THE POETRY OF
'•4F --INSTITUTED , ,.
".*.». Museum^ Library
• .•?* services'
FOR THE ARTS
THE POETRY OF
FOR THE ARTS
A great nation
deserves great art.
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest
annual funder of the arts, bringing great art to all 50 states, including rural areas, inner
cities, and military bases.
The Institute of Museum and Library Services is the primary source of federal support
for the nation's 122,000 libraries and 17,500 museums. The Institute's mission is to create
strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. The Institute
works at the national level and in coordination with state and local organizations to
sustain heritage, culture, and knowledge; enhance learning and innovation; and support
Arts Midwest connects people throughout the Midwest and the world to meaningful arts
opportunities, sharing creativity, knowledge, and understanding across boundaries. Based
in Minneapolis, Arts Midwest connects the arts to audiences throughout the nine-state
region of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Ohio, South
Dakota, and Wisconsin. One of six non-profit regional arts organizations in the United
States, Arts Midwest's history spans more than 25 years.
Additional support for The Big Read has also been provided by the W.K. Kellogg
The creation of Emily Dickinson educational materials has been made possible, in part,
with support from the Poetry Foundation.
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20506-0001
Poems in this guide are reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE
POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: READING EDITION, Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, MA The
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright (c) 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard
College: Copyright (c) 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters. 1958. Cambridge, MA The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1986.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature, National Reading Initiatives
Writer: Erika Koss for the National Endowment for the Arts; Handout Two, "Wild Legacies,"
by Diane Thiel
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Image Editor: Dan Brady for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington, DC
Special thanks to Jane Wald, Executive Director of the Emily Dickinson Museum
Cover Portrait: John SherfTius for The Big Read. Page iv: Courtesy of Paul Shabajee. Page 1 : Artwork by
John Sherffius. Inside back coven Courtesy of Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Word Choice and the Value of a Dictionary 4
Lesson Two: Biographical Criticism 5
Lesson Three: The Speaker of a Poem 6
Lesson Four: Imagery and Personification 7
Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8
Lesson Six: Rhythm and Meter l )
Lesson Seven: Allusion 10
Lesson Eight: Analyzing a Poems Context 1 1
I wesson Nine: Poetry and Ideas 12
Ixsson Ten: What Makes a Poet Great? 13
Essay Topics 14
Handout One Emily Dickinson and
the Victorian "Woman Question" lo
t [andout I wo: Wild 1 cg.icies 1"
1 [andout Three: Dickinson s Final Sorrows 1 8
I caching Resources l l)
NC 1 1 Standards
The Poets light but Lamps
Themselves - go out -
The Wicks they stimulate
If vital Light
Inhere as do the Suns -
Each Age a Lens
Welcome to The Big Read, an initiative from the National Endowment for the
Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American culture,
The Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, as well as
inspire students to become lifelong readers.
The National Endowment for the Arts joins the Poetry Foundation to create
a new program to celebrate great American poets and the historic sites
associated with their lives and works. By honoring these writers and literary
landmarks, we hope both to bring poetry to a broader audience and to help
preserve and promote local cultural heritage and history.
This Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to introduce students to the
poetry of Emily Dickinson. Dickinson is not only one of the supreme lyric
poets of American literature, she has also come to symbolize the purest
kind of artistic vocation. Not merely unrecognized but virtually unpublished
in her own lifetime, she developed her genius in the utmost privacy, invisible
to all except a small circle of family and friends. Driven only by her own
imagination, she created a body of work unsurpassed in its expressive
originality, penetrating insight, and dark beauty.
Each lesson has five components: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing
exercises, vocabulary words, and homework assignments. In addition, we have
suggested essay topics, as well as provided handouts with more background
information about the poems, the historical period, and the author. All
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required for poetry.
Finally, The Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
biography, timelines, and historical information. We hope these educational
materials allow you to have fun with your students while introducing them to
the work of a great American poet.
From the NEA and the Poetry Foundation, we wish you an exciting and
productive school year.
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FOCUS: Word Choice and the Value of a Dictionary
Activities: Discuss Emily Dickinson's poem "A Route
of Evanescence." Have students create their own
four-line poetic riddles.
Homework: Read "Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886"
(pp. 4-6) and "The Publication of Dickinson's Poetry"
(p. 10) in the Reader's Guide. Read three poems
by Dickinson: "Fame is the one that does not
stay -," "Fame is a fickle food," and "Success is
FOCUS: Biographical Criticism
Activities: Examine Dickinson's life. Discuss her
poems on fame and success.
Homework: Read Handout One: Emily Dickinson
and the Victorian "Woman Question." Read three
poems: "They shut me up in Prose - ," "I dwell in
Possibility -," and "Crumbling is not an instant's Act."
* Most poems cited in this guide are on the Poetry
Foundation's Poetry Tool: www.poetryfoundation.org.
A biography and bibliography are also available there.
FOCUS: The Speaker of a Poem
Activities: Discuss Dickinson's use of persona in
contrast to her autobiographical poems.
Homework: Read "Dickinson's Poetry" (pp. 8-9) in
the Reader's Guide, and her poems "The Moon is
distant from the Sea -" and "After great pain a formal
FOCUS: Imagery and Personification
Activities: Discuss Dickinson's use of nature imagery
and personification to help readers visualize sensory
Homework: Read "'Hope' is the thing with feathers-,"
"There is no Frigate like a Book," and "Tell all the truth
but tell it slant -."
