Enormously popular since the early piecemeal publication of her poems, Emily Dickinson has enjoyed an ever-increasing critical reputation, and she is now widely regarded as one of America's best poets. These Notes focus on clarification of some eighty-five of her poems, chosen and emphasized largely according to the frequency of their appearance in eight standard anthologies, where the average number of her poems is fifty. These poems also seem to offer an excellent representation of her themes and power. In a final section to these Notes, additional poems are commented on briefly.
In face of the difficulty of many of her poems and the bafflingly diffuse and contradictory general impression made by her work and personality, Dickinson's popularity is a great tribute to her genius. Her poems are often difficult because of their unusual compression, unconventional grammar, their strange diction and strained figures of speech, and their often generalized symbolism and allegory. She took up baffling and varied attitudes towards a great many questions about life and death, and she expressed these in a great variety of tones. The speaker in these individual poems is often hard to identify. In many poems, she preferred to conceal the specific causes and nature of her deepest feelings, especially experiences of suffering, and her subjects flow so much into one another in language and conception that often it is difficult to tell if she is writing about people or God, nature or society, spirit or art. One often suspects that many such subjects are being treated simultaneously. Furthermore, her condensed style and monotonous rhythms make sustained reading of her work difficult. The flagging attention that results can contribute to misperception and hasty judgment. Nevertheless, since her poems are mutually illuminating, the reader may face the choice of trying to learn much from a generous selection or trying to concentrate on the essentials of a smaller number.
Fortunately, common sense and expert guidance can offer new insights into this maze. Usually, biographical information is useful in interpreting a poet according to the degree of strangeness in the situations and states of mind which the poet portrays. It is true that Emily Dickinson's themes are universal, but her particular vantage points tend to be very personal; she rebuilt her world inside the products of her poetic imagination. This is why some knowledge of her life and her cast of mind is essential for illuminating much of her work. Such knowledge, however, must always be used with caution and tact, for otherwise it can lead to quick judgments, simplifications, and distortions. Understanding of her work is helped even more by recognizing some of her fundamental patterns of subject matter and treatment, particularly her contrasting attitudes and the ways in which her subjects blend into one another. Such patterns may — and for the Dickinson expert must — include material from her life and letters, but this approach requires a continual awareness that, like her poems, her letters were written for specific effects on their readers (they were often drafted), and they are often even more vague than her poems on parallel subjects. The Dickinson devotee will eventually emerge with a multi-faceted and large-scale conception of her poetic personality. Fortunately, a smaller-scale and yet rich conception is possible for readers who immerse themselves in only fifty or a hundred of her poems. One of the joys of such reading, very particular to Emily Dickinson, is that the effort to keep such a conception flexible will bring added pleasure with fresh visits to her work.
Nothing, however, will help quite as much as careful reading of her own words, sentences, stanzas, and whole poems. Particular attention should be given to grasping the sense of her whole sentences, filling in missing elements, straightening out inverted word order, and expanding the sense of telescoped phrases and metaphors. Perhaps most important for understanding Emily Dickinson is the testing of one's conceptions of the tone or tones of individual poems and relating them to other poems and to one's own emotional ideas and feelings.
Scholarly aids are generously available but not equally reliable. Outdated and wrong-headed materials are sometimes recommended, but the wise beginning student should disregard these resources until he or she has a firmer foundation to build on. For a full understanding of Emily Dickinson, a reading of her complete poems and letters is essential. For a more than generous sample of her best poetry, Final Harvest is outstanding. The early biographies by Bianchi, Pollitt, and Taggard should be avoided. The biographies by Whicher, Chase, and particularly the biography by Johnson give accounts reliable up to a point. The biography of Sewall outdates all of these in its thoroughness and use of new materials, but it is cumbersome in its bulk and organization. Excellent critical books and articles abound but are frequently one-sided. Often after one has immersed himself or herself in Emily Dickinson thoroughly, one's own intellectual and emotional responses and implications are as genuine and accurate as the scholars' evaluations.