emily dickinson themes essay

I cannot live with You Summary & Analysis by Emily Dickinson

  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
  • Poetic Devices
  • Vocabulary & References
  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
  • Line-by-Line Explanations

emily dickinson themes essay

"I cannot live with You" is one of American poet Emily Dickinson's longest poems—and perhaps one of her most tormented. The poem's speaker tells a beloved that they "cannot live" together, not because their love is insufficient, but because it's overpowering. The thought of sitting beside this beloved's death bed (or worse, being separated from them in the afterlife) is simply too much for the speaker to bear; they'd rather endure the "Despair" of parting now than face those trials later. Like most of Dickinson's poems, this one wasn't discovered until after her death . It was first printed in the posthumous collection Poems (1890).

  • Read the full text of “I cannot live with You –”

emily dickinson themes essay

The Full Text of “I cannot live with You –”

1 I cannot live with You –

2 It would be Life –

3 And Life is over there –

4 Behind the Shelf

5 The Sexton keeps the key to –

6 Putting up

7 Our Life – his Porcelain –

8 Like a Cup –

9 Discarded of the Housewife –

10 Quaint – or Broke –

11 A newer Sevres pleases –

12 Old Ones crack –

13 I could not die – with You –

14 For One must wait

15 To shut the Other's Gaze down –

16 You – could not –

17 And I  – Could I stand by

18 And see You – freeze –

19 Without my Right of Frost –

20 Death's privilege?

21 Nor could I rise – with You –

22 Because Your Face

23 Would put out Jesus' –

24 That New Grace

25 Glow plain – and foreign

26 On my homesick eye –

27 Except that You than He

28 Shone closer by –

29 They'd judge Us – How –

30 For You – served Heaven – You know,

31 Or sought to –

32 I could not –

33 Because You saturated sight –

34 And I had no more eyes

35 For sordid excellence

36 As Paradise

37 And were You lost, I would be –

38 Though my name

39 Rang loudest

40 On the Heavenly fame –

41 And were You – saved –

42 And I – condemned to be

43 Where You were not

44 That self – were Hell to me –

45 So we must meet apart –

46 You there – I – here –

47 With just the Door ajar

48 That Oceans are – and Prayer –

49 And that White Sustenance –

50 Despair –

“I cannot live with You –” Summary

“i cannot live with you –” themes.

Theme The Agony of Impossible Love

The Agony of Impossible Love

  • See where this theme is active in the poem.

Theme Fear, Avoidance, and Isolation

Fear, Avoidance, and Isolation

Theme Love vs. Religion

Love vs. Religion

Line-by-line explanation & analysis of “i cannot live with you –”.

I cannot live with You – It would be Life – And Life is over there – Behind the Shelf The Sexton keeps the key to –

emily dickinson themes essay

Putting up Our Life – his Porcelain – Like a Cup – Discarded of the Housewife – Quaint – or Broke – A newer Sevres pleases – Old Ones crack –

Lines 13-16

I could not die – with You – For One must wait To shut the Other's Gaze down – You – could not –

Lines 17-20

And I  – Could I stand by And see You – freeze – Without my Right of Frost – Death's privilege?

Lines 21-28

Nor could I rise – with You – Because Your Face Would put out Jesus' – That New Grace Glow plain – and foreign On my homesick eye – Except that You than He Shone closer by –

Lines 29-32

They'd judge Us – How – For You – served Heaven – You know, Or sought to – I could not –

Lines 33-36

Because You saturated sight – And I had no more eyes For sordid excellence As Paradise

Lines 37-44

And were You lost, I would be – Though my name Rang loudest On the Heavenly fame – And were You – saved – And I – condemned to be Where You were not That self – were Hell to me –

Lines 45-50

So we must meet apart – You there – I – here – With just the Door ajar That Oceans are – and Prayer – And that White Sustenance – Despair –

“I cannot live with You –” Symbols

Symbol The Sexton and the Housewife

The Sexton and the Housewife

  • See where this symbol appears in the poem.

“I cannot live with You –” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

  • See where this poetic device appears in the poem.

“I cannot live with You –” Vocabulary

Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

  • Nor could I rise – with You –
  • The Heavenly fame
  • See where this vocabulary word appears in the poem.

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “I cannot live with You –”

Rhyme scheme, “i cannot live with you –” speaker, “i cannot live with you –” setting, literary and historical context of “i cannot live with you –”, more “i cannot live with you –” resources, external resources.

The Poem Aloud — Listen to a reading of the poem.

The Poem in Dickinson's Hand — See a manuscript of the poem at the Emily Dickinson Archive.

The Emily Dickinson Museum — Visit the Dickinson Museum's website to learn more about Dickinson's life and work.

Dickinson's Loves — Learn more about Dickinson's love poetry (and the loves that likely inspired it).

Dickinson's Influence — Listen to contemporary writer Jo Shapcott discussing what Dickinson means to her.

