Emily Dickinson (1830-86): Poems


Emily Dickinson wrote a highly idiosyncratic poetry on the joy and pain of existence. Her poetry is compressed, sharp, but sometimes ambiguous. She is exciting because she combines passion with intellectual wit. In "After Great Pain" she refers to nerves sitting like tombs and uses "hour of lead" and "quartz contentment" as metaphors of special awareness of emotional hurt. In "Because I Could not Stop for Death," she personifies death as a kindly gentleman taking a lady for a ride and on their journey they pass the vitality of life en route to eternity. In "Wild Nights" she displays a desire for love which combines the security of a harbor with the passion of a storm. Moored safely in her love's arms she would have no need for the tools of travel: compass, sailing chart, or winds for the sails.

What metaphors for emotional numbness can you find in this poem?


After Great Pain

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--(1)
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
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--


Because I could not stop for Death

Judging by the end of the poem, from what perspective is the voice in the poem describing these events?

Because I could not stop for Death--
He kindly stopped for me--
The Carriage held but just Ourselves--
and Immortality.

We slowly drove--He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility--
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess--in the Ring--
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain--
We passed the Setting Sun--

Or rather--He passed Us--
The Dews drew quivering and chill--
For only Gossamer, my Gown--
My Tippet (2)--only Tulle (3)--

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground--
The Roof was scarcely visible--
The Cornice--in the Ground--

Since then--'Tis Centuries--and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses Heads
Were toward Eternity--


Wild nights--wild nights!

Wild nights--wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury.

Futile the winds
To a heart in port
Done with the compass,
Done with the chart.

Rowing in Eden--
Ah, the sea!
Might I but moor tonight
In thee.


(1) Emptiness, nothingness.
(2) Scarf
(3) Both gossamer and tulle are fine sheer fabrics, providing little or no warmth.


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This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 2, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.

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