Emily Dickinson is such a unique poet that it is very difficult to place her in any single tradition--she
seems to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. Her poetic form, with her customary four-line
stanzas, ABCB rhyme schemes, and alternations in iambic meter between tetrameter and trimeter, is
derived from Psalms and Protestant hymns, but Dickinson so thoroughly appropriates the forms--
interposing her own long, rhythmic dashes designed to interrupt the meter and indicate short pauses--
that the resemblance seems quite faint. Her subjects are often parts of the topography of her own
psyche; she explores her own feelings with painstaking and often painful honesty but never loses sight
of their universal poetic application; one of her greatest techniques is to write about the particulars of
her own emotions in a kind of universal homiletic or adage-like tone ("After great pain, a formal feeling
comes") that seems to describe the reader's mind as well as it does the poet's. Dickinson is not a
"philosophical poet"; unlike Wordsworth or Yeats, she makes no effort to organize her thoughts and
feelings into a coherent, unified worldview. Rather, her poems simply record thoughts and feelings
experienced naturally over the course of a lifetime devoted to reflection and creativity: the powerful
mind represented in these records is by turns astonishing, compelling, moving, and thought-provoking,
and emerges much more vividly than if Dickinson had orchestrated her work according to a
preconceived philosophical system.
Of course, Dickinson's greatest achievement as a poet of inwardness is her brilliant, diamond-hard
language. Dickinson often writes aphoristically, meaning that she compresses a great deal of meaning
into a very small number of words. This can make her poems hard to understand on a first reading, but
when their meaning does unveil itself, it often explodes in the mind all at once, and lines that seemed
baffling can become intensely and unforgettably clear. Other poems--many of her most famous, in fact--
are much less difficult to understand, and they exhibit her extraordinary powers of observation and
description. Dickinson's imagination can lead her into very peculiar territory--some of her most famous
poems are bizarre death-fantasies and astonishing metaphorical conceits--but she is equally deft in her
navigation of the domestic, writing beautiful nature-lyrics alongside her wild flights of imagination and
often combining the two with great facility.
"Success is counted sweetest..."
The three stanzas of this poem take the form of iambic trimeter--with the exception of the first two lines
of the second stanza, which add a fourth stress at the end of the line. (Virtually all of Dickinson's poems
are written in an iambic meter that fluctuates fluidly between three and four stresses.) As in most of
Dickinson's poems, the stanzas here rhyme according to an ABCB scheme, so that the second and fourth
lines in each stanza constitute the stanza's only rhyme.
Many of Emily Dickinson's most famous lyrics take the form of homilies, or short moral sayings, which
appear quite simple but that actually describe complicated moral and psychological truths. "Success is
counted sweetest" is such a poem; its first two lines express its homiletic point, that "Success is counted
sweetest / By those who ne'er succeed" (or, more generally, that people tend to desire things more
acutely when they do not have them). The subsequent lines then develop that axiomatic truth by
offering a pair of images that exemplify it: the nectar--a symbol of triumph, luxury, "success"--can best
be comprehended by someone who "needs" it; the defeated, dying man understands victory more
clearly than the victorious army does. The poem exhibits Dickinson's keen awareness of the complicated
truths of human desire (in a later poem on a similar theme, she wrote that "Hunger--was a way / Of
Persons outside Windows-- / The Entering--takes away--"), and it shows the beginnings of her terse,
compacted style, whereby complicated meanings are compressed into extremely short phrases (e.g.,
"On whose forbidden ear").
"I'm Nobody! Who are you?"
The two stanzas of "I'm Nobody!" are highly typical for Dickinson, constituted of loose iambic trimeter
occasionally including a fourth stress ("To tell your name--the livelong June--"). They follow an ABCB
rhyme scheme (though in the first stanza, "you" and "too" rhyme, and "know" is only a half-rhyme, so
the scheme could appear to be AABC), and she frequently uses rhythmic dashes to interrupt the flow.