LitCharts on Other Poems by Emily Dickinson

A Bird, came down the Walk

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

A Light exists in Spring

A Murmur in the Trees—to note—

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

An awful Tempest mashed the air—

As imperceptibly as grief

A still—Volcano—Life—

Because I could not stop for Death —

Before I got my eye put out

Fame is a fickle food

Hope is the thing with feathers

I cautious, scanned my little life

I could bring You Jewels—had I a mind to—

I did not reach Thee

I died for Beauty—but was scarce

I dreaded that first Robin, so

I dwell in Possibility –

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

If I can stop one heart from breaking

I had been hungry, all the Years

I have a Bird in spring

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -

I like a look of Agony

I like to see it lap the Miles

I measure every Grief I meet

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

I started Early — Took my Dog —

I taste a liquor never brewed

It was not Death, for I stood up

I—Years—had been—from Home—

Like Rain it sounded till it curved

Much Madness is divinest Sense -

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun

Nature is what we see

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted

Publication — is the Auction

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers

Success is counted sweetest

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

The Bustle in a House

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants

There came a Wind like a Bugle

There is no Frigate like a Book

There's a certain Slant of light

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise

The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean

The Soul has bandaged moments

The Soul selects her own Society

The Wind – tapped like a tired Man –

They shut me up in Prose –

This is my letter to the world

This World is not Conclusion

'Twas the old—road—through pain—

We grow accustomed to the Dark

What mystery pervades a well!

Whose cheek is this?

Wild nights - Wild nights!

Everything you need for every book you read.

The LitCharts.com logo.

Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry

Using the poem below as an example,  this section will introduce you to some of the major characteristics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

emily dickinson themes essay

Sunrise in the Connecticut River Valley near Amherst.

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose – A Ribbon at a time – The steeples swam in Amethyst The news, like Squirrels, ran – The Hills untied their Bonnets – The Bobolinks – begun – Then I said softly to myself – “That must have been the Sun”! But how he set – I know not – There seemed a purple stile That little Yellow boys and girls Were climbing all the while – Till when they reached the other side – A Dominie in Gray – Put gently up the evening Bars – And led the flock away – (Fr204)

Theme and Tone

Form and style, meter and rhyme, punctuation and syntax.

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Emily Dickinson’s Poetry Crucial Themes

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Published: Jan 4, 2019

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  • Success is Counted Sweetest

Read below our complete notes on the poem “Success is Counted Sweetest” by Emily Dickinson. Our notes cover Success is Counted Sweetest summary, themes, and analysis.


The poem “Success is counted sweetest” is written by an American Poet Emily Dickinson. She wrote eighteen hundred poems in total but only seven of them were published during her life. “Success is counted sweetest” is one of those seven poems which were published during her lifetime.

The poem “Success is counted sweetest” was written in 1859. It was first published anonymously in the Brooklyn Daily Unit, on 27 April 1864. It was republished in 1878, with the title “Success” in the anthology “A Masque of Poets” as part of a series of books published without writers’ names.

The poem is written about the significance of success. It explains its theme by providing an image of a battlefield. It has three quatrains. The first stanza can stand alone because it carries a compact idea. It is independent of the other two stanzas while the third and fourth stanzas depend on one another for complete understanding.

The stanzas are written in “iambic trimeter” except for the first two lines of the second stanza which are written in “iambic tetrameter”.

Success is Counted Sweetest Summary

The poem “Success is counted sweetest” begins with speaking about the importance of success. It says that success is more valued by those who have never achieved it in their lives. Those who are a failure in their lives know the real significance of success and the true happiness of achieving it. It then says that to understand the sweetness of nectar, there should be an aching lack and one should be really in need of it because to know the actual value of something, the want for it should be strong. It means that something is more desirable to those who do not have it. They can understand the true worth of achieving something when they have been longing for it.

The second stanza speaks about the victorious army on a battlefield. It says that those who have won the battle and have got the flag of victory, though they celebrate and enjoy their victory, they cannot define victory so well because the value of success cannot be defined by those who have never experienced failure. So those who are victorious, they have achieved victory but they do not understand its significance. They are the winners but cannot truly appreciate their victory because it seems normal to them and they cannot understand the sweetness of it anymore. They have got it and after that, it has lost its meaning for them.

The third stanza says that the cheers and cries of the victorious soldiers celebrating their victory are reaching the ears of a dying soldier, on the defeated side. He hears the victorious soldiers celebrating their victory, though he is defeated, he actually knows the real value of victory because he is going through the pain and agony and knows how significant and sweet the victory is. Though a loser, he understands the value of victory more than the celebrating winners.

The point here is that a failed person knows the true worth of victory more than a victorious one because he knows the pain of failure. A loser appreciates triumph more than the one who has achieved it. One must go through the pain of failure in order to fully understand the value of victory. The soldier has failed and experienced loss, yet he knows and appreciates victory and its significance more than the victorious soldiers because he had desired it.

Themes in Success is Counted Sweetest

Failure is a motivation for success.