FOCUS: Figurative Language
Activities: Discuss Dickinson's use of seemingly
unrelated objects and feelings, and the contrast
between light and darkness in "Tell all the truth but
tell it slant-."
Homework: Read "Before I got my eye put out -"
and "Because I could not stop for Death -."
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FOCUS: Rhythm and Meter
Activities: Discuss the way some of Dickinson's
poems employ the patterns of nineteenth-century
hymns. Listen to a CD of hymns and "sing" two of
her poems. Consider contemporary songs that follow
Homework: Read "A little East of Jordan," "Come
slowly - Eden!," and "All overgrown by cunning
moss." Look up at least three words from the
poems. Read "From The Gardens of Emily Dickinson"
(pp. 12-13) in the Reader's Guide.
Activities: Discuss Dickinson's biblical references in
"A little East of Jordan."
Homework: Read "Now I knew I lost her -," "Wild
nights - Wild nights!." and "You left me - Sire - two
Legacies." Then read Handout Two: Wild Legacies,
and the short essay "The Homestead and The
Evergreens" (p. 7) in the Reader's Guide.
FOCUS: Analyzing a Poem's Context
Activities: Discuss two of Dickinson's poem cycles:
the "Sue cycle" and the "Master cycle," both of which
passionately articulate — in both obvious and subtle
ways — her experience with love and loss.
Homework: Read "This World is not conclusion," "I
know that He exists," and "Forever - is composed
of Nows - ." Then read Handout Three: Dickinson's
FOCUS: Poetry and Ideas
Activities: Discuss Dickinson's "flood subject."
immortality, and the way in which her faith sustained
her through suffering and sorrow.
Homework: Students will begin working on their
essays. Drafts are due next class period.
FOCUS: What Makes a Poet Great'
Activities: Explore the qualities of a great poet Wnte
a short essay that explains how Dickinson directs
our attention to the beauty of nature, the depth of
emotions, and the possibility of immortality
Homework: Students should complete their essays
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Value of a
From "A Route
of Evanescence "
The event of fading and gradually
vanishing from sight
1. Intensification and
prolongation of sound,
especially of a musical tone,
produced by vibration
2. Richness or significance,
especially in evoking an
association or strong emotion
A vivid red; a scarlet dye
The capital of Tunisia, on the
northern coast of Africa
Words are to a poet what clay is to a sculptor: the basic material of his or
her art. Poets see the shape of words, listen closely to their sound, feel their
weight. Before a poem can be appreciated for its deeper meanings, it must
first be read literally. We often overlook words we can already define. Ralph
Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature, "Every word ... if traced to its root, is
found to be borrowed from some material appearance. Right means straight;
wrong means twisted. Spirit primarily means wind; transgression, the crossing
of a line; supercilious, the raising of the eyebrow'' Students should even
look up words that are commonly used to understand better the careful,
conscious choices poets make. Several words from assigned poems are
already defined in the margins of this Teacher's Guide.
Dickinson found great joy in exploring the mysteries of nature, and some of
her poems read like riddles. A concise and complex poem like the one below
forces the reader to slow down and consider each word and image. Read this
poem aloud to your students twice, and see if they can figure out that the poem
describes a hummingbird.
A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel -
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal -
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it's tumbled Head - *
The Mail from Tunis - probably,
An easy Morning's Ride -
To understand this poem, students must know the definition of nouns such as
"evanescence," "cochineal," and "Tunis." Also important is an understanding of
a hummingbird's flight patterns, wing speed, and eating habits — things Dickinson
would have noticed from her meticulous observations of her gardens and the
forests. Taking the poem line by line, discuss the ways Dickinson's words evoke
the particular qualities of this beautiful creature.
Have students create four-line poetic riddles. Students should choose an element
from nature or an object. Ask them to use the dictionary to incorporate at least
one surprising word into their riddles.
Have students read the Reader's Guide essays "Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886"
(pp. 4-6) and "The Publication of Dickinson's Poetry" (p. 10). Read Dickinson's
poems "Fame is the one that does not stay -," "Fame is a fickle food," and
"Success is counted sweetest."
* The incorrect apostrophe in line six of "A Route of Evanescence," is in Dickinson's manuscript
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Biographical criticism is the practice of analyzing a literary work through
the lens of an authors experience. It considers the ways age, race, gender,
family, education, and economic status inform a writer's work. A critic
might also examine how poems reflect personality characteristics, life
experiences, and psychological dynamics. To understand some poems,
readers need knowledge of the poet's biographical facts or experiences.
As explained in the Reader's Guide essays "Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886
(pp. 4-6) and "The Publication of Dickinson's Poetry (p. 10), Dickinson
did not experience fame during her lifetime. However, fame is a subject that
several of her poems explore. Although she sent about one hundred of her
finest poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in some ways he failed to
be the mentor she needed, altering her poetry and publishing only a handful
of her poems before her death. Still, though Dickinson was writing during
a period that discouraged women writers, Higginson was one of few men
who actively championed the reading and publication of work by women.
From "Fame is the one that
does not stay — "
Constantly; without ceasing
Unable to pay one's debts;
From "Success is counted
A passage of melody, music, or
Ask some students to share their riddles in class, seeing if their classmates can
figure out what is described.
