She wore all white, she hid herself away from the world, and she was an urban legend in her hometown. She also wrote some of the most unusual and enduring poetry of all time — and nobody but Emily Dickinson herself realized it until after her death.
Who is Emily Dickinson?
Nineteenth-century American lyric poet Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems, but only 10 were published in her lifetime, which began in 1830 and ended in 1886. After living all her 55 years in Amherst, Massachusetts, she was memorialized as a master gardener fascinated by botany and an eccentric recluse rather than as a poet.
Dickinson grew up in a strict, religious household ruled by evangelical Calvinism. She and her younger sister, Lavinia, never married and lived at home with their parents all their lives. Her older brother, Austin, did eventually marry, but only moved as far away as next door.
Though Dickinson eventually gained small-town notoriety as a shut-in, she wasn’t a true hermit, especially early in life. During her childhood and teenage years, she attended Amherst Academy and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. As a young woman, she entertained guests, went to events in town, and was a frequent visitor at her brother’s house.
Dickinson started writing poetry in her teens, creating the majority of her poems between 1861 and 1865 — years which coincided with the American Civil War. Fully two-thirds of her poetic output occurred before 1866.
That year, a series of personal tragedies struck. Her beloved dog died, her mother was bedridden, and Dickinson was obliged to take on the household chores when the family lost their servant. She stopped going out, stopped communicating with friends except through letters, and stopped interacting with visitors to the house (though she would occasionally leave them poems and floral gifts from her garden). She started wearing all white. And this is how she continued to live for the final 15 years of her life. During this latter period, she wrote, on average, 35 poems per year.
Her first major publication came in 1890, four years after her death, when a collection of her poems was published under the title Poems. Dickinson’s idiosyncratic diction, grammar, meter, and rhyme were all edited to conform to contemporary poetic conventions, and titles were added to her untitled poems. A full collection of authentic versions of her poems — including “Hope is the Thing with Feathers,” “Because I Could Not Stop For Death,” “I’m Nobody! Who are You?” and “Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant” — wasn’t published until more than 100 years later in 1998.
Write like Emily Dickinson in three easy steps
(plus one bonus step!)
Step 1: Watch Gilligan’s Island
Dickinson was a lyric poet, writing verses in a style similar to the vocal music of the hymns and ballads of her time. Lyric poems have been around for more than 500 years and are typically short, express the feelings of a single protagonist (often the poet herself), and give the overall impression that they could be sung, should you happen upon the right tune.
Enter Gilligan’s Island.
Structurally, Dickinson’s poems were frequently written in common meter: four lines per stanza and an alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter pattern having a stressed-unstressed rhythm, (or, put more simply, an 8-6-8-6 syllable pattern in which the words read as STRESSED SYLLABLE, unstressed syllable).
Common meter is very popular with writers of vocal music. This is why you can easily sing Dickinson’s poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. “The Yellow Rose of Texas” also works.
Step 2: Stop and smell the roses. Then add death.
Dickinson’s poems are elusive, evasive, first-person narratives that hide as much as they express. Her keen interest in the natural world, her religious faith, and her struggle to express emotions best kept repressed according to the mores of her time all contributed to a wholly original poetic style.
Bees, flowers, the sun, the woods, or even the great indoors were all favorite subjects. Take a walk in a park or sit in your backyard, and write down what you see and hear.
Now add death. And immortality. But don’t go all goth on us; don’t mistake Dickinson’s understanding of immortality for some kind of cool vampire existence. It isn’t about fame-mongering, either. This immortality is of the religious salvation variety.
While you’re at it, embrace your daddy issues and put in an aloof god-father-master figure who’s also an imaginary lover to whom you chastely submit yourself. Add a couple more flowers, a beam of sunlight, a dash of existential loneliness, and you’re done.
Step 3: Listen to some hip hop
To get the Dickinson flavor, you need to slant a few of your rhymes, then meddle with the meter you worked so hard to master.
What’s slant rhyme, you ask? If you’ve listened to hip hop, you’ve encountered slant rhyme. The best way to describe it is to say it’s words that almost rhyme, but not quite.
One of my favorite (and druggiest) examples comes from Dead Obies towards the end of their song, “Montréal $ud”
Sorry bruh, been hard to reach
Tell Momma that it wasn’t me
I’ll be home in a couple weeks
With a duffle bag and a pound of weed
In this stanza, each end-line word slant rhymes with all the others (the “ee” sound).
As for meter, Dickinson wasn’t always strict about the regularity of her iambs, occasionally relaxing the strictures of the common meter to allow a syllable to slip in or out. Whether Dickinson actually intended to include slant rhymes in her poems, and whether her verse was meant to vary in meter is debatable (by yours truly, at least).
My theory? The regional dialect of early- to mid-19th century New England, coupled with variations in poetic pronunciation might have allowed some of Dickinson’s slant rhymes to be read as full rhymes, and the syllables in certain words to increase or decrease.
One need look no further for an example of this phenomenon than the two American pronunciations of the word “poem.” A recent online debate over whether the word is pronounced with two syllables (“poh-em”) or one (“pome”) illustrates the point.
Using the contested word, it’s quite easy to create two poems that will or will not display correct meter and a full rhyme, depending on your U.S. regional speech pattern.
“Poem” as a two-syllable word:
I have a pair of socks with holes
I really need to sew ‘em
I meant to do it, truthfully!
Instead, I wrote this poem.
And as a single-syllable word:
I went into the library
And grabbed a weighty tome
I kept it, though it’s overdue.
It’s where I wrote this poem.
To get an idea of what Dickinson may have sounded like, listen to a recording of President Calvin Coolidge, who grew up in New England and was educated at Amherst College in Dickinson’s hometown during the 1890s.
Bonus points: Add some dashes and capitalize the nouns
The original versions of Dickinson’s poems are marked by odd capitalizations and unexpected dashes. Though often characterized as unique to her writing style, they’re more likely a product of her early 19th-century education. A contemporary book, A Grammar of the English Language: For the Use of Schools, believed to have been part of the curriculum during Dickinson’s time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, prescribes the same use of dashes for transitions and dramatic pauses, as well as capitalization for common nouns when serving as personified concepts like “Love” or “Glory.”
Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization in action:
As you can see, the dashes are modest, no larger than periods, almost stray marks. And the capitalizations are unobtrusive.
In its dashless, conventionally capitalized and punctuated state, the poem is rendered:
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
But some versions double-down on the dashes, transforming them from scant hyphens into meaty M-dashes:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
Which do you prefer? Personally, I like the dashes. I’m not completely sold on the capitalizations, however. You can see how this hybrid approach to Dickinson’s style worked in a poem at the-delve.com.