Her Letter to the World

Emily Dickinson wrote in her poem of the same name: “This is my letter to the world/ That never wrote to me–.” (Go to my Homepage and click on Poetry at the top of the page or click on menu and Poetry to see the full poem.)

Though we should never confuse the speaker in a poem with the poet herself, it seems, at first blush, a sad commentary of Dickinson’s own life. Emily lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, throughout much of the 19th century. The daughter of a prominent lawyer and politician, she became what many people would label a recluse, holed-up upstairs in her father’s house–as unmarried women seldom lived on their own–writing poetry, stacks and stacks and stacks of poetry, most of which was not discovered until her death. For much of her adult life, she had little physical contact with the outside world, other than her two siblings and a few close friends. She did enjoy, however, an expansive correspondence with many other friends and acquaintances to include an editor of Atlantic Monthly, Thomas Higginson. But Emily ‘s poetry was her life, and writing, including letters–an artform in themselves–required considerable time alone. Emily’s natural introversion seems as obvious as that of her speaker in the poem “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 banish us you know!

How dreary to be Somebody!
How public like a frog--
To tell give your name the livelong day
To an admiring Bog!


In Emily’s lifetime, only nine or ten of her poems were published. When she died in 1886 at age 55, her sister discovered around 1800 poems among her things. The poet lived a rich inner life, a life of contemplation, of deep thought about both the large and seemingly small things she encountered. (“What’s it all about, Alfie?” for those of us of a certain age.) She wrote in terms of the beautiful within beginnings and endings:

I'll tell you how the Sun rose--
A Ribbon at a time--
The Steeples swam in Amethyst--
The news, like Squirrels, ran--
The Hills untied their Bonnets--
The Bobolinks--begun--
Then I said softly to myself--
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set--I know not--
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while--
Till when they reached the other side--
A Dominie in Gray--
Put gently up the evening Bars--
And led the flock away--

She wrote about gloom:

 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--
'This the seal of 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--


The fact is that she wrote. She played with words and images. She thought deep thoughts. She read other poets. She honed her craft, as writers like to say. She kept up numerous correspondences that, often, were within themselves works of art. She took writing and expression seriously, and worked hard at it. And, yes, she did at times seek publication. Both she and her writing were often misunderstood or thought too unconventional, but she gifted us with what Keats might have considered ”a thing of beauty.”

From time to time, I plan to put more Emily Dickinson poems under the Poetry page as well as other poems I love that are in the Public Domain. I wish I could include contemporary poetry as well but am constrained by copyright. Still there are some poets of today or the recent past that I may talk about from time to time. Everything will not be about poetry. Please feel free to make your own comments.

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