Emily Dickinson

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If I can stop one heart from breaking I shall not live in vain...

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Virtually unknown in her lifetime, Dickinson has come to be regarded as one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century. Although she wrote (at latest count) 1789 poems, only a few of them were published in her lifetime, all anonymously, and some perhaps without her knowledge.


  • God is sitting here, looking into my very soul to see if I think right thoughts. Yet I am not afraid, for I try to be right and good; and He knows every one of my struggles.
  • My friends are my "estate." Forgive me then the avarice to hoard them.
    • Letter to Samuel Bowles (August 1858 or 1859), letter #193 of The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958), edited Thomas H. Johnson, associate editor Theodora Ward
  • If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?
    • Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1870), letter #342a of The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958), edited by Thomas H. Johnson, associate editor Theodora Ward, page 474
  • To live is so startling, it leaves but little room for other occupations.
    • The Letters of Emily Dickinson (1958), edited by Thomas H. Johnson, associate editor Theodora Ward. Quoted in "The Conscious Self in Emily Dickinson's Poetry" by Charles A. Anderson: American Literature, Vol. 31, No. 3 (November 1959), pp. 290-308.
  • We turn not older with years, but newer every day.
    • Letter to Frances and Louise Norcross, late 1872.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (1960)

Edited by Thomas H. Johnson
Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
And Immortality.
  • Success is counted sweetest
    By those who ne'er succeed.

    To comprehend a nectar
    Requires a sorest need.

    Not one of all the purple Host
    Who took the Flag today
    Can tell the definition
    So clear of Victory

    As he defeated — dying —
    On whose forbidden ear
    The distant strains of triumph
    Burst agonized and clear!

  • "Hope" is the thing with feathers —
    That perches in the soul —
    And sings the tune without the words —
    And never stops — at all —

    And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard —
    And sore must be the storm —
    That could abash the little Bird
    That kept so many warm —

  • How dreary — to be — Somebody!
    How public — like a Frog —
    To tell one's name — the livelong June —
    To an admiring Bog!

  • This is my letter to the World
    That never wrote to Me —
    The simple News that Nature told —
    With tender Majesty

    Her Message is committed
    To Hands I cannot see —
    For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
    Judge tenderly — of Me

  • I died for Beauty — but was scarce
    Adjusted in the Tomb,
    When One who died for Truth, was lain
    In an adjoining Room —

    He questioned softly "Why I failed"?
    "For Beauty," I replied.
    "And I — for Truth, — Themself are One —
    We Brethren, are", He said —

  • Love — thou art Veiled —
    A few — behold thee —
    Smile — and alter — and prattle — and die —
    Bliss — were an Oddity — without thee —
    Nicknamed by God —
    Eternity —

  • Because I could not stop for Death
    He kindly stopped for me —
    The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
    And Immortality.

    We slowly drove — He knew no haste
    And I had put away
    My labor and my leisure too,
    For His Civility —

  • My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun —
    In Corners — till a Day
    The Owner passed — identified —
    And carried Me away —

    And now We roam in Sovereign Woods —
    And now We hunt the Doe —
    And every time I speak for Him —
    The Mountains straight reply —

  • A Grave — is a restricted Breadth —
    Yet ampler than the Sun —
    And all the Seas He populates
    And lands he looks upon

    To Him who on its small Repose
    Bestows a single Friend —
    Circumference without Relief —
    Or Estimate — or End

  • A Vastness, as a Neighbor, came,
    A Wisdom, without Face, or Name,
    A Peace, as Hemispheres at Home
    And so the Night became.
  • Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —
    Success in Circuit lies

    Too bright for our infirm Delight
    The Truth's superb surprise

    As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind
    The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind —

  • Could Hope inspect her Basis
    Her Craft were done —
    Has a fictitious Charter
    Or it has none —

    Balked in the vastest instance
    But to renew —
    Felled but by one assassin —
    Prosperity —

  • Not with a Club, the Heart is broken
    Nor with a Stone —
    A Whip so small you could not see it
    I've known

    To lash the Magic Creature
    Till it fell,
    Yet that Whip's Name
    Too noble then to tell.

    Magnanimous as Bird
    By Boy descried —
    Singing unto the Stone
    Of which it died —

    Shame need not crouch
    In such an Earth as Ours —
    Shame — stand erect —
    The Universe is yours.

  • More than the Grave is closed to me —
    The Grave and that Eternity
    To which the Grave adheres —
    I cling to nowhere till I fall —
    The Crash of nothing, yet of all —
    How similar appears —
  • If Aims impel these Astral Ones
    The ones allowed to know
    Know that which makes them as forgot
    As Dawn forgets them — now
  • I took one Draught of Life —
    I'll tell you what I paid —
    Precisely an existence —
    The market price, they said.

