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Emily Dickinson is a great American poet in 19th century, and she is as important as Whitman. She is regarded as the forerunner of imagism. The original images and the special way of constructing these images, including wording, polishing, and the rhythm are her remarkable features. She made great contributing to American literature. This paper discusses her poetry in terms of the image of poetry and the style of her writing.
Key Words: image; wording; rhetorical devices; rhythm
It is widely agreed that Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest poets of America. She is also the most mysterious woman in American literature. She left us 1800 poems, however, when she was alive, only 7 poems was published. After her death, her sister published her poems. This collection provoked sensation in American. Many critics began to study on her poetry. They thought her poetry had the features of modernism and imagism. But in China, it wasn’t until 1970s that the researches on Emily Dickinson were started, and most the researches were in terms of only one angle-the context or the form. I think that’s not enough. So this time I choose to study her poetry from two aspects, the images and the ways to construct the images.
She was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. And all her life, she had been there living a isolated life, so she was called “the Num of the Amherst”(Martin, 2004:9).She entered into Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but severe homesickness led her to return home after one year. After that, she began her monastic life. She did nothing but gardening, writing poems and doing a little housework. She was a sensitive woman, and had a plentiful inner world. In her poems, she showed us an original, different and colorful world. In this world, she used her imagination conveying us her own thoughts and understanding about nature, life, love, death. Although she never stated her theories of poetry-writing, her opinion about this aspect just like brilliant pearls scattered in her letters and poems. “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold, no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” (Martin, 2004:11)Dickinson emphasized intuition, intimate recollecting of inspirational moments. She also thinks that only through the words which are full of images, intense emotion can be stirred up. Her poems are mostly in free verse. In addition to such characteristics as the abundant use of dashes, and irregular and often idiosyncratic punctuation and capitalization, her mode of expression is characterized by clear-cut and delicately original imagery, precise diction, and fragmentary and enigmatic metrical pattern. Her style of creation coincided with the imagists. So, many imagists regard her as the forerunner of imagism. She loved reading, and the Bible and Shakespeare are her teachers, and Emerson also has influence on her. When she was alive, only 7poems were published. However, after her death, 1800 poems were found.
2 The images in Emily Dickinson’s poems
In Emily Dickinson’s poems, both the theme and the style of construction display her imagination and originality on the way of writing poems. Her family, religion, and Emerson all affected her creation.
2.1 The theme of the image
2.1.1 The nature theme
In the poems that Emily left to us, there are a lot of ones describing nature or using nature as the background. And many people consider that these poems which are related to nature are the most successful. For Emily Dickinson, nature is her spiritual sustenance. She lived an isolated life, but placed all her emotion on nature. From the starry sky, landscape, sun and moon to the insects, birds and animals, everything is the subjects which she glorified. Her observation is careful, that’s because she loved it deeply. She was skillful at portraying an image in a twisted way. Now, please appreciate the following poem:
A Bird Came down the Walk-
He did not know I saw-
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass-
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass-
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around-
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought-
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crum
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home-
That Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam-
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Through careful observation and portrait of details, the poet drew lively picture of a lovely little bird hunting for food. “And then hopped sidewise to the wall/To let a beetle pass.” This line highlighted the bird’s vividness. Poet’s outlook on nature was also revealed in this poem. In the forth stanza, the poet want to be close to the bird, so she “offered him a crumb”, but “he like one in danger, cautiousâ€¦And he unrolled his feathers/And rowed him softer home”. The bird becomes an emblem for the quick, lively, ungraspable wild essence that distances nature from human beings who desire to appropriate or tame it. The most remarkable feature of this poem is the imagery of its final stanza, in which Dickinson provides one of the most breath-taking descriptions of flying in poetry. From this picture, we can see the poet wanted to establish relationship and understanding with nature. However, the outcome runs counter to the purpose, nature symbolized by the bird refused her goodwill. There is still barrier between them. Though a simple poem, Emily gave us enlightenment: Maybe human beings should try to find a better way to get along with nature, so that the harmony between nature and human can be achieved.
