Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems

Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems Summary and Analysis of "I dwell in Possibility --"

This poem is about Dickinson’s vocation as a poet, which she compares favorably to prose, largely through the metaphor of the two as houses. She sees poetry as open and limitless (“I dwell in Possibility –“), and more beautiful (“A fairer House than Prose –“) than the more contained and limited prose (“More numerous of Windows – / Superior – for Doors –“).

Poetry is also tied to nature, its rooms “as the Cedars,” and its roof made up by the sky (“And for an Everlasting Roof / The Gambrels of the Sky –“). Those who visit, too—poetry’s readers—are also “the fairest,” which can be taken to be the more beautiful, but also, the more careful in their judgments. The final two lines show how poetry enables Dickinson to grasp so much more than she otherwise could (“The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise –“).


“I dwell in Possibility –“ is deeply interested in the power gained by a poet through their poetry. In the first stanza, the poem seems to just be about poetry as a vocation as opposed to prose, and is explicit in comparing the two. The metaphors and similes used make it so that poetry is possibility, poetry is more beautiful, poetry has more doors and windows open for access, for different perspectives and interpretations, while prose by default, then, is more closed and limited and homely.

In the next two stanzas, however, the comparison between prose and poetry is no longer mentioned; the poem’s perspective instead shifts to focus solely on poetry. In the second stanza, the extended metaphor changes slightly, so that we see that though poetry is a house, it is also a garden—it defies binary oppositions—and part of nature, with nature, in the guise of the sky-roof, completing it. This sky-roof also again emphasizes poetry’s limitlessness, as there is no upper boundary except the seemingly endless sky.

Poetry’s visitors, that is, the readers, are the fairest, both in beauty and in judgment, and they are able to move easily in and out of this open, welcoming house, with its numerous doors and windows. The mention of the visitors is essential—poetry’s limitlessness is not just useful for the poet for her own sake, for her own exploration, growth, and edification, but for the sake of those who read the poetry. Both the poet and the reader are equally welcome in this house, and the great number of possible entrances and exits means that both poet and reader can choose to interpret it in different ways.

The structure of the poem also reflects the freedom available in poetry. Only two lines in the poem do not end with the dashes and thus emphasize the empty space between lines—the windows of interpretation. Additionally, although there is a rhyme scheme, Dickinson only follows it loosely -- and thus helps to give the poem a foundation -- but one that is not constrained by its rules.

The final three lines of the poem make the poet’s power clear. Her “Occupation,” her task and her livelihood, is this wonderful task of “spreading wide [her] narrow Hands / To gather Paradise –,“ both for herself and others. Although Dickinson’s capitalization is famously unpredictable, the capitalization of “Hands,” here, so close to “Paradise,” gives the poet’s hands a God-like quality. This shows how the role of the poet is a creator, just like divinity.

Additionally, the explicit imagery of her hands as “narrow,” juxtaposed with their “wide” spreading under the guise of poetry, shows that without the magic of poetry, the poet would have very little power or agency. This is especially true for a female poet, like Dickinson, which is emphasized in the fact that the whole poem uses house and garden as metaphor for poetry, the traditional setting of a woman’s vocation -- although here it is transformed into poetry.