Collected Poems (1993)

It ’s such a little thing to weep,
So short a thing to sigh;
And yet by trades the size of these
We men and women die!
Fall River Press edition
  • Glee! the great storm is over!
    Four have recovered the land;
    Forty gone down together
    Into the boiling sand.

    Ring, for the scant salvation!
    Toll, for the bonnie souls,—
    Neighbor and friend and bridegroom,
    Spinning upon the shoals!

    How they will tell the shipwreck
    When winter shakes the door,
    Till the children ask, “But the forty?
    Did they come back no more?”

    Then a silence suffuses the story,
    And a softness the teller's eye;
    And the children no
    further question,
    And only the waves reply.

    • Life, p. 5
  • If I can stop one heart from breaking,
    I shall not live in vain;
    If I can ease one life the aching,
    Or cool one pain,
    Or help one fainting robin
    Unto his nest again,
    I shall not live in vain.
    • Life, p. 6
  • Much madness is divinest sense
    To a discerning eye;
    Much sense the starkest madness.
    ’T is the majority
    In this, as all, prevails.
    Assent, and you are sane;
    Demur,—you ’re straightway dangerous,
    And handled with a chain.
    • Life, p. 9
  • I never hear the word “escape”
    Without a quicker blood,
    A sudden expectation,
    A flying attitude.

    I never hear of prisons broad
    By soldiers battered down,
    But I tug childish at my bars,—
    Only to fail again!

    • Life, p. 22
  • Surgeons must be very careful
    When they take the knife!
    Underneath their fine incisions
    Stirs the culprit,—Life!
    • Life, p. 25
  • It tossed and tossed,—
    A little brig I knew,—
    O'ertook by blast,
    It spun and spun,
    And groped delirious, for morn.

    It slipped and slipped,
    As one that drunken stepped;
    Its white foot tripped,
    Then dropped from sight.

    Ah, brig, good-night
    To crew and you;
    The ocean's heart too smooth, too blue,
    To break for you.

    • Life, p. 30
I took my power in my hand
And went against the world;
’T was not so much as David had,
But I was twice as bold.
I aimed my pebble, but myself
Was all the one that fell.
Was it Goliath was too large,
Or only I too small?
  • I took my power in my hand
    And went against the world;
    ’T was not so much as David had,
    But I was twice as bold.

    I aimed my pebble, but myself
    Was all the one that fell.
    Was it Goliath was too large,
    Or only I too small?

    • Life, p. 33
  • Mine enemy is growing old,—
    I have at last revenge.
    The palate of the hate departs;
    If any would avenge,—

    Let him be quick, the viand flits,
    It is a faded meat.
    Anger as soon as fed is dead;
    ’T is starving makes it fat.

    • Life, p. 38
  • It ’s such a little thing to weep,
    So short a thing to sigh;
    And yet by trades the size of these
    We men and women die!
    • Life, p. 50
  • Drowning is not so pitiful
    As the attempt to rise.
    Three times, ’t is said, a sinking man
    Comes up to face the skies,
    And then declines forever
    To that abhorred abode

    Where hope and he part company,—
    For he is grasped of God.
    The Maker’s cordial visage,
    However good to see,
    Is shunned, we must admit it,
    Like an adversity.

    • Life, p. 50
  • Who has not found the heaven below
    Will fail of it above.
    God’s residence is next to mine,
    His furniture is love.
    • Life, p. 54
  • Upon the gallows hung a wretch,
    Too sullied for the hell
    To which the law entitled him.
    As nature’s curtain fell
    The one who bore him tottered in,
    For this was woman’s son.
    “’T was all I had,” she stricken gasped;
    Oh, what a livid boon!
    • p. 56. Life.
  • Fate slew him, but he did not drop;
    She felled—he did not fall—
    Impaled him on her fiercest stakes—
    He neutralized them all.

    She stung him, sapped his firm advance,
    But, when her worst was done,
    And he, unmoved, regarded her,
    Acknowledged him a man.

    • Life, p. 60
  • It might be easier
    To fail with land in sight,
    Than gain my blue peninsula
    To perish of delight.
    • Life, p. 69
  • How happy is the little stone
    That rambles in the road alone,
    And does n't care about careers,
    And exigencies never fears;
    Whose coat of elemental brown
    A passing universe put on;
    And independent as the sun,
    Associates or glows alone,
    Fulfilling absolute decree
    In casual simplicity.
    • Nature, p. 97
  • New feet within my garden go,
    New fingers stir the sod;
    A troubadour upon the elm
    Betrays the solitude.