Except the animals, the plants, like trees, bluebell, lotus, rose, daffodils, violet and strawberry have all been in her poetry. In her opinion, human was one part of nature, only if we know all about nature, can we know about ourselves. She also regarded the nature as the reflection of human heart. Therefore, in one hand, she sang of nature; on the other hand, she also presented the frightening side of nature, just as the following poem: No. 1624
Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower,
The Frost beheads it at its play-
In accidental power-
The blonde Assassin passes on-
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an approving God.
“The Frost” injured “the happy flower” accidentally. However, “the Sun” was unmoved, and doing nothing but fulfilling his duties indifferently. Is that really no surprise? Actually, it should be surprising. So the first line used irony. Obviously, Emily was not only describing the sight, but also expressing her feeling. The natural phenomenon alluded that the society was indifferent to barbarity.
There are also many poems on natural phenomena. For instance, the alternation of the seasons, the rotation between life and death, the rise and fall of the tide, and sunset and sunrise. Some common things showed indubitable, real beauty which had never been found by common people. She liked to link the different images and endow them a new meaning. You can feel this in poem, No.214:
I taste Liquor never brewed-
From tankards scooped in pearl-
Not all the vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an alcohol!
Inebriate of air am-I-
And debauchee of dew-
Reeling-through endless summer days-
From inns of molten blue-
When landlords turn the drunken bee
Out of the foxglove’s door-
When butterflies renounce their drams-
I shall but drink the more!
Till seraphs swing their snowy hats-
And saints to windows run-
To see the little tippler-
Leaning against the sun!
Emily originally compared nature to liquor, the “I” in the poem drink heavily “the liquor” and immersed in the state of being drunk with it. “I” was joyful because of intoxicating with the beauty of nature.
In poem No. 50, “I started Early-Took My Dog”, poet made the sea as the theme, use metaphor and personification, and show the charm of the sea also a potential crisis. In addition, the quotation of the story about mermaids made the poem more graphic. Another example, in poem No. 1148, she told us “Yesterday is old”, and today is a new start. An optimistic and hopeful emotion passes through the whole poem, which gave readers a happy mood.
2.1.2 The love theme
As I said before, Emily Dickinson is a sensitive woman and her poetry contains deep emotion. It’s especially in her love poems, some of which are wild with joy, but some of them are grief-stricken. In her love poetry, there are sprouting love, passionate love and gradually fading love. She said love straightforwardly, but I still feel fresh. She never married all her life, maybe just because of this, she was always keeping the beautiful imagination about love.
She thought dedication is vital to love. In the following poem, No.249, you can find the evidence.
WILD nights-Wild nights!
Was I with thee?
Wild nights should be
To a heart in port-
Done with the compass-
Done with the chart!
Rowing in Eden-
Ah! The sea!
Might I but moor
To-night in thee!
This poem is the imagination of being with her lover. “Our love” is enthusiastic just like “Wild Night”, “the boat” and “the sea” is the symbol of lovers. Eden is the paradise of lovers, and it represents the sweetness love. Poet use the two lines “Rowing in Eden/…To-night in thee” to show that they achieved the perfect state of love. All of these were embodied in her strong emotion and her spirit of devotion to love.
In the same way, Dickinson also used original images like the first two stanzas in poem No. 754:
My life has stood-a Leaden Gun-
In Corners-till a Day
The Owner passed-identified-
And carried Me away-
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods-
And now We hunt the Doe-
And every time I speak for Him-
The Mountains straight reply-
Dickinson developed a unique new method of her own. She compared a “Loaded Gun” to the mood of waiting eagerly for lover’s coming. In this poem, love isn’t soft any longer. As soon as her lover turned up in front of her, the constrained emotion would be triggered off at any moment. It expresses the longing for love exactly. In the poem No. 549:
That I did always love
I bring thee proof
That till I loved
I did not love enough-
That I shall love always
I offer thee
That love is life
And life hath immortality
This, dost thou doubt, sweet,
Then have I
Nothing to show
She said “That love is life-“. Dickinson combines the love and death, and she thought life is beautiful, love is most important; life and death depended on each other.; only through “Calvaries” of love, we can be immortal and achieve new marriage. Love transcend the death, and become a firm belief which hold up her life, distillate her soul and enrich her poems.
