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Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson

The Soul unto itself (683)

About this poet

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Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, but only for one year. Throughout her life, she seldom left her home and visitors were few. The people with whom she did come in contact, however, had an enormous impact on her poetry. She was particularly stirred by the Reverend Charles Wadsworth, whom she first met on a trip to Philadelphia. He left for the West Coast shortly after a visit to her home in 1860, and some critics believe his departure gave rise to the heartsick flow of verse from Dickinson in the years that followed. While it is certain that he was an important figure in her life, it is not clear that their relationship was romantic—she called him "my closest earthly friend." Other possibilities for the unrequited love that was the subject of many of Dickinson’s poems include Otis P. Lord, a Massachusetts Supreme Court judge, and Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

By the 1860s, Dickinson lived in almost complete isolation from the outside world, but actively maintained many correspondences and read widely. She spent a great deal of this time with her family. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was actively involved in state and national politics, serving in Congress for one term. Her brother, Austin, who attended law school and became an attorney, lived next door with his wife, Susan Gilbert. Dickinson’s younger sister, Lavinia, also lived at home for her entire life in similar isolation. Lavinia and Austin were not only family, but intellectual companions for Dickinson during her lifetime.

Dickinson's poetry was heavily influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, as well as her reading of the Book of Revelation and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town, which encouraged a Calvinist, orthodox, and conservative approach to Christianity.

She admired the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, as well as John Keats. Though she was dissuaded from reading the verse of her contemporary Walt Whitman by rumors of its disgracefulness, the two poets are now connected by the distinguished place they hold as the founders of a uniquely American poetic voice. While Dickinson was extremely prolific as a poet and regularly enclosed poems in letters to friends, she was not publicly recognized during her lifetime. The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890 and the last in 1955. She died in Amherst in 1886.

Upon her death, Dickinson's family discovered forty handbound volumes of nearly 1,800 poems, or "fascicles" as they are sometimes called. Dickinson assembled these booklets by folding and sewing five or six sheets of stationery paper and copying what seem to be final versions of poems. The handwritten poems show a variety of dash-like marks of various sizes and directions (some are even vertical). The poems were initially unbound and published according to the aesthetics of her many early editors, who removed her unusual and varied dashes, replacing them with traditional punctuation. The current standard version of her poems replaces her dashes with an en-dash, which is a closer typographical approximation to her intention. The original order of the poems was not restored until 1981, when Ralph W. Franklin used the physical evidence of the paper itself to restore her intended order, relying on smudge marks, needle punctures, and other clues to reassemble the packets. Since then, many critics have argued that there is a thematic unity in these small collections, rather than their order being simply chronological or convenient. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press, 1981) is the only volume that keeps the order intact.



Selected Bibliography

Poetry

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems (New Direction, 2013)
Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson's Poems (Little, Brown, 1962)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1960)
Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson (Harper & Brothers, 1945)
Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1935)
Further Poems of Emily Dickinson: Withheld from Publication by Her Sister Lavinia (Little, Brown, 1929)
The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown, 1924)
The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime (Little, Brown, 1914)
Poems: Third Series (Roberts Brothers, 1896)
Poems: Second Series (Roberts Brothers, 1892)
Poems (Roberts Brothers, 1890)

Prose

Emily Dickinson Face to Face: Unpublished Letters with Notes and Reminiscences (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932)
Letters of Emily Dickinson (Roberts Brothers, 1894)

The Soul unto itself (683)

The Soul unto itself
Is an imperial friend  –  
Or the most agonizing Spy  –  
An Enemy  –  could send  – 

Secure against its own  –  
No treason it can fear  –  
Itself  –  its Sovereign  –  of itself
The Soul should stand in Awe  –  

Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.

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poem

A Visit from St. Nicholas

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house  
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;  
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,  
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;  
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;  
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,  
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,  
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,  
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,  
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.  
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow  
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,  
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,  
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,  
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.  
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,  
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
"Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!  
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!  
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!  
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!"  
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;  
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,  
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.  
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof  
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,  
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.  
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,  
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;  
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.  
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!  
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!  
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow  
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,  
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;  
He had a broad face and a little round belly,  
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.  
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;  
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,  
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;  
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,  
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,  
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;  
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,  
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,  
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
"Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

 

Clement Clarke Moore
1823
collection

Classic Books of American Poetry

This collection of books showcases the masterpieces of American poetry that have influenced—or promise to influence—generations of poets. Take a look.

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Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, Minnesota. Courtesy of National Park Service.
poem

White Trees

When the white trees are no longer in sight
they are telling us something,
like the body that undresses
when someone is around,
like the woman who wants
to read what her nude curves
are trying to say,
of what it was to be together,
lips on lips
but it's over now, the town
we once loved in, the maps
we once drew, the echoes that
once passed through us
as if they needed something we had.
Nathalie Handal
2011
poem

Legendary Lights

O, the legendary light,
Gleaming goldenly in night
     Like the stars above,
Beautiful, like lights in dream,
Eight, the taper-flames that stream
     All one glory and one love.

In our Temple, magical—
Memories, now tragical—
Holy hero-hearts aflame
With a glory more than fame;
There where a shrine is every sod,
     Every grave, God’s golden ore,
With a paean whose rhyme to God,
     Lit these lamps of yore.

Lights, you are a living dream,
Faith and bravery you beam,
     Youth and dawn and May.
Would your beam were more than dream,
Would the light and love you stream,
     Stirred us, spurred us, aye!

Fabled memories of flame,
Till the beast in man we tame,
Tyrants bow to truth, amain,
Brands and bullets yield to brain,
Guns to God, and shells to soul,
Hounds to heart resign the role,
Pillared lights of liberty,
In your fairy flames, we’ll see
Faith’s and freedom’s Phoenix-might,
The Omnipotence of Right.

Alter Abelson
2017
collection

Gwendolyn Brooks: A Centennial Celebration

A Pulitzer Prize winner, an Academy Fellowship winner, and the first black woman appointed as consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress, Gwendolyn Brooks was—and continues to be—an outstanding voice in the world of contemporary American poetry. Brooks, who was awarded countless literary honors in her lifetime, was known for writing poems that captured a cross-section of everyday life in her hometown of Chicago. In sonnets, ballads, epic poems, and more, Brooks captured the lives, speech, and perspectives of people as varied as those she encountered in her city, and was particularly known for her interrogation of race relations and class.

This year marks Brooks’s centennial, and to celebrate, we’ve created this new collection of essays, audio, and poems by and about Brooks.

collection

A Poet's Glossary

Read about poetic terms and forms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harcourt, 2014), a book ten years in the making that defines the art form of poetry.  

AASL Best Website for Teaching & Learning
poem

Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 
When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices? 
Robert Hayden
1966
collection

John Ashbery, 1927–2017: A Tribute

On September 3, 2017, John Ashbery died at his home in Hudson, New York, at the age of ninety. Ashbery had a long history with the Academy of American Poets, dating back to the 1960s when he read in our series at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. He received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize in 1985 for his poetry collection A Wave (Viking, 1984). From 1988 to 1999, he served on our Board of Chancellors, and over the years, Ashbery participated in numerous Academy of American Poets events, including readings at the Morgan Library and the 92nd Street Y in New York City. In honor of Ashbery, and his important contributions to American poetry, we've gathered a collection of his poems, historic recordings of the poet reading his work, photographs from our archive, and more.