, long sleep, a famous sleep"
Ample make this bed
A narrow fellow in the grass
An everywhere of silver
A shady friend for torrid days
A thought went up my mind to-day
Because I could not stop for Death
Before you thought of spring
Death sets a thing significant
Delight becomes pictorial
Departed to the judgment
Each life converges to some centre
For each ecstatic instant
God gave a loaf to every bird
God made a little gentian
God permits industrious angels
"Going to him! Happy letter! Tell him?"
Good night! which put the candle out?
Heaven is what I cannot reach!
He fumbles at your spirit
Her final summer was it
Hope is the thing with feathers
I breathed enough to learn the trick
I cannot live with you
"I died for beauty, but was scarce"
I dreaded that first robin so
I felt a cleaving in my mind
I felt a funeral in my brain
If I can stop one heart from breaking
I found the phrase to every thought
If you were coming in the fall
I had been hungry all the years
"I had no time to hate, because"
I heard a fly buzz when I died
I held a jewel in my fingers
I know a place where summer strives
I like to see it lap the miles
I lived on dread: to those who know
"I'll tell you how the sun rose,?"
I meant to find her when I came
I measure every grief I meet
I'm nobody! Who are you?
"I never hear the word "escape"
I never saw a moor
I stepped from plank to plank
I taste a liquor never brewed
It dropped so low in my regard
It is an honorable thought
It's all I have to bring to-day
"It's like the light,?"
It struck me everyday
"It was not death, for I stood up"
"I went to heaven,?"
I years had been from home
Like trains of cars on tracks of plush
Me! Come! My dazzled face
My life closed twice before it close
My nosegays are for captives
Nature rarer uses yellow
"Nature, the gentlest mother"
Not in this world to see his face
Of all the souls that stand create
One need not be a chamber to be haunted
Our journey had advanced
Pain has an element of blank
Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
Safe in their alabaster chambers
"She rose to his requirement, dropped"
She sweeps with many-colored brooms
So bashful when I spied her
So proud she was to die
The brain within its groove
The bustle in a house
The cricket sang
"The day came so slow, till five o'clock"
"The dying need but little, dear,?"
The heart asks pleasure first
"The nearest dream recedes, unrealized"
The only ghost I ever saw
The pedigree of honey
There is no frigate like a book
There's a certain slant of light
There's been a death in the opposite house
The show is not the show
"The sky is low, the clouds are mean"
The thought beneath so slight a film
The wind begun to rock the grass
The wind tapped like a tired man
"They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars"
They say that 'time assuages'?
This is my letter to the world
This is the land the sunset washes
"Tie the strings to my life, my Lord"
To my quick ear the leaves conferred
T was just this time last year I died
Two butterflies went out at noon
Victory comes late
"We like March, his shoes are purple"
We outgrow love like other things
We play at paste
Wild nights! Wild nights!
"You left me, sweet, two legacies,?"
Reading Group Guide
1. Dickinson never published any of her poetry during her lifetime; her work was discovered after her death. As Billy Collins notes in his Introduction, "It is fascinating to consider the case of a person who led such a private existence... as if she had lain asleep only to be awakened by the kiss of the twentieth century." What conclusions can you draw about the relationship of Dickinson's privacy during her life and the nature and texture of her art?
2. Dickinson's poetry continues to be extremely influential and important for twentieth-century readers; she remains one of the most widely read American poets to this day. What accounts for this remarkable, enduring popularity, in your view? What makes her poetry seem, to so many, so contemporary? What influence or legacy do you think her work has had or left?
3. Considering Dickinson in relation to some of the exemplary poetry of her time (for instance, Walt Whitman), what features seem to distinguish Dickinson's work? Are there contemporary poets that you would compare in some way to Emily Dickinson?
4. What innovations-stylistic or otherwise-do you find or notice in Dickinson's poetry? What themes or motifs seem to recur in her work, and what do these signify for you?
5. Which individual poems in this volume do you find most compelling and affecting? Which poems do you find most difficult, obscure, or hard to penetrate?
6. Billy Collins notes that Dickinson's poetry is particularly effective in its ability to "compress wide meaning into small spaces." Discuss this feature of her work in relation to poetry in general.
7. How do you think Dickinson'sidentity as a woman-in nineteenth-century America-plays into her art?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
The only poem that resonated with me was: "Returning" on page 28.