The Poet at Work

Fascicle 84

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Dickinson's Fascicle 84

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When, where, and how did Emily Dickinson put pen (or pencil—she used both) to paper to create her work?

Material evidence, such as envelopes and other scrap paper, suggests that Dickinson wrote down ideas for poems wherever she was inspired—in the kitchen or outdoors, for example—but contemporary accounts indicate that her formal writing was done in her bedroom, a place that, as she once described to her niece Martha, afforded her "freedom." (Bianchi, p. 66).

Located in the southwest corner on the second floor at the Homestead, the poet's bedroom included a small work table with a single drawer. There, she could work late into the night on her poetry and letters.

Niece Martha described her aunt's "way of writing" as taking place not only "upstairs in her own room, watching with her plants lest they freeze in zero midnights," but also "by the little table in the dining-room" (Bianchi, p. 60). From the dining room Dickinson could see the plants in her conservatory.

Other relatives recalled hearing Dickinson compose her poems aloud. Her cousin Louisa remembered: "I know that Emily Dickinson wrote most emphatic things in the pantry, so cool and quiet, while she skimmed the milk; because I sat on the footstool behind the door, in delight, as she read them to me" (Scharnhorst, p. 485, as quoted in Woman's Journal 1904).

More typically, Dickinson shared poems with family and friends through correspondence. After her death, her survivors were surprised to find that the poet had kept even more of her work private.  Among her papers were forty handmade booklets (now referred to as "fascicles") in which she gathered more than 800 of her poems.

Works cited:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932.

Scharnhorst, Gary. "A Glimpse of Dickinson at Work." American Literature 57.3 (1985): 483-5.

The Manuscripts

Page from a fascicle

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

A page from one of Dickinson’s fascicles. The page on the right includes the poem “I heard a Fly buzz when I died.” Click here to enlarge

Emily Dickinson’s material legacy consists of about 2500 poem manuscripts and about 1000 letter manuscripts. For many poems Dickinson left more than one copy. She may have recorded it in a fascicle and also sent a copy to a friend, or she may have sent a copy to more than one recipient.