By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is one of the greatest American poets of the nineteenth century: the critic Martin Seymour-Smith, in his Guide to Modern World Literature, calls her one of only two great nineteenth-century American poets (the other being Walt Whitman).
Dickinson wrote a great deal of poetry. Her Complete Poems includes almost 2,000 poems, most of them short lyrics about everything from death to religion, nature to love. And love, indeed, is a great theme of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
But what are Dickinson’s greatest love poems? We’ve scoured the entirety of her Complete Poems to bring you ten of her very best love lyrics.
‘Why do I love’ You, Sir?
The Wind does not require the Grass
To answer—Wherefore when He pass
She cannot keep Her place …
So many of Emily Dickinson’s greatest poems begin with an opening line that immediately arrests us with its strangeness: an unusual turn of phrase, a striking metaphor or simile, or, as here, a line which makes us feel as if we have walked in on the middle of a conversation.
The conversation is presumably between lovers. The man has asked the poem’s speaker why she loves him, and she replies by turning to nature, in order to imply that her beloved is a force of nature, like the wind which shakes the grass.
Many of us have had the experience of being visibly shaken and nervous when we are near someone we love. Dickinson takes this familiar sensation and gives it her own distinctive twist.
My River runs to thee –
Blue Sea – Wilt welcome me?
My River wait reply.
Oh Sea – look graciously …
This is not only a love poem, but perhaps even an erotic love poem. But it is also a nature poem, and casts the river as both speaker and courtly lover, wanting to be ‘taken’ by the sea.
Indeed, this is a curious modern example of a courtly love poem, because the sea never replies: we do not know whether the river’s wish is granted. Will the speaker and the addressee really be joined in a fluid union?
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf …
This poem, one of Dickinson’s best-known lyrics about relationships, opens by wrong-footing us – twice – in the first two lines.
‘I cannot live with You’: unusually for a love poem, the assertion is not ‘I cannot live without you’, but rather the opposite. Then, the reason: ‘It would be Life’. Not death, which is what we might expect, but the more positive ‘Life’.
They put Us far apart—
As separate as Sea
And Her unsown Peninsula—
We signified ‘These see’ …
This poem is very much a companion-piece to ‘I Cannot Live with You’, continuing to focus on the separation of two lovers. The two lovers await their execution in separate dungeons, and communicate via some kind of telegraphy they have invented. However, at the end of the poem, the two ‘discs’ of the lovers’ faces are joined.
If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly …
This is a poem about two lovers, separated for some reason, and the yearning one of them feels for the other – without knowing when, or indeed if, she will be reunited with her beloved.
A Charm invests a face
The Lady date not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled …
Here we find Dickinson writing a different form of love poem: it’s a poem about erotic desire, as the critic Helen Vendler notes in her study of Dickinson’s poetry, but it’s addressed to herself. At least, kind of.
The poet regards her face ‘imperfectly’ in the mirror while she wears a veil. There is something beautiful about the mystery – what lies beneath the veil? – the veil provides. The beholder cannot but wonder and imagine.
I should not dare to leave my friend,
Because—because if he should die
While I was gone—and I—too late—
Should reach the Heart that wanted me …
David Sylvian, erstwhile lead singer of the pop group Japan, has set this poem to music, and it lends itself to song with its use of repetition and its trademark Dickinsonian quatrain structure, echoing the ballad form. What if a loved one who needed your friendship and support spent their dying hours without your help and comfort?
This is the situation Dickinson considers in this poem about the importance of ‘being there’ as a friend.
That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough …
This poem begins with a tight pair of rhymes, as ‘love’ rubs up against itself in ‘loved’, and ‘Proof’ and ‘Enough’ hardly sound like the stuff of intense declarations of affection. But this is a charming and tender poem about how falling in love can bring us alive in new ways, and can even give us a taste of immortality.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury …
The energy and exultation with which Emily Dickinson opens this, one of her most passionately felt poems, encourages us to share the excitement and passion, or at least dares us to try to resist it.
Not for the first time when reading an Emily Dickinson poem, we are put in mind of a million song lyrics written since: Dickinson appears to have anticipated, or perhaps even influenced, the longing of the three-minute love song in which the singer yearns to be with his or her loved one for just one night of passion and love.
I had been hungry, all the Years –
My Noon had Come – to dine –
I trembling drew the Table near –
And touched the Curious Wine …
You can wait so long for something you earnestly desire that, when you finally attain it, it doesn’t bring the fulfilment you hoped and thought it would. The ‘something’ here can be any number of things – wealth, love, that job you always wanted, the validation of someone you admire.
The beauty of Emily Dickinson’s poem is that she uses hunger and feasting as metaphors that can be related to many different life experiences – such as love.