Emily Dickinson treated the subject of success with remarkable insight for
someone who never experienced it. Compare the two poems "Fame is the one
that does not stay -" and "Fame is a fickle food." How does she convey her
attitude toward fame? What is the relationship between the crows and the men
in the latter poem, and what might this suggest about success?
Q Writing Exercise
Dickinson's poetry often describes inner states of mind. However, several of her
poems composed during the Civil War employ images of battle, including her
popular poem "Success is counted sweetest." Ask students to explain, in writing.
the following two paradoxes: Why can't "Victory" be defined by those who "took
the Flag"? How and why can the "defeated" and "dying" hear a song of triumph?
Have students read Handout One: Emily Dickinson and the Victorian "Woman
Question." Ask them to consider the relationship between her poems on success
or fame and the changing opportunities for women during the nineteenth century
Read Dickinson's poems "They shut me up in Prose -." "I dwell in Possibility -."
and "Crumbling is not an instant's Act."
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of a Poem
Examining an author's life can inform and expand a literary text. Readers
should be careful not to assume that the speaker of a poem is necessarily
the poet. When we read a poem, one of our first questions should be:
Whose "voice" is speaking to us? Sometimes a poet will create a persona,
a fictitious speaker, and this speaker may not always be human. A speaker
may be an animal or object, and good poems have been written from
perspectives as various as a hawk, a clock, or a cloud.
Because the opening lines of more than two hundred of Dickinson s poems
are expressly written in the first person (either the singular "I" or the plural
"we"), it is difficult to resist reading most of her poetry as autobiographical.
Yet many of her poems do not concern the experiences of an "I" but
describe natural phenomena (like Lesson One's "A Route of Evanescence"),
characterize states of mind, or define abstractions through metaphor (like
Lesson Two's "Fame is a fickle food").
From "I dwell in Possibility —
Difficult or impossible to attack,
challenge, or refute
A roof having a shallower slope
above a steeper one on each side
From "Crumbling is not an
A state of decay due to old age or
Botany. A protective layer covering
the epidermis of a plant
A tool used to pierce or form a
hole; an auger
In many of her poems, Dickinson attempts to describe psychological states
objectively, as in "Crumbling is not an instant's Act." In these kinds of poems, she
does not use the first person, or any overt reference to her life. Examine each
stanza of this poem with your students, noticing the imagery Dickinson uses in
her declarative statements about the slow process of decay.
Discuss Handout One: Emily Dickinson and the Victorian "Woman Question."
Have the class analyze the poems "I dwell in Possibility -" and "They shut me up
in Prose -." Although the speaker of these two 1862 poems may be Dickinson,
who else could it be?
Have students write a two-page essay on Dickinson's treatment of houses
and nature in all three poems. How does she use imagery to portray both
confinement and liberation? What might this suggest about her own struggles
and triumphs as a poet?
Ask students to read "Dickinson's Poetry" (pp. 8-9) in the Reader's Guide. Also
have them read "The Moon is distant from the Sea -" and "After great pain, a
formal feeling comes -."
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Poets use figurative language to help a reader imagine the events and
emotions described in a poem. Imagery, a word or series of words that refers
to any sensory experience (sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste), helps create
a visceral experience for the reader. Personification is a figure of speech in
which a thing, animal, or abstract term (truth, death, the past) takes on
To comprehend Emily Dickinson's poetry, the reader must understand
the importance of figurative language as a way to suggest what cannot
be literally stated. To appreciate her work, one must forgo readings
that view truth as black or white. Dickinsons poetry is consciously
mysterious and elliptical. The reader must attempt to use Dickinson s
own logic, remembering that "Much Madness is divinest Sense - /
To a discerning Eye - ."
From "The Moon is distant
from the Sea - "
Easily managed or led, teachable
1. To force to be accepted, done,
or complied with
2. To take advantage of someone
From "After great pain, a
formal feeling comes - "
A hard, transparent mineral
A state of helpless amazement
Have students research the relationship between the moon and the sea. the
tides, and the monthly lunar cycle. Then ask them to read "The Moon is distant
from the Sea -," noticing that Dickinson personifies the connection by invoking
the human body, saying that the moon's "Amber Hands" lead the sea "Along
appointed Sands." In the second stanza, she deepens this personification by
noting the sea's obedience to the moon's "eye," suggesting a scientific reality: that
the moon controls the length and timing of the sea's tides. The poem turns to
address a person ("Signor") in stanza three. How does the relationship between
the moon and the sea parallel that between the mysterious "Signor" and the
P Writing Exercise
List each example of personification in the poem "After great pain, a formal
feeling comes - ." Ask students to answer the following questions: Which image
resonates best with your experience of "great pain" ; How do the images in
stanzas one and two build to the final image of "First - Chill - then Stupor - then
the letting go - "?
Read "'Hope' is the thing with feathers -." "There is no Frigate like a Book." and
"Tell all the truth but tell it slant -."
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From "'Hope' is the thing with
A very strong wind
Cause to feel embarrassed,
From "There is no Frigate
like a Book"
A warship with a mixed armament,
generally lighter than a destroyer
A swift horse
A route or path across or over
Figurative language asks us to stretch our imaginations, finding the likeness
in seemingly unrelated things. A simile is a comparison of two things
that initially seem quite different, but are shown to have a significant
resemblance. Similes employ a connective, usually "like," "as," or "than," or a
verb such as "resembles." A metaphor also compares two seemingly different
things, but it states that one thing is something else that, in a literal sense, it
is not. By asserting that a thing is something else, a metaphor creates a close
association that underscores an important similarity between them.