The main point in the poem is about positivity related to the failure. It motivates a failed person to achieve and appreciate success. A person who fails knows the true value of success. When a person achieves success after experiencing failure, he feels the true happiness of achieving it. This is the positivity related to failure, it makes you appreciate your blessings.

True worth of Success

The poem says that the true worth of success is known to those who fail. Achieving success without experiencing failure is a shallow success. The true happiness and joy of achieving success can only be understood when one goes through all the pain in the process of achieving success. The sweetness of success can only be tasted when a person has already been through the bitterness of failure.

The poem also highlights the theme of need or lack. It says that when someone needs something, he has a great desire to get it and he knows the sweetness of getting it. The intensity of appreciation depends on the passion and want of that particular thing. The person who does not have that thing and wants it knows the true happiness of achieving that thing. To taste the sweetness of achieving something, there should be an aching need for it. It all depends on how hard a person wants something. 

Success is Counted Sweetest Analysis

The poem “Success is counted sweetest” is a short “ Definition Poem” that defines success and beautifully illustrates its importance. A great theme is explained in a small number of words. Though very precise, the poem is a compact one and carries great meaning. It conveys a complicated moral lesson and talks about human desire and his psychological truth. In the beginning, a general idea of success and its importance is given. Then the poem is confined to a battlefield, to give an example of the importance of success but this concept of winning and losing is not confined to a battlefield field only, it can be applied to any situation of success and failure.

It says that success is something that is considered valuable by those who have never achieved it. Those who have always failed in achieving success know its true worth because the value of something is known to those who are unable to have it. People who are a failure in their lives know how significant success is and for them, it is the sweetest.

It is said that those who are in need of something and do not have it, truly know its value rather than those who have it. Here the human desire for something is highlighted and success is compared to nectar. It says that to understand the sweetness of nectar, one should be in need of it. The sweetness and joy of achieving something depend on how deep is the passion and want. Those who do not have something and they want it, they truly know the joy of having it. It is human nature that when we do not have something and we want it. It means a lot to us. We value it more as compared to those who already have it.

The third and fourth stanzas, which are interdependent, paradoxically talk about the victorious on the battlefield who do not understand the true importance of success because they have not tasted the pain of failure. Their victory is shallow because they have not experienced the process of losing something. The victory has cost them nothing. They have achieved it by getting no pain but to understand the pain and agony, in order to achieve success, one needs to experience failure. While the dying soldier on the defeated side knows the true worth of victory when he hears the victorious soldiers celebrating their victory. He does know the significance of victory because he is the one who experiences failure. He knows what it cost to achieve success. He understands the importance of winning and knows the pain of losing a battle.

Setting of the Poem

The poem “Success is counted sweetest” is set in a battlefield where the army on one side has won the battle while the other side has lost it.

The tone of the poem “Success is counted sweetest” is impersonal and unemotional. The narrator narrates what is going on in the battlefield without showing any sympathy with the defeated army.

Point of view

The point of view in the poem “Success is counted sweetest” is a third-period narrative. The narrator narrates what he observes, without participating in it. He observes a battlefield in which one army has won the battle and its soldiers are celebrating while the other army has lost the battle. 

“Nectar” in the third line of the poem symbolizes success. It says that to understand the sweetness of a nectar, one should lack it and when someone needs something, one wants it. The sweetness of getting it depends on the degree of want. It means to understand the meaning of success, one should experience failure and after that one will be able to define the true value of success.

Purple Host

In the fifth line of the poem the “Purple Host” symbolizes the victorious army. In the battlefield one army loses the battle and the other wins it. The victorious army gets the flag of victory after winning the battle. Though they win the battle and celebrate it, according to the narrator, they do not really understand the true meaning of victory.

It is the use of a witty saying in a literary piece of writing.

The poem is a compact and witty one which has conveyed a great message in little words. It says that the importance of success is known only to those who have never achieved it. It highlights the benefit of failure that those who experience failure in fact know the true worth of success, more than those who achieve success.

The poet has used imagery in the poem and an image of the battlefield is created in the mind of the reader.

The reader can imagine a victorious army in the battlefield, who has won the battle, having the flag of victory and a dying soldier on the defeated side.

Metaphor used in the poem is “nectar”.

The first stanza of the poem says that:

“Success is counted sweetest

By those who ne’er succeed

To comprehend a nectar

Requires sorest need”

It is used to symbolize success. The sweetness of a nectar is compared to the sweetness of achieving success.

It is the omission of letters from within a word.

By those who ne’er succeed”

Here the example of syncope is “ne’er” where the letter ‘v’ is omitted from the original word never.

It is the continuation of a statement beyond the line break, to the next line.

Here the sense of the first line is continued in the next one. The second line completes the meaning of the first one. Success is more valued by those who are failures in their lives and have never achieved success.

The first two lines of the first stanza is the example of a paradox.

