20 Best Emily Dickinson Poems You Must Read

Emily Dickinson, an enigmatic and often misunderstood figure in American literature, crafted poems that are unparalleled in their depth, beauty, and complexity. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, she spent much of her life in relative isolation, and her work was virtually unknown during her lifetime. It was only after her death in 1886 that her trove of nearly 1,800 poems was discovered, forever changing the landscape of American poetry.

Dickinson’s poems are noted for their unconventional use of form and syntax, their profound explorations of death, love, nature, and the human psyche, and their ability to capture the ineffable in simple yet evocative language. Her writing defies easy categorization, simultaneously embracing and transcending the poetic norms of her time. Her choice of words, her unique punctuation, and her innovative style make her poems rich subjects for interpretation, continually revealing new insights and resonances.

The legacy of Emily Dickinson continues to thrive, not only because of her profound insights into universal human experiences but also because of the distinctive voice in which she expressed them. Her work continues to inspire poets, scholars, and readers all over the world, demonstrating the timeless nature of her craft. The following selection of poems offers a glimpse into the wide-ranging brilliance of Dickinson’s poetic oeuvre, encompassing her keen observations, philosophical musings, and deeply personal reflections. Whether it’s a profound meditation on mortality or a playful critique of society’s norms, each poem stands as a testament to Dickinson’s enduring talent and her place in the pantheon of great literary figures.

1. “Because I could not stop for Death”

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 –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

In this poignant poem, Dickinson presents death not as a grim reaper, but as a patient chaperone on a journey toward eternity. The poem’s speaker describes the progression of life as a ride in a carriage, where death and immortality accompany her. It’s a calm, contemplative journey that brings forth images of children playing, fields of grain, and a setting sun.

The themes of mortality and immortality are woven together seamlessly, painting a serene yet eerie image of the life beyond. Dickinson’s portrayal of death defies the typical frightful associations, making it a gentle, even appealing, transition. The imagery and tone encapsulate the acceptance of mortality, offering a profound perspective on life and death.

2. “Hope is the thing with feathers”

“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 –

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

One of Dickinson’s most uplifting poems, “Hope is the thing with feathers” employs the metaphor of a bird to describe the nature of hope. The poem depicts hope as something eternal and resilient, singing within the soul, never demanding anything in return. It’s a comforting image that speaks to the human spirit’s ability to endure hardship.

Despite its brevity, the poem captures a universal truth about human resilience. The bird’s song, heard in the chilliest land and on the strangest sea, symbolizes hope’s presence everywhere, regardless of circumstances. It’s a gentle reminder of the inner strength that resides within us all, a strength that can weather life’s most challenging storms.

3. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

This poem explores the moment of death in an unusual and mundane light. The sound of a buzzing fly becomes the focal point, disrupting what might be expected to be a solemn occasion. Dickinson’s choice of this insignificant insect at such a significant moment is jarring, challenging the traditional portrayal of death.

The presence of the fly emphasizes the ordinary nature of death, stripping away the grandiosity and solemnity often associated with it. It’s a profound reminder of the mundane reality that awaits us all, challenging our perceptions and expectations. The poem leaves readers with an unsettling feeling, pondering the nature of existence and the enigma of death.

4. “I’m Nobody! Who are you?”

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

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

A playful yet profound exploration of identity and society’s obsession with fame, this poem celebrates the joy of anonymity. With a jubilant tone, Dickinson exclaims the freedom that comes with being “Nobody” and mocks the pretensions of being “Somebody.” The dialogue form invites readers to join her in this liberating perspective.

The poem’s critique of society’s fixation on public recognition is as relevant today as it was during Dickinson’s time. The speaker’s embrace of obscurity is not a rejection of self-worth but a celebration of authentic existence. By contrasting “Nobody” with “Somebody,” Dickinson challenges conventional notions of success and happiness, advocating for a more genuine and contented way of living.

5. “A Bird, came down the Walk”

A Bird, came down the Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim.

This delicate poem describes a simple, everyday scene where a bird comes down the walk, but Dickinson’s observation transforms it into something profound. The bird’s actions are humanized, and its interaction with nature is observed with a keen and compassionate eye. The detailed imagery, from the eating of a worm to the frightened, darting glance, brings the scene to life.

But there’s a shift in the poem when the speaker offers the bird a crumb, and the bird takes flight. The ending lines depict the bird’s flight in ethereal terms, with oars that row in soft seas and butterflies leaping from banks. These images elevate the ordinary bird into a mystical realm, reflecting on the beauty and mystery of nature that often goes unnoticed in our daily lives.

6. “I died for Beauty – but was scarce”

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 –

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – Our names –

This poem examines the themes of beauty and truth and their eternal nature. The speaker tells of dying for Beauty and then meeting a man in the tomb who died for Truth. Their dialogue reveals a profound connection, as they recognize that beauty and truth are essentially the same. The dialogue is filled with resignation and an understanding of life’s transient nature.