As a class, identify the opening comparison in Dickinson's poems "'Hope'
is the thing with feathers -" and "There is no Frigate like a Book." What
correspondence exists between hope and something with feathers in the
first poem, and between a ship and a book in the second? Take the time
to go through each line of the poem as a class. Discuss the way Dickinson
develops these particular metaphors throughout each poem to make a more
comprehensive point about "the Human Soul." What other metaphors can
students find in these two poems?
If time permits, discuss Dickinson's use of metaphor in other poems referenced
in this Teacher's Guide.
Ed Writing Exercise
In the 1872 poem "Tell all the truth but tell it slant -," Dickinson compares
"Truth's superb surprise" to lightning. Have students write a one-page analysis of
what Dickinson's comparison between light and darkness might suggest about
how we discern truth.
To expand this question, consider the development of our scientific
understanding of light and lightning since the nineteenth century, as well as
Dickinson's own problems with her eyes and sight.
Read "Before I got my eye put out -" and "Because I could not stop for
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A poem's meaning can be found in its structural, stylistic, and verbal
components. Two such components are rhythm and meter, long regarded
as distinguishing features of verse. Poems may be written in fixed forms —
traditional verse forms that require certain predetermined structural
elements of meter, rhythm, and rhyme, such as a sonnet or a ballad — or open
form. Not all poets write in fixed forms or meter, but all poets employ
rhythm. Rhythm is created by the pattern of stressed and unstressed
syllables in a poetic line. Scansion is the art of listening carefully to the
sounds of a poem and trying to make sense of it. This includes paying
attention to each poetic foot, each stressed ox unstressed syllable, and — if
applicable — to the poems rhyme scheme.
Most nineteenth-century poets, including Emily Dickinson, wrote
primarily in fixed forms with identifiable meters. Dickinson drew her meter
from Protestant hymns sung in the churches in Amherst, Massachusetts.
From "Because I could not stop
for Death- "
1. An extremely delicate variety of
gauze, used especially for veils
2. A cobweb
A woman's fur cape or woolen
Fine (often starched) net used for
veils, tutus, or gowns
An ornamental molding around the
wall of a room just below the ceiling
When scanning a poem, use an accent (') over each stressed syllable and a breve
or "little round cup" (~) over each unstressed syllable. Here are examples of how
to scan one of Dickinson's poems:
Because I could not stop for Death -
He kindly stopped for me -
The Carriage held but just Ourselves -
Have students scan "Because I could not stop for Death - ." Ask your students
how scanning a poem helps them understand its meaning.
Find a recording of the hymns "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" and "Oh God
Our Help In Ages Past". Notice that one can "sing" the poem above to the tune
of both hymns.
E( Writing Exercise
Ask students to consider a favorite song and write a short comparison to
Dickinson's poetry. Does it employ meter, rhythm, or rhyme' How do fixed
forms help the listener memorize the song?
Read "A little East of Jordan," "Come slowly - Eden!." and "All overgrown with
cunning moss." Read "From The Gardens of Emily Dtckmson" (pp. 12-13) in the
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Most poets have an audience in mind when they write — a reader who will
understand and appreciate their work. In trying to communicate with that
audience, poets sometimes use overt or subtle references — allusions — to tap
shared cultural memories, or enlarge the scope of their work. Allusions may
appear in a poem as an initial quotation, a passing mention of a name, or
a phrase borrowed from another writer — often carrying the meanings and
implications of the original. When, for instance, poets allude to a person,
image, or event in Homer s Iliad or the Bible, they presume readers will be
familiar with those texts. In the same way, poets amplify the scope of their
work by connecting images and ideas to outside sources.
Emily Dickinson drew from Greek and Roman myths, the Bible, and
British writers for inspiration. Her poetry is rife with references to religion,
botany, biology, history, art, music, and literature (especially Shakespeare).
For example, her poem "All overgrown by cunning moss" refers to the
grave ("little cage") of Currer Bell (the pseudonym of Charlotte Bronte)
in Haworth, Yorkshire County, England — a detail that would have been
familiar to readers due to the popularity of Brontes 1847 novel, Jane Eyre.
From "A little East of Jordan"
Becoming larger or stronger
Worsted, v. tr.
Gained the advantage over; defeated
From "Come slowly — Eden!"
A variant of jasmine; a shrub or
climbing plant with fragrant white,
pink, or yellow flowers
1. A fragrant ointment; something
2. A tree which yields a fragrant,
Hundreds of Dickinson's poems either directly or indirectly refer to God, Jesus
Christ, the crucifixion, resurrection, heaven, or hell. In "A little East of Jordan,"
Dickinson responds to a long-cherished story of Jacob as recorded in Genesis
32:24-32. One night when Jacob is alone, a man — thought to be an angel —
wrestles with him until dawn. The unknown man injures Jacob's hip in the fight,
but Jacob refuses to let him go and demands a blessing. To his surprise, Jacob
then realizes he has wrestled with God.
Break up your class into four groups, asking each to read the original Old
Testament story. Then read "A little East of Jordan" out loud. Ask each group
to go through the entire poem, noticing each allusion. Then ask each group to
report its discoveries to the class. In light of these literary allusions, what is the
significance of the poem's final stanza? Might Emily Dickinson have felt that she, at
times, was wrestling with God? What might she mean when she says Jacob "had
worsted God"? Explain.