    New children play upon the green,
    New weary sleep below;
    And still the pensive spring returns,
    And still the punctual snow!

    • Nature, p. 108
  • The pedigree of honey
    Does not concern the bee;
    A clover, any time, to him
    Is aristocracy.
    • Nature, p. 110
  • The grass so little has to do,—
    A sphere of simple green,
    With only butterflies to brood,
    And bees to entertain,

    And stir all day to pretty tunes
    The breezes fetch along,
    And hold the sunshine in its lap
    And bow to everything;

    And thread the dews all night, like pearls,
    And make itself so fine,-
    A duchess were too common
    For such a noticing.

    And even when it dies, to pass
    In odors so divine,
    As lowly spices gone to sleep,
    Or amulets of pine.

    And then to dwell in sovereign barns,
    And dream the days away,—
    The grass so little has to do,
    I wish I were a hay!

    • Nature, p. 112
  • Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn
    Indicative that suns go down;
    The notice to the startled grass
    That darkness is about to pass.
    • Nature, p. 118
  • It makes no difference abroad,
    The seasons fit the same,
    The mornings blossom into noons,
    And split their pods of flame.

    Wild-flowers kindle in the woods,
    The brooks brag all the day;
    No blackbird bates his jargoning
    For passing Calvary.

    Auto-da-fé and judgment
    Are nothing to the bee;
    His separation from his rose
    To him seems misery.

    • Nature, p. 120
  • Love is anterior to life,
    Posterior to death,
    Initial of creation, and
    The exponent of breath.
    • Love, p. 167
  • There is a word
    Which bears a sword
    Can pierce an armed man.
    It hurls its barbed syllables,—
    At once is mute again.
    But where it fell
    The saved will tell
    On patriotic day,
    Some epauletted brother
    Gave his breath away.

    Wherever runs the breathless sun,
    Wherever roams the day,
    There is its noiseless onset,
    There is its victory!
    Behold the keenest marksman!
    The most accomplished shot!
    Time's sublimest target
    Is a soul “forgot”!

    • Love, p. 170
  • Heart, we will forget him!
    You and I, to-night!
    You may forget the warmth he gave,
    I will forget the light.

    When you have done, pray tell me,
    That I my thoughts may dim;
    Haste! lest while you're lagging,
    I may remember him!

    • Love, p. 172
  • I never saw a moor,
    I never saw the sea;
    Yet know I how the heather looks,
    And what a wave must be.
    I never spoke with God,
    Nor visited in heaven;
    Yet certain am I of the spot
    As if the chart were given.
    • Time and Eternity, p. 188
  • I reason, earth is short,
    And anguish absolute.
    And many hurt;
    But what of that?

    I reason, we could die:
    The best vitality
    Cannot excel decay;
    But what of that?

    I reason that in heaven
    Somehow, it will be even,
    Some new equation given;
    But what of that?

    • Time and Eternity, p. 192
  • No rack can torture me,
    My soul 's at liberty.
    Behind this mortal bone
    There knits a bolder one

    You cannot prick with saw,
    Nor rend with scymitar.
    Two bodies therefore be;
    Bind one, and one will flee.

    The eagle of his nest
    No easier divest
    And gain the sky,
    Than mayest thou,

    Except thyself may be
    Thine enemy;
    Captivity is consciousness,
    So's liberty.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 198
  • A death-blow is a life-blow to some
    Who, till they died, did not alive become;
    Who, had they lived, had died, but when
    They died, vitality begun.
    • Time and Eternity, p. 204
  • Our journey had advanced;
    Our feet were almost come
    To that odd fork in Being's road,
    Eternity by term.

    Our pace took sudden awe,
    Our feet reluctant led.
    Before were cities, but between,
    The forest of the dead.

    Retreat was out of hope,—
    Behind, a sealed route,
    Eternity's white flag before,
    And God at every gate.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 213
  • That such have died enables us
    The tranquiller to die;
    That such have lived, certificate
    For immortality.
    • Time and Eternity, p. 228
  • The distance that the dead have gone
    Does not at first appear;
    Their coming back seems possible
    For many an ardent year.

    And then, that we have followed them
    We more than half suspect,
    So intimate have we become
    With their dear retrospect.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 229
  • Bless God, he went as soldiers,
    His musket on his breast;
    Grant, God, he charge the bravest
    Of all the martial blest.

    Please God, might I behold him
    In epauletted white,
    I should not fear the foe then,
    I should not fear the fight.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 234
  • Immortal is an ample word
    When what we need is by,
    But when it leaves us for a time,
    ’T is a necessity.

