Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) is one of the greatest poets to have graced the English language — and one of the strangest. Her genius is truly sui generis. During the four decades of her writing life, she lived in near-isolation from the larger world of letters. Though she corresponded with several local writers — chiefly Susan Gilbert, Thomas Higginson, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Samuel Bowles — her style sprung from the original cast of her mind. No doubt her originality was fueled by her way of life. From her mid-twenties until her death, Dickinson lived a life of extreme seclusion, passing her time in a bedroom in her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts. To this day, the reasons for Dickinson’s seclusion are unknown.
Dickinson produced nearly 1,800 poems, the vast majority of which were never seen by another soul during her life. She seems to have had no desire for broad publication or fame — “Fame is a fickle food,” she once wrote — and during her life, only eleven of her poems reached publications, ten of them against her wishes. Her eye was on excellence and eternity. In her correspondence, she revealed a desire to write verse that is “alive,” verse that might achieve posterity and posthumous recognition. On all of these accounts, she triumphed.
Dickinson’s recurring appeal is in large part due to the difficult pleasures of her poetry. In each poem, Dickinson asks us to cross a river, but in the place of a bridge she leaves us a precarious set of stepping stones. Indeed, her style tends towards compression, concision, silence. Dickinson guides us towards the depths and heights of her thinking with the slightest of gestures. In her world, spare images point to ever-elusive mysteries, dashes open up chasms of silence and nothingness, and stanzas of words shimmer in simultaneous harmony, like wind-chimes suspended in a breeze.
In appreciating Dickinson’s poetry, there is no replacement for the poems themselves. So, without further ado, let’s look at four of Emily Dickinson’s most cryptic and beautiful pieces, selected from across her body of work.
1. Safe in their Alabaster Chambers (216)
Safe in their Alabaster Chambers —
Untouched by morning —
And untouched by Noon —
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection —
Rafter of Satin — and Roof of Stone!
Grand go the years — in the crescent — above them —
Worlds scoop their Arcs —
And Firmaments — row —
Diadems — drop — and Doges — surrender —
Soundless as dots — on a Disc of Snow —
“Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” features some of Dickinson’s most persistent themes. Here, as in countless of her poems, Dickinson explores the terrain of death and the afterlife. The figures in question are “the meek members of the Resurrection,” buried Christian souls. The phrase nods to Matthew 5:5, which the praises “the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” The “Resurrection” refers to the Christian notion of the Last Judgment, when time ends and all souls are sorted into heaven and hell. Dickinson shows us those deceased souls as they wait for the end of time while luxuriating in bedchambers of alabaster, that prized stone. The final line of the first stanza produces a contrast between the interior of the tombs and the world outside. The ceilings are raftered with “Satin,” but from outside only the “Roof of Stone” — the grave markers — is apparent. This contrary pair of images deepens the strangeness of the souls’ opulent repose.
The second stanza expands the poem’s scale, zooming out from the cozy chambers of the dead to the celestial movements of the heavens far beyond them. The sky is rendered grandly as “the crescent.” Across more distant reaches, “worlds” — other planets — “scoop their arcs,” charting their separate and unknown destinies. With “Firmaments — row,” we are forced to confront the strange fact of other skies, the atmospheres of those other worlds as they row across the seas of outer space. Altogether, the effect dwarfs the entombed Christians of the first stanza. In the final two lines, we returns to Earth while maintaining the cosmic view. The tragic fates of queens and kings unfold on our small planet, but, viewed from far away, they fall as inconsequentially as raindrops on a snowy field. The four dashes that intersperse the penultimate line visually suggest those drops and, through the pauses they bring, suggest the indifferent silence that follows each earthly action. The final phrase, “Disc of Snow,” describes Earth seen from such a distance that the great sphere is flattened, in both appearance and importance. Dickinson, perhaps imagining a kind of ice age, ensconces the planet in a snowy tomb of its own. In a sense, the poem is deeply ironic. Having achieved a perspective that spans the cosmos, the destiny of the “meek members of the Resurrection,” that object of so much human worry, is no more than the destiny of dust.