2.1.3 Death and life
In Emily’s poetry, there are 600 written with the death as theme. They are the profound thoughts of the relationship between death and life, death and eternity. So I put the two themes together. Please read the following lines:
A word is dead
When it is said-
I say it just
Begins to live
For Emily Dickinson, death is not an ending, it’s a new beginning. Death is another form of life. People taking on it when they were born. Life and death can not be departed, because they are united entirety.
Emily faced the death bravely, for she had known clearly the essence of death. In her poems of death, the view of death is completely and clearly revealed. Especially in the poem “Because I could not stop for Death-“. It’s has greatest achievement. Please read the first stanza:
Because I could not stop for Death-
He kindly stopped for me-
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
Death is just personified as a people picking her up and going with her. From here we can see her calmness when she is confronted with death.
We slowly drove, he knew no haste-
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too
For his civility-
They don’t hurry. And the poet requite death with putting away her labor and leisure. Apparently, she has regarded death as her friend.
We passed the school, where children played-
At wrestling in a ring-
We passed the fields of gazing grain-
We passed the setting sun-
In this stanza, the paralism implies that poet has a strong attachment to life, so the follow:
Or rather, be passed Us-
The Dews grew quivering and chill-
For only Gossamer-my Gown-
My Tippet-only Tulle-
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground-
The roof, was scarcely visible-
The cornice, but a mound-
Since then, it is centuries but each-
Feels shorter than the day-
I first surmised the horses’ heads,
Were toward Eternity-
The vigor and uproar of life moved her. Someone’s life is long, but another is short, and all of them are limited. So before death comes to pick us up, we should perish our lives. Maybe this is what Dickinson wanted to tell us through this poem. This poem is death in her imagination. Not only has Emily the unique imagination on death, she also experienced the death of families and friends. Therefore, there are still some poems about real death. In the poem “I’ve seen a Dying Eye”,
I ‘ve Seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room-
In search of something-as it seemed-
Then cloudier become-
And then-obscure with fog-
And then-be soldered down.
Without disclosing what it be.
‘T were blessed to have seen-
In this poem, death is uncertain. And at the beginning, the eye is searching for something but we don’t know what he is looking for, because only the dying people has this feeling. Death is inevitable. What can you see when you are dying? What about after death? All of these the alive people couldn’t know. Maybe only when a person is dying, he or she would understand the true meaning of life.
2.2 The pattern of construction
Emily’s poetry broke through the tradition not only in terms of image, but also the way of construction, including the wording and the rhetorical devices, the using of punctuation and the rhythm.
2.2.1 The lexical structure and the rhetorical devices
A Rout of Evanescence-
With a revolving Wheel-
A Resonance of Emerald-
A Rush of Cochineal-
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts its tumbled Head-
The mail from Tunis, probably
An easy Morning’s Ride-
The first sight is that the poet uses a series of words representing various images. The most novel thing is using the color to describe the sound and movement. The picture burst into vividness at once. This way linking hearing, sight, smelling, tasting and feeling is known as synaesthesia. But just catching the lovely images can’t tell us what the mysterious poem is portraying. Actually it’s a hummingbird. This kind of bird is delicate and has colorful feather which presents different colors under the sun, and a beak as slim as a needle. When they are gathering honey among flowers, they can fly forward or backward also can hang in the air. Now, we know that this poem emphasize a sudden action, the sound of quivering the splendid colors and the general impression which faded in a twinkling. Emily’s skillful and lively wordings demonstrate her talent here. Describing the wings when the hummingbird flies, she used “a revolving wheel”. The “Emerald” is used to portray the sound when it is flying. And its beak is the “Rush of cochineal”. Then, the reaction of personified flower is “Adjust tumbled Head”. The last two lines compared the hummingbird as a tourist coming and going leaving no trace. Personification, metaphor, synaesthesia, and exaggeration are all used very appropriately. A lively and delicate bird appeared in front of us.
