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Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson

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Initially a vivacious, outgoing person, Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) progressively withdrew into a reclusive existence. An undiscovered genius during ... Show synopsis

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rejoyce

Epiphanies of Possibility

by rejoyce on Sep 4, 2007

While Emily Dickinson led an outwardly quiet, uneventful life in her father Edward's house in Amherst, her mind was fixed upon verities and eternalities. She wrote almost two thousand poems, only a dozen of which were published in her lifetime, and is commonly regarded with Walt Whitman as one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century. In fact, in its tremendous concision, Dickinson's work is the opposite of Whitman's long breath-line in Leaves of Grass. For me, her example strongly insists on the claims of the work itself rather than the life. Her themes are the eternal ones: love, death, immortality, faith, and pain. She herself recognized poetry by feeling as if "the top of my head were taken off." Formally, her work can present difficulties because of its unconventionality: her odd punctuation (the frequent use of the dash), capitalization, and free meters, though the poems are often three quatrains (that is, four-line stanzas), so regular in their structure. Here is the opening couplet of one poem: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes-- / The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs--." Whether physical, emotional or psychic pain, the effect is of remoteness or distance, and a sort of funereal deadness, a neural numbness. There is a sense of the mechanistic or the duty-bound: "The Feet, mechanical, go round-- / Of Ground, or Air, or Ought--." The "stiff Heart," ".A Wooden Way," and "the Hour of Lead" suggest not only the rigidity that follows pain, but also a kind of spiritlessness. And if one "outlived" this deathly period, there is "First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go--." That is to say, one experiences cold, torpor, then a surrender, perhaps, to feeling. This seems to me as exact an "imaging" of the thing it describes as anything I have ever read. Certainly, the "Hour of Lead" wasn't the exclusive province of the poet; anguish and suffering are part of the human condition. In fact Dickinson takes the reader far into our common journey in poems such as "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" or "Because I could not stop for Death," rethinks the conventional wisdom in "Much Madness is divinest Sense," discloses her perspective in "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--," and writes her own poetic credo in "I dwell in Possibility." Read the poems of Emily Dickinson for those rare epiphanies of possibility.

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