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Common Questions on Emily Dickinson

.  See also selections from criticism on Emily Dickinson

What did Dickinson mean by "circumference"?

Significance for Dickinson

  • In a late letter, Dickinson writes, "The Bible dealt with the Center, not with the Circumference."
  • Earlier, in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (2 July 1862), she had said, "My Business is Circumference."

  • Circumference: Derived from the Latin root meaning "to carry or go around," this word's emphasis is on the sense of encompassing.
  • Albert Gelpi, in Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet: "Emily Dickinson's most frequent metaphor for ecstasy was Circumference. Each of the negotiations which consciousness conducted between the me and the not me established a circumference. . . . The circle had long been a symbol for the spirit in activity" (121).
  • Circumference is a double metaphor, signifying both extension and limit.
  • "Circumference comes to serve as a complex symbol for those disrupted moments when in some sense time transcends time. . . [It is] an indispensable defense perimeter which separates man from God" (Gelpi).
  • Typically, Dickinson connected this concept with feelings of awe and the sublime; the sublime has an element of fear or terror mingled with aesthetic perception.
  • What kind of meter did Dickinson write in, and why did she use it?
    • Common Meter or Hymn Meter
    1. Definition: A closed poetic quatrain, rhyming A B A B, in which iambic tetrameter alternate with iambic trimeter. Common meter is distinguished from ballad meter by its rhyme scheme: the rhyme scheme of ballad meter is X A X A.
    2. Derivation: This meter derives from English hymnology and uses predominantly iambic or trochaic feet (sometimes dactylic).
    3. Types
    1. Common meter: alternately 8 and 6 syllables to the line: 8/6/8/6
    2. Long meter: 8 syllables to the line 8/8/8/8 (this tends to get monotonous)
    3. Short meter: two lines of 6 syllables, followed by one of 8, then one of 6: 6/6/8/6
    4. Sevens and sixes: 7/6/7/6
    5. Common particular meter: 8/8/6/8/8/6
    6. Short particular meter: 6/6/8/6/6/8
    1. Source: Isaac Watts's Christian Psalmody, or, The Psalms. Watts always names the meter, and introductions set forth what effects may be achieved by each type.
    Dickinson's Use of Hymns
    1. According to Martha England, her hymns differed from Watts's in these ways:
    1. greater use of enjambment
    2. greater metrical freedom
    3. use of more images with no scriptural source
    1. Dickinson used the bee, a favorite symbol of Watts's, as a defiant counter-emblem to his hymns. Her bees are irresponsible (138, 1343), enjoy la dolce vita (1627), and are pictured as seducers, traitors, buccaneers (81, 128, 134, 206, etc.).
    2. Every poem composed before 1861 is fashioned in one of the hymn meters above.
    • Largest proportion in common meter.
    • Second largest proportion in common particular meter.

    Why does Emily Dickinson use the dash?

    • To indicate interruption or abrupt shift in thought.
    • As a parenthetical device for emphasis.
    • As a substitute for the colon: introducing a list, series, or final appositive.
    • To keep a note of uncertainty or undecidability. Dashes are fluid and indicate incompletion, a way of being in uncertainty (like Keats's negative capability). Dashes mark without cutting off meaning.
    • The dash both joins sentences so that they have a boundary in common and resists that joining: it connects and separates.
    • Its traditional use is informal, and it is used often in women's writing: see, for example, Queen Victoria's letters or diaries.
    • It is a falling away, an indefinite rather than a definite end to a line.
    • Some critics have argued that the upward or downward movement of the dashes signifies elocutionary marks to guide readers on how the passage should be read or phrased.
    Why did she capitalize so many words?
    • German, a language Dickinson knew, typically capitalizes nouns.
    • To retain and give additional emphasis.
    What kinds of poems did she write?
    According to William Shullenberger and Sharon Cameron, Emily Dickinson has characteristic ways of opening poems:
      1. Definitions: S LV SC form.
        • "Pain has an element of blank.
        • "This was a Poet--It is that
        • "Longing is like the Seed"
      2. Riddles, some with lack of specific referents for pronouns.
        • "I like to see it lap the miles"
        • "A narrow fellow in the grass"
      3. Declarations: "I'm wife--I've finished that"
      4. Landscape descriptions.
      5. Tales, parables, allegories
      6. Requests
      7. Complaints
      8. Confessions
      9. Prayers

    Sharon Cameron notes that "definition can be a way of coming to terms with a discrepancy between what one believes and what one feels" (201).

    1. Some poems repeat without elaborating on initial name
    2. Some poems bring up and dismiss complex situations
    3. In some poems, the context and conclusion may bear little relationship to each other.
    4. Some raise definitions to point out the speaker's knowledge of its inadequacy.

    How should we read Dickinson's poetry?

    1. Speaker. Who is the speaker? What person (first, second, third) is ED speaking in? If it is the first person plural, with whom has she aligned herself? To whom is the poem addressed?
    2. Setting or Situation. What is the setting? Real? Abstract? What about the situation? Is there action in the poem? What is it?
    3. What are the verbs? What is their tense? Their mood (indicative, subjunctive, interrogative)? In what ways does their syntax vary from what you expect? Are any of them archaic or unusual?
    4. What is the form of the poem? Closed? Open? What is the meter? the rhyme scheme? Where does ED depart from these patterns and forms? Why?
    5. What elements are repeated? Inverted? Why? What instances of repetition does she use? What is the effect of the repetition?
    6. What figures of speech does the poem contain? metaphor? metonymy? synecdoche? personification? extended metaphor? What kind of figure does she use as a comparison (vehicle)? Where has she used this before and with what kinds of meaning or resonance?
    7. What kinds of images does she use? olfactory? tactile? visual? auditory? thermal? Characteristic Dickinson images include patterns of light/dark, bee/flower, mind/body, life/death. Do these occur here? In what combination?
    8. Does the poem have an effective, striking, or climactic moment? Does it come to some kind of resolution? What kind? What recognition does the speaker's persona achieve, or does the poem chronicle simple description and observation?
    9. Tone. What is the tone of the whole? Solemn? Playful? Irreverent? Mournful? Objective? What is Dickinson trying to convey?
    10. Tradition. In what ways does she allude to other works or poetic traditions? In what ways might this poem is an "answer" to another author?
    11. Rhetorical figures. Where does Dickinson use paradox? hyperbole? anaphora? apostrophe? litotes? Why does she use them?

    Comments to D. Campbell.