An In-Depth Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s Poems
Emily Dickinson lived in a time when women weren’t taken seriously, especially in the writing world. To be a woman in the 1870s was not easy, and a lot of the hardships that she faced can be read throughout her poems. During this time, women couldn’t even vote, let alone get the proper recognition for their writing. The struggle to be heard as a woman was a common occurrence during that time period, and is still found in today’s climate, but the raw and uncensored ideas in her poems allowed for women in that period to be heard. This, in turn, made her into the glorified writer that we know today. Throughout her poems, the reader is transported into her often distraught and depressed mind. The poems that boldly express these emotions, and the ones that are the focus of this paper, include poems 78, 81, and 168. These poems focus on the taboo ideas of depression, madness, and the struggle that comes with being a woman.
“I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” Dickinson begins, immediately setting the gloomy tone of this poem (Dickinson 78). During her life, Dickinson had dealt with the deaths of many of her friends and family members (Ahmadi). She attended many funerals, and she was often present during the preparations of their bodies. Due to the tragedy she endured throughout her life, her mind often went to dark places. In this poem, Dickinson uses rather solemn prose to depict the misery that she feels by talking about mourners, a service, a box (or casket), and a bell. The mourners seem to be linked to the sad thoughts shuffling through her head. These thoughts enter and “when they all [are] seated,” the service, or impending doom, can begin (Dickinson 78). The repetition of the words “treading” and “beating” makes the service seem to be similar to the pounding or drumming in your head that you hear when your heart is beating fast out of fear or anxiety. When she says they “lift a Box And creak [it] across [her] Soul,” it is as if she is describing the unbearable, soul-crushing feeling that her sad thoughts are causing her (Dickinson 78). The fourth stanza extends this feeling as she compares her existence on earth to an ear and the heavens to the sound of a bell, while she herself, is cursed with silence. It is as if she is dealing with so much sadness that it has morphed itself into nothing but eerie silence.
Along with the beautifully tragic prose of Dickinson’s writing, she also uses certain stylistic effects to further help the reader understand the emotions behind this poem. For instance, her use of dashes between certain lines of the poem gives the effect of a pause or a dramatic breath. These breaks, or caesuras, give added emotion to her already powerful words. The dash placed at the end of the poem gives the reader the impression that the poem could go on, but she was either out of breath or her thoughts were interrupted by someone, and she never went back to continue them. Dickinson’s view of mortality is a big part of this poem. She focuses heavily on the topic of death in a way that makes her seem depressed yet intrigued by the idea of it. However, while many of her poems focus on the macabre, there are some poems that are a bit less melancholic.
Poem 81 may seem to be less depressing on the surface, but it still has some rather negative undertones, especially concerning women and their role in society. Dickinson begins this poem with, “The Drop that wrestles in the Sea – /forgets her own locality – “ (Dickinson 81). This line comes across as though it is Dickinson referring to herself, and women in general, as a minuscule drop while alluding to men being large, like the sea. By placing herself under the umbrella of something as small as a drop of water, she puts attention towards the women of this time and their small role in society. In Dickinson’s era, women had certain domestic roles in which they were expected to do as they were told, without complaint. Women were to be submissive, and this expectation of women most likely made Dickinson feel as though she was so small that she was lost in the sea of men (Hughes).
In the second stanza, Dickinson goes on to question if being small is all there will ever be for women, and if there is more for them, how much more is there? She uses “she” in this stanza, instead of “I,” making it clear that she is talking about a general and collective “she,” and not just herself. She is including all women in this stanza. Even though she only talks about herself feeling small in the first stanza, it is made clear that she understands that she isn’t the only woman who feels small like she does; she is merely the messenger of the thoughts that most women had in this time period.
Going on to the last stanza, she references a different body of water, the ocean, as being man. “The Ocean – smiles – at her Conceit,” or the man smiles at her pride and the “silly” idea that she wants more. This “smile” doesn’t seem to express something positive. In this context, it almost seems mocking, like man is only smiling because he thinks that her ideas and desire for more are ridiculous dreams. In this time period, it is easy to see how a man would think this way. The last lines, “But she, forgetting Amphitrite – / Pleads – ‘Me?’” show that the possibly mocking smile isn’t digested as such by the narrator (Dickinson 81). It seems like she believes that the smile is inviting or offering support, when it isn’t. She has forgotten Amphitrite, the compliant wife of Poseidon, and that she is small and doesn’t matter. And by asking “me?” she is living in an oblivious bubble. By asking “me?” she has begun to think that women can have more, but because of this time period, it is easy to see that it will only be a dream, and not a reality.
Unlike the previous poems, which focus on things like depression and the roles of women, poem 168 focuses on the general perception of madness. Dickinson starts this poem with the lines: “Much Madness is divinest Sense – / To a discerning Eye – / Much Sense – the starkest Madness – “ (Dickinson 168). She appears to be saying that the majority of those who are considered mad are actually sane, and those who are sane are the ones who are truly crazy. This declaration makes sense, especially when factoring in Dickinson’s life. She has always been fairly outspoken, as seen in a lot of her poetry, so the idea that she feels that she is sane because she is mad (or vice versa), is a fair one (Poetry Foundation). In the next few lines there are undertones that make it clear to the reader that what she says is, without a doubt, correct. She states that if you agree with her earlier statements, then you are sane, but if you feel that what she said may not be true, then “–you’re straightaway dangerous – / And handled with a Chain – “ (Dickinson 168). This definite proclamation helps the reader to understand her thought process and peer into her complex mind.
Something that sticks out in this poem, along with poem 81, is the continual use of dashes. The dashes add breaks or dramatic pauses in her speech and by including these elocution marks, she takes after Walt Whitman and his use of ellipses to break his lines. Throughout these works the dashes add the illusion of slowing down the poem’s delivery. Dickinson wants you to pause for added effect and emotion, and like poem 78, by ending with a dash, it seems like she was interrupted again or maybe had more to say, but just ran out of breath.
By looking at these selected poems by Emily Dickinson, readers are able to look into her mind and see the way that she processed ideas regarding women’s roles, depression, and madness. On the surface, these poems are eloquently written, but underneath, these topics are seen as controversial, especially during the time when they were written. Her perspective on these matters, allowed for her to raise awareness of these subjects, in a subtle way. Even though the full compilation of her works weren’t introduced to the public until the 1950s, the importance of them have grown immensely since then and have made Emily Dickinson one of the most respected and recognizable poets in not just America, but the world.
Ahmadi, Zahra, Tayari, Zohreh. “Thematic Study of Death in Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems.” Language in India, vol. 14, no. 3, 2014, pp. 130–136. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=94865281&site=eds-live&scope=site.
Dickinson, Emily. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems. Selection and introduction by Thomas H. Johnson. Little, Brown and Company, 1964.
“Emily Dickinson.” Poetry Foundation, www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson. Accessed 16 July 2019.
Hughes, Gertrude Reif. “Subverting the Cult of Domesticity: Emily Dickinson’s Critique of Women’s Work.” Legacy, vol. 3, no. 1, 1986, pp. 17-28. www.jstor.org/stable/25678952.