This handout was prepared by Dr. William Tarvin, a retired professor of literature. Please visit my free website www.tarvinlit.com. Over 500 works of American and British literature are analyzed there for free.
Text used: Jahan Ramazani, Richard Ellmann, and Robert O’Clair, eds., The Norton
Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry, 3rd ed. Vol. 1. New York:
1. Whitman and Dickinson "all but invented American poetry," although their poems seem "at opposite poles" (Ramazani 30).
2. Dickinson's poetry examines a microcosm “in contrast to Whitman’s macrocosm" (Ramazani xxxviii):
--Her short lines vs. his long ones;
--Her minute observation of household happenings vs. his panoramic presentation of all America;
--Her few, but revolutionary, poetic techniques vs. his plethora of rhetorical devices.
3. Dickinson's life and poetry were largely influenced by men, although she never married:
(1) Her father, Edward Dickinson, a wealthy lawyer; she viewed him as godlike, but also as rather pompous and Puritanical.
(2) Benjamin Newton, a law apprentice in her father’s office; she and Newton had a flirtatious affair when she was 18; his death shortly afterwards deeply affected her.
(3) Rev. Charles Wadsworth, a married minister whom Dickinson knew from 1855-60 (her 25th-30th years). He seemed not to know how much Dickinson loved him.
It was after Wadsworth moved his family to San Francisco that Dickinson took to wearing only white clothes, as if she were the waiting "bride."
"She took his departure hard, and her greatest poems, written in the early 1860s, have been read as reenactments of this pain and broodings on it" (32).
To wit, in 1862, she wrote a staggering 366 poems, almost all inspired by her love for Wadsworth.
(4) Col. Thomas Higginson, a prominent literary critic who encouraged Dickinson to write. He corresponded and occasionally visited her from 1862 to the end of her life and helped edit her poems after her death.
4. Only seven of her c. 1800 poems were published in her lifetime, all anonymously and probably without her permission.
5. The tension of Dickinson's poetry arises from the pull between her Puritan upbringing (stressing repression of desires) and her Transcendental inclination (her intoxicating celebration of life).
II. THEMES OF DICKINSON'S POETRY
1. Her poetry examines (usually celebrates) the world of nature.
2. The world of nature is usually a source of joy. However, unlike many Romantic poets and Transcendental writers, Dickinson does not portray a oneness between the natural and the human spheres.
For instance, the bird in "A Bird came down" rebukes the human speaker of the poem.
3. Dickinson seems to tire of nature poetry, for she writes, “I thought that nature was enough / Til human nature came."
1. She knew love with a depth and violence that could come only from repression.
2. The American critic William Dean Howells wrote that in her love poetry "touch becomes clutch."
3. Her poetry dwells on the anxiety, danger, and loneliness which love can cause, as well as its ecstasy ("The Soul selects," "After great pain," and "My life closed twice").
1. Religious imagery is used throughout her poetry.
"After great pain" refers to Christ's suffering on the cross.
In “I heard a Fly," the dying person is waiting for "the King" (7),
that is, Christ.
An immortal “Eternity" (24) is the journey’s end in "Because I could
not stop for Death."
2. However, Dickinson's treatment of religion often borders on the disrespectful: In one poem (not in your text) the speaker calls God "a noted clergyman," and instead of addressing God as "Our Heavenly Father," she calls him "Papa above."
1. A recurrent theme is the separation...
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