Emily Dickinson is considered among the greatest poets in English literature. She is known for her unusual use of form and syntax; and for being “The poet of paradox”. Dickinson was a prolific writer and created nearly 1800 poems but only a handful of them were published during her lifetime. Here are 10 of the most famous poems by America’s leading female poet.
#10 “Faith” is a fine invention
An often quoted poem, ‘”Faith” is a fine invention’ gives insight on Dickinson’s views on religion and science. While calling faith an invention and putting it in quotation marks suggests that the poem is pro science yet the ability for only some to ‘see’, or possess a kind a divine power, contradicts that. No wonder Dickinson is famous as the “The poet of paradox”. She goes on to add that it is wiser to use ‘microscopes’, or science, in an emergency.
“Faith” is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
#9 Much Madness is divinest Sense
‘Much Madness’ begins with a paradoxical line which equates madness to divine sense. Dickinson talks about the insane society which treats individuality as madness. If you agree with the majority you are sane but if you raise objections you are considered dangerous and need to be controlled. The madness versus sanity theme of the poem can also be interpreted in various other ways adding to the popularity of the poem.
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 –
#8 Tell all the truth but tell it slant
In this poem Dickinson presents truth as a powerful entity whose dazzling brilliance can bring this world to an end. Hence she suggests that it would be wise to tell the truth but ‘tell it slant’ and to gradually ease it into the world.
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 —
#7 Success Is Counted Sweetest
In this poem Dickinson uses the image of a victorious army and of a defeated soldier who is dying. Through this image she conveys that success can be understood best by those who have suffered defeat. The popularity of the poem lies in the fact that unlike some of her other poems which talk about losing in romance, ‘Success Is Counted Sweetest’ “can be applied to any situation where there are winners and losers.”
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!
#6 Wild nights – Wild nights!
‘Wild nights – Wild nights!’ is widely discussed for its implications. It doesn’t tell a story but is an expression of wish or desire. Dickinson uses the sea as an image for passion. It remains one of the most popular romantic poems written by an American.
Wild nights – Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
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 –
#5 If I can stop one Heart from breaking
This simple and often quoted poem by Dickinson talks about the deeds one can do which will insure that one’s life was not is vain.
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain ;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
#4 I heard a Fly buzz – when I died
In “I heard a Fly buzz” the narrator is on his or her deathbed in a still room surrounded by loved ones. Everyone is awaiting the arrival of the ‘King’. The figure of death appears as a tiny, often disregarded, fly with a ‘stumbling Buzz’. It comes between the narrator and light and then the narrator ‘could not see to see’ or is dead. The poem remains one of Dickinson’s most discussed and famous works.
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 –
#3 I’m nobody! Who are you?
In this poem the narrator considers that being nobody is a luxury and it is depressingly repetitive to be somebody, who like a frog has a compulsion to croak all the time. The most talked about detail of Dickinson’s life is perhaps that only 10 of her nearly 1800 works were published during her lifetime and she lived her life in anonymity. This and the fact that the poem is about the popular subject of “us against them” makes it one of the most famous poems written by Dickinson.
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 one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!
#2 Because I Could Not Stop For Death
Many of Dickinson’s poems deal with the themes of death and immortality; and this is the most famous of them all. In it Emily personifies death as a gentle guide who takes a leisurely carriage ride with the poet to her grave. According to prominent American poet Allen Tate, “If the word great means anything in poetry, this poem is one of the greatest in the English language; it is flawless to the last detail.”
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
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 –
#1 Hope is the Thing with Feathers
The most famous poem by Dickinson, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” is ranked among the greatest poems in the English language. It metaphorically describes hope as a bird that rests in the soul, sings continuously and never demands anything even in the direst circumstances.
“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.