Ironically, one of the most famous details of Dickinson lore today is that she was utterly un-famous
during her lifetime--she lived a relatively reclusive life in Amherst, Massachusetts, and though she wrote
nearly 1,800 poems, she published fewer than ten of them. This poem is her most famous and most
playful defense of the kind of spiritual privacy she favored, implying that to be a Nobody is a luxury
incomprehensible to the dreary Somebodies--for they are too busy keeping their names in circulation,
croaking like frogs in a swamp in the summertime. This poem is an outstanding early example of
Dickinson's often jaunty approach to meter (she uses her trademark dashes quite forcefully to interrupt
lines and interfere with the flow of her poem, as in "How dreary-- to be--Somebody!"). Further, the
poem vividly illustrates her surprising way with language. The juxtaposition in the line "How public--like
a Frog--" shocks the first-time reader, combining elements not typically considered together, and, thus,
more powerfully conveying its meaning (frogs are "public" like public figures--or Somebodies--because
they are constantly "telling their name"-- croaking--to the swamp, reminding all the other frogs of their
"The Soul selects her own Society--"
The meter of "The Soul selects her own Society" is much more irregular and halting than the typical
Dickinson poem, although it still roughly fits her usual structure: iambic trimeter with the occasional line
in tetrameter. It is also uncharacteristic in that its rhyme scheme--if we count half-rhymes such as
"Gate" and "Mat"--is ABAB, rather than ABCB; the first and third lines rhyme, as well as the second and
fourth. However, by using long dashes rhythmically to interrupt the flow of the meter and effect brief
pauses, the poem's form remains recognizably Dickinsonian, despite its atypical aspects.
Whereas "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" takes a playful tone to the idea of reclusiveness and privacy, the
tone of "The Soul selects her own Society--" is quieter, grander, and more ominous. The idea that "The
Soul selects her own Society" (that people choose a few companions who matter to them and exclude
everyone else from their inner consciousness) conjures up images of a solemn ceremony with the ritual
closing of the door, the chariots, the emperor, and the ponderous Valves of the Soul's attention.
Essentially, the middle stanza functions to emphasize the Soul's stonily uncompromising attitude toward
anyone trying to enter into her Society once the metaphorical door is shut--even chariots, even an
emperor, cannot persuade her. The third stanza then illustrates the severity of the Soul's exclusiveness--
even from "an ample nation" of people, she easily settles on one single person to include, summarily
and unhesitatingly locking out everyone else. The concluding stanza, with its emphasis on the "One"
who is chosen, gives "The Soul selects her own Society--" the feel of a tragic love poem, although we
need not reduce our understanding of the poem to see its theme as merely romantic. The poem is an
excellent example of Dickinson's tightly focused skills with metaphor and imagery; cycling through her
regal list of door, divine Majority, chariots, emperor, mat, ample nation, and stony valves of attention,
Dickinson continually surprises the reader with her vivid and unexpected series of images, each of which
furthers the somber mood of the poem.
"A Bird came down the Walk--..."
Structurally, this poem is absolutely typical of Dickinson, using iambic trimeter with occasional four-
syllable lines, following a loose ABCB rhyme scheme, and rhythmically breaking up the meter with long
dashes. (In this poem, the dashes serve a relatively limited function, occurring only at the end of lines,
and simply indicating slightly longer pauses at line breaks.)
Emily Dickinson's life proves that it is not necessary to travel widely or lead a life full of Romantic
grandeur and extreme drama in order to write great poetry; alone in her house at Amherst, Dickinson
pondered her experience as fully, and felt it as acutely, as any poet who has ever lived. In this poem, the
simple experience of watching a bird hop down a path allows her to exhibit her extraordinary poetic
powers of observation and description.
Dickinson keenly depicts the bird as it eats a worm, pecks at the grass, hops by a beetle, and glances
around fearfully. As a natural creature frightened by the speaker into flying away, the bird becomes an
emblem for the quick, lively, ungraspable wild essence that distances nature from the human beings
who desire to appropriate or tame it. But 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 all of
poetry. Simply by offering two quick comparisons of flight and by using aquatic motion (rowing and
swimming), she evokes the delicacy and fluidity of moving through air. The image of butterflies leaping
"off Banks of Noon," splashlessly swimming though the sky, is one of the most memorable in all
"After great pain, a formal feeling comes--..."
