By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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. Follow 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?
1. ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?’.
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!
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. Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –
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. Follow the link above to read the full poem.
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
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. Follow the link above to read this glorious Emily Dickinson poem in full.
The Heart asks Pleasure – first –
And then – Excuse from Pain –
And then – those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering –
And then – to go to sleep –
And then – if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The liberty to die –
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,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
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. This Emily Dickinson poem is about going mad, about losing one’s grip on reality and feeling sanity slide away – at least, in one interpretation or analysis of the poem.
In the first stanza, the poem’s speaker uses the metaphor of the funeral for what is going on inside her head (we will assume that the speaker is female here, though this is only surmise: Dickinson often uses male speakers in her poetry). Her sanity and reason have died, and the chaos inside her mind is like the mourners at a funeral walking backward and forward.
The insistent repetition of ‘treading – treading’ evokes the hammering and turbulence within the speaker’s brain. Follow the link above to read the poem in full.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?
‘For Beauty’, I replied –
‘And I – for Truth – Themself are one –
We Brethren are’, He said –
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – our names –
In this short poem, reproduced in full above, 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 –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
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.
This is a long poem by Emily Dickinson’s standards, so follow the link above to read it in full and to read our analysis of it.
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
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.
‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ may have arisen out of Emily Dickinson’s attitude to her father, and the sense that she felt compelled to write her poems in secret (as is well known, very few were published during her lifetime).
The poem’s central metaphor of a loaded gun to describe the speaker’s life suggests pent-up rage, as does the reference to Mount Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in the year 79 famously wiped out Pompeii.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
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.
Given that the poem is partly about something being mistaken for something else, it’s remarkable just how deftly Emily Dickinson makes us as readers mistake one word for another.
So not ‘Upbraiding’ – nothing so indignant – but ‘Unbraiding’, in a curious neologism. Not ‘stopping to secure it’, but ‘stooping’ to do so – but in doing so, inviting us to stop and do a double-take, and secure the meaning of Dickinson’s line. Follow the link above to read the rest of this fine Emily Dickinson poem (and our discussion of it).
10. ‘This World is not Conclusion’.
This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy – don’t know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –
There is more to lived experience than the world around us, Dickinson proclaims in this poem, reproduced in full here; 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.