The description of the tomb growing mossy and the voices becoming soft underscores the idea of eternity and the unending nature of their commitment. The poem serves as a meditation on the values we hold dear and the sacrifices we make for them. Its haunting beauty lies in its simplicity and the recognition of an eternal connection between two like-minded souls.

7. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is an intense depiction of mental suffering. The metaphor of a funeral for a state of mind conveys the weight of despair and the mourning of one’s sanity. The precise and visceral imagery, from the mourners treading to the beating of a drum, builds a picture of relentless and oppressive agony.

The poem’s climax, where the plank in reason breaks, plunges the reader into the abyss with the speaker. The feeling of descending with no end captures the essence of a mental breakdown, where all logic and understanding give way to chaos. It’s a frightening and compelling insight into mental turmoil, showcasing Dickinson’s ability to articulate the most profound human experiences.

8. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

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 —

This short but profound poem advocates for the telling of truth but advises that it be told indirectly or “slant.” Dickinson recognizes the power of truth and how it can be too intense for people to handle directly. The metaphor of light and how it can dazzle and blind gives form to this abstract concept.

The closing lines suggest that the truth must be revealed gradually, like explaining lightning with a more approachable story of thunder. It’s a wise observation on human nature and how we perceive and understand reality. By advising a more gentle approach to truth, Dickinson emphasizes empathy and understanding, qualities that enrich our interactions and connections with one another.

9. “Success is counted sweetest”

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires 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!

This poem explores success through the eyes of those who fail to achieve it. Dickinson’s paradoxical perspective illustrates how success is most desired and appreciated by those who never reach it. Through vivid imagery of a victorious army and the defeated, dying soldier who hears their triumph, she paints a poignant picture of longing.

The final stanza offers the moral, stating that to comprehend a nectar requires the sorest need. It’s a commentary not only on success but on human desire, perception, and appreciation. The poem challenges the reader to consider what success truly means and how our failures and longings shape our understanding and appreciation of it.

10. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –

The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –

He likes a Boggy Acre –
A Floor too cool for Corn –
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

Have passed I thought a Whip Lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled And was gone –

Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me
I feel for them a transport
Of Cordiality

But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.

A striking poem that captures an encounter with a snake, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” uses vivid imagery and rhythm to convey the experience. The description of the snake as a “narrow Fellow” and the observation of its movement through the grass brings the scene to life, engaging the senses.

But beyond the imagery, the poem explores the deeper, instinctual fear that such an encounter stirs. The closing lines describe a chill and a tightening of breath that lingers long after the sighting. It’s a reflection on the primal fears and awe that nature can inspire, capturing the complex relationship between humans and the natural world.

11. “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun”

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 Sovreign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –

And when at Night – Our good Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow – to have shared –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without – the power to die –

One of Dickinson’s most complex and debated poems, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun” explores themes of power, aggression, and possibly even creativity. The metaphor of life as a loaded gun, wielded by the owner, creates a tension and energy that permeates the poem. It’s an image both of potential and danger.

Various interpretations abound, from a feminist reading of suppressed female power to a metaphor for the poet’s own voice. Regardless of the precise meaning, the poem’s intensity and enigmatic imagery make it a powerful meditation on control, power, and identity, resonating with readers across generations.

12. “There’s a certain Slant of light”

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –

None may teach it – Any –
‘Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –

This poem reflects on the emotional power of light and how a particular slant of light can weigh down the spirit. The imagery is ethereal, and the feeling conveyed is one of melancholy and existential contemplation. The light is described as oppressive, and the shadow it casts seems to reveal something profound about the human condition.

The latter part of the poem introduces the sound of music, which resonates with the light’s impression, leaving a “Heavenly Hurt.” This hurt is explained as internal and not physical, a scar without meaning but with profound significance. It’s a complex and meditative poem that captures a universal, unspoken feeling that lingers in the soul.

13. “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”

Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile – the winds –
To a Heart in port –
Done with the Compass –
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden –
Ah – the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight –
In thee!

“Wild Nights – Wild Nights!” is one of Dickinson’s most passionate poems, filled with longing and desire. The repeated exclamation marks in the opening line set a tone of urgency and intensity. The poem’s brevity and rhythmic quality add to this fervent atmosphere, capturing a yearning for union, either with a lover or possibly with the divine.

The imagery of the sea and the compass allude to navigation and perhaps a spiritual journey. The desire to be anchored with the loved one transcends physical longing and seems to hint at a more profound connection. Whether interpreted as earthly love or spiritual desire, the poem’s passion and intensity make it a stirring and memorable piece.

14. “The Soul selects her own Society”

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

This poem explores the theme of choice and exclusion, focusing on the soul’s ability to choose its company. The imagery of shutting the door on the majority emphasizes the soul’s independence and determination. It’s an assertion of self, a declaration of autonomy, and a celebration of personal preference.

Dickinson’s use of dashes and the deliberate choice of words adds to the poem’s intensity. The final image of an emperor kneeling upon her mat suggests the supremacy of the individual soul over earthly power and glory. It’s a powerful poem that celebrates the inner self, emphasizing the importance of personal choice and integrity.