"After great pain" is structurally looser than most Dickinson poems: The iambic meter fades in places;
line-length ranges from dimeter to pentameter; the rhyme scheme is haphazard and mostly utilizes
couplets (stanza-by-stanza, it is AABB CDEFF GHII); and the middle stanza is five lines long, rather than
Dickinson's typical four. Like most other Dickinson poems, however, it uses the long rhythmic dash to
indicate short pauses.
Perhaps Emily Dickinson's greatest achievement as a poet is the record she left of her own inwardness;
because of her extraordinary powers of self-observation and her extraordinary willingness to map her
own feelings as accurately and honestly as she could, Dickinson has bequeathed us a multitude of hard,
intense, and subtle poems, detailing complicated feelings rarely described by other poets. And yet,
encountering these feelings in the compression chamber of a Dickinson poem, one recognizes them
instantly. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" describes the fragile emotional equilibrium that
settles heavily over a survivor of recent trauma or profound grief.
Dickinson's descriptive words lend a funereal feel to the poem: The emotion following pain is "formal,"
one's nerves feel like "Tombs," one's heart is stiff and disbelieving. The feet's "Wooden way" evokes a
wooden casket, and the final "like a stone" recalls a headstone. The speaker emphasizes the fragile state
of a person experiencing the "formal feeling" by never referring to such people as whole human beings,
detailing their bodies in objectified fragments ("The stiff Heart," "The Feet, mechanical," etc.).
"I died for Beauty--but was scarce..."
This poem follows many of Dickinson's typical formal patterns--the ABCB rhyme scheme, the rhythmic
use of the dash to interrupt the flow--but has a more regular meter, so that the first and third lines in
each stanza are iambic tetrameter, while the second and fourth lines are iambic trimeter, creating a
four-three-four-three stress pattern in each stanza.
This bizarre, allegorical death fantasy recalls Keats ("Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," from Ode on a
Grecian Urn), but its manner of presentation belongs uniquely to Dickinson. In this short lyric, Dickinson
manages to include a sense of the macabre physicality of death ("Until the Moss had reached our lips--
"), the high idealism of martyrdom ("I died for Beauty. . . One who died for Truth"), a certain kind of
romantic yearning combined with longing for Platonic companionship ("And so, as Kinsmen, met a
Night--"), and an optimism about the afterlife (it would be nice to have a like-minded friend) with barely
sublimated terror about the fact of death (it would be horrible to lie in the cemetery having a
conversation through the walls of a tomb). As the poem progresses, the high idealism and yearning for
companionship gradually give way to mute, cold death, as the moss creeps up the speaker's corpse and
her headstone, obliterating both her capacity to speak (covering her lips) and her identity (covering her
The ultimate effect of this poem is to show that every aspect of human life--ideals, human feelings,
identity itself--is erased by death. But by making the erasure gradual--something to be "adjusted" to in
the tomb--and by portraying a speaker who is untroubled by her own grim state, Dickinson creates a
scene that is, by turns, grotesque and compelling, frightening and comforting. It is one of her most
singular statements about death, and like so many of Dickinson's poems, it has no parallels in the work
of any other writer.
"I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--..."
"I heard a Fly buzz" employs all of Dickinson's formal patterns: trimeter and tetrameter iambic lines
(four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza, three in the second and fourth, a pattern
Dickinson follows at her most formal); rhythmic insertion of the long dash to interrupt the meter; and an
ABCB rhyme scheme. Interestingly, all the rhymes before the final stanza are half-rhymes (Room/Storm,
firm/Room, be/Fly), while only the rhyme in the final stanza is a full rhyme (me/see). Dickinson uses this
technique to build tension; a sense of true completion comes only with the speaker's death.
One of Dickinson's most famous poems, "I heard a Fly buzz" strikingly describes the mental distraction
posed by irrelevant details at even the most crucial moments--even at the moment of death. The poem
then becomes even weirder and more macabre by transforming the tiny, normally disregarded fly into
the figure of death itself, as the fly's wing cuts the speaker off from the light until she cannot "see to
see." But the fly does not grow in power or stature; its final severing act is performed "With Blue--
uncertain stumbling Buzz--." This poem is also remarkable for its detailed evocation of a deathbed
scene--the dying person's loved ones steeling themselves for the end, the dying woman signing away in
her will "What portion of me be / Assignable" (a turn of phrase that seems more Shakespearean than it