Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets in American history. Her careful observation of the world around her and her distinct style of dashes and short lines make her a fantastic poet to study and read. Today, we’ll be looking at a few of her poems as well as some fun facts about her. So let’s dive in!
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Emily Dickinson lived from 1830–1886. She always stayed close to home in Amherst, Massachusetts, only leaving for one year to attend a boarding school. However, she encountered many changes during her lifetime, including the American Civil War.
Why is Emily Dickinson’s poetry so distinctive? Here are a few reasons:
- Punctuation: In her original manuscripts, she used dashes in all directions on the page for punctuation (up, down, and sideways!). When her poems were edited and published after her death, her editors only kept a small amount of her unusual punctuation, in what we see today as a dash.
- Discuss together: Why do you think she used lots of dashes and short lines? Try adding dashes to another poem. What does it do to the poem?
- Publishing: Dickinson never gave permission for anyone to publish her poetry. She gave some poems to friends and compiled them in home-made booklets, but never for the public.
- Discuss together: Who should give permission to share someone’s creative works? Do you think the author or painter should have the final say, or do you think later generations can share it if they want?
- Nature: Emily was an excellent gardener. She planted hundreds of flowers and trees around her property, and kept more exotic plants in her greenhouse. A lot of her poems have something to do with nature, insects, and the outdoors.
- Discuss together: Why do you think nature often plays a big role in poems? (Take a look at our Nature Themed Teatime if you haven’t already.) What comparisons can you think of between nature and emotions like love, happiness, and sadness?
- Homebody: You may know that Dickinson was famously reclusive, staying in her house and only seeing a few family members. But did you know that she also worked extremely hard, baking bread for the household and taking care of her ailing mother? She also handed out treats to neighborhood children by lowering cakes in baskets from upstairs windows to the gardens at the back of the house (so their mothers wouldn’t see!).
- Local legend: People used to make up all sorts of myths about Dickinson, including that she only wore white dresses (she actually owned a few dark colored dresses, too). However, she did say that she wanted to be buried in a white dress, so that may be where the legend started.
- Preservation: Emily Dickinson’s house in Amherst, where she spent most of her life, is now a museum dedicated to the poet. Archaeologists have been working to restore the gardens to the way Emily kept them.
- Discuss together: How do you think they’re figuring out what plants she had? Where might they look for that information? (Hint: her poems and letters, newspapers and magazines from the time period, digging in the gardens to find deeper layers of seeds, etc.)
Now that we’ve thought a bit about Emily Dickinson’s life, her style of poetry, and how we can keep digging for more information about her today, it’s time for tea!
Teatime with Emily
Try some of Emily Dickinson’s home recipes for cakes, gingerbread, and bread loaves, from this list in LitHub. Although most of her recipes are pretty normal, she has one cake recipe that calls for 19 eggs and weighs 20 pounds when baked!
During your teatime, why not spend some time outdoors? Follow in Dickinson’s footsteps by taking your teatime into the garden and watching the world around you.
Reading Emily Dickinson
Although her poems are short, they’re worth reading many times. She packs a lot of wisdom into each word and line. Go ahead and dig in!
“Fame is a bee.” (Don’t let the short length of this poem deceive you—it packs a punch!)
“A Bird, came down the Walk —” (Emily observes a bird in her garden)
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –” (A great example of comparing something in nature with an idea)
“Snow flakes.” (A fun celebration of dancing snow)
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant —” (This one will take some concentration. What does it mean to tell the truth? Again, pay attention to her use of nature!)
“They shut me up in Prose –” (It isn’t easy being a girl in the 1800s, especially one who wants to write!)
“There is no Frigate like a Book” (A frigate is a type of ship. Why do you think books might be like ships? Read the poem and find out!)
Poetry for Kids: Emily Dickinson, edited by Susan Snively (includes a commentary and discussion of each of the poems)