Ask students to write a two-paragraph interpretation of "Come slowly - Eden!'
How does Dickinson portray Eden? How does the poem's treatment of Eden
differ from the Old Testament view of paradise?
Read "Now I knew I lost her - ," "Wild nights - Wild nights!," and "You left me
- Sire - two Legacies." Then read Handout Two: Wild Legacies, and the Reader's
Guide essay "The Homestead and The Evergreens" (p. 7).
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From "Now I kneiv I lost her — "
The passage of a soul into another
body after death
Restoration to a former or
From "Wild nights
Wild nights! "
Moor, v. it.
To attach (a boat or buoy) by cable
or rope to a fixed object
Hundreds of Emily Dickinsons poems deal with love and loss, denial and
desire. Scholar Judith Farr identifies two thematic "cycles" in the poems as
the "Sue cycle" and the "Master cycle."
Emily Dickinson had several long and passionate loves. As a teenager, she
deeply loved her friend Susan (Sue) Huntington Gilbert, who later became
her sister-in-law when Gilbert married Austin Dickinson. After their
July 1, 1856, wedding, Austin and Sue moved into The Evergreens, the
house next door to the Homestead, the Dickinson family home. Their
lifelong friendship was emotional and volatile; to Emily it was an "endless
fire" that complicated both their lives due to their proximity. Sue is the
"beloved woman" mentioned in many poems who taught Dickinson joy
In the 1860s, another prominent name — "Master" — often appears in
Dickinsons poetry. "His" exact Identity remains debated; some believe
"Master" is God, or even Sue. (Three enigmatic letters were found after
Dickinsons death. However, no one knows to whom they were addressed, or
whether they were ever sent.) Sue once wrote a letter wherein she revealed that
she had seen Dickinson "reclining in the arms of a man" in her drawing room.
It is often assumed this man was Judge Otis Phillips lord, who proposed
marriage to Dickinson when she was in her fifties. Although she loved him,
Dickinson refused. Before Judge Lord was her suitor, Dickinson loved Samuel
Bowles, a married man and close friend of Austin a\k\ Sue. Some scholars
believe that "Master" was Bowles, evidenced by the poetry that she seni do
him such as "Title divine - is mine! / The Wife without the Sign!
Read "Now I knew I lost her -," a poem that laments lost love despite physical
proximity. List all the words in the poem connected to time or travel. How does
the speaker's love defy time and distance? How does the beloved seem to respond
to this love? First discuss the literal references in this poem, and then move to the
symbolic. Does understanding the poem require knowledge of its context'
^ Writing Exercise
Have students write about the figurative language used in two of Dickinson's love
poems: "Wild nights - Wild nights!" and "You left me - Sire - two Legacies"
Does the imagery of these poems suggest that Dickinson wrote them to Susan
Gilbert Dickinson. Samuel Bowles, or someone else' Does it matter if the ob|ect
of the poem is identified?
Read "This World is not conclusion," "I know that He exists." and "Forever - is
composed of Nows -." Then read Handout Three: Dickinson's Final Sorrows.
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From "This World is not
The quality of being discerning;
sound in judgment
The feeling that someone or
something is worthless or beneath
"No man was ever yet a great poet," said Samuel Taylor Coleridge, "without
being at the same time a profound philosopher. For poetry is the blossom
and fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions,
emotions, language." Exceptional poets can pursue their craft without
aspiring to greatness, as Coleridge defines it here, but the greatest poets
through the ages are distinguished by their willingness to confront life's
biggest questions: Does God (or do the gods) exist? What is the purpose of
life? What happens when we die?
Dickinson's belief in the promise of eternal life sustained her through many
sorrows, illnesses, and losses. The Christian doctrine of the resurrection and the
belief that the body and soul will be united after death were especially precious
to her. What evidence of this do you see in such poems as "This World is not
conclusion" or "I know that He exists"? Use Handout Three: Dickinson's Final
Sorrows to guide students' interpretations of Dickinson's "flood subject" —
How might these two poems shed light on the following sentence, which
Dickinson wrote to Higginson on April 25, 1862: "[My family] are religious
- except me - and address an Eclipse, every morning - whom they call their
How does her poem "Forever - is composed of Nows -" reflect on both life's
trials and joys? Remember that despite all her pain, she told Higginson: "I find
ecstasy in living - the mere sense of living is joy enough."
Wa Writing Exercise
A blade, plate, sail, etc., as in the
wheel of a windmill, to be moved
by the air
The poem "This World is not conclusion" asserts that "Faith slips - and laughs,
and rallies -," suggesting that faith may have more in common with the rising
and falling tide than with a rock or fortress. Ask students to write a one-page
response that considers how understanding faith, doubt, or religious conviction
furthers an understanding of Dickinson's poetry. Ask students to return to at
least one poem from a previous lesson that includes this theme.
Have students choose from the essay topics suggested on page 14. Ask them to
come to the next class with a draft of the essay.
I 2 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
a Poet Great?
Poets articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily lives in the larger
context of the human struggle. The writer s voice, style, and use of
figurative language inform the themes and characters of the work. A great
poem is a work of art that affects many generations of readers, changes
lives, challenges assumptions, and breaks new ground.