    Of heaven above the firmest proof
    We fundamental know,
    Except for its marauding hand,
    It had been heaven below.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 234
  • So proud she was to die
    It made us all ashamed
    That what we cherished, so unknown
    To her desire seemed.

    So satisfied to go
    Where none of us should be,
    Immediately, that anguish stooped
    Almost to jealousy.

    • Time and Eternity, p. 240
  • Fame is a fickle food
    Upon a shifting plate,
    Whose table once a Guest, but not
    The second time, is set.
    Whose crumbs the crows inspect,
    And with ironic caw
    Flap past it to the Farmer’s corn;
    Men eat of it and die.
    • The Single Hound, p. 257
  • The blunder is to estimate,—
    “Eternity is Then,”
    We say, as of a station.
    Meanwhile he is so near,
    He joins me in my ramble,
    Divides abode with me,
    No friend have I that so persists
    As this Eternity.
    • The Single Hound, p. 261
  • There is a solitude of space,
    A solitude of sea,
    A solitude of death, but these
    Society shall be,
    Compared with that profounder site,
    That polar privacy,
    A Soul admitted to Itself:
    Finite Infinity.
    • The Single Hound, p. 265
  • Nature is what we see,
    The Hill, the Afternoon—
    Squirrel, Eclipse, the Bumble-bee,
    Nay—Nature is Heaven.

    Nature is what we hear,
    The Bobolink, the Sea—
    Thunder, the Cricket—
    Nay,—Nature is Harmony.

    Nature is what we know
    But have no art to say,
    So impotent our wisdom is
    To Her simplicity.

    • p. 268-269. The Single Hound.
  • Some Days retired from the rest
    In soft distinction lie,
    The Day that a companion came—
    Or was obliged to die.
    • The Single Hound, p. 271
  • The sweets of Pillage can be known
    To no one but the Thief,
    Compassion for Integrity
    Is his divinest Grief.
    • The Single Hound, p. 299
  • The face we choose to miss,
    Be it but for a day—
    As absent as a hundred years
    When it has rode away.
    • The Single Hound, p. 312


  • Whenever a thing is done for the first time, it releases a little demon.
    • Quoted on the web sans source. Not in the complete Poems. A 2006 self-help book attributes it verbatim to Dave Sim (see below) sans source. A 2009 reprint of Poems: Second Series mentions it in the introduction sans source (thus probably taking it from the unsourced web quote). No earlier attributions found.
    • Compare to a quote sourced to Dave Sim: "Anything done for the first time unleashes a demon." (Cerebus #65, 1984)