Conciseness is another feature of her poetry. Look at this poem:
Fame is a bee-
It has a song-
It has a sting-
Ah, too, it has a wing-
There are eighteen words in total in this poem, and if exclude the repeated words, there is only eleven. No splendid adjective, no important verbs, only five nouns work actually. They are fame, bee, song, sting, swing, and the sentence-pattern is simple, too. Even a child can understand this poem. But it didn’t fading. On the contrary, it become more charming for its being unsophisticated. The dew-like sparkling language conveys Emily’s view about fame. Fame has a song also a sting, which implication of good fame and bad fame. Fame also has a “wing” which can help you to fly; it can give you a bright future. Personified fame is alive, so it gets out of control.
If you think Emily never used rare word, her poetry maybe become too stiff. Sometimes, in order to express more powerfully. Emily Dickinson chose some rare words, such as scientific terms, or some words from Latin. Her poems is just like a pretty girl, after making-up, looks more beautiful. In the poem:
There is no Frigate like a book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry-
This Traverse may be the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll-
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul!
A word has not only conceptual meaning, but also associative meaning. In this poem, in order to lead us into her imaginary world, Emily compared literature to various means of transportation. She picked up some words which can stir up readers’ romantic association. If we change the “frigate” into “ship”, there would be no hardships and adventure; if we change “courser” into “horse”, we couldn’t see its prettiness, speed and vigorousness; and if we change “chariot” into “bus”, the book would lose its power, and the charm of the whole poem would fade.
The words in some poems have new meaning because they are embodied with Emily’s understanding of life. Just like the words in the following lines:
The Carriage held but just Ourselves-
Were toward Eternity-
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers-
Lie the meek members of the
In Dickinson’s poems, the words related to death, such as “coffin”, “grave”, “tomb” and so on, don’t make us feel freezing, horrible and despaired any longer. And “death” is like a sweet, warm and peaceful home and shelter, like “home”, “chamber”, “room”, “inn”, “door”, which is longed for by tired people. And at this moment, death is solemn, sacred, and full of beauty, love, music. In Emily Dickinson’s dictionary, death has new meanings.
So many poems are the examples of Emily’s skillful usage of rhetorical devices. Such as poem No. 986:
A narrow Fellow in the grass-
You may have met him-Did you not-
His notice sudden is-
The Grass divides as with a Comb-
A spotted shaft is seen-
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on-
He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn-
Yet when a child, and barefoot-
I more than once, at morn.
Have passed, I thought, a Whip-lash
Unbraiding in the Sun-
When, Stooping to secure it,
It wrinkled, and was gone-
Several of nature’s people,
I know, and they know me-
I feel for them a transport
But never met this fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And zero at the bone.
Although the image depicted in this poem is a snake, we can not see even one “snake”. However, through the lifelike sound (the repetition of sound /s/), the depiction of the animal’s shape (long and thin), and the mode of its moving (showing up suddenly and disappearing suddenly), combining readers’ own experience, it’s not difficult to know that the poet were describing a snake. In this poem, Emily handled rhetorical devices skillfully, like personification (Him), metaphor (with a comb), alliteration (A spotted shaft is seen). Additionally, using the comb and shaft, she revealed the snake’s movement when “he” was sliding in the grass. In terms of wording, Emily did a great job to American literature.
