Blog – Posted on Friday, Jun 14
A Guide to the 15 Best Emily Dickinson Poems
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson in A Quiet Passion (2016)
One of the most daring voices ever to craft a couplet, Emily Dickinson feels as relevant now as when her first volume of poetry came out under her own name — in 1890, four years after her death. More than a century later, she’s been sung by folk-rock legend Natalie Merchant and played by Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon. She’s also lent her verse and likeness to a Costco’s worth of Etsy products for quirky bookworms, from cookie cutters to poetry tights.
Makers of Dickinson merch had plenty of lines to choose from: she produced 1,775 poems. Only a dozen or so were ever published in her lifetime, and those always anonymously. The rest only came to light after her death, in 40 humble, hand-sewn fascicles that have since become a mainstay of the American poetic tradition.
Who is Emily Dickinson?
Born in 1830 as the middle child in a prosperous Massachusetts family, Dickinson dazzled her teachers early on with her brilliant mind and flowering imagination. She spent a year studying at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, now a women’s college. Known for her fierce originality of thought, she distinguished herself among her pious classmates for her unwillingness to publicly profess faith in Christ. Her principal, the deeply religious educational reformer Mary Lyon, somberly wrote her off as “without hope” of salvation.
Despite — or perhaps because of — her self-conscious rebellion in spiritual matters, Dickinson grappled gamely with religious questions in her poetry. Transcendental themes, like death, immortality, faith, and doubt undergird her work, and her virtuosic touch with rhetorical figures reflects her deep knowledge of the Bible.
Dickinson read voraciously to hone her craft — not only scripture, but Shakespeare and the metaphysical poets. Yet for all her familiarity with the canon, she is known above all for her originality. You can clock an Emily Dickinson poem just two lines into it. Her style is inimitable, even though early editors tried their best to sand away its fascinating quirks — for instance, adding titles, undoing her capitalization, and swapping out her favored dashes for more conventional punctuation.
Her poems are often forceful, fragmented, and dense, with words that seem to be missing — swallowed up by a dash, like a breath caught in the throat. But they also lend themselves beautifully to music, with their hymn-like rhythms. And their striking imagery and keen psychological insight can’t help but needle their way into your memory. No wonder there are so many Emily Dickinson tattoos....
Dickinson’s work is at once enigmatic and accessible: you can keep tunneling through it for years, excavating more and more analytic insights, but it also delights at first glance. Scholar or child, Emily Dickinson is for us all.
To help you get started reading this singular talent, we’ve assembled this guide to 15 of the best Emily Dickinson poems — arranged roughly in the order in which they were written. Keep in mind that this chronology is a matter of scholarly conjecture — this ever-mysterious poet didn’t date her verses. Can't get enough? Pick up a copy of her complete poems, and read on!
1. Success is counted sweetest (1859)
Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.
Not one of all the Purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory
As he defeated – dying –
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
Omni-disciplinary writer Joyce Carol Oates called Dickinson, one of her literary idols, the “poet of paradox.” This poem makes it clear how she earned that title. Victory, it argues, can only be grasped by the losers.
Using militaristic imagery, the poem observes, in Dickinson’s usual unsentimental manner, that life is often a zero-sum game: success for one person tends to come at the expense of someone else. A relatively early work, it was one of her only poems to be published in her lifetime — anonymously, of course.
2. I'm nobody! Who are you? (1861)
I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name - the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!
This crowd-pleasing verse shows off the poet’s playful side. It’s proof that Dickinson’s insights on human psychology aren’t limited to heavy topics like grief, doubt, and the fear of death. Here, her speaker winkingly draws the reader into a friendly conspiracy of anonymity.
You get the sense that this is someone who would’ve love binge-watching reality TV and crowing, through mouthfuls of popcorn, how awesome it is to not be famous. There’s a delightful hint of satire here — Dickinson strips public figures of their dignity by comparing them to croaking frogs.
3. “Hope” is the thing with feathers (1861)
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –
I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
With its sweet message and singable rhythm, this tribute to hope is arguably Dickinson’s best-known work. Prettier and somewhat more palatable than many of her later meditations on pain and death, it appears on plenty of greeting cards and posters you can buy online.
The poem spins out a straightforward extended metaphor: hope as a bird — selfless, persistent, and warm. Rendered with a feather-light touch, this imagery sticks in the brain because it rings true and gives the reader, well, hope.
4. I felt a Funeral, in my Brain (1861)
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My Mind was going numb –
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
Opaque and viscerally disturbing, this poem combines two Dickinson-esque mainstays: funerary imagery and a forensic examination of psychological turmoil. The speaker, though suffering, remains keenly self-aware, observing their own pain with blade-sharp insight.
This funeral in the brain eludes easy decoding. It could signify the death of reason — a plunging into madness — but it could just as well indicate repression, a killing off of some part deep within the self. Either way, the poem makes jarring use of sound — beating, creaking, tolling — to convey the speaker’s declining mental state.
The last stanza narrates the sensation of falling, like a body through a rotted floorboard — the whole bottom of the world dropping out. It closes abruptly, with a dash. It’s as if the falling never stopped.
