Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World


ENG 223: American Literature Before 1865

Lesson 15: Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World
Nov. 18-22, 2002


By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:

  • Describe the life and literary contributions of Emily Dickinson.
  • Interpret themes and other features in Dickinson’s poetry.
  • Define or identify relevant terms, names, and dates.


Before coming to class on Monday, you should complete the following assignments:


Read “Emily Dickinson” (2499-2503), 287, 315, 341, 441, 465.


Our class activities this week include the following:


Think Fast: Respond to 441 with a letter or poem back to Dickinson.

Presentation: Emily Dickinson’s Letters to the World (Professor Canada)

Cooperative Learning: Explicate one of the four poems you read for this week.

Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, my presentation, and cooperative learning.

Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.

Names and Terms

Make sure you know the meaning and significance of the following term:

  • slant rhyme


You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:


All American: Emily Dickinson features a biographical sketch of Dickinson, commentary on her literature, and a chronology of her life. 

Updated November 22, 2002
Mark Canada, 2002


We turn this week from one of the great American poets of the nineteenth century, Walt Whitman, to another, Emily Dickinson.


In one of her best-known poems, Emily Dickinson wrote: “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me—“ (1-2).  The words nicely capture Dickinson’s two opposite positions in the world of American literature.  During her life, she existed largely on the margins.  Unlike Whitman and Thoreau, she did not count Ralph Waldo Emerson among her friends or admirers.  She did not travel widely, as Herman Melville did.  She did not even publish many of her works in her lifetime.  It was only after her death that critics came to appreciate her unique genius and placed her at the center of American literature. Now, indeed, her poems do go out to “the World.”

Inspired partly by Emerson, Dickinson treated some of the same themes that he and other writers of the nineteenth century addressed in their work: nature, death, pain, love, separation.  Indeed, one feels that Dickinson may have had much in common with Whitman, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and even Edgar Allan Poe.  The reasons behind Dickinson’s relatively poor reception in her own life, however, may lie in her complex, unusual style, which is characterized by the use of dashes, slant rhyme, and ambiguous, elusive language.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily.  “441.”  The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson.  Ed. Thomas H. Johnson.  Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.  211.


Our next lesson is our last one.  We will wind up our tour of American literature with a look at Frederick Douglass.