If one mark of a great writer's work is that it moves us to return to it again
and again — whether for enchantment, wisdom, or consolation — then
Emily Dickinson is surely one of our greatest writers. In her verse, we
experience the "Transport" or pleasurable excitement that she herself looked
for in poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire
can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of mv
head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the onlv ways I know
it. Is there any other way[?]'
From "The Poets light but
Lamps — "
To be fixed or permanently
incorporated within something
To spread widely
The outer boundary, especially of a
Guide your students in a close reading of "The Poets light but Lamps -."
This short poem contains a metaphor so complex that it may inspire several
interpretations. Have your class consider the various symbolic meanings of
objects such as the lamp, the wick, the light, and the sun. Does everyone have
the same interpretation of the symbols and the poetic metaphor?
How does Dickinson use the word "Circumference" to represent both a literal
circle of light that surrounds the lamp stand and the power of great poetry that
shines out to others over centuries? What is she saying about the eternal nature
of great poetry?
Ask students to list the characteristics of a great poet. Put these on the board.
What elevates their poems to greatness? Have students discuss, within groups,
other poems or songs they know that include some of the same characteristics.
Do any of these works remind them of Dickinson's poems?
y Writing Exercise
Ask students to write a one-page essay on their favorite Dickinson poem.
Students should continue working on their essays. Final drafts are due during the
National Endowment tor the \m the big read • I 3
The writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the discussion
questions in the Reader's Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as
long as they are interesting and specific. Other ideas for essays are provided below.
For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis — that is, an argument or
interpretation — about the poem or poems in question. This statement or thesis should be focused,
with clear reasons to support its conclusion. The thesis and evidence should be supported by
references to the text.
1 . Choose two poems in which Emily Dickinson
looks closely at the natural world. Research
her references to botany and biology, providing
your own interpretation as a result of this
2. The popularity of poems such as "I felt a
Funeral in my Brain" or "After great pain, a
formal feeling comes -" have led some readers
to characterize Dickinson as a morbid poet
Does she deserve this reputation? Why, or
why not? How might the many deaths and
losses she endured have affected her poetry?
3. Give a historical reading of Dickinson's poem
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church"
by finding out about the importance of the
Sabbath day to nineteenth-century Christians.
Research the Second Great Awakening to
provide context for this semi-autobiographical
Read the poetry of some of Dickinson's
contemporaries, such as American poets Edgar
Allan Poe, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and
Walt Whitman or English poets Alfred, Lord
Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, or Elizabeth
Barrett Browning. Choose one poet and
examine his or her style and themes. How is
Dickinson like this poet? How is she different?
Listen to Aaron Copland's musical treatment
of several Dickinson poems including "Because
I could not stop for Death -." Dickinson loved
music and was a reasonably accomplished
pianist In what ways can Dickinson be
considered a musical poet? What poetic
devices does she use to bring musicality to her
I 4 • THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
A glossary of some of the poetic terms used in the lessons is listed below.'
Allusion: A brief, sometimes indirect reference in a
text to a person, place, or thing.
Biographical criticism: The practice of analyzing a
literary work by using knowledge of the author's
life to gain insight.
Diction: Word choice or vocabulary in a particular
Fixed form: Traditional verse forms that require
certain predetermined structural elements of
meter, rhythm, and rhyme, such as sonnets or
Foot: The basic unit of measurement in poetry.
Different meters are identified by the pattern
and order of stressed and unstressed syllables in
its metrical feet. A foot is usually two or three
syllables, depending on the meter.
Free verse: From the French vers libre, free verse
describes poetry that organizes its lines without
meter. It is not usually rhymed.
Historical criticism: The practice of analyzing a
literary work by investigating the social, cultural,
and intellectual context around it.
Meter. A systematic, rhythmic pattern of stresses
Paradox: A statement that at first seems
contradictory, but on reflection reveals some
Persona: The Latin word for "mask." A fictitious
speaker created by the poet.
Rhyme scheme: The pattern of rhyme in an
individual poem or a fixed form. A rhyme
scheme is transcribed with lower-case letters
representing each end rhyme — a for the first
rhyme, b for the second, and so on.
Rhythm: The pattern of stresses and pauses in a
Scansion: A method of notation that measures
rhythms in a poem. Scansion separates the
metrical feet, counts the syllables, marks the
accented ones, and indicates the pauses. Scansion
helps the reader understand a poet's choice of
rhythm, verse length, and sound.
Stanza: A unit of two or more lines of verse
with space breaks before and after. The stanza is
poetry's equivalent to a paragraph in prose.
Stress (or accent): A greater amount of force
given to one syllable in speaking than is given to
Theme: The central thought or idea of the poem.
Short poems might have only a single theme
while longer, complex works can contain multiple
All literary definitions, both here and in the lessons, are taken from An Introduction to Poetry 1 1 Ith edition t. edited by X J Kennedy and
Dana Gioia. or Handbook of Literary Terms, edited by X J Kennedy. Dana doia. and Mark BaueHem (2005)
National Endowment ror tin
THE BIG READ * I 5
Emily Dickinson and the Victorian
When Mary Wollstonecraft published A
Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792,
women were still confined by law and custom
to the domestic, "private" sphere, in contrast to
the professional, "public" sphere of men. By the
time Queen Victoria took the throne of England
in 1837, this so-called "woman question" — what
is a woman's proper place in society? — was
hotly debated by many politicians, theologians,
educators, and writers.
