Signature of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickson explored a huge variety of themes with her numerous poems, making her one of the most prominent writers in the history of American literature. She has reached iconic status nowadays, however during her lifetime only ten of the many poems she had written were published. She gained more and more popularity after her death, shaping the image of the reclusive young woman, the eccentric spinster, we are accustomed to.

She certainly had an interesting vision of death, an image that variates from poem to poem. Sometimes it is perceived as a threat, sometimes it comes with gentleness, but if there is a characteristic that she underlined in all of her poems, it is that death is always described as inevitable. It is the realisation that there is – in fact – an eternal life after the interruption of your corporeal existence. Some have argued that the heterogeneity of her ideas about death can be contradictory at times, however it perfectly depicts how unfathomable the phenomena of life and death are.

Because I could not stop for death,

He kindly stopped for me

The carriage held but ourselves

and immortality.

Her interest towards death is not that unusual for a woman who lived in a period of time when the main aim of religion was to prepare people to die and to instruct them to do good deeds in order to be rewarded in the afterlife, ideas that were expressed in one of her most prominent poems:

Some work for immortality,

The chiefer part, for time

He compensated immediately

The former checks on fame.

The theme of death is connected to the image of God, an entity concerned with the fate of its creatures, but also depicted as absent, a figure that used to upset the young writer. She affirms his existence, although she has no material proof of it, then the atmosphere changes, Death becomes a threat, something that does not bring immortality of the spirit, and God is only seen as someone who laughs at the foolish anticipation of humanity.

I Know that He exists.

Somewhere – in silence –

He has hid his rare life

From our gross eyes.

A portrait of Dickinson [2]

The references to God are largely used in her poems on the theme of faith, she very often used the form of religious hymnal, underlining how important the presence of God and religion was in her life. However, she refused dogma and poetry became a way of exploring a new religiosity. A faith can be principally found in Nature, in the description of a light almost divine:

There’s a certain Slant of Light,

Winter Afternoons,

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes.

or of the most uncanny and curious creations of our Lord:

The bat is dun with wrinkled wings

Like fallow article

And not a song pervades his lips

Or none perceptible.

What she is most certain about is God’s inscrutability, the only thing that she is allowed to investigate is her relationship with religion, to the point where it’s almost impossible to split the image of God from the one of a Lover.

The bedroom of Emily Dickinson at the museum in Amherst, Mass. [3]

The constraint of a society that tried to prevent women from expressing themselves only became a source of inspiration for her, becoming one of the central themes of her poetry:

I dwell in Possibility,

A fairer house than Prose,

More numerous of Windows

Superior for doors.

This whole poem is a long metaphor where poetry, the ultimate liberating force, is compared to the house, the symbol of the limited role of woman in the society: Running a household was the only acceptable thing for a woman to do.  Poetry was the only thing that could set her free and she took possession of it, even though it was considered an exclusively male vocation.

She felt trapped in this predominantly patriarchal society and this was the cause of her depression and madness, that led to a gradual lost of her sense of self. A state that she often compares with the image of funerals and mourning:

I felt a Funeral, in my brain,

And mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That sense was breaking through.


Di Simona Montella







About the author