This is a self-contradictory statement. It says that the significance of success is understood only by those who fail. The person who knows the true value of success is a loser rather than a triumphant. Here two contradictory things are said. “Success” and “failure” are two opposite concepts.


Not one of all the purple H ost

Who took the F lag today

Can tell the definition

So clear of victory

In the above lines, the ‘ H’ of host and the ‘F’ of flag are capitalized to emphasize the concept which the poet wants to convey. Here this point is emphasized that though the purple Host (victorious army) has got the Flag of victory but they cannot tell the definition of success.


It is the repetition of the same initial sounds in closely connected words.

  • S uccess is counted s weetest (line 1)
  • As he d ying- d efeated- (line 9)

It is the repetition of a similar sound in the middle or end of the connected words.

  • The dis t an t s t rains of triumph (line11)

It is the repetition of the same vowel sounds in connected words.

  • Wh o t oo k the Flag t o day (line 6)

The poem consists of meters, iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter.

Rhyme scheme

In each stanza of the poem, the last syllable in the second line rhymes with the last syllable of the fourth line so it makes the rhyme scheme “abcb” .

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Biography of Emily Dickinson, American Poet

Famously reclusive and experimental in poetic form

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emily dickinson themes essay

  • M.F.A, Dramatic Writing, Arizona State University
  • B.A., English Literature, Arizona State University
  • B.A., Political Science, Arizona State University

Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830–May 15, 1886) was an American poet best known for her eccentric personality and her frequent themes of death and mortality. Although she was a prolific writer, only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime. Despite being mostly unknown while she was alive, her poetry—nearly 1,800 poems altogether—has become a staple of the American literary canon, and scholars and readers alike have long held a fascination with her unusual life.

Fast Facts: Emily Dickinson

  • Full Name:  Emily Elizabeth Dickinson
  • Known For:  American poet
  • Born:  December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Died: May 15, 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts
  • Parents:  Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson
  • Education:  Amherst Academy, Mount Holyoke Female Seminary
  • Published Works: Poems (1890), Poems: Second Series (1891), Poems: Third Series (1896)
  • Notable Quote:  "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry."

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born into a prominent family in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer, a politician, and a trustee of Amherst College , of which his father, Samuel Dickinson, was a founder. He and his wife Emily (nee Norcross ) had three children; Emily Dickinson was the second child and eldest daughter, and she had an older brother, William Austin (who generally went by his middle name), and a younger sister, Lavinia. By all accounts, Dickinson was a pleasant, well-behaved child who particularly loved music.

Because Dickinson’s father was adamant that his children be well-educated, Dickinson received a more rigorous and more classical education than many other girls of her era. When she was ten, she and her sister began attending Amherst Academy, a former academy for boys that had just begun accepting female students two years earlier. Dickinson continued to excel at her studies, despite their rigorous and challenging nature, and studied literature, the sciences, history, philosophy, and Latin. Occasionally, she did have to take time off from school due to repeated illnesses.

Dickinson’s preoccupation with death began at this young age as well. At the age of fourteen, she suffered her first major loss when her friend and cousin Sophia Holland died of typhus . Holland’s death sent her into such a melancholy spiral that she was sent away to Boston to recover. Upon her recovery, she returned to Amherst, continuing her studies alongside some of the people who would be her lifelong friends, including her future sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert.

After completing her education at Amherst Academy, Dickinson enrolled at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. She spent less than a year there, but explanations for her early departure vary depending on the source: her family wanted her to return home, she disliked the intense, evangelical religious atmosphere, she was lonely, she didn’t like the teaching style. In any case, she returned home by the time she was 18 years old.

Reading, Loss, and Love

A family friend, a young attorney named Benjamin Franklin Newton, became a friend and mentor to Dickinson. It was most likely him who introduced her to the writings of William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson , which later influenced and inspired her own poetry. Dickinson read extensively, helped by friends and family who brought her more books; among her most formative influences was the work of William Shakespeare , as well as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre .

Dickinson was in good spirits in the early 1850s, but it did not last. Once again, people near to her died, and she was devastated. Her friend and mentor Newton died of tuberculosis, writing to Dickinson before he died to say he wished he could live to see her achieve greatness. Another friend, the Amherst Academy principal Leonard Humphrey, died suddenly at only 25 years old in 1850. Her letters and writings at the time are filled with the depth of her melancholy moods.

During this time, Dickinson’s old friend Susan Gilbert was her closest confidante. Beginning in 1852, Gilbert was courted by Dickinson’s brother Austin, and they married in 1856, although it was a generally unhappy marriage. Gilbert was much closer to Dickinson, with whom she shared a passionate and intense correspondence and friendship. In the view of many contemporary scholars, the relationship between the two women was, very likely, a romantic one , and possibly the most important relationship of either of their lives. Aside from her personal role in Dickinson’s life, Gilbert also served as a quasi-editor and advisor to Dickinson during her writing career.