A king in Alfred, Lord Tennyson's poem "The
Princess" (1847) succinctly summarizes the
viewpoint of many Victorians: "Man for the field
and woman for the hearth: / Man for the sword
and for the needle she; / Man with the head and
woman with the heart, / Man to command and
woman to obey." Yet women were denied basic
liberties even in the domestic sphere. For example,
women had no legal rights to their own children
until 1839 when Parliament passed the Custody
of Infants Act, allowing a divorced mother to
obtain custody. It took until 1882 for the Married
Women's Property Act to pass, giving women the
right to keep pre-existing land and money in their
Throughout the nineteenth century, the proper
education for women in England and America
comprised music, languages, art, and needlework.
An important milestone came in 1837 when
Mount Holyoke College was founded in South
Hadley, Massachusetts, and the school's principal,
Mary Lyon, decided to teach her female students
traditionally "masculine" subjects such as
mathematics, botany, theology, rhetoric, logic,
chemistry, and astronomy. This pioneering
opportunity in women's education enabled
Emily Dickinson to receive a uniquely privileged
education. This successful "experiment" also led
several universities to open their doors to women
or create colleges especially for them, although
women sometimes could not earn formal degrees.
The "woman question" was especially pointed in
literary circles, where women remained subordinate
in the mid-nineteenth century. In England,
writers Charlotte Bronte and Mary Ann Evans
used pen names — Currer Bell and George Eliot,
respectively — to avoid public censure for the
radical ideas and passionate heroines described in
their novels, especially Jane Eyre (1847) and The
Mill on the Floss (1860). Greater barriers existed for
female poets, since the genre of poetry traditionally
belonged to men. A notable exception to Victorian
prejudice against women writers was Elizabeth
Barrett Browning, whose life and poetry deeply
influenced Dickinson. In Barrett Browning's
radical verse-novel, Aurora Leigh (1857), the poet-
heroine refuses to renounce her artistic ambition,
when the man she loves expects her to give up her
writing to become his helpmeet.
In America, it was even harder for women writers
to publish and succeed. The young United
States was slower to address women's rights than
England. In an age that looked down upon women
"scribblers," and as the daughter of parents who
did not fully understand her intellectual pursuits,
Dickinson may have composed such poems as "I
dwell in Possibility -" and "They shut me up in
Prose" — both written in 1862 — to express her own
I 6 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
by Diane Thiel
Dickinson's love poems are not the ones most often
chosen to represent her, but they reveal complex
aspects to her work. Much speculation exists about
whether an actual relationship inspired these
poems. While biographical matters are always
interesting, it is even more important to recognize
a writer's life of the mind, for the work of a writer
often addresses aspects of a life that has been
imagined or a life re-invented. The poems "Wild
nights - Wild nights!" and "You left me - Sire -
two Legacies -" are both seemingly simple poems,
emblematic of Dickinson's compressed style, each
offering a compelling example of Dickinsons love
poetry with their expressions of deep") longing and
the "Boundaries of Pain" that accompany loss or
"Wild nights - Wild nights!" is a love poem of
intense longing. Perhaps the most evocative aspect
of the poem is the way the speaker yearns for the
wild experience of love and passion. The poem
might be read as the expression of longing for a low-
that can bring the speaker's "Heart in port." Yet,
the words also reveal the craving for wild abandon
The poem's final lines encourage one to read and
re-read the poem. The final word "thee" invites
multiple interpretations. Is "thee" the apparent
beloved ill the poem, or is she addressing the sea?
K the speaker asking to be moored in the sc.i? It
seems .is it the speaker, drawn to the wild nature
of the Sea and the beloved, wants to be "mooted
in this wildness. The poem has .in overtly erotic
quality, from the desire tor "wild nights" in the fust
line to the wish to "moor tonight / In thee! in
These layered possibilities occur in much of
Dickinson's poetry, and take the reader of even a
short poem through often unexpected turns. "You
left me - Sire - two Legacies - portrays, in a few
lines, the legacies of loving someone, describing
the intensity of feeling that can barely be captured
in words. But when intense love ends, whether by
death or separation, another legacy remains.
I he language in "You left me - Sire - two
Legacies -" is simple but abstract, but the intensity
is both deeply personal and universal. While the
poem seems to speak about a romantic affair.
it could also be interpreted as referring to any
relationship that has left the legacies of love and
loss. The intensity of such a love is summed up
emphatically in the first stanza, a devotion that
would "suffice" even .1 "1 leavenry lather. I he-
second stan/a speaks to the nearly inevitable loss
that follows. As in "Wild nights Wild nights!,
Dickinson also evokes the sea in this poem. While
"Wild nights - Wild nights! seems to cast the
sea as wild and erotic. "Vbu left me - Sire - two
I egacies emphasizes the vast nature of the sea
and connects it to the incalculable pain that such
,1 loss of love leaves behind. I he final lines ol this
poem also otter multiple meanings, .is one might
understand the sc.i to lx- the divide thai now cv
between the two.
