The great Emily Dickinson is known for her inquisitive and powerful poems, but what made her poems so notable? Emily lived a simple life, mostly secluded, so why would some simple poems change how people thought about such difficult subjects? The answers are in her style of writing. Her seclusion allowed her to “meditate on life and death” and write about such controversial themes and topics that are still being discussed today (Allen 546). Her ability to highlight important words or phrases or cause a short pause or accentuate a certain phrase cause people reading her work to entirely stop and think about what they had just read.
Emily Dickinson’s style, involving odd punctuation, unusual capitalization, and meticulous figurative language, contributed to the altogether importance of her writings. It is well knows that Emily Dickinson was somewhat of a recluse and that she spent most of her life in her home. However, many do not know much of her earlier life. She was born Emily Elizabeth Dickinson on December tenth, 1830, in her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent most of her life (Davis 318). Davis further tells that she had one older brother, Austin, and a younger sister, Lavinia (Davis 318).
Her close bonds with her siblings and longing for home stared her entire writing career and continued to influence her writings. Growing up, Dickinson was quite well off and succeeded pleasantly in school, even winning awards for some of her essays in school (Davis 318). According to the NCLC, Dickinson was formally educated in 1835 all the way until 1847, attending three different schools in the process and studying “courses in the sciences, literature, history, and philosophy” (Mullane and Wilson 1).
Because of her father’s puritan ideologies, Emily’s education was provided by New England Puritanism and the Unitarian church; however, she found it very difficult to buy into the teachings and remained agnostic (Mulland and Wilson 1). Dickinson longed for a spiritual rebirth within herself. This created the desire to write and question all the demanding subjects of her poems. Throughout the rest of her life, Emily Dickinson became more and more reclusive. Mullane and Wilson point out that biographers suggest she, on a rare visit to Philadelphia, fell in love with an already married minister, Rev.
Charles Wadsworth (Mullane and Wilson 1). However, because their love was forbidden, some believe that this caused her departure from society. Again, this explains another reason for her reason to write about such debatable topics. Eventually, in 1869, Dickinson’s introversion escalated. Multiple accounts state that she would rarely leave the house, speak only through closed doors, and after the death of her father in 1874, only wear white (Mullane and Wilson 1). In fact, the only remaining piece of clothing we have that she wore is a white summer dress.
Later, in 1882, her mother died, worsening her condition (Mullane and Wilson 1). However, according to Janet Allen, Emily never became “a total recluse” (Allen 546). Dickinson actually sought out several publishing opportunities, but they were all failures with most of her work being changed to fit the standards of the time (Mullane and Wilson 1). Almost all of her poems were later published by Lavinia after Emily’s death in 1886 from kidney dysfunction. Emily Dickinson’s usage of abnormal punctuation strengthened her poetry by affecting how people read her work. One of her most predominant punctuations is her famous dash.
This dash was mainly used to cause the reader to take a breath and create a pause, emphasizing the importance of what was just said. A pause is what causes people, as readers, to ponder the effect and deeper meaning of the line or phrase. That is, in fact, the whole point of Dickinson’s poetry: to convey her opinion on difficult subjects, and what better way to convey one’s opinion than to let others create their own? Sandra McChesney states in her critique of Emily Dickinson’s poems “that Dickinson’s use or lack of punctuation was a conscious construction central to her work” (McChesney 16).
This is indeed true as one might read a poem with many commas, semicolons, and dashes; they would obliviously pause more often as a singer would take a breath. However, she would use very little punctuation. In such poems, this was probably to a more careful word choice. “Dickinson chose words with great deliberation, skewing grammar to fit design” (McChesney 16). Therefore, her use of certain types of punctuation always depended on her word choice and the overall theme of that certain piece. Also, Emily Dickinson’s poems were written to imitate the “rhythms of church hymns” (Allen 547).
In turn, the punctuation had to make the reader feel as though they were reading a hymn. This displays religion’s importance in Dickinson’s life. Though she may have not been completely Christian, she still searched for some sort of revelation or epiphany in her own spiritual life. Emily Dickinson’s need to affect how one would read her poems shaped how she would input her punctuation. Emily Dickinson also used the abnormal capitalization of common nouns in her writing. This was mainly done to emphasize critical words that strengthened the overall topic of choice.
Some critics even suggest the capitalization was used to help a reader decipher her normally cryptic style, highlighting what is important. McChesney states that Dickinson had “command” of her language and had a “facility for shaping it to her needs” (McChesney 16). If one looks at Dickinson’s vocabulary and how it changed over the course of her life, changes would be noticed. Davis wrote that Emily’s earlier poems had a “general tone of luxury and defiance,” featuring words that also displayed luxury and defiance (Davis 320).
However, Davis points out “the tone… changes to match the increasing unfamiliarity” as she would use more technical and scientific words, displaying her evolving curiosity (Davis 320). Finally, Davis explains as her writing life got more intense, she began to “include words both pretty and technical” (Davis 320). This supports the idea that she would shape her vocabulary to fit her theme, and of course, as her vocabulary expanded, more “pretty and technical” words would be introduced.
Therefore, depending on her topic of choice for a particular poem, certain nouns would be capitalized. If a poem was about death, Dickinson might capitalize such words as dirt, rain, or crow because these are all words that are associated with death. Appositionally, if a poem was about love, she might capitalize words such as heart, warmth, or sparks. Her ability to emphasize certain words with capitalization added to the effect of her poems on how readers viewed the theme. Finally, Emily Dickinson used complex and unconventional figurative language to convey her themes.
Dickinson would always use ambiguous language to cause thought, but as Martha Shackford points out, she was well aware of the effectiveness of irony and paradox to her poems (Shackford 20). This use of contradictory language even further improved what readers could get out of the writing. Dickinson’s entire purpose was to state her opinion and try to explain, in her own words, what she thought was the meaning of life and death. Shackford also indicated that Dickinson used “transcendental humor… to] forever [inspire] her readers to a profound conception of high destinies” (Shackford 20).
Not only was Emily very well at adding complex figurative language to cause higher thinking, even her humor cause everyone to think. Harold Bloom even compared her to such authors as Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson by her ability for new thought (Bloom 83). Also, because Emily was a female writer of a time where women had few yet growing rights, and her poetry could have been viewed as inferior to other male authors, Dickinson would use autonomy and authority in her language (McChesney 15).
However, this authority could only be picked out by those of keen minds. Dickinson, in her mysterious ways, would use her figurative language to hide her defiant attitudes. Her ability to manipulate language to suit her purposes invigorated her writing’s importance. Emily Dickinson used unconventional punctuation, irregular capitalization of important words, and manipulated carefully thought out figurative language to contribute to her ability to convey difficult topics. Punctuation helps a reader pause at appropriate times to fit her style of imitating a church hymn.
Capitalization was used to highlight certain words that needed emphasis of her message. Figurative language displayed her mastery of shaping how one views topics. All of her characteristics immensely exhibit her ability to form language to her own personal needs. Great American writings would be incredibly empty without the work of Emily Dickinson. Although most of her work was not even published until after her death, people can still enjoy and discuss their own opinions on what they believe.