2. After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes (341)
After great pain, a formal feeling comes —
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden way
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
This is the Hour of Lead —
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —
First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —
“After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes” is one of Dickinson’s most beautiful and difficult poems. In three stanzas, it presents a series of scenes and images that gesture towards painful psychological states: grief, doubt, numbness, and sorrow. And yet the precise nature of the initial “great pain” remains entirely shrouded, as do the circumstances surrounding it. The speaker characterizes the feeling that follows “great pain,” comparing the nerves both to people “sit[ting] ceremonious” and to “Tombs,” a metaphor that introduces the specter of death while sustaining the tone of stiffness and numbness. That tone continues when the “stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And yesterday, or Centuries before?” The capitalized “He” is Christ, whom the Heart appeals to as it tries to understand the pain it has felt. The question — “was it He, that bore”? — seeks to hold the Heart’s pain against that of Christ’s crucifixion. The next line collapses time, finding the eternal element in human suffering. Christ’s death occurred “Centuries before” but stands for the suffering of “Yesterday” as well.
One of the mysteries of the poem lies in the contrast between its deeply personal subject matter and its impersonal mode of address. We suspect that the speaker is describing her own emotions, but cannot know for certain. The words “I” and “me” never occur. Dickinson’s phrase is not “my great pain,” but “great pain”; not “my Nerves” and “my Feet,” but “the Nerves” and “the Feet.” There is a scientific detachment to this study of the heart. This detachment, however, can be understood as a response to grief. In the second stanza, the feeling of numbness continues as “The Feet, mechanical, go round.” The bereaved character has become unhinged from herself, mechanically going through the daily rounds while the “stiff Heart” remains stunned by grief. This state of numbness, this “Wooden way,” is comforting in its repetition, yet stagnant. The phrase “Quartz contentment” further embodies this cold and lifeless comfort. The formal qualities of the second stanza seem to mimic the character’s unhinged state. We find the careful pentameter of the first stanza discarded in favor of a restless melange of meters, and the third line is broken in two. The flow of thought and imagery reveals a similar restlessness and disorientation, epitomized in the uncertain phrase “Of Ground, or Air, or Ought.” The character seems not to know — or care — where she treads.
The final stanza resolves none of the poem’s questions and adds more. Dickinson transforms the weight of grief into “the Hour of Lead,” that heavy and toxic metal. The final three lines compare the memory of such a grievous episode to that of “Freezing persons, recollect[ing] the Snow.” In an unexpected turn, the final line describes not a memory of freezing, but the actual process of freezing to death. It is unclear whether the freezing is a metaphor for the process of giving in to grief. Or perhaps the freezing is itself the “great pain” that launched the poem’s grief. Whatever its precise meaning within the poem, it may be the most beautiful line of verse Dickinson ever wrote. The dashes convey the feeling of release, separating the line into single words, then a pair of words, and finally, like an exhale, “then the letting go.” With its clean end rhyme and its satisfying return to the pentameter of the first stanza, the final line conveys a feeling of resolution. And yet, like grief and great pain, the poem itself is never fully resolved.
3. I Died for Beauty (449)
I died for Beauty — but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth, was lain
In an adjoining Room —
He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
“For Beauty,” I replied —
“And I — for Truth — Themself are One —
We brethren, are”, He said —
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms —
Until the Moss had reached our lips —
And covered up — our names —
Like “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” “I Died for Beauty” examines death by imagining the lives — or, rather, afterlives — of corpses within their tombs. “I Died for Beauty” takes up Plato’s transcendental properties of being: Beauty, Truth, and Goodness. In particular, Dickinson looks at the relationship between Beauty and Truth, personifying the two ideals in the characters of the speaker, who “died for Beauty,” and the man laid in the adjacent tomb, who “died for Truth.” The two share their respective ideals of Beauty and Truth, at which point the “One who died for Truth” says, “Themself are One — / We brethren, are.” This equation of Beauty and Truth calls to mind the famous final lines of John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty, — that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” The equation seems to flow in both directions. The experience of Beauty guides us towards what is truest, and the discovery of Truth is a beautiful thing.