Dickinsons ability to capture such mtensitx
emotion is emblematic ol her spare, oompi
highly charged style I hese short poems highlight
Dickinson .is .1 poet who wnu itiveh about
love. In |ust .1 tew words and lines, she traverses the
scope ot longing, realization of love, and the lay*
leg.u ies it lean 1
National Endowment for th. the big read • 17
Dickinson's Final Sorrows
In a letter of 1883, Emily Dickinson declared that
"The Crisis of the sorrow of so many years is all
that tires me." Later she cited a line from one of her
favorite poems: "As Emily Bronte to her Maker, I
write to my Lost 'Every Existence would exist in
thee - V' 1
The darkest season of Dickinson's life began
after her mother's death in 1882, followed by the
death of her eight-year-old nephew Gilbert from
typhoid fever in 1883. After this, she wrote to his
mother: "I see him in the Star, and meet his sweet
velocity in everything that flies — His Life was
like the Bugle, which winds itself away, his Elegy
an echo - his Requiem ecstasy -." Dickinson's
posthumous editor, Thomas H. Johnson, claimed
that "no death during Emily Dickinson's lifetime
more deeply shocked and grieved her" for "with
his departure went a certain inner light." Her final
"poems" more closely resemble fragments, although
she continued faithfully writing letters to many
family members and close friends.
One such friend who sustained her toward the
end of her life was Judge Otis Phillips Lord, who
had been one of her father's closest associates.
He pursued a romance with Dickinson after the
death of his wife. Although Dickinson loved him,
she refused his marriage proposal. Lord's death
from a stroke, only six months after Gilbert's, led
Dickinson to write the following short fragment:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
1 "Every Existence would exist in thee" is a line from Emily Bronte's poem "No coward soul is mine."
This Dickinson line clearly refers to a line in the New Testament epistle of First Timothy: "For I know whom I have believed, and am
persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day" (1:12).
In June 1884, Dickinson suffered a second
"nervous prostration" and never fully recovered.
Intimations of immortality haunted Dickinson
until the end, and from her earliest poetry to
her final letters, a central theme emerges — what
she identified as her "flood subject": immortality.
In a letter dated November 19, 1884, she confessed
that "to 'know in whom' we 'have believed,'
is Immortality." 2
That final day came for her on May 15, 1886.
Despite her inability to "declare for Christ" during
her year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary,
despite her failure to "keep the Sabbath going to
Church," Dickinson wrestled with God to the
end. One of her last letters to Thomas Wentworth
Higginson ended with a citation from the Genesis
32 story of Jacob's fight with the Angel: " 'I will
not let thee go except I bless thee' — Pugilist and
Poet, Jacob was correct -." This was a story she
had dramatized earlier in the poem "A little East
of Jordan." Dickinson's faith conformed neither
to Calvinist orthodoxies nor to the fashions of
Amherst, which makes Bronte's poem — which
Higginson read at Dickinson's funeral — even
No coward soul is mine
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere
I see Heaven's glories shine
And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear . . .
I 8 ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The Poetry of Emily Dickinson
Biographies and Literary Criticism
The three-volume Variorum Edition of The Poems of Emily
Dickinson, edited by R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, MA:
The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1998), is the
most reliable edition of Dickinson's collected poems. The
paperback "Reading Edition" of this collection is suggested
for teachers, librarians, and the general reader (Cambridge,
MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Recommended editions include Final Harvest, edited by
Thomas H. Johnson (New York: Back Bay Books, 1964);
The Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson (New York: Modern
Library, 2004), which includes an introduction by Billy
Collins; and Essential Dickinson (New York: Ecco, 1 996),
which includes an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates.
Most poems used in this guide are on the Poetry
Foundation's Poetry Tool: www.poetryfoundation.org.
A biography and bibliography are also available there.
Farr, Judith, with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily
Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2004.
Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge. MA
Harvard University Press, 1 992.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life
of Emily Dickinson. New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Longsworth, Polly. The World of Emily Dickinson: A Visual
Biography. New York: Norton, 1 990.
Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief Grand
Rapids, Ml: Eerdmans, 1998.
Martin, Wendy, ed. The Cambndge Companion to Emily
Dickinson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Pollak, Vivian R. A Histoncal Guide to Emily D<kmson. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. 2004.
Sewall, Richard B. The Ufe of Emily Dickinson Cambndge.
MA: Harvard University Press. 1998 (Originally published
by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1974)
Emily Dickinson's Letters
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters.
1 958. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, 1986.
Copland. Aaron. Ejgin Poems of Emily Dickinson for Voce and
Oiamber Orchestra. New York: Boosey and Hawkes. 1 970
Luce. William The BeOe of Amherst A Play based on the Ufe of
Emily Dickinson Boston Houghton Mifflin. 1976
National 1 ndowmeni t<u the- \us
THE BIG READ • I 9
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards'
1 . Students read a wide range of print and
non-print texts to build an understanding of
texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of
the United States and the world; to acquire
new information; to respond to the needs
and demands of society and the workplace;
and for personal fulfillment. Among these
texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies
to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and
appreciate texts. They draw on their prior
experience, their interactions with other
readers and writers, their knowledge of
word meaning and of other texts, their
word identification strategies, and their
understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-
letter correspondence, sentence structure,
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language
structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling
and punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit
their purpose and audience.
8. Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
9. Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
10. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
1 1 . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literacy communities.
12. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
* This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop
your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
I find ecstasy in living — the mere
sense of living is joy enough."
— EMILY DICKINSON
in conversation with, and recounted by,
Thomas Wentworth Higginson. 1870
FOR THE ARTS
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry -
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll -
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human Soul -"
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
A great nation deserves great art.
'•«• . -INSTITUTE of .,