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The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Themes and Subject Matter

Theresa Sowerby | Monday September 03, 2012


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Introduction and Biography | Features of Dickinson’s Style | Themes and Subject Matter | Poem by Poem Analysis | Sample Answer

Themes and Subject Matter

Themes are the ideas and issues that poets wish to communicate through their literary texts. These ideas will have arisen in the poet’s mind as a response to aspects of their social, cultural, religious and political context. They might well have been issues that they felt needed addressing, although in the case of Dickinson, who wrote much of her work privately with no intention of publication, the act of writing, as well as being creative and artistic, might also have been cathartic, or as a means of clarifying her thoughts and so on. Her decision to choose the genre of poetry, the poetic forms and structures she used, and to choose a particular style of writing her poems is an aspect of her literary context.


Many of Dickinson’s poems are concerned directly with death, usually spelt with a capital letter. Her childhood bedroom overlooked the local graveyard and she witnessed the burials of neighbours, friends and family members. In a society where each year children would die of diseases such as scarlet fever, it would be surprising for a sensitive, impressionable woman not to be preoccupied by the subject. In the poems, death takes many forms. It is personified as a chillingly courteous suitor in Because I could not stop for Death, used in attempts to define emotional states in It was not Death and I felt a Funeral, contemplated as a state in which loved ones become uncommunicative and beyond our reach in The Last night that She Lived and contemplated from the imagined viewpoint of the person dying in I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -. What underlies all these treatments of death is a desire to understand the incomprehensible, which co-exists with the knowledge that such understanding is impossible. That death involves...

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