Both Dickinson’s and Keats’s poems consider Beauty and Truth from the perspective of oblivion. For Keats, art, embodied by the Grecian Urn, withstands the onslaught of time, allowing humans to communicate what is most beautiful and true across the ages. Beauty and Truth are worth dying for, because they survive us. In Dickinson’s hands, these questions yield more ambiguous answers. The two who died for Beauty and Truth “talked between the Rooms — / Until the Moss had reached our lips — / And covered up our names — .” Time, represented by the growing moss, eventually silences the two disciples, sealing their lips and covering the names on their tombstones. The two dashes of the final line seem to cross out their two names like the excising strikes of a pen. It seems that, despite their devotion, time has defeated them, leaving them with no way to convey Beauty and Truth to each other and to the world. Yet the poem itself, that vessel of Beauty and Truth, stands, sheltering the sepulchral scene from the winds of oblivion. The lips and names of those who died for Beauty and Truth are not entirely silenced, thanks to Dickinson’s pen and the act of devotion she rendered on the page.
4. The Hallowing of Pain (772)
The hallowing of Pain
Like hallowing of Heaven,
Obtains at a corporeal cost —
The Summit is not given
To Him who strives severe
At middle of the Hill —
But He who has achieved the Top —
All — is the price of All —
“The Hallowing of Pain” does not stand among Dickinson’s better known poems, but its spare, riddling lines offer a great deal for the imagination to chew on. The poem is spiritual in its concerns and movements. It examines the relationship between pain and transcendence, using the metaphor of climbing a hill to illuminate both experiences. In the opening lines, it appears that “The hallowing of Pain” is “Like [the] hallowing of Heaven” — that is to say, the two are similar. However, the poem ultimately attempts to show how the two processes can be not merely similar, but one and the same. At the heart of these hallowings is a transaction, for both demand “a corporeal cost” and, in return, promise “The Summit” or “All.” To demonstrate this transaction, Dickinson compares two hypothetical figures: “Him who strives severe / At middle of the Hill” and “He who has achieved the top.” The former figure toils away, presumably giving half of himself and thus remaining halfway up the hill. The latter, by comparison, has given everything of himself and “achieved the Top.”
The poem’s calculus of sacrifice and transcendence is clarified in the context of Christian doctrine. According to the New Testament, Jesus Christ sacrifices himself to cleanse humanity of its sins. He offers himself to be crucified — on a hill, by some accounts — and, upon his death, is granted eternal life. The final line elucidates this shift: “All — is the price of All — .” Christ gives all — his body, that “corporeal cost” — and receives all — transcendence to heaven. However, “the price of All” can also be read as the price for “all” of humanity to be redeemed. The dashes that follow both instances of “All” create ambiguous spaces that can hold both all and nothing: the all that is achieved and the nothing that is left behind. In just 41 words, Dickinson summons the entire drama of self-sacrifice at the heart of the Christian faith.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry is a continual cause for wonder. Her poems are feats of compression and subtle suggestion. Each word she chooses is crucial for its layers of sound and meaning. Her use of dashes, her stylistic signature, is equally careful. What appears at first to be an idiosyncrasy of penmanship is, upon deeper consideration, another powerful tool of meaning and suggestion. As we saw in the four poems above, Dickinson’s dash can be a silence, a pause, a possibility, an abyss.
In Dickinson’s poetry, difficulty is synonymous with delight and beauty. Her poems have a density and obscurity that puzzles the mind, requiring us to return again and again. Her words tease us with the promise of understanding, but, as deeply as we read, we never completely understand, and our sense of wonder never diminishes.
Note: The poems that appear in this essay, including their formatting and numbering, are drawn from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and published in 1960 by Little, Brown.