Mini classic review: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Only eleven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published prior to her death in 1886; the startling originality of her work doomed it to obscurity in her lifetime. Early posthumously published collections-some of them featuring liberally “edited” versions of the poems-did not fully and accurately represent Dickinson’s bold experiments in prosody, her tragic vision, and the range of her intellectual and emotional explorations. Not until the 1955 publication of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, a three-volume critical edition compiled by Thomas H. Johnson, were readers able for the first time to assess, understand, and appreciate the whole of Dickinson’s extraordinary poetic genius.

This book, a distillation of the three-volume Complete Poems, brings together the original texts of all 1,775 poems that Emily Dickinson wrote.

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…”

I initially became intrigued by Emily Dickinson’s poetry after watching the hilarious yet poignant show loosely based on her life, Dickinson. If you’re looking for complete historical accuracy, I wouldn’t watch the show, but if you’re looking for a fun romp of a show that features a lovely queer relationship, then you’d enjoy it.

But back to her poetry.

I then picked up The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as soon as I finished the show. Her writing is so profound and existential, it’s hard to put the book down. So many of her poems focus on the idea of Death and how much she courts it. But I think my favourite poems are the ones were she has a little zest for life and describes really simple ideas, such as how spring feels, wishing March could last forever, and how a bee lives its life.

Of course, one of the appeals of Emily Dickinson to a modern reader is her interesting life story. She never married, never followed any of the traditional expectations placed upon 19th century women. There’s also a lot of speculation, which I think evidence for is quite strong, that she was in love with her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert. Not to mention, during her lifetime she only had eleven poems traditionally published. It wasn’t until after her death that her sister found all 1700+ poems scattered around Emily’s bedroom and published them posthumously. What a fascinating woman.

I highly recommend picking up this collection and reading it whenever you have the chance. Of course, this collection is massive and it will take a while to read, but I feel like it’s definitely worth it.


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