Emily Dickinson Thesis

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Emily Dickinson is often cited as one of the most creative and innovative of America's poets. She is also "... known for her unusual life of self imposed social seclusion. Living a life of simplicity and seclusion..."

Dickinson wrote poetry that touched on essential questions such as the meaning of death, immortality and human existence. However, she is also noted by many critics as being the inspiration for and one of the precursors of modern poetry and contemporary approaches to literature.

This paper will attempt to provide on overview of her work as well as insight into her significance as a modern poet. This will include as discussion of her use of diction and poetic language and how her poetic oeuvre can be seen as initiatory and a prelude to contemporary poetry.

Two central aspects immediately come to mind when thinking of Emily Dickinson's works - her unique style and her questioning of the society around her though her life and penchant for seclusion. With regard to her poetry, one commentator notes that, "Within short, compact phrases she expressed far-reaching ideas; amidst paradox and uncertainty her poetry has an undeniable capacity to move and provoke" This is an apt description of the style and will be further explored in this analysis of the significance of her work.

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Another aspect that will be discussed is the claim that Dickinson's work should be seen in a wider context and that her importance lies in her artistic kinship with the great poets of the world. This is a view put forward by Henry W. Wells' work, Introduction to Emily Dickinson.

TOPIC: Thesis on Emily Dickinson Is Often Cited as One Assignment

The significance of Emily Dickinson lies in the fact that her kinship is closer to all great poets than it is to any of her contemporary New Englanders. As an individual, an amazingly alive person and a genius, she should be seen first of all against the background of the greatest individuals, persons, and men of genius, and not against a background of the men and women of the town of Amherst.

In other words, the critic referred to makes a plea for Dickinson to be seen as significant beyond the confines of her immediate environment. This is an important point-of-view as it explains to a certain extent why Dickinson is felt to be both intimate and personal in her poetry but also universal and expansive in the themes and issues that she explores. According to Wells, she has much in common with "...Shakespeare, Herrick, Blake, Burns, Heine, or the German mystic, Angelus Silesius..."

Content and themes

Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. She spent most of her life in this area and was known for her reclusive nature. However, this did not prevent her for writing insightful poetry that has both a personal and universal appeal. Only two of her poems were actually published during her lifetime.

She did however leave an extensive amount of manuscripts that were published after her death.

The range of the themes and the content of her poems can be ascertained from the following comment. "Her lyrical, paradoxical, gnomic verse, treating of love and death, is marked as much by wit and a keen sense of domestic realities as by mysticism."

In other words, the range of her concerns in the poems are not limited to the either the mundane or the esoteric but rather to an intensive and involved analysis of the full range of human experience. The fact that she did not exclude any area of the experience of reality and was also aware of the paradoxes and incongruities in life is an aspect that makes her oeuvre particularly significant in a modern context.

Critics are also at pains to point out the importance of her social and cultural milieu. Critics like Wells provide an excellent overview of the social and cultural background to Dickinson's creativity, which refers as well to the central dilemma that was to form a focus of modernism and later Twentieth Century art. This is the division between public and private that was also emphasized by poets like Walt Whitman. This also refers to the essential conflict between "... The flowering of the individual and that of society."

Wells places this conflict within the Nineteenth Century context in which Dickinson lived and wrote.

As the nineteenth century advanced, it became increasingly evident that personal and social interests were commonly opposed or even at swords' points. Capitalism, Protestantism, and Romanticism alike stressed the rights and privileges of the individual, while a growing awareness that some social organization alone could conquer the moral anarchy of laisse faire renewed a stress on men's public responsibilities.

This debate about personal liberty as opposed to social conformity, especially in a feminist context, was to characterize the existential search for meaning in modern poetry and art. It was to initiate psychological and philosophical debate in the works of Freud, Jung and others and in the 'discovery' of the unconscious. It is within this wider context that the significance of Dickinson should be understood.

One of the central themes that is evident in her work can be seen in "The Soul selects her own Society"

The soul selects her own society,

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more.

Unmoved, she notes the chariot's pausing

At her low gate;

Unmoved, an emperor is kneeling

Upon her mat.

I've known her from an ample nation

Choose one;

Then close the valves of her attention

Like stone.

The above poem is often cited as referring to her reclusiveness and her criticism of society. In this poem she appears to reject society. Her style and use of various poetic techniques also tend to emphasize this aspect. "...the visual appearance of the printed text seems to reinforce that refusal, for what lies outside the poem has been erased: all that remains of any defining context is silent, invisible, blank.

However, the poem can also be interpreted to refer to the importance of individual choice and not only to a rejection of the world outside. Therefore, it can also be interpreted in terms of a relationship to the outside world and society. There is also a sense in which the poem transcends or goes beyond the individual and seeks the universal. As one commentator remarks; "Dickinson concludes the poem by reiterating the theme that the soul has the ability to choose whatever domain or friends they want; it's getting the soul to allow change that's difficult."

Another aspect to this poem that should be considered in terms of her total oeuvre is the reference to the opening and closing of doors. This could be viewed as the way that people close themselves off form the various opportunities offered them; or conversely, to the way that society shuts the door to many innovative people.

This exploration of the relationship and ambiguities between the personal and the universal can be seen as well in many other poems. For example, in "The Poets light but Lamps -- ":

The Poets light but Lamps

Themselves -- go out

The Wicks they stimulate

If vital Light

Inhere as do the Suns

Each Age a Lens

Disseminating their


This poem is in effect an extended metaphor that "...brings that inner subjective world of creativity into conjunction with that which lies outside." The poet is an initiator who extends the 'circumference' of knowledge and perception.

Therefore, many commentators note that it is the unique combination of the personal and the universal in her poem that make them so significant. The above poem is both personal and universal in its intention. As Domhnall Mitchell, in Monarch of Perception (2000) states, it is this facility to transmute the individual and the personal into he universal that is one of the central characteristics of Dickinson's work.

Emily Dickinson's acutely subjective poetry is saved from both obscurantism and self-conscious emoting by her ability to transmute the most private aspects of personality, those sacred innermost perceptions, into universally shared thought and feeling. She reveals the depths of her soul

Poetic style

The above poem - "The Poets light but Lamps -- "- is an example of the unique and at times disconcerting style that Emily Dickinson employed in her poetry. At the risk of oversimplifying, her poetic style is characterized by short, terse lines and the poems often do not have a title. They certainly do not conform to the accepted norms and standards of poetic composition of the time and it is suggested that this is why they were not published. There are many similarities in the works to modernist poetics techniques.

The style and imagery that is used is intended to invoke mystery and paradox. This can be seen in the two example referred to above poems, where lines seem to end inconclusively and lead rather than direct thought to various possibilities. "She achieves remarkable compression through such devices as synecdoche, metonymy, and discontinuity of expression. These tactics stimulate and sensitize the reader to ineffable realizations,… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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