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Poem of the Week: Emily Dickinson’s “This is my letter to the world”

“. . . she lived a life, outwardly uneventful, inwardly dedicated to a ‘letter to the world’ that would express, in poems of absolute truth and of utmost economy, her concepts of life and death, of love and nature, and of what Henry James called ‘the landscape of the soul.'”

from Selected Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson

The poem numbered 441 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson as edited by Thomas H. Johnson is one of the 366 poems–#299-664–Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862. By other accounts, Dickinson wrote 356 poems that year. Either way, this number of poems is the most she had written in one year. After that year, her poetry writing and her face-to-face interactions dwindled. Following Johnson’s numbering system, if Emily Dickinson wrote a poem every day starting on January 1, she would have written #441 between May 10 and 12. (I am estimating that she wrote two poems a day at least once a week if she took Sundays off.) Whether this timing is significant or not, it falls within the time period that she was corresponding with Thomas Wentworth Higginson about whether her verses “breathed.” She sent her first letter to Higginson on April 15, 1862 with four poems, another three poems on April 25, and by June 7 she had decided that fame was not her fate. It is possible that she penned the lines for #441 between her second and third letters as she considered the possibility of publication. Perhaps her ponderings between these lines indicates why she was willing to accept Higginson’s assessment of her work, but that there was only now or never when it came to publishing her poetry. So, she didn’t do it. She didn’t desire it to be at the time of her death either. She shared her poems as she desired with friends, but not to the extent that anyone guessed at the volume of her work. In total, there are 1775 catalogued. The ones written between 1858 and 1865 are in fascicles Dickinson created herself in handstitched booklets. If she did not intend to traditionally publish her work, then in essence she self-published for herself. She wrote for her enjoyment and, my guess, because she couldn’t help herself from daily putting pen to paper.

Perhaps Emily Dickinson resigned herself to reclusive obscurity because she suspected the world would not judge her tenderly. At least, not at that time in history. How much more important that we be tender with Emily’s poems and her person. Let’s not be too hasty in our reading or in our assumptions about who she was and why she lived as she did. Let’s consider ourselves the friends she never had–or want to have–and be grateful that her poems have been shared with us–even if she were still to protest.


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!; from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Categories: poetry month

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