The best poems of Emily Dickinson selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Reducing Emily Dickinson’s 1,700+ poems to a list of the ten greatest poems she wrote is not an easy task and is, perhaps, a foolhardy one. Nevertheless, her wonderful Complete Poems (which we’d strongly recommend) runs to nearly 800 pages, so where is the beginner to … well, begin? So it is that we’ve taken it upon ourselves to suggest the ten best Emily Dickinson poems to begin with, as a way into her unique and wonderful world. Click on the title of the poem to read it – the top two links also provide an analysis of the selected poem. What do you think is the greatest Dickinson poem?
‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’. A glorious celebration of anonymity, this poem beautifully showcases Dickinson’s individual style. It is actually quite nice to be a Nobody rather than a Somebody, and anonymity can actually be preferable to fame or public recognition. This is a personal favourite and, to our mind, one of the finest Emily Dickinson poems in her entire oeuvre.
‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’. One of Dickinson’s best-known poems, this is one of several poems on this list which takes death as its theme. Death never seems to have been far from Emily Dickinson’s mind, and this poem, which muses upon the moment of death with everyone gathered around the speaker’s deathbed, also features a Dickinsonian favourite: the mysterious fly.
‘Hope is the thing with feathers’. In this poem, Dickinson likens hope to a singing bird, a ‘thing with feathers’ which ‘perches in the soul’. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it. Like ‘I’m Nobody!’, another oddly affirmative poem.
‘The heart asks Pleasure – first’. Its title memorably borrowed by composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano, this poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: pleasure, ideally (or first), but failing that, relief from pain. And if the ‘anodynes’ don’t work, then sleep or unconsciousness is desirable – and, failing that, death (yes, death again).
‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’. This poem focuses on a different kind of death: the death of the mind, or the fear of going mad. It is, if you like, an elegy for the (imminent) death of reason, using the funeral as a powerful extended metaphor.
‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’. In this short poem, Dickinson takes up the Keatsian double-act of Truth and Beauty, using – again – the speaker’s death to convey its central idea. The speaker died for Beauty, but was placed in the tomb beside another person, who died for Truth. They are both the same, they conclude. A fine enigmatic poem, this.
‘Because I could not stop for Death’. Yes, death again. Or rather, Death – the Grim Reaper, who calls to visit the speaker of this macabre poem. Death is not to be feared, the poem seems to say. Eternity isn’t so bad. This is a wonderfully surreal glimpse into Dickinson’s world – and, consequently, one of the finest Emily Dickinson poems.
‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’. The image of the ‘Loaded Gun’ is used in this poem as an extended metaphor for bottled-up rage that builds up within, eventually finding an outlet. This anger has the power to kill, but not the power to die: once one gives vent to one’s rage, it is very difficult to suppress it.
‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’. The ‘narrow Fellow’ is, of course, a snake – seen from a child’s-eye view. Along with D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, it’s one of the greatest poems about our reptilian friends: the snake in Dickinson’s poem appears and disappears suddenly, is apt to be mistaken for other things (e.g. a whip), and eludes our understanding.
‘This World is not Conclusion’. There is more to lived experience than the world around us, Dickinson proclaims in this poem; yet we cannot grasp this greater reality, though philosophers and theologians have tried. Dickinson ends with a characteristically idiosyncratic image, of a tooth nibbling at the soul.
This World may not be Conclusion, but this marks the conclusion of this selection of the greatest Emily Dickinson poems. Although, in a sense, with 1,700-odd other poems to explore – it’s only the beginning. What poems have we missed off this list? Continue to explore the fascinating world of Dickinson’s poetry with her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.