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Time

She wrote little until the early 1860's; then wrote prolifically for the rest of her life (about 1,789 poems); the years of the Civil War were her most productive period (800 poems)

Language & Form

English language; lyric poetry; form influenced by the meter of popular verse and religious hymns -- mostly quatrains in iambic trimeter and also common meter (quatrains alternating tetrameter and trimeter and rhyming abab); experimental in language, syntax, and rhythm; conciseness of expression; unconventional use of dashes instead of commas and periods.

Synopsis

Intensely personal, intellectual, introspective poetry offering a meditation on life, death, and poetic creation; close observation of nature; as well as consideration of religious and philosophical issues.

Main Issues

poetry reflects her loneliness; the speakers of her poems generally live in a state of alienation and emotional want

poems are also marked by the intimate recollection of inspirational moments which are suggestive of hope and the possibility of happiness found in art and the observation of the natural world

influenced by Romantic ideas and figures like the Transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Emily Brontë, as well as by her very strict, controlling father, her Puritan upbringing, and the Book of Revelations

Romantic ideals and desires mixed with struggles of religious belief and influence of New England Puritanism

frequent use of personification and unlikely images

simplicity of diction and expression but underlying intellectual and emotional complexity, high seriousness and concern with the pursuit and revelation of critical truths


Study Questions

What is Dickinson's attitude toward death? From these attitudes toward death, what can be deduced about her attitude toward life? Is the image of death employed symbolically? Is death a way of portraying life? What sort of life could be seen as a form of death? How does her puritanical upbringing factor into such perceptions? How about her Romantic inclinations? How do such contrasting views of life determine the vision and images of her poetry?

Who is Dickinson referring to in "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (Poem #216)? Who are the "meek members of the Resurrection"? Is this term ironic? How do the images of the first stanza contrast with those of the second? What opposing principles or sets of ideas are embodied in those images? How does Dickinson resolve or decide the outcome of that opposition? What does she favor? Is there irony in the last line? Who are the sagacious dead?

What is Dickinson's attitude toward nature? How is nature or the natural world used in her poetry? What ideas are conveyed through her particular use of nature? What literary and intellectual movement is the source of these perceptions?

From what is told through her poetry, how does Dickinson view the supernatural? Does she believe in God or a Supreme Being or Force? Life after death? What is Dickinson suggesting in Poem #258, "There's a certain Slant of light"? What is "the Heft/Of Cathedral Tunes?" What does this poem say about Dickinson's ideas on religion? How does this compare with Poem #632 ("The Brain-is wider than the Sky-")?

Based on Poem #449 ("I died for Beauty--but was scarce"), what are Dickinson's thoughts on Truth and Beauty? What intellectual and literary movements are those concepts associated with? What are her ideas about the intellectual and the aesthetic? Does she favor any one of them over the other? Why are the speakers in the poem portrayed as corpses in adjacent tombs? What is the failure they refer to?

What are the implications of Poem #435 ("Much Madness is divinest Sense-")? What issues is she addressing here? Who are the mad? Who are the sane? Who or what is the "Majority"? What aspects of her culture and social situation is she hinting at?

What is the significance of Poem #465 ("I heard a Fly buzz- when I died-")? What issues are addressed here? Is there any treatment of the idea of the afterlife? What conclusions does the poem seem to reach in that respect? How is life itself perceived?

What is the meaning of Poem #585 ("I like to see it lap the Miles-")? What does the poem seem to be talking about? What is it actually referring to? Why the contrast between the literal and the underlying meaning? How does that contrast contribute to the point the poem may be trying to make?

What does Poem #657 ("I dwell in Possibility-") suggest about poetry and Dickinson's use of it? What does poetry allow her to do? What does it offer to her? What does "Prose" stand for? Why the architectural images? Why is poetry a house? What is the significance of the final lines, "The spreading wide my narrow Hands, to gather Paradise-"? What is paradise for Dickinson? Where is it to be found?

What may be the central meaning of "My life had stood - a Loaded Gun - " (#754)? Why is this poem very significant as a definition of Dickinson's life and work? Why is the gun personified? Who is the gun? Who is the owner? What is the purpose and function of guns? How does that relate to the life and activity of Dickinson? What ideas do the images of the glowing valley and the "Vesuvian face" conjure? Is there irony in the ending of this poem? Do any reversals of attitude occur? Who is judged? How? Who is this gun aimed at?

What is Dickinson suggesting in "Tell the Truth but tell it slant" (#1129)? How does this poem relate to her own practice as a poet and writer? Why must the truth be somewhat veiled? What truth is she referring to?

Does Dickinson make any statements about social, economic, political, or cultural problems? How about the Civil War or slavery? The condition of women? The culture and religion of America? What seem to be her attitudes toward some of these issues?

Page last updated: 07/20/2009

 

Dr. Fajardo-Acosta is grateful to Dr. Gina Merys for her research assistance in the drafting of previous versions of this page

 

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