Poet Profile: Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

One Crucifixion is recorded—only—
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics—
Or History—

One Calvary—exhibited to Stranger—
As many be
As persons—or Peninsulas—

Is but a Province—in the Being’s Centre—
For Journey—or Crusade’s Achieving—
Too near—

Our Lord—indeed—made Compound Witness—
And yet—
There’s newer—nearer Crucifixion
Than That—

A year or so ago I had some friends over for dinner and my dear and devoutly-Catholic friend Mary shared the poem above. “What does it mean?” she asked, drawing all of us into a protracted conversation not only of the themes and meanings of this particular poem but of the work of Emily Dickinson, and poetry in general (dinner conversation at my house is not to everyone’s taste).

Dickinson 184647
Emily Dickinson, 1846 or 1847.

“What does it mean?” was the response of publishers and public alike to the small fraction of Dickinson’s work which was actually published in her lifetime. It was only following her death in 1886 that her younger sister Lavinia found amongst her effects an extensive collection of poems spanning the length of Dickinson’s adult life and, after some considerable effort, was able to get them published.

Dickinson’s work is complex and it is difficult to place it within a single literary movement. Much of it can be identified with that almost uniquely American genre, Transcendentalism, but it also reflects the Romantic preoccupation with death and mortality; Christian Mysticism; and seems in places to foreshadow 20th Century Symbolism. Likewise her use of metre and rhyming schemes is highly idiosyncratic: Dickinson made frequent, but far from exclusive, use of ballad stanza, and often used unconventional punctuation such as dashes and lines to indicate the emphasis and flow of her verses. In addition, although she often used perfect rhyme she also favoured ‘slant rhyme’, an imperfect style most commonly used today by hip-hop artists.

Dickinson children 1840
The Dickinson children – Emily, Austin, and Lavinia – C.1840

Emily was the second of three children born into a middle-class family in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she would spend her entire life. She received what was for the time a remarkably extensive education, particularly for a girl, attending Amherst Academy where her studies included Latin, classical literature, botany, arithmetic and ‘mental philosophy’.

Emily never married, instead becoming increasingly reclusive throughout her life, but it is plain that her self-imposed physical confinement served only to increase the liberation of her mind and spirit – she maintained extensive correspondence with a number of people, was close to her family, including her beloved sister-in-law Susan, throughout her life, and, of course, produced an extensive body of poetry.

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As sponges – buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –


In addition to the Bible, Dickinson was particularly influenced by the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whose death in 1861 inspired Dickinson to write several verses dedicated to ‘that Foreign Lady’ whose work had meant so much to her.

Dickinson died at home in Amherst on May 15th 1886.

Starting-points with Emily Dickinson:

The best-known of Dickinson’s poems today is probably ‘Because I Could Not Stop For Death’ (Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me/The carriage held but just ourselves/And immortality…). As my friends and I realised that night at dinner, Dickinson’s work can be challenging and is not to everyone’s taste, but it is also beautiful and rich in meaning, so it’s well worth persevering.

What do you think the first poem in this post is about?



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