2.2.2 The morphological structure
Emily is also famous for using a lot of dashes in her poems. Generally speaking, the dashes have three functions. The first one is to represent pause, transition and ellipsis. The second one is to make poem sounded like music. The third one is to express transcendental meditation and profound introspection. For example, the poem: “Fame is a bee-” (We have just mentioned before). The first dash is coming after “song”, and make this line sounds like the singing lasting. The second dash is after “sting”, which can make you feel being stung. It influences on sight. The third dash gives us a feeling that the fame is flying. It also works on sight. Please read another short poem: “Presentiment”
Presentiment-is that long Shadow-on the Lawn-
Indicative that Suns go down-
The Notice to the startled Grass
That Darkness-is about to pass-
In the first line, there are three dashes. Not only they divide the sentence by the different ingredients, but also form the pause in terms of meaning. They impress meaning deeply. And because of the three dashes, the speed of this line slow down, and a feeling of moving gradually aroused, so that we can feel the approaching of the shadow. It seems that I am watching the darkness overflowing the lawn little by little, and a feel of suffocation spreading in my body.
Irregular capitalization can often be seen in Dickinson’s poetry. Capitalizing at her pleasure is another remarkable feature of Emily Dickinson. She used the irregular capitalized words in the middle of lines, breaking traditional way, so that to get an unexpected effect. The capitalized words are emphasized, and drew readers’ attention. At the same time, they recorded the poet’s real and complex feeling about life. Dickinson’s irregular capitalizations are more effective than the irregular small letters. These words are just like drumbeats beating in my heart, conveying the rising and falling of poet’s mind copying her rhythm of emotion. In the following poem, the capitalized words have several functions:
The Brain-is wider than the Sky-
For-put them side by side-
The one the other will include
With ease-and You-beside-
The Brain is deeper than the sea,
For-hold them-Blue to Blue-
The one the other will absorb-
The Brain is just the weight of God-
For-Lift them-Pound for Pound-
And they will differ-if they do-
As Syllable from Sound-
The first function: emphasize, like “Brain”, “Sky”, “You”, etc. The second: Repeat, and stress the rhythm of emotion to embody the poem with musical beauty, such as “Blue to Blue”, “Pound for Pound”, etc. The last one: paralism or comparison. For instance, “Sponges-Buckets-“, “Syllable from Sound”, and so on.
Additionally, in order to stress the theme, the words which are related to the image are capitalized. For example, “Room”, “Door”, “Box” are the metaphor of grave, coffin and people’s destination. They are related to death, so they are always capitalized in the death poems.
2.2.3 The metrical structure
In poetry, the sound is an important way of feeling the world and expressing emotion. Dickinson often breaks through the traditional rhythm to make the language fresher. Let’s appreciate her poem No. 280:
I felt a Funeral in my Brain,
And Mourners to and Fro
Keep treading-treading-till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through-
And when they all were seated
A Service, like a Drum-
Kept beating-beating-till I thought
My Mind was going numb-
In the first two stanzas, the iambs of the first two lines are both relatively neat. However, come to the third line “-treading-treading” and “beating-beating” turn up suddenly. This kind of breaking through copies the heavy footsteps of people carrying the coffin, and plays up the horrible atmosphere on the funeral.
Let’s look at the rhyme. In the first stanza, the diphthongs are used, which make a gloomy, melancholy and dreary atmosphere in the poem. Among them, the short syllables and “beating-beating” cooperated, like the raindrops’ striking flooded severely all the sounds. The grave becomes deadly still.
Another poem, “He fumbles at your Soul”
He fumbles at your Soul
As Players at the Keys
Before they drop full Music on-
He stuns you by degrees-
Prepares your brittle Nature
For the Ethereal Blow
By fainter Hammers-further heard-
Then nearer-Then so slow
Your breath has time to straighten-
Your Brain-to bubble Cool-
That sealps your naked Soul-
The first half part uses the neat and well balanced rhymes to compare with the tune played by the players. In the last half part, the dashes become slow and obtuse to build a horrible and intense atmosphere and make the poem and “he” becomes more mysterious.
Nowadays, the researches on Emily Dickinson abroad become more and more. She is a great poet, and as important as Whitman to American literature. Today, we discuss the image in her poetry and the ways of her creation. However, the research about her is not enough in our country, especially the people and the things that influenced her. For example, the relationship between Metaphisicals, the influence Emerson has on her, even the relationship between her and Edgar Allen Poe. I hope more researches about this aspect can be done.
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