Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems

Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Compare and contrast the two death scene poems, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” and “Because I could not stop for Death.”

    These two poems are both fixated on death, and in fact, both poems describe the day that the speaker died and the speaker’s death itself. However, where “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died,” is completely focused on the physicality of death, such that the speaker loses all sight of any spiritual light, “Because I could not stop for Death –“ is focused on death purely as a spiritual journey from life to afterlife. Both poems, however, present the existence of an afterlife, for the speaker is dead and yet still has a voice.

  2. 2

    Propose a theory to explain why Dickinson may have chosen to use strict, traditionally religious stanza forms, when she was so anti-conventional in her forms otherwise?

    A great majority of Dickinson’s poems use traditionally religious stanza forms, although her other formal choices, like her rhyme schemes and her punctuation, are very unconventional. This is likely an embodiment in the form of her poems of what she does in so many of them—finds her own path to God, to spirituality and faith, and doesn’t follow the conventional. Religion and faith are very essential to her poetry, but she is not going to follow religious conventions without judging them first. By using a traditional hymn form, she has the structure of religious poetry, while rewriting what that means.

  3. 3

    Compare and contrast two poems that deal with success or failure, “Success is counted sweetest” and “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

    These two poems both are concerned with showing that success is not purely good. In “Success is counted sweetest,” this is because the minute one has success, the ability to appreciate it is lost, and thus one becomes a successful person, but lacks the emotional intensity of the unsuccessful. In “I’m Nobody! Who are you?,” success is “dreary” because it is success in a world that does not appreciate true talent, and this success requires the selling out of one’s own identity.

  4. 4

    How is “I dwell in Possibility –“ a feminist poem?

    In “I dwell in Possibility,” Dickinson turns poetry into an open house, infused with nature. The house, though, the work required to keep it running, is what oppressed Dickinson more than anything else in her life. So by using this metaphor, she has enacted a transformation of the oppressive home, the setting of all appropriate and allowed female labor, into an open, limitless house, thanks to her poetry. Thus, even if society constrains her to her home, they cannot prevent her from freeing herself with poetry.

  5. 5

    Examine how nature and faith are connected in “A Light exists in Spring.”

    The light described in “A Light exists in Spring” seems to represent some kind of connection to God. This light, like God, is unable to be measured by science, and its powers of illumination are far above mundane light—it illuminates not just everything the speaker sees, but everything she knows. The setting without this light is compared to a sacramental scene that has been encroached upon by trade, by the very not-divine. Thus nature is given the power to bring the speaker closer to the divine, but it does not always do so.

  6. 6

    Provide an example of a poem where the speaker’s intentions differ from the poem’s, and explain how it works.

    In “Behind Me dips – Eternity,” the speaker’s intention seems to be that death is not actually so threatening. She presents life as a brief interruption in an eternal lifelessness, with eternity before it and immortality after, thus death becomes just a quiet slipping back to the status quo. The poem itself, however, seems to belie this—the stanza dealing with this immortality, this miracle that is before the speaker, seems to doubt this afterlife. Without this comfort, the dark image that closes the poem becomes much more threatening.

  7. 7

    Explain how “The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings –“ is a religious poem.

    “The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings –,” uses a portrait of a small, ugly, seemingly useless animal, to show the how truly inscrutable God is. This poem points out that fact that not all of nature is beautiful, or marvelous, or even obviously useful, and yet, it is all created by God. The inability to understand the bat and its purpose is closely tied to the human inability to comprehend God and his purpose. Yet the speaker trusts in the bat’s goodness, and thus, though she may not understand him, she trusts God.

  8. 8

    Explain how Dickinson instills doubt in the speaker’s stated philosophy in “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant –“

    “Tell all the Truth but tell it Slant –“ is very direct in its orders to the reader, and it claims that not following these orders will end in all men going blind. Dickinson often shows, however, how tenuous the truth is, and has doubts in even her most impassioned directives, and this is no exception. Two examples to show that she has some trepidation of the honesty of telling the truth “slant,” are her use of a doubtful metaphor—“kind” explanations to children are in reality often lies—and the use of the word “lies.”

  9. 9

    Compare and contrast how “They shut me up in Prose –“ and “I dwell in Possibility –“ deal with the problem of the female poet or artist.

    “They shut me up in Prose –“ and “I dwell in Possibility” both deal with the freedom inherent in poetry. In “They shut me up in Prose –,” the attempt to keep the speaker writing in her female world, for correspondence and not for art, is unsuccessful, because no one can control her mind. In “I dwell in Possibility,” on the other hand, Dickinson uses the metaphor of the house to define poetry, and thus poetry is transformed into the realm where women rule, not men.

  10. 10

    Give an example of a poem in which a formal feature reflects the poem’s subject or meaning.

    “To fill a Gap“ is a poem about spaces, and the difficulty in filling them. In this poem, to fill a gap, to answer a question, one must ask more questions—the work of poetry, thus, in trying to answer questions, is never done. It is essentially a poem that highlights all that poetry cannot answer. This is reflected in the line breaks in the poem—it alternates between long and very short lines, which highlight the empty spaces following the short lines, thus emphasizing all that cannot be said.