Many of the most quoted, and quotable, lines in Emily Dickinson’s poetry are her opening lines. Perhaps no other poet has produced so many memorable first lines to poems in all of their oeuvre.
And it’s worth remembering that Dickinson (1830-86), an American poet who lived much of her life as a virtual hermit in Amherst, Massachusetts, published hardly any poems during her lifetime. Most were published posthumously; she was better-known for her gardening than her writing while she was alive.
The following quotations from Dickinson’s work are all opening lines of poems. We’ve linked to the poems, so you can read the full text, but below we’ll say a little bit about the meaning of these classic quotations.
One of the many things Dickinson’s poetry does so well is to take something familiar and render it strange to us by describing it in a surprising and fresh way. Here, her description of a ‘snake in the grass’ as a ‘narrow fellow’ renders the snake more human than animal.
Here’s a memorable Dickinson line. She argues that we should tell the truth – the whole truth – but we should endeavour to tell it indirectly, in an oblique fashion. The truth, she says, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go. We can be overwhelmed by it.
This is the opening line of one of Dickinson’s best-known poems about death, in which Death is personified as a figure coming for the speaker of the poem:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
The poem’s speaker tells us about Death, personified as the Grim Reaper, kindly stopped for her, in a carriage, like a taxi driver stopping to pick up a passenger.
Death is a theme that looms large in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and perhaps no more so than in the celebrated poem of hers that begins ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’. This is not just a poem about death: it’s a poem about the event of death, the moment of dying.
And this line is spoken by a dead person: note the past tense of ‘died’ in the quotation. The speaker is already dead, and is telling us about what happened at her deathbed.
In one of her most masterly poems, Dickinson talks about how society – law, religion, patriarchal institutions – restrict her with their rules and social expectations. One suspects she is speaking on behalf of all women here, and ‘they shut me up’ is a wonderfully judged piece of ambiguity, suggesting both confinement and silencing.
After death, pain is perhaps the commonest subject of Dickinson’s poetry. But this poem describes how moments of intense suffering or anguish are followed by a lack of pain, or any feeling: stiff, paralysed periods of inactivity and numbness.
Here’s another one of Dickinson’s ‘pain poems’. When we are ill or in pain it is very difficult to remember a time when we weren’t ill or in pain. The visceral power of physical pain – but this might also be extended to psychological pain as well – prevents us from imagining or envisioning a time without it, whether in the past or the future.
This line is from a poem describing the feeling of despair and depression that grips the poet. She begins by describing what it is not: not death, she said, for she was still standing while the dead lie down; it was not night, because all of the bells put out their tongues to announce noon, the middle of the day.
This Dickinson quotation is about how the real ghosts are found within our own minds. We should fear our own thoughts and fears rather than the supposed presence of any external being. Forget about haunted houses or ghostly horses heard in old abbeys; the real terror is to be found within ourselves.
This line ushers us into a poem which focuses on the way that sunlight in the winter is oppressive and weighs down on us, making us feel low, unhappy, as if visited by a ‘Heavenly Hurt’.
This quotation was used by the composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano (even if you’re not familiar with Dickinson’s poem or with the film, you may recognise this piece of music).
What the human heart desires most (or ‘first’) is pleasure. But, failing that, we’ll settle for being excused from pain. If that isn’t available to us, sleep or unconsciousness is desirable.
Poets before her had compared hope to a bird, but ‘thing with feathers’ was a peculiarly Dickinsonian touch. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it.
This opening line – one of Emily Dickinson’s best-known and most widely quoted – may be summarised very simply as being about how it is actually quite nice to be a Nobody rather than a Somebody – that anonymity is preferable to fame or public recognition.
In this quotation, and the ensuing poem, Dickinson 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.
Thus begins a short poem in which Dickinson ponders immortality and the concept of an afterlife, by posing a first line which doubles up as a riddle. How can one’s life close twice before it closes?
This seems an apt poem to conclude our pick of the best Emily Dickinson quotations. The world that we know and live in is not the only one, and everything does not end with death. Something is found beyond this life, but although it has physical existence, it is mysterious and invisible.