Dickinson did not travel much outside of Amherst, slowly developing the later reputation for being reclusive and eccentric. She cared for her mother, who was essentially homebound with chronic illnesses from the 1850s onward. As she became more and more cut off from the outside world, however, Dickinson leaned more into her inner world and thus into her creative output.

Conventional Poetry (1850s – 1861)

I'm nobody who are you (1891).

I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! they'd advertise — you know. How dreary — to be — Somebody! How public — like a Frog — To tell one's name — the livelong June — To an admiring Bog!

It’s unclear when, exactly, Dickinson began writing her poems, though it can be assumed that she was writing for some time before any of them were ever revealed to the public or published. Thomas H. Johnson, who was behind the collection The Poems of Emily Dickinson , was able to definitely date only five of Dickinson's poems to the period before 1858. In that early period, her poetry was marked by an adherence to the conventions of the time.

Two of her five earliest poems are actually satirical, done in the style of witty, “mock” valentine poems with deliberately flowery and overwrought language. Two more of them reflect the more melancholy tone she would be better known for. One of those is about her brother Austin and how much she missed him, while the other, known by its first line “I have a Bird in spring,” was written for Gilbert and was a lament about the grief of fearing the loss of friendship.

A few of Dickinson’s poems were published in the Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868; she was friends with its editor, journalist Samuel Bowles, and his wife Mary. All of those poems were published anonymously, and they were heavily edited, removing much of Dickinson’s signature stylization, syntax, and punctuation. The first poem published, "Nobody knows this little rose,” may have actually been published without Dickinson’s permission. Another poem, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” was retitled and published as “The Sleeping.” By 1858, Dickinson had begun organizing her poems, even as she wrote more of them. She reviewed and made fresh copies of her poetry, putting together manuscript books. Between 1858 and 1865, she produced 40 manuscripts, comprising just under 800 poems.

During this time period, Dickinson also drafted a trio of letters which were later referred to as the “Master Letters.” They were never sent and were discovered as drafts among her papers. Addressed to an unknown man she only calls “Master,” they’re poetic in a strange way that has eluded understanding even by the most educated of scholars. They may not have even been intended for a real person at all; they remain one of the major mysteries of Dickinson’s life and writings.

Prolific Poet (1861 – 1865)

“hope” is the thing with feathers (1891).

"Hope" is the thing with feathers That perches in the soul And sings the tune without the words And never stops at all And sweetest in the Gale is heard And sore must be the storm — That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm — I've heard it in the chillest land — And on the strangest Sea — Yet, never, in Extremity, It asked a crumb — of Me.

Dickinson’s early 30s were by far the most prolific writing period of her life. For the most part, she withdrew almost completely from society and from interactions with locals and neighbors (though she still wrote many letters), and at the same time, she began writing more and more.

Her poems from this period were, eventually, the gold standard for her creative work. She developed her unique style of writing, with unusual and specific syntax , line breaks, and punctuation. It was during this time that the themes of mortality that she was best known for began to appear in her poems more often. While her earlier works had occasionally touched on themes of grief, fear, or loss, it wasn’t until this most prolific era that she fully leaned into the themes that would define her work and her legacy.

It is estimated that Dickinson wrote more than 700 poems between 1861 and 1865. She also corresponded with literary critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who became one of her close friends and lifelong correspondents. Dickinson’s writing from the time seemed to embrace a little bit of melodrama, alongside deeply felt and genuine sentiments and observations.

Later work (1866 – 1870s)

Because i could not stop for death (1890).

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—only Tulle— 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—

By 1866, Dickinson’s productivity began tapering off. She had suffered personal losses, including that of her beloved dog Carlo, and her trusted household servant got married and left her household in 1866. Most estimates suggest that she wrote about one third of her body of work after 1866.

Around 1867, Dickinson’s reclusive tendencies became more and more extreme. She began refusing to see visitors, only speaking to them from the other side of a door, and rarely went out in public. On the rare occasions she did leave the house, she always wore white, gaining notoriety as “the woman in white.” Despite this avoidance of physical socialization, Dickinson was a lively correspondent; around two-thirds of her surviving correspondence was written between 1866 and her death, 20 years later.

Dickinson’s personal life during this time was complicated as well. She lost her father to a stroke in 1874, but she refused to come out of her self-imposed seclusion for his memorial or funeral services. She also may have briefly had a romantic correspondence with Otis Phillips Lord, a judge and a widower who was a longtime friend. Very little of their correspondence survives, but what does survive shows that they wrote to each other like clockwork, every Sunday, and their letters were full of literary references and quotations. Lord died in 1884, two years after Dickinson’s old mentor, Charles Wadsworth, had died after a long illness.

Literary Style and Themes

Even a cursory glance at Dickinson’s poetry reveals some of the hallmarks of her style. Dickinson embraced highly unconventional use of punctuation , capitalization, and line breaks, which she insisted were crucial to the meaning of the poems. When her early poems were edited for publication, she was seriously displeased, arguing the edits to the stylization had altered the whole meaning. Her use of meter is also somewhat unconventional, as she avoids the popular pentameter for tetrameter or trimeter, and even then is irregular in her use of meter within a poem. In other ways, however, her poems stuck to some conventions; she often used ballad stanza forms and ABCB rhyme schemes.

