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Guidelines for Reading Dickinson's Poetry

See Helen Vendler's "Step-by-Step Method for Reading a Poem."

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?

  1. Dickinson is noted for her use of special kinds of rhyme. Where does she use the following, and for what effect?
a. slant rhyme: a kind of consonance (relation between words in which the final consonants in the stressed syllables agree but the vowels that precede them differ: add/read, up/step, peer/pare, while/hill).

b. eye rhyme: rhyme that appears correct from the spelling but is not so from the pronunciation, such as watch/match, love/move, through/enough.

c. true rhyme: identity of terminal sound between accented syllables, usually occupying corresponding positions in two or more lines of verse. The correspondence of sound is based on the vowels and succeeding consonants of the accented syllables, which must, for a true rhyme, be preceded by different consonants. Thus "fan" and "ran" constitute a true rhyme because the vowel and succeeding consonant sounds ("an") are the same but the preceding consonant sounds are different.

6. What elements are repeated? Inverted? Why? What instances of repetition does she use? What is the effect of the repetition?

7. 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?

8. 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?

9. 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?

10. Tone. What is the tone of the whole? Solemn? Playful? Irreverent? Mournful? Objective? What is Dickinson trying to convey?

11. Tradition. In what ways does she allude to other works or poetic traditions? In what ways might this poem be an "answer" to another author?

12. Rhetorical figures. Where does Dickinson use paradox? hyperbole? anaphora? apostrophe? litotes? Why does she use them?

13. Language. Note any words that are used in an archaic, special, or unusual way, especially words of three syllables or more. (These are less common in Dickinson's work than one- and two-syllable words.) Look them up in the dictionary, being careful to note obsolete or secondary meanings as well as primary ones.