15. “This World is not Conclusion”

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond –
Invisible, as Music –
But positive, as Sound –
It beckons, and it baffles –
Philosophy, dont know –
And through a Riddle, at the last –
Sagacity, must go –
To guess it, puzzles scholars –
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown –
Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –
Blushes, if any see –
Plucks at a twig of Evidence –
And asks a Vane, the way –
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –
Strong Hallelujahs roll –
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

A profound meditation on faith, doubt, and the eternal, this poem wrestles with the uncertainties of belief and existence. Dickinson acknowledges the desire for faith but also recognizes the doubts that plague the human mind. The language is intense and contradictory, reflecting the inner turmoil of the spiritual quest.

The images of music and an invisible orchestra suggest a reality beyond what’s tangible, a hint of something more. The poem doesn’t resolve the questions but leaves them open, a space for ongoing contemplation and struggle. It’s a complex and thought-provoking poem that resonates with anyone who has wrestled with questions of faith and existence.

16. “I taste a liquor never brewed”

I taste a liquor never brewed –
From Tankards scooped in Pearl –
Not all the Frankfort Berries
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of air – am I –
And Debauchee of Dew –
Reeling – thro’ endless summer days –
From inns of molten Blue –

When “Landlords” turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove’s door –
When Butterflies – renounce their “drams” –
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats –
And Saints – to windows run –
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the – Sun!

This joyous poem celebrates life and existence using the metaphor of intoxication. The speaker tastes a liquor never brewed, drunk not from a cup but from the sky itself. The imagery is rich and jubilant, describing nature’s beauty and the ecstatic joy it brings.

The final stanza introduces a contrast with the ephemeral nature of earthly pleasures. Unlike the transient intoxication of alcohol, the intoxication with life is endless, eternal. It’s a celebration of existence itself, a hymn to life’s beauty and abundance.

17. “The heart asks Pleasure – first”

The Heart asks Pleasure—first—
And then—Excuse from Pain—
And then—those little Anodynes
That deaden suffering—

And then—to go to sleep—
And then—if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die—

This poem delves into the desires and sufferings of the human heart, exploring the complexities of human emotion. The heart’s progression from seeking pleasure to asking for relief from pain, and finally to accepting little needs and even less, paints a vivid picture of human suffering and resilience.

The concise language and structure mirror the heart’s diminishing demands, culminating in a powerful final line where even the request for heaven is renounced. It’s a poignant exploration of desire, pain, acceptance, and ultimately, the profound strength of the human spirit.

18. “I dwell in Possibility”

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

An ode to poetry and imagination, “I dwell in Possibility” celebrates the power and freedom of creative expression. The poem contrasts the prosaic nature of a house with the limitless potential of possibility, symbolizing the boundless nature of poetry. Dickinson’s imagery, from windows to doors to the sky, evokes a sense of expansiveness.

The closing lines, describing the visitors as fairer than Ores, hint at the transcendence of poetry and its ability to reach beyond earthly confines. It’s a celebration of art, creativity, and the human imagination, showcasing Dickinson’s belief in the transformative power of poetry.

19. “Much Madness is divinest Sense”

Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain –

A provocative commentary on societal norms and the perception of insanity, this poem challenges conventional wisdom. Dickinson argues that what is deemed madness might indeed be the highest form of sense, and conversely, what society deems sensible might be madness. It’s a stark critique of societal judgment and conformity.

The closing lines reveal the peril of dissent, the danger of standing apart from societal norms. The majority’s power to prevail and define what’s right underscores the poem’s warning against blind conformity and challenges readers to question societal definitions of sanity and madness.

20. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

This poem offers insight into the aftermath of suffering, describing the numbness that follows intense pain. The language is precise and restrained, mirroring the formal feeling described. The images of freezing persons, stiff hearts, and mechanical feet capture the numb, almost robotic state that follows profound emotional trauma.

The final stanza introduces a metaphor of a storm, where the chill and the stupor are the letting go of the soul. It’s a haunting and solemn reflection on pain and the human response to it. The poem’s controlled tone and striking imagery leave a lasting impression, reflecting the deep scars left by emotional suffering.

Conclusion

Emily Dickinson’s contributions to American literature are not mere words on a page; they represent a profound exploration of the human experience that resonates across generations. Her poems, filled with insight, mystery, and a unique blend of simplicity and complexity, provide readers with a window into timeless themes such as love, death, nature, and existential inquiry. Her innovative style and bold examination of deep and often unspoken feelings make her work an endless source of fascination, inviting readers to continually rediscover the beauty and depth within her verses.

As we reflect on Emily Dickinson’s body of work, we are reminded of the transformative power of poetry to articulate the ineffable and illuminate the hidden corners of our souls. Her legacy as a poet transcends her time, offering a rich tapestry of emotions and thoughts that continue to inspire, challenge, and comfort. Her voice, distinct and unapologetic, calls out to us from the past, encouraging us to see the world with fresh eyes and to engage with life’s mysteries with curiosity and courage. Dickinson’s poems are not merely a reflection of her own time but a beacon that continues to shine, revealing the universality of human emotion and the enduring power of poetic expression.

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