Quotes about Dickinson

  • In English, you know who I love, and have translated? Emily Dickinson...I translated Dickinson. It came out in the Nuevo Diario a long time ago, in the beginning of the 1980s. I love her very much.
  • When people talk about American literature, they really mean Hemingway, Faulkner and Poe and when they do include women it's Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Millay. To decide to take that on and say, 'I will speak and will be heard'-that takes a lot of guts.
  • (What is it about Emily Dickinson that moves you?) Her use of language, certainly. Her solitude, as well, and the style of that solitude. There is something very moving and in the best sense funny. She isn't solemn.
    • 1984 interview in Conversations with James Baldwin edited by Louis H. Pratt and Fred L. Standley (1989)
  • There is another thing about my childhood that is interesting now, in the light of later happenings. I might have said, with Emily Dickinson: "I never saw a moor,/I never saw the sea;/Yet know I how the heather looks,/And what a wave must be." For I never saw the ocean until I went from college to the marine laboratories at Woods Hole, on Cape Cod. Yet as a child I was fascinated by the thought of it. I dreamed about it and wondered what it would look like.
    • Rachel Carson 1954 speech included in Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (1998)
  • Friends dislike being apart. Separation, says Emily Dickinson, is all the Hell we need. Each shared moment is precious. And the only ones who can remember the hour of loneliness are those who survive it.
    • Rosario Castellanos, "In Praise of Friendship" (1964) in Another Way to Be: Selected Works of Rosario Castellanos
  • There’s no higher entitlement than thinking that you should live forever, when part of the beauty of nature is that even the stars die. That's what Emily Dickinson said: 'That it will never come again/is what makes life so sweet.' I believe that.
  • Her poetry is the diary or autobiography — though few diaries or autobiographies compare with it for intentional and, especially, unintentional truth — of an acute psychologist, a wonderful rhetorician, and one of the most individual writers who ever lived, one of those best able to express experience at its most nearly absolute.
    • Randall Jarrell, "The Year in Poetry," Harper's (October 1955); republished in Kipling, Auden & Co: Essays and Reviews 1935-1964 (1980) [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981, ISBN 0-374-51668-5], p. 244
  • One of my favorite quotations from Emily Dickinson is: "Tell truth / But tell it slant."
    • Judith Ortiz Cofer, interview (2000) in A Poet's Truth: Conversations with Latino/Latina Poets
  • I'm from the Emily Dickinson and Flannery O'Connor school of writing, where you write about your Amherst backyard or about a farm in Milledgevilk, and then you're actually writing about everything it means to be human.
    • Judith Ortiz Cofer, interview (2000) in A Poet's Truth: Conversations with Latino/Latina Poets
  • Feminist literary critics have shown how in the 19th century women writers began to acknowledge women as their muses and their role models...Elizabeth Barrett Browning admired the work of George Sand and Mme. de Staël, while her work, in its turn, was an inspiration to Emily Dickinson...The list could be indefinitely extended to show the almost desperate search of writing women for authoritative female predecessors.
  • When I visited Emily Dickinson's house in Amherst,/a lively plump robin was sitting on her step,/right under the second-story window she would have/stared out of.
  • Anger has always played a role in poetry...There is much anger in Emily Dickinson, lightly disguised as mockery. “The Bible is an antique volume / Written by faded men,” she proclaims.
  • Even the best critical writing on Emily Dickinson underestimates her. She is frightening. To come to her directly from Dante, Spenser, Blake, and Baudelaire is to find her sadomasochism obvious and flagrant. Birds, bees, and amputated hands are the dizzy stuff of this poetry. Dickinson is like the homosexual cultist draping himself in black leather and chains to bring the idea of masculinity into aggressive visibility.
  • Emily Dickinson is the female Sade, and her poems are the prison dreams of a self-incarcerated, sadmomasochistic imaginist. When she is rescued from American Studies departments and juxtaposed with Dante and Baudelaire, her barbarities and diabolical acts of will become glaringly apparent. Dickinson inherits through Blake the rape cycle of The Faerie Queene. Blake and Spenser are her allies in helping pagan Coleridge defeat Protestant Wordsworth.
  • Richard Chase declares, "No great poet has written so much bad verse as Emily Dickinson." He blames the Victorian cult of little women for the fact that "two thirds of her work" is seriously flawed: "Her coy and oddly childish poems of nature and female friendship are products of a time when one of the careers open to women was perpetual childhood." Dickinson's sentimental feminine poems remain neglected by embarrassed scholars. I would maintain, however, that her poetry is a closed system of sexual reference and that the mawkish poems are designed to dovetail with those of violence and suffering.
  • I have a notion that genius knows itself; that Dickinson chose her seclusion, knowing she was exceptional and knowing what she needed. It was, moreover, no hermetic retreat, but a seclusion which included a wide range of people, of reading and correspondence. Her sister Vinnie said, "Emily is always looking for the rewarding person." And she found, at various periods, both women and men: her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, Amherst visitors and family friends such as Benjamin Newton, Charles Wadsworth, Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican, and his wife; her friends Kate Anthon and Helen Hunt Jackson, the distant but significant figures of Elizabeth Barrett, the Brontës, George Eliot. But she carefully selected her society and controlled the disposal of her time. Not only the "gentlewomen in plush" of Amherst were excluded; Emerson visited next door but she did not go to meet him; she did not travel or receive routine visits; she avoided strangers. Given her vocation, she was neither eccentric nor quaint; she was determined to survive, to use her powers, to practice necessary economies.
  • Suppose Jonathan Edwards had been born a woman; suppose William James, for that matter, had been born a woman? (The invalid seclusion of his sister Alice is suggestive.) Even from men, New England took its psychic toll; many of its geniuses seemed peculiar in one way or another, particularly along the lines of social intercourse. Hawthorne, until he married, took his meals in his bedroom, apart from the family. Thoreau insisted on the values both of solitude and of geographical restriction, boasting that "I have traveled much in Concord." Emily Dickinson-viewed by her bemused contemporary Thomas Higginson as "partially cracked," by the twentieth century as fey or pathological-has increasingly struck me as a practical woman, exercising her gift as she had to, making choices.
  • Emily Dickinson's strictness, sometimes almost a slang of strictness, speaks with an intellectually active, stimulated quick music.
  • Emily Dickinson, whose unappeasable thirst for fame was itself unknown for years after her death, had to fight through her family-"Vesuvius at home"-until a miserable lawsuit and the theft of a manure pile interrupted the posthumous publication of her work, and postponed for forty-

nine years what may be her finest book.

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