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
“Faith” is a fine invention For Gentlemen who see! But Microscopes are prudent In an Emergency!
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.
#9 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 -
‘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.
#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 —
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.
#7 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!
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.”
#6 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 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.
#5 If I can stop one Heart from breaking
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.
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.
#4 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 –
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.
#3 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 one’s name — the livelong June — To an admiring Bog!
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.
#2 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 –
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.”
#1 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.
The most famous poem by Emily Dickinson, Hope is the Thing with Feathers is one of the best known short poems in the English language. It metaphorically describes hope as a feathered bird that rests in the soul. It sings without words and continuously, never stopping in its quest to inspire. It sounds sweetest in hardships and it must take an extremely troubling situation to abash this “little Bird “that gives warmth and comfort to so many people in difficult times. Moreover, despite serving in the direst circumstances, it never demands anything.
10 thoughts on “10 Most Famous Poems by Emily Dickinson”
I have just found Emily Dickinson poems. I like what I have seen. Must investigate further. What I have seen so far reminds me of that other American poet Robert Frost and the English war poets with their insights into the human condition. Thanks for your post. Brian
Thanks for your comment and you’re most welcome.
My most favourite poem ” Tell all the truth but tell it slant” has appeared in this selection of poems as one of the ten popular poems of Emily Dickinson. I understood it’s meaning well now even than w hen I first learnt it in my P.G. course. Thanks.
I have a poem my mother wrote down by Emily many years ago. I would like to know the meaning of this poem -“Out of my dreams, I fashioned a flower, Nursed it within my heart, Thought it my dower, What wind is this that creeps within and blows, Roughly away the petals of my rose?
A beautiful poem I had not read til now.
My purely personal opinion is that the narrator is comparing her dreams to a flower (which possess qualities of both beauty and fragility). She nurtured it and thought it was her gift of love — like a bride gives a dower to her husband’s family when she marries. But apparently her dreams were destroyed –blown “roughly away”.
It speaks to me as something Wordsworth would have appreciated — “splendor in the grass, glory in the flower.” Marriage is alluded to in “dower” as in dowery, but seems it is something she has nurtured and that the love — revealed in the end as a rose — suggests a feminine presence. The controversy (“storm”)is more conditional, as in if it existed, would destroy the realization of the dream.
Sounds like the wind is doubt.
“After Great Pain” has long been a favorite.