5. There’s a certain Slant of light (1861)
There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
’Tis the seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, ’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
This beautifully crafted poem speaks to anyone who feels a little out of sorts when the days start getting shorter, but you don’t have to suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder to understand it. It offers a somber meditation on the emotional weight of time’s passing, suffused with typical Dickinsonian images of light and faith. Here they take on a melancholy cast, as the poem reflects on three kinds of ending: winter, the closing of the year; later afternoon, the fading of the daylight, and finally, Death.
This sense of an ending pains the speaker — not in a way that can scar the skin, but internally, where the psyche extracts meaning out of sensory input. Yet this is a grand, even beautiful, hurt, gilded with spiritual significance.
The poem implicitly juxtaposes the permanence of religious truth against the tendency of the natural — and human — world toward fading and flux. It’s the distance between these that hurts, as the chill winter light slants across a landscape of anticipated decay.
6. Wild Nights – Wild Nights! (1861)
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 –
Short and potent as a shot of whiskey, this poem seems to offer something unusual: a portrait of the recluse in love — whether with man, woman, or God. Of course, it would be a mistake to treat any bit of verse as a straightforward autobiography with line breaks. But a poem as sexy as this one, in a bibliography as buttoned-up as Dickinson’s? The temptation is nothing short of wild.
Molly Shannon as Emily and Susan Ziegler as Susan in Wild Nights with Emily (2019).
Indeed, this poem inspired the 2019 historical comedy Wild Nights with Emily, which upends the usual image of a mincing, wallflowerish Miss Dickinson. Backed by extensive research, it depicts the poet’s romance with her sister-in-law — and fellow poet — Susan Gilbert Dickinson.
Whether or not it’s about Susan — or any other beloved muse — this piece stands out among Dickinson’s other work. With its storm-tossed, drunken ecstasy, it’s a radical departure from the clinical detachment you see in so many of her other poems.
7. This is my letter to the World (1862)
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me–
The simple News that Nature told–
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see–
For love of Her– Sweet– countrymen–
Judge tenderly– of Me
Here’s another poem that makes it hard to separate Dickinson the writer from Emily the human being. The poet of paradoxes was herself a paradoxical person. She worked tirelessly, her huge oeuvre suggesting she never suffered from writer’s block. But she had to be cajoled into publishing anything, even without a byline.
In light of Dickinson’s famous reticence, it’s tempting to take this piece as her poetic manifesto, a knowing nod to the generations who would come to revere her art. You can also read it as an articulation of the artistic mindset in general — whatever medium they work in, artists always bequeath the labor of their minds to hands they can’t see. Maybe that’s what the composer David Leisner had in mind when he set this piece to music, letting piano, guitar, and human voices sing Dickinson’s words to life.
8. I dwell in Possibility (1862)
I dwell in Possibility–
A fairer House than Prose–
More numerous of Windows–
Superior– for Doors–
Of Chambers as the Cedars–
Impregnable of Eye–
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky–
Of Visitors– the fairest–
For Occupation– This–
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise–
One of literature’s most celebrated homebodies, Dickinson pulls from an architectural lexicon — the language of chambers and gambrels, windows and doors — to express the boundlessness of imagination. Set against Prose, Possibility stands in a metonymic relation to poetry: it’s poetry that gives the speaker her feeling of sky-span limitlessness.
Like much of Dickinson’s work, this poem relies on paradox. Its imagery turns on the notion of a cozy infinity, a delimited endlessness. A house can be a universe, a roof is the open air, and “narrow” hands spread “wide” to bring in all of “Paradise”.
9. I heard a Fly buzz– when I died (1862)
I heard a Fly buzz– when I died–
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm–
The Eyes around– had wrung them dry–
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset– when the King
Be witnessed– in the Room–
I willed my Keepsakes– Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable– and then it was
There interposed a Fly–
With Blue– uncertain– stumbling Buzz–
Between the light– and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see–
This death poem treads some of Dickinson’s favorite thematic ground, but with a considerably more caustic wit than many of her other pieces. After all, its speaker isn’t a soul shedding her cloak of mortality — it’s a corpse.
Compared to some of her other works, this piece presents death in a way that feels irreverent, almost slapstick. Dying is a succession of distinctly undignified details: dimming vision, buzzing fly, and cried-out mourners waiting for the will to be ironed out.
This is a calm and canny corpse, reflecting on its own condition with characteristic Dickinsonian detachment. But it’s not headed to eternity or transcendence — it’s bound for the dirt of the grave.
10. It was not Death, for I stood up (1862)
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down–
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos– crawl–
Nor Fire– for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool–
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine–
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like Midnight, some–
When everything that ticked– has stopped–
And Space stares– all around–
Or Grisly frosts– first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground–
But, most, like Chaos– Stopless– cool–
Without a Chance, or Spar–
Or even a Report of Land–
To justify– Despair.
In this poem, Dickinson’s anguished persona coolly observes her own mental and emotional state. What follows is a sort of negative theology of pain — an attempt to get at what it is by naming what it’s not, the way religious thinkers have sometimes tried to describe the nature of God.
