Emily Dickinson is considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, famous not only for her singularly brilliant and innovative poetry, but also for her mysterious habits, reclusive tendencies, and morbid fascination with death.
Throughout her life, Dickinson was often misjudged as a shy and strange loner, but her poems and letters reveal her to be bright and witty, a rebel against the social norms of her time. She was tormented by the limitations put upon her as a woman despite her impressive intelligence, and spent her life struggling with the question of faith despite living in a deeply religious Christian community. As an adult, she rarely left the bedroom of her childhood home in Amherst, Massachusetts. And though her writing expresses a longing for recognition, she had fewer than a dozen poems published in her lifetime — it wasn’t until after Dickinson’s death that her sister found a treasure trove of nearly 2,000 poems hidden in the poet's room.
Dickinson’s writing reveals her deep thoughts on heartache, conflict, and mortality — but also love, faith, and hope. Here, we’ve gathered some of the most poignant lines from her poetry and letters, which due to the author’s intense mind and unusual life, land especially deeply in the soul.
Dying is a wild night and a new road.
– Letter to Perez D. Cowan, 1869
Dickinson often wrote about death, sometimes as a personified character — Death — and other times as an experience or a curiosity. Her writing makes clear that she did not fear death, nor did she think anyone should.
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me…
– Johnson 441, 1862
Dickinson was a famous shut-in: She almost never left her father’s Amherst house, where she would exchange notes with visitors or talk to them from other rooms, but never face to face. Here, she expresses both her longing to communicate with the outside world and maybe also some bitterness that that world didn’t understand her peculiar habits or recognize her talent.
Forever – is composed of Nows –
– Poem 690
Not knowing when the Dawn will come,
I open every Door
– Poem 1619
Dickinson wrote often about the fleeting preciousness of time. She was keenly aware of the opportunities denied to her as a woman in 19th-century society, but she retained a sense of hopefulness in her poetry nevertheless, and a desire to live life to the fullest. These fragments remind us to seize the moment and take risks with the limited time we have.
My friends are my “estate.” Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them!
– Letter to Samuel Bowles, circa 1858
That till I loved
I never lived
– Poem 549
Though Dickinson lived the latter years of her life in relative seclusion, she was never in complete isolation. She wrote often of her loved ones, and how both romantic and platonic love enriched her life. She even implied that relationships were a form of wealth, referring to her precious friends as an “estate” that she couldn’t bear to share.
There are many people in the world… how do they live? How do they get strength to put on their clothes in the morning?
– Letter to Thomas Higginson, 1870
To Dickinson, the duties that a woman of her era and social standing were expected to fulfill — housework, social visits — were exhausting and unpleasant. In her writing, she often wished for another, freer existence.
I am out with lanterns, looking for myself.
– Letter to Mrs. J.G. Holland, 1856
This solemn-sounding line comes from a letter Dickinson wrote about moving house with her family. With these eight simple words, she lamented that with all her belongings displaced, she felt scattered and not herself.
I measure every Grief I meet
With narrow, probing, Eyes;
I wonder if It weighs like Mine,
Or has an Easier size.
– Poem 561, 1862
Dickinson suffered plenty of loss in her life, including the death of loved ones, love affairs gone wrong, and the family troubles that arose when her brother Austin took a mistress (though interestingly enough, that mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, was instrumental in getting Dickinson’s poems published after she died). It makes sense that in encountering other people’s grief, she would hold up her own as a measuring stick.
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
– Poem 202
Dickinson’s irreverence toward the Christian revivalism of her time is evident in this lighthearted excerpt. She was fascinated by the modern sciences and their overlap with religious faith. Here, she doesn’t reject religion outright, but instead gently prods people of faith to consider the relationship between the two.
Nature is a haunted house — but Art — a House that tries to be haunted.
– Letter to Thomas Higginson, 1876
As an artist herself who wrote often from her life and surroundings, Dickinson was very familiar with the line between honesty and exaggeration. It explains why so much of her poetry is focused on nature images: In nature, we see things the way they are.
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
– Poem 479
Death is the supple Suitor
That wins at last –
It is a stealthy Wooing…
– Poem 1445
One of Dickinson’s most well-known poems describes her ride in a metaphorical coach, with Death and Immortality as her fellow passengers. Here she picks up the image again: She posits Death as an admirer who slowly wears her down until the end of her life, when he spirits her away in a coach as trumpets sound. Dickinson’s vivid imagination lives on to this day: In the TV series Dickinson, rapper Wiz Khalifa plays the character of Death.
Luck is not chance —
It's Toil —
Fortune's expensive smile
Is earned —
– Poem 350
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
– Poem 67
Dickinson reminds us here that only those who have experienced failure can appreciate the full value of success. In her case, though her poems were widely circulated among friends and women’s literary circles, only a handful were published in her lifetime. While she didn’t taste the sweetness of success in life (like many artists), her legacy after death is lasting and far-reaching. In a sense, she achieved the immortality she wrote about so often.
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