The themes of Dickinson’s poetry vary widely. She’s perhaps most well known for her preoccupation with mortality and death, as exemplified in one of her most famous poems, “Because I did not stop for Death.” In some cases, this also stretched to her heavily Christian themes, with poems tied into the Christian Gospels and the life of Jesus Christ. Although her poems dealing with death are sometimes quite spiritual in nature, she also has a surprisingly colorful array of descriptions of death by various, sometimes violent means.

On the other hand, Dickinson’s poetry often embraces humor and even satire and irony to make her point; she’s not the dreary figure she is often portrayed as because of her more morbid themes. Many of her poems use garden and floral imagery, reflecting her lifelong passion for meticulous gardening and often using the “ language of flowers ” to symbolize themes such as youth, prudence, or even poetry itself. The images of nature also occasionally showed up as living creatures, as in her famous poem “ Hope is the thing with feathers .”

Dickinson reportedly kept writing until nearly the end of her life, but her lack of energy showed through when she no longer edited or organized her poems. Her family life became more complicated as her brother’s marriage to her beloved Susan fell apart and Austin instead turned to a mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd, who Dickinson never met. Her mother died in 1882, and her favorite nephew in 1883.

Through 1885, her health declined, and her family grew more concerned. Dickinson became extremely ill in May of 1886 and died on May 15, 1886. Her doctor declared the cause of death to be Bright’s disease, a disease of the kidneys . Susan Gilbert was asked to prepare her body for burial and to write her obituary, which she did with great care. Dickinson was buried in her family’s plot at West Cemetery in Amherst.

The great irony of Dickinson’s life is that she was largely unknown during her lifetime. In fact, she was probably better known as a talented gardener than as a poet. Fewer than a dozen of her poems were actually published for public consumption when she was alive. It wasn’t until after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered her manuscripts of over 1,800 poems, that her work was published in bulk. Since that first publication, in 1890, Dickinson’s poetry has never been out of print.

At first, the non-traditional style of her poetry led to her posthumous publications getting somewhat mixed receptions. At the time, her experimentation with style and form led to criticism over her skill and education, but decades later, those same qualities were praised as signifying her creativity and daring. In the 20th century, there was a resurgence of interest and scholarship in Dickinson, particularly with regards to studying her as a female poet , not separating her gender from her work as earlier critics and scholars had.

While her eccentric nature and choice of a secluded life has occupied much of Dickinson’s image in popular culture, she is still regarded as a highly respected and highly influential American poet. Her work is consistently taught in high schools and colleges, is never out of print, and has served as the inspiration for countless artists, both in poetry and in other media. Feminist artists in particular have often found inspiration in Dickinson; both her life and her impressive body of work have provided inspiration to countless creative works.

  • Habegger, Alfred.  My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York: Random House, 2001.
  • Johnson, Thomas H. (ed.).  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson . Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.
  • Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson . New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974.
  • Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson . New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.
  • Emily Dickinson's Mother, Emily Norcross
  • Emily Dickinson's 'If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking'
  • Biography of Emily Brontë, English Novelist
  • Emily Dickinson Quotes
  • Poems to Read on Thanksgiving Day
  • 42 Must-Read Feminist Female Authors
  • Phillis Wheatley
  • Dickinson's 'The Wind Tapped Like a Tired Man'
  • Biography of Hilda Doolittle, Poet, Translator, and Memoirist
  • Biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay
  • Biography of Anne Brontë, English Novelist
  • Feminist Poetry Movement of the 1960s
  • Phillis Wheatley's Poems
  • Biography of Charlotte Brontë
  • Sarah Josepha Hale

Emily Dickinson

emily dickinson themes essay

Emily Dickinson was a 19th-century American poet whose distinctive writing style made her stand out from the other poets in her era. She is known for her notably unconventional writing style that was unique at the time, where she often made use of dashes and unusual capitalization, and frequently used slant rhyme, which is a type of rhyme with words that have similar but not identical sounds. She ignored the typical rules of versification and grammar, making her work brave and completely original. [1] Dickinson was highly educated and was raised in a Calvinist household, which emphasized the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible. This religious influence permeates throughout her work. She had a complicated relationship with her religious beliefs and God; while her friends and family proclaimed their love of Christ, she was reluctant to join the church and ultimately stopped attending services altogether. [2]

Dickinson’s family was well known in the Massachusetts community where they lived. Her grandfather was a trustee of Amherst College, while her father had served in both state and federal Congresses. Although Dickinson herself was more socially active at a younger age, she became more reclusive later in the later years of her life. Scholars believe she was troubled from a young age by the "deepening menace" of death; throughout her lifetime she would suffer tremendous loss of friends and family, while later living through the time of the American Civil war that began in 1861 and ended in 1865. She began to isolate herself in her room in her family’s homestead and did not leave unless it was absolutely necessary. She began to talk to her visitors from the other side of her door instead of speaking to them face to face. Only the few people who knew her personally and had exchanged written correspondence with her during the last years of her life had ever seen her in person. [2] Her writing was said to be an outlet for her to express herself verbally rather than socially. Her works reflect this, as they are full of religious imagery and nuance, conversations about death, the ironies of life, her love of nature, and criticisms of societal behaviors. [3]

Dickinson died of heart failure at her home on May 15th, 1886. Only a handful of poems and a single letter were published during her life. After her death, her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s vast collection of nearly 1,800 poems and letters, and she had Dickinson's first volume published almost four years after her death. Literary scholar Thomas H. Johnson would eventually publish Dickinson's Complete Poems in 1955, and her poems have been in print continuously since. [2]

References [ edit | edit source ]

  • ↑ “Emily Dickinson: Biography, Poems, Death, & Facts.” Encyclopedia Britannica . December 6, 2021. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Emily-Dickinson
  • ↑ a b c Wikipedia contributors. "Emily Dickinson." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 20 Nov. 2021. Web. 6 Dec. 2021
  • ↑ “Major Characteristics of Dickinson’s Poetry” Emily Dickinson Museum . https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/poetry/tips-for-reading/major-characteristics-of-dickinsons-poetry/

emily dickinson themes essay

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The Emily Dickinson Collection

The Emily Dickinson Room, Houghton Library. William Mercer, photographer.

Overview and History

Houghton Library holds the papers of many American writers, including those of the 19th-century Amherst poet Emily Dickinson.

Houghton's Dickinson Collection is the largest in the world. In addition to preserving more than 1,000 poems and some 300 letters in her hand, the library also holds the poet’s writing table and chair , the Dickinson family library including the poet's bible , as well as Dickinson's herbarium .

At the heart of the collection are 40 hand-sewn manuscript books, or fascicles, in which the poet copied her poems. These manuscripts record the variations in word choice Dickinson considered. Unfortunately, these fascicles were disbound by the poet’s earliest editors. None survive as Dickinson left them, although in a few cases the thread used to sew the folded sheets does survive. 

For those interested in how the collection ended up at Harvard, researchers can consult the introduction to the 2006 facsimile edition of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium .

Emily Dickinson Archive Online

Emily Dickinson Archive provides access to images of nearly all of Emily Dickinson’s extant poetry manuscripts.

A collaborative effort across many institutions, the archive provides readers with images of manuscripts held in multiple libraries and archives, and offers an array of transcriptions of Dickinson’s poems. It also features digital tools that support exploration and scholarship. The site allows users to:

  • browse images of manuscripts by first line, date, or recipient;
  • turn the pages of and zoom into the manuscripts;
  • search the full text of six editions of Dickinson’s poems;
  • browse Emily Dickinson’s Lexicon , a resource indexing Dickinson’s word choices along with their contemporary definitions; and
  • create an account to make notes on images, save transcriptions of poems, and create new editions of her poetry.

Manuscript recipe for Emily Dickinson’s black cake written in pencil on cream-colored and lightly stained paper.

The Dickinson Room

The Dickinson Room is located on the second floor of Houghton Library . It displays family furniture (including the poet's writing table and chair), family portraits, a portion of the family library, and a number of personal belongings closely associated with the poet. The Dickinson Room is included in free public tours of Houghton Library every Friday at 2 p.m. and can be seen at other times by appointment. To request a tour of the room, contact the library . 

Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake 

“2 Butter. / 19 eggs. / 5 pounds Raisins.”

Those are some of poet Emily Dickinson's lesser-known lines.

Dickinson’s manuscript recipe for black cake, included in Houghton's Dickinson Collection, was sent along with a bouquet of flowers to Nellie Sweetser in the summer of 1883.  Read more about the recipe, and watch a video of Houghton staff recreating the cake .

Dickinson-Related Collections at Houghton

The following collections constitute the bulk of Houghton Library's Emily Dickinson Collection:

Emily Dickinson Poems and Letters

  • Emily Dickinson Poems : The fascicles, as well as poems on loose sheets, addressed to Susan Dickinson and other family members. The appendix includes a useful concordance of Johnson numbers, Franklin numbers, and Houghton call numbers. Color digital facsimiles available in open access.
  • Emily Dickinson letters and poems sent to the Austin Dickinson family : Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
  • Emily Dickinson poems and letters to Maria Whitney : Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
  • Emily Dickinson letters to Josiah Gilbert Holland and Elizabeth Chapin Holland : Includes some poems. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
  • Emily Dickinson Letters to Lucretia Gunn Dickinson Bullard : Complete color digital facsimiles available; access restricted to the Harvard network.
  • Emily Dickinson letters to various correspondents : Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.
  • Emily Dickinson miscellaneous papers : Includes materials that entered the Houghton collections after 1950. Largely letters, but a few manuscripts, and the recipe for black cake. Color digital facsimiles of poems available in open access; color digital facsimiles of letters by Emily Dickinson restricted to the Harvard network.

Sequence 30 of Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium featuring five pressed plant specimens

Because of their extreme fragility, the following items cannot be accessed in the original. All are available digitally, linked to their respective catalog records below.

  • Emily Dickinson. Herbarium, ca. 1839–1846 : Compiled by Dickinson when she was a student at Amherst Academy. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions. Additionally, published in facsimile as Emily Dickinson's Herbarium . Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2006. The Herbarium is searchable by both common (e.g. dandelion, lily) and scientific (e.g. Jasminum, Calendula) plant name.
  • Emily Dickinson. Herbarium, [18--] : Unfinished; nothing is known of its history. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions.
  • Botanical specimens received by Emily Dickinson : Pressed botanical specimens sent to Dickinson, most of which are labeled with geographic locations in the Middle East. It is possible that some or all of the labeled specimens were sent to Dickinson by Abby Wood Bliss, a schoolmate from Amherst Academy, who went to the Middle East as a missionary wife in 1855. Complete color digital facsimile available without access restrictions.

Dickinson Family Artifacts and Papers

  • Dickinson family artifacts : Portraits, furniture, jewelry, and household objects, many on display in the Dickinson Room. All objects have been photographed. Color digital facsimiles are available without access restrictions.
  • Dickinson family library : The titles in the Dickinson family library are also listed in HOLLIS and can be browsed using this canned search ; those records should be consulted for fuller bibliographic information than is found in the finding aid. More than half the volumes in this library have been digitized. Color digital facsimiles are available without access restrictions.
  • Dickinson family papers: Some images available; no access restrictions.
  • Dickinson family contracts and correspondence : concerning publication of the works of Emily Dickinson: No images available.


  • Dickinson family photographs, ca. 1840-1940 : Some images available; no access restrictions.
  • Reproductions of the Emily Dickinson daguerreotype: Shows the stages of alteration to the Amherst daguerreotype done by Laura Coombs Hills. Some images available; no access restrictions.

Written manuscript, Baffled for just a day or two (first line) Autograph manuscript, signed (1860)

Dickinson Family Circle

  • Mary Adèle Allen correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson : Images available; no access restrictions.
  • Martha Dickinson Bianchi letters to Theodore Longfellow Frothingham :  No images available; no access restrictions.
  • Martha Dickinson Bianchi papers : Some images available; no access restrictions.
  • Martha Dickinson Bianchi publication correspondence : No images available; no access restrictions. 
  • Samuel Bowles letters to Austin and Susan Dickinson : No images available; no access restrictions.
  • Alfred Leete Hampson correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson's papers : No images available; no access restrictions.
  • Thomas Herbert Johnson correspondence with Theodora Van Wagenen Ward, 1950–1958 : No images available; no access restrictions.
  • Theodora Van Wagenen Ward notes and correspondence concerning Emily Dickinson : Some images available; no access restrictions.

Other individual items, such as silhouettes of the Dickinsons , a drawing of Susan Dickinson , a transcript of the evidence given in the Dickinson-Todd trial , and manuscripts by friends of Dickinson such as Thomas Wentworth Higginson can be found through HOLLIS.

  • Virtual Open House Tour of the Dickinson Collection at Houghton Library given by Curator Leslie Morris hosted by the Emily Dickinson Museum on April 14, 2021
  • Making Emily Dickinson’s Black Cake video by Houghton Library staff baking Emily’s cake from December 2015
  • Lecture by Helen Vendler, “Emily Dickinson and the Sublime” with introduction by curator Leslie Morris on March 31, 2011

Accessing These Materials

There is no single database that can be searched for online versions of material in the Dickinson Collection. Patrons should use both HOLLIS and HOLLIS for Archival Discovery to locate material.

Due to the fragile nature of many items in the collection, researchers are required to use the facsimiles of Dickinson manuscripts and letters that are available. All poetry manuscripts are available online in color digital facsimile in the Emily Dickinson Archive as well as through the library's finding aids. The fascicles have also been published in facsimile. Dickinson's autograph letters are available in color digital facsimile in the Houghton Reading Room.

Some books in the Dickinson Family Library contain markings, and in 2010 Houghton Library embarked upon a program to stabilize and digitize these fragile volumes. The volumes are restricted because of their condition, and other copies of the same editions are held by the Houghton Library or in Widener Library. Readers are expected to use these alternate copies.

Permission to consult the original manuscripts or letters by Emily Dickinson, or books from the Dickinson Library, must be approved in advance.

Reproductions and Permissions

For permission to quote from or reproduce from manuscript material of Dickinson, contact the library . 

For permission to quote from published editions of Dickinson's work that are still in copyright (such as the Johnson and Franklin editions of the poems), and for all commercial uses of Emily Dickinson texts, contact Harvard University Press's Permissions Department .

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