Online Educational Resources

Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

First and Significant Publications of Commonly Taught Texts

The publication history of Emily Dickinson’s poetry is notoriously complicated. Very few of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime; those that were did not identify her as the author. Although Dickinson and her family had connections to a number of prominent editors and writers, the process by which these few poems were published remains unclear. Early editors standardized Dickinson’s punctuation and capitalization and added titles according to the conventions of the day.

  • A letter dated "Valentine Eve."The Indicator (February 1850): 223-24. Published anonymously.
  • "Sic transit gloria mundi" published as "A Valentine." Springfield Daily Republican (20 February 1852): 2. Published anonymously.
  • "Nobody knows this little rose" published as "To Mrs. -----, with a Rose."Springfield Daily Republican (2 August 1858):2. Published anonymously.
  • "I taste a liquor never brewed" published as "The May-Wine."Springfield Daily Republican (4 May 1861): 8. Published anonymously.
  • "Safe in their alabaster chambers" published as "The Sleeping."Springfield Daily Republican (1 March 1862): 2. Published anonymously. 
  • "Blazing in gold and quenching in purple" published as "Sunset." Drum Beat (20 February 1864): 3; Springfield Daily Republican (30 March 1864): 6;  Springfield Weekly Republican (2 April 1864): 7. Published anonymously. 
  • "Flowers - Well - if anybody" published as "Flowers." Drum Beat (2 March 1864): 2; Springfield Daily Republican (9 March 1864): 6; Springfield Weekly Republican (12 March 1864): 6; Boston Post (16 March 1864): 2. Published anonymously. 
  • "These are the days when birds come back" published as "October."Drum Beat (11 March 1864): 7. Published anonymously. 
  • "Some keep the Sabbath going to church" published as "My Sabbath."Round Table (12 March 1864): 195. Published anonymously. 
  • "Success is counted sweetest." Brooklyn Daily Union (27 April 1864): 12. Published anonymously.  
  • "A narrow fellow in the grass" published as "The Snake." Springfield Daily Republican (14 February 1866): 6; Springfield Weekly Republican (17 February 1866): 7. Published anonymously.  
  • "Success is counted sweetest," published as "Success."A Masque of Poets. Ed. George Lathrop Parsons. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1878. Published anonymously.  

After her death in 1886, hundreds of Dickinson’s manuscripts were discovered by family members, resulting in several posthumous editions that brought increasing attention to her work. Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson brought out the first edition of the Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890. A second co-edited volume, Poems of Emily Dickinson, Second Series, appeared the following year. Todd alone ushered into print a collection of Dickinson’s letters (1894) and a third volume of poems Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series (1896). Todd and Higginson’s editorial choices—and how they have shaped our understanding of Dickinson’s work—continue to produce much debate among scholars and readers alike. Dickinson’s manuscripts contain great variation. She often left multiple word choices in the margins and sometimes produced alternative versions of poems. This suggests that Dickinson did not have arrive at—or maybe even intend—a definitive version of each of her poems. However, Todd and Higginson sought to introduce her poetry to the world, which they felt required a form that would be accessible to nineteenth-century readers. Working from transcriptions of Dickinson’s manuscripts, Todd and Higginson organized the poems into groups, regularized capitalization and punctuation, altered the poems’ diction, and on occasion removed individual stanzas. With very few exceptions, Dickinson did not give her poems titles, though they were added by Todd and Higginson. Subsequent editors Thomas Johnson (The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1955) and R.W. Franklin (The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1998) attempted to order the poems chronologically, assigning a number to each; however, Johnson and Franklin arrived at very different chronologies for the poetry. This has led to the practice of many scholars and readers referring to the poems by their first lines. 

  • Poems by Emily Dickinson. (Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s copy) First series. Eds. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890.
  • Poems by Emily Dickinson. Third series. Eds. T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896.
  • Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed.  Mabel Loomis Todd. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1894.
  • The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime. Ed. Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1914.  
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.

Manuscripts of Important Works

Because so few of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime, editors and scholars of Dickinson’s work frequently turn to Dickinson’s letters and handwritten manuscripts to better understand the poet’s writing process and relationship to her work. Dickinson sent a number of poems to her close friends and complied many of her manuscripts into small, hand-folded books, what her early editors called "fascicles." It should be noted that a large number of Dickinson’s poems survive in multiple versions, which makes identifying the "real" version of each of her poems quite difficult, if not impossible. For the poems in manuscript below, the titles and numbers refer to those assigned by R.W. Franklin in his 1998 variorum edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them (Ed. Cristanne Miller, 2016) reproduces Dickinson’s fascicles and unbound sheet-poems in the order in which the poet copied them; this edition also includes the variants that Dickinson wrote on the pages she retained. The Gorgeous Nothings (Eds. Jen Bervin and Marta Werner, 2013) presents facsimiles of Dickinson’s “envelope poem” manuscripts, her fifty-two writings on envelopes and scraps of paper.  

Early Reviews of Dickinson’s Work

  • Dickinson, Susan Gilbert. "Miss Emily Dickinson." (Obituary) Springfield Republican and the Amherst Record (1886).
  • Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Preface." Poems of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890.
  • Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. "Emily Dickinson’s Letters." Atlantic 68.4 (October 1891): 444-456.
  • Howells, William Dean. "The strange Poems of Emily Dickinson." Harper’s 82 (January 1891): 318.
  • Thompson, Maurice. "Literary Notes."America 5, (8 January 1891): 430. Rpt. in Willis J. Buckingham, Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1989.

Essays and Criticism

  • "It is plain that Miss Dickinson possessed an extremely unconventional and grotesque fancy. She was deeply tinged by the mysticism of Blake, and strongly influenced by the mannerism of Emerson. The way she tied her bonnet-strings, preparatory to one of her nunlike walks in her claustral garden, must have been Emersonian. She had much fancy of a queer sort, but only, as it appears to me, intermittent flashes of imagination. I fail to detect in her work any of that profound thought which her editor professes to discover in it. The phenomenal insight, I am inclined to believe, exists only in his partiality; for whenever a woman poet is in question Mr. Higginson always puts on his rose-colored spectacles. This is being chivalrous; but the invariable result is not clear vision." – Thomas Bailey Aldrich, "The Contributor's Club" Atlantic 69 (January 1892): 143-44.
  • "For starkness of vision, ‘quintessentialness’ of expression, boldness and solidity of thought, and freedom of form, a New England spinster who flourished between 1830 and 1886 in an elm-shaded college town above the Connecticut valley might give the imagists ‘pointers’: here is a discovery to quicken the modern New England heart... Where...did Emily Dickinson get her daring inspiration? Certainly she did not go abroad for it, but dug it out of her native granite. To me she is one of the rarest flowers the sterner New England ever bore...” – Elizabeth Shepley Sergeant, "An Early Imagist." The New Republic  4 (August 1915): 52-54.
  • "Of the other genius, Walt Whitman, Dickinson wrote that she had heard his poems were 'disgraceful.' She knew her own were unacceptable by her world’s standards of poetic convention, and of what was appropriate, in particular, for a woman poet. Seven were published in her lifetime, all edited by other hands; more than a thousand were laid away in her bedroom chest, to be discovered after her death. When her sister discovered them, there were decades of struggle over the manuscripts, the manner of their presentation to the world, their suitability for publication, the poet’s own final intentions. Narrowed-down by her early editors and anthologists, reduced to quaintness or spinsterish oddity by many of her commentators, sentimentalized, fallen-in-love with like some gnomic Garbo, still unread in the breadth and depth of her full range of work, she was, and is, a wonder to me when I try to imagine myself into that mind." –Adrienne Rich, "Vesuvius at Home." Parnassus 5.1 (Fall-Winter 1976): 49-74. 
  • "Emily Dickinson took the scraps from the separate ‘higher’ female education many bright women of her time were increasingly resenting, combined them with voracious and 'unladylike' outside reading, and used the combination. She built a new poetic form from her fractured sense of being eternally on intellectual borders, where confident masculine voices buzzed an alluring and inaccessible discourse, backward through history into aboriginal anagogy. Pulling pieces of geometry, geology, alchemy, philosophy, politics, biography, biology, mythology, and philology from alien territory, a 'sheltered' woman audaciously invented a new grammar grounded in humility and hesitation." –Susan Howe, My Emily Dickinson. Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 1985. 

Lessons and Discussion Prompts

  • Beginning in the 1860s, Dickinson kept close to home and interacted regularly with only a select few. As a result, she has often been viewed as a recluse. Using biographical and contextual resources, what can you say about how her small social network informed her poetry? What form do her reflections on the outside world take in her work, especially in poems like 260 "I’m Nobody! Who are you?" or 764 "My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –"?
  • A hallmark of Dickinson’s poetry is her use of the dash. She is also known for slant rhymes and unconventional syntax. What effect do these stylistic elements have on a reader encountering poems such as 656 "I started Early – Took my Dog" and 479 "Because I could not stop for Death –"?
  • Because Dickinson published few poems in her lifetime, editors and scholars have greatly debated how her poetry should appear in print. Compare the poem 479 "Because I could not stop for Death –" with its earlier appearance as "The Chariot." What differences do you notice? How do these differences affect your reading of the poem?
  • Transcribe a manuscript poem by Emily Dickinson. In translating manuscript to print, you will have to make some choices—even where the poet has refused to do so. Pay particular attention to Dickinson's punctuation, dashes, and handwriting. Once you have transcribed the manuscript, write a paragraph or two defending your editorial decisions and reflecting on the editorial process. Why did you make the choices you did? And what does this teach you about Dickinson's poetry—or about literature more generally? (Assignment adapted from Coleman Hutchison's "Teaching Students to Care and Think About Poetry" lecture from our Teaching and Understanding Poetry workshop held in October 2015.)

Contemporary Interpretations

Useful Biographical and Contextual Information

  • The Dickinson Electronic Archive is a collection of primary documents and scholarly resources.
  • Harvard University's publication history is a brief, helpful guide to how and when Dickinson's work appeared in print.
  • The Amherst College Archives and Special Collections website offers digitized manuscripts of Dickinson's poems.
  • The Boston Public Library has made a number of Dickinson manuscripts available via Flickr.
  • The Classroom Electric, a collection of websites focusing on Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and nineteenth-century American culture, can be used to teach the historical contexts of Dickinson's poems.
  • The Academy of American Poets’ resources include texts of additional Dickinson poems, discussion questions, a guide to Dickinson's poems, and essays by contemporary poets that respond to Dickinson’s work.
  • The Emily Dickinson Museum’s Resources for Teachers includes lesson plans for use in the classroom. 
  • biography of Dickinson can be found on the Poetry Foundation's website.
  • The National Endowment For the Arts' community reading program, the "Big Read" features a teacher's guide, discussion questions, and other resources for reading Dickinson's poetry.
  • The Annenberg Learner page "Voices and Visions" includes a list of online resources for further study of Dickinson's poetry.
  • The Atlantic’s "Emily Dickinson (Un) discovered" revisits "Emily Dickinson’s Letters," a piece by Dickinson's editor and literary mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
  • The Modern American Poetry (MAPs) project offers commentary on Dickinson's poems by a number of scholars and can be used to understand Dickinson's influence on twentieth-century writers.
  • EDSITEment's "Flowers from Emily" offers several reading questions and writing activities based on the contexts of Dickinson's work.
Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson, 1847. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Emily Dickinson drafted this poem on the interior of an envelope that had been addressed to her sister, Lavinia. "A Pang is more conspicuous in Spring," ca. 1881. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
First edition of Emily Dickinson’s Poems, published in 1890.
Illustration of Emily Dickinson from the frontispiece of Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1894. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Proposed daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson and her friend Kate Scott Turner, ca. 1859. Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.
Emily Dickinson manuscript, "Tell all the truth but tell it slant." Amherst College Archives and Special Collections.