The speaker is tormented by hopelessness that tastes like night and death, frost and fire, all while leaving her feeling at once trapped and unmoored. Through this poem’s precise and pitiless rendering of a mind in torment, Dickinson cements her status as a skilled diagnostician of the human spirit.
11. Before I got my eye put out (1862)
Before I got my eye put out–
I liked as well to see
As other creatures, that have eyes–
And know no other way–
But were it told to me, Today,
That I might have the Sky
For mine, I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me–
The Meadows– mine –
The Mountains– mine –
All Forests– Stintless stars–
As much of noon, as I could take–
Between my finite eyes–
The Motions of the Dipping Birds–
The Morning’s Amber Road–
For mine– to look at when I liked,
The news would strike me dead–
So safer– guess– with just my soul
Opon the window pane
Where other creatures put their eye –
Incautious– of the Sun–
Dickinson scholars have made much of the poet’s bad eyes. Light-sensitive and prone to ache, they even impeded her ability to read and write — driving her to see Boston’s leading ophthalmologist when she was in her 30’s. While she never had an eye “put out” like the unfortunate speaker here, it’s still tempting to read this poem autobiographically.
Images of sight — and light — illuminate Dickinson’s entire oeuvre, but they’re never more explicit than here. In the voice of someone who was blinded, the poem spins out a what-if scenario. It concludes that being restored to physical sightedness would overwhelm the speaker, who has learned instead to perceive through the soul.
12. After great pain, a formal feeling comes (1862)
After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs–
The stiff Heart questions "was it He, that bore,
And "Yesterday, or Centuries before"?
The Feet, mechanical, go round–
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–
A Quartz contentment, like a stone–
This is the Hour of Lead–
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the snow–
First– Chill– then stupor– then the letting go–
One of Dickinson’s finest works on the level of craft, this bright icicle of a poem demonstrates her affinity for psychological realism and her unparalleled skill at rendering the nuances of difficult emotions. With crystalline diction and finely faceted detail, the poem describes not grief, but the numb disorientation that follows it.
It pays unflinching attention to the physicality of feeling — what pain of the psyche does to the benumbed body, rendered in the coldly tactile language of lead, quartz, and snow. The poem also succinctly captures the weird temporality of grief — how it plays tricks on memory, how it knocks time askew.
These 13 unforgettable lines prove that Dickinson was one of the best poetic cartographers in the game, capable of mapping the psyche no matter how inhospitable its terrain.
13. Because I could not stop for Death (1863)
Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
We slowly drove– He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility–
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess– in the Ring–
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain–
We passed the Setting Sun–
Or rather– He passed Us–
The Dews drew quivering and Chill–
For only Gossamer, my Gown–
My Tippet– only Tulle–
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground–
The Roof was scarcely visible–
The Cornice– in the Ground–
Since then– 'tis Centuries– and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity–
This balladic piece shows off the poet’s chops as a storyteller — tellingly, it’s been set to music by both classical and folk artists. The poem narrates a soul’s passage into death — and the eternal thereafter.
Despite shivering in her thin clothes, Dickinson’s dying woman faces her own demise with a clear-eyed fearlessness that shades into passivity: though full of keen observations, she asks no questions and makes no demands.
Death, personified as a country gentleman, is notable for his slow carriage and courteous manners. According to the Dickinson biographer Thomas H. Johnson, this polite and trustworthy Death deserves to be seen as “one of the great characters of literature.”
14. My Life has stood– a Loaded Gun (1862-64)
My Life had stood– a Loaded Gun
In Corners– till a Day
The Owner passed– identified
And carried Me away
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods
And now We hunt the Doe
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through
And when at Night– Our good Day done
I guard My Master's Head
'Tis better than the Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow– to have shared
To foe of His– I'm deadly foe
None stir the second time
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye
Or an emphatic Thumb
Though I than He– may longer live
He longer must– than I
For I have but the power to kill
Without–the power to die
This enigmatic poem, with its evocative storytelling and explosive imagery, has spawned sheaves of analysis, often by feminist critics. Is it about the instrumentalization of women, treated as possessions by the men in their lives? Is it about rage, or the longing for a purpose — and the emptiness of living without one?
The “Master” in the poem — the hunter wielding the speaker’s loaded — might be a lover, a father, or a God. It’s precisely the poem’s interpretive ambiguity that allows it to linger in your mind, like the memory of a gunshot’s powder and sound.
15. Tell all the truth but tell it slant (1868)
Tell all the truth but tell it slant–
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind–
A master of epigram, Dickinson opens this poem with a line worthy of a modern-day motto. “Tell all the truth but tell it slant“ begs to be embroidered on a sampler or slapped, tongue-in-cheek, on a politician’s bumper sticker.
But you don’t have to read this verse as an endorsement of polite spin-doctoring. For Dickinson, poetry itself was a way of telling the truth at a slant. She presented her wry observations on death, grief, and longing in stained-glass language, as colorful as it is opaque. But the more you read it, the more the light of meaning shines through — dazzling you gradually.
Emily Dickinson may have died in 1886, but there are plenty of literary women keeping her legacy alive. For more original language and sharp insight, check out this round-up of our 9 favorite contemporary women writers!