Title On the Theme of Love of Emily Dickinson’s Poems
American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is the pioneer of the western modern
poetry. She created about 1800 poems all her life. She was little known and indifferent
to worldly desires before her death. She lived the life of a recluse. Though she never
married and seemed quiet on the outside, she had rich, deep and passionate emotions.
The style of her poetry is new and original. Her strange ideas and ingenious words are
far better than that of some other poets. Her poems incarnated the special emotional
thought, imaginative faculty and creative power. In her love poems she expresses the
relationship between love and death, love and eternity, and love and religion. Her
poems contain rich meanings, so her poetry is a scene of dazzling beauty.
Many of Emily Dickinson’s love poems express her views of love and her love
experiences, and the theme of love is permeated with three aspects: expecting the
arrival of love and the probable marriage, chance meeting and inevitable separation and
raising of love to a higher level. This paper will mainly make an analysis of her love
poems and help readers understand the poet herself and her love poems better.
Keywords Dickinson, poems, love
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2 Three Important Aspects in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poems………………………3
2.1 Expecting The Arrival of Love and Probable Marriage……………………………3
2.2 Chance Meeting and Inevitable Separation…………………………………………6
2.3 Raising of Love to A Higher Level…………………………………………………8
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Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), the American celebrated poet, was one of the premier
writers that lived during the Victorian Age. Though she was not celebrated until after her
death, Emily Dickinson’s poems, as well as Walt Whitman’s, were considered as a part of
“American Renaissance”. They were regarded as pioneers of imagism.
Being the daughter of a prominent politician, Emily had the benefit of a good
education and attended the Amherst Academy. Then she spent a year at Mount Holyoke
female Seminary. In 1848 she began her life of seclusion, traveled infrequently and never
married. Throughout the year of 1885, Emily was confined to bed in her family’s house
where she had lived her entire life. Altogether, she wrote 1,775 poems, of which only seven
had appeared during her lifetime. On May 15,1886 Emily, who was called “vestal of
Amherst” , took her last breath at the age of 56. At that moment the world lost one of its
most talented and insightful poets.
Dickinson’s poems are of subtle and roundabout brevity, yet her linguistic economy
conveys complex ideas. Her images, taken from daily life, are vivid, distinct, and focused,
conveying intensity of abstractness through their concreteness. The sharp images and direct
and simple language show her vision with force. She utilizes fully and skillful trope such as
symbolism, metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, etc.
Dickinson’s major themes, love and death, are traditional religious subjects, which are
extremely common. But expression in her verse is not common at all. Her expression is
unique and original. Regarding love, Dickinson believed that the prismatic quality of love
enabled energy that passed through the experience of love to reveal a spectrum of
possibilities. Dickinson never defined a specific lover, but concentrated on passion as a
whole. Concerning nature, Dickinson generally equated nature with heaven, hills, and flies.
She also saw nature as a friend with whom she loved to commune.
Dickinson most frequently compressed her poems into brief stanza forms, in a few
different combinations of iambic tetrameter and trimester lines. She also employed partial
rhyme schemes, which became common in the next century. Dickinson’s complex syntax
draws a rich variety of connotations from many common words. Her imagery and
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metaphors derive both from an acute observation of nature and from a powerful
When Americans established the Poet’s Corner at St John Abbey in New York in May
1984, they engraved two poet’s names there, one was Whitman, and the other was
Dickinson. Both of them were regarded as apart of “American Renaissance” and were
pioneers of imagism. John Barr, in the American Poetry in the New Century, says
“American poetry found its true beginnings in Whitman and Dickinson”. (Liu Baoan,
2004,451) Richard Chase comments: “Dickinson and Whitman got the greatest
achievements in poetry field of America”. (Liu Baoan, 2004,451) But Dickinson differs
from Whitman in a variety of ways. Dickinson explores the inner life of the individual,
Whitman seems to keep his eye on society at large. Whereas she is regional in her outlook,
he is national.
In China, until 1980s, scholars began to do research on this great poet and her woks.
During these years, the achievements of researching are gratifying. Scholars have translated
more than 500 Dickinson’s poems. Several Chinese versions of Dickinson’s select poems
were published. On the themes of her poems, Zhang Wei, in his “On the Lightness and
Graveness of Emily Dickinson’s Love Poems”, says: “Emily Dickinson was the only
woman poet in the 19th century American poetry world who dared to create love poems
frankly. Her love poems contain rich meanings, describing various kinds of love
experiences, which implied her profound philosophical thinking on female’s individual
value and social value with light and grave ethical conflicts permeated from beginning to
end.”(Zhang Wei, 2006,1) In “Dickinson’s Death Metaphor and Christ”, Dong Aiguo does
research on the close relationship between the death metaphor in her poems and Christ.
Yang Dianhong, in her “Love, Death and Eternity”, points out “Dickinson’s poems contain
rich meanings, we should not classify her poems in some pattern, because her love poems
are connected with religion and culture, and her death poems are related with eternity.” (Liu
2 Three Important Aspects in Emily Dickinson’s Love Poems
Many of Emily Dickinson’s love poems express her views of love and her love
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experiences. She cultivated intense intellectual companionships with several men in
succession, whom she called tutors. These include Benjamin F.Newton, a law student at her
father’s office, Charles Wads-Worth, and Thomas W.Higginson, a poetry critic for The
Atlantic Monthly. Her life was seemingly eventless, for she stayed quietly at home and for
the last twenty-five years she lived in almost total seclusion. Though she never married and
seemed quiet on the outside, she had rich, deep and passionate emotions.
In her 1800 poems there are more than 300 poems on love theme, and 147 poems
contain the word “love”. Dickinson’s love poems contain rich meanings, describing various
kinds of love experiences, such as the sense of loss about love, agony and sadness of love,
or being in pursuit of love and looking forward to love, which imply her profound
philosophical thinking and the unhappy experiences in her lifetime.
The theme of Dickinson’s love poems is permeated with three aspects: expecting the
arrival of love and the probable marriage, chance meeting and inevitable separation and
raising of love to a higher level. This paper will mainly make an analysis of her love poems
and help readers understand the poet herself and her love poems better.
2.1 Expecting The Arrival of Love and Probable Marriage
Dickinson’s love poems express her moods. Sometimes the emotion is wild with joy or
white-hot like fire and sometimes it’s pathetic, melancholy and in extreme grief. The reader
can find her poetry is distressed and indistinct at one moment, and then it becomes sad and
sentimental, solemn and stirring. The undulating and varied emotion vividly expresses that
Dickinson’s mental world is contradictory and diverse. Her concealed and complex “love
experience” is the most important source of her works. And it’s also one of the reasons why
her poems are emotional, ingenious and weird.
The main reason why Dickinson was never married is that she had the emotional
entanglements with several men. And the failure of love caused her seclusion. As a result,
she was expecting the arrival of love and probable marriage all her life.
In Dickinson’s love poems, the words from the bottom of her heart reveal her true
feelings of laying for love and marriage. She was original. She sounded idiosyncratic,
sometimes. Like Gerard Manley Hopkins, she never imitated others. The way she wrote
about love is a good case in point. “Mine-by the Right of the White Election” expresses a
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passionate and eternal love in an elegiac tone. “Wild Nights-Wild Nights” is in more than
one respect a peculiar work in love:
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 in Thee!
The erotic image is self-evident, which reveals the narrator’s eagerness for love. Love
is expressed in an unabashed manner. The boat and sea are the symbols of male and female
lovers who coalesce into wild consummated love. In this poem the narrator speaks fairly
clearly what she is talking about. Her poem is not omitted, but it does show the
narrow-mindedness involving sexuality at this time period. The narrator continues with
“Wild nights should be our luxury”, which implies that the man she is speaking about tells
her he is too busy to see her or something...then she says “Futile the winds to a heart in
port” which means basically that no one can stop a person or a “heart” in love...perhaps not
even this man’s wife? Then the following line “done with the compass, done with the
chart” suggests that she is tired of rules and guidelines, or perhaps she is tired of how
society views things. After all she did become a recluse, and disagreed greatly with the
society, especially along the lines of religion. １
Dickinson lived in a contradictory world. She was in pursuit of personal freedom,
aspiration and love. But she had to endure the shackles of old conventions and religion.
Dickinson thought deeply about humanity and love. In many poems the poet observed the
love between the both sexes is natural. Love gives no cause for much criticism. In the poem
“Why Do I Love You, Sir?”, this concept is proved by simple and unadorned words.
Notes: All of Dickinson’s poems in this paper are from the website:
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Dickinson expresses that she longs for the happy marriage in many of her love poems.
The critics pay high tribute to the wonderful concept of “I’m Wife, I’ve Finished That”.
The first stanza is “I’m wife, I’ve finished that / That other state, I’m Czar, I’m woman now
/ it’s safer so.” This poem describes the feeling of becoming a woman. The heroine
becomes someone’s wife, and she fells satisfied and perfect. In this poem, Dickinson
confirms that marriage is human’s natural ethics and examines the female’s status in
marriage and the female’s meaning in life. These remarks are quite meaningful.
In her first poem “Awake Ye Muse Nine”, from line 31 to the end, she also expresses
the emotion that she wants a happy marriage.
There’s Sarah, and Eliza, and Emeline so fair,
And Harriet, and Susan, and she with curling hair!
Thine eyes are sadly blinded, but yet thou mayest see
Six true, and comely maidens sitting upon the tree;
Approach that tree with caution, then up it boldly climb,
And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or time!
Then bear her to the greenwood, and build for her a bower,
And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower -
And bring the fife, and trumpet, and beat upon the drum
And bid the world Good morrow, and go to glory home!
This part is written in a tone with such passion. The style of this part is like a folk song
because it sounds humorous, happy and light-hearted. “Emeline” here is also Emily herself.
Her wish for a happy marriage is suggested in this poem. This stanza--- “Approach that tree
with caution, then up it boldly climb, /And seize the one thou lovest, nor care for space, or
time!”--- the poet expresses that the ideal and romantic marriage is not fettered by space or
time. In this relation between the sexes, all of the females’ wishes should be gratified.
Women should get their ideal marriage, no matter what their wishes are refined or vulgar.
As she says in the next stanza, “And give her what she asketh, jewel, or bird, or flower -”.
It is clear that the poet knows this kind of love is important in reality. Therefore, she longs
for happy marriage more. In her opinion, love and marriage are her life-long pursuit.
2.2 Chance Meeting and Inevitable Separation
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Though Dickinson lived in seclusion of all her life, her heart was sincere and profound
to love. The main source of this theme is about the love experiences between Emily and
Charles. On her way to Philadelphia, she met and fell in love with Charles Wads-Worth, a
middle-aged married pastor. Many critics believe that this pastor is the “model” of Emily’s
love poems. During 1856-1862, Dickinson created more than 1000 poems, especially in
1862, she wrote 366 poems. Most of these poems were written to Charles. Because Charles
moved to a distant place and worked there at that year. The separation brought terribly
upset to her. The cruel world made Emily describe the sense of loss about love, agony and
sadness of love.
In “I Cannot Live With You”, the description of love is infatuated, frank and audacious.
The poem expresses the agony of separation. Emily seems to describe the love between
herself and Wads-worth. The essence of the whole poem is “Nor could I rise - with You - /
Because Your Face / Would put out Jesus’ - / That New Grace”. It means that the man she
loves would be saved but she wouldn't, since he is a priest. Dickinson had the feeling all
her life that she wouldn't be a saved person despite the fact that she was religious. This
poem also suggests how she is separated from her lover because of one of them being a
priest or a “sexton”, as she calls him in this poem. Also, she is afraid to loose that person if
she dies. Ironically, she is just bringing the pain on sooner, without even allowing herself
the joy of experiencing it first hand.
Some of Dickinson’s poems describe the feeling of missing, for example,
If you were coming in the Fall,
I’d brush the Summer by
With half a smile, and half a spurn,
As Housewives do, a Fly.
If I could see you in a year,
I’d wind the months in balls -
And put them each in separate Drawers,
For fear the numbers fuse -
If only Centuries, delayed,
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I’d count them on my Hand,
Subtracting, till my fingers dropped
Into Van Dieman’s Land.
If certain, when this life was out -
That yours and mine, should be
I’d toss it yonder, like a Rind,
And take Eternity -
But, now, uncertain of the length
Of this, that is between,
It goads me, like the Goblin Bee -
That will not state - its sting.
This poem begins so cheerfully, with swiping away the summer, and then grows more
despondent as the time lengthens before she gets to see the beloved person she waits for.
The poem is obviously about time, love, and separation. She is unsure of how long she will
be separated from the man, but is quite certain about her love for him (even though he was
a married man..). She finds ways to pass the time until she can see him once again.
Both of the poems are written to Charles Wads-Worth. One poem expresses Emily’s
agony of separation from Charles. The other is about missing of Charles. From these two
poems, the reader can understand Dickinson’s inner world was full of extreme
contradictions. She longed for love, but she can’t gain the true love. She had to bear the
long-time separation from her lover.
2.3 Raising Love to A Higher Level
Dickinson remained faithful and unyielding attitude to love in her lifetime. She had
raised love to a higher level. Though she longed for and was pursuit with love, she would
rather never get married than submit to the secular love. The poem “The Soul Selects Her
Own Society” incarnates her attitude.
The Soul selects her own Society -
Then - shuts the Door -
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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 -
Taking a superficial view of this poem, the poet praises the faith and unyielding love.
Dickinson says that “The Soul selects her own Society- /Then - shuts the Door-”, “Then –
close the Valves of her attention – Like Stone –”. Actually, the poet wants to express her
firm faith, which she never submits to the bigwigs. This line--“The Soul selects her own
Society,”--- refers to a person who decides to close the door of her heart eternally to others
because the person she truly love is gone, no longer by her side, perhaps dead. She has
raised love to a higher level, beyond life and death. Therefore she wants to embrace that
prior lover and let no other replace it. Here “Chariots” and “Emperor” refer to people who
are rich and powerful. Maybe they pay assiduous court to the heroine in the poem. But the
heroine remains unmoved and she is waiting for her true love. Even though the one she
loves is a poor young man, she would rather never get married than submit to the secular.
She decides to eternally “Then-close the Valves of her attention - Like Stone-” and to
continue with her life. The faithful and unyielding attitude to love runs through the whole
poem, and it incarnates that she has raised love to a higher level.
The most beautiful theme of Dickinson’s love poetry is that love is eternal. Dickinson
expresses this theme in the following poem. “Love-- is anterior to Life --/ Posterior -- to
Death --/ Initial of Creation, and/ The Exponent of Earth Love”. This poem refers to love in
connected with life. It is ever-present; it does not have a starting point, nor will it end.
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According to Dickinson in this poem, love is eternal.
Though Emily Dickinson could not gain the eternal love in her life, she had raised love
to a higher level in her heart. She believed the existence of true love, and she was willing to
bear all the agonies for love. She praised that love can bring new life to people, and she
was seeking the perfect love and happy marriage all the time. The poet was firmly
convinced that people who go through misery and atone for their crimes can be together
with their lover eventually.
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Love is an eternal theme in literature. Emily Dickinson has shown the reader a special
world of love in her love poems. Many of Emily Dickinson’s love poems express her views
of love and her love experiences. She is expecting the arrival of love and probable marriage
all her life. She goes through several distressed love experiences, and she can’t gain the
true love. She has to bear the long-time separation from her lover. The cruel world made
Emily describe the sense of losing love, agony and sadness of love. However, Dickinson
remains faithful and unyielding attitude to love all her life. She would rather never get
married than submit to the secular love. She has raised love to a higher level. In her opinion,
love is eternal.
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I would like to thank everyone who has offered me help and advice for this paper. My
deepest gratitude goes first and foremost to my supervisor, Lecturer Wu Lianghong, who
has offered me scholarly advice and commented in detail on drafts of this paper. I am
grateful for her patience and hard work.
I am also thankful to my classmates and friends. Without their help and advice, this
paper would not have been completed.
Finally, my sincere thanks would go to my family who give me their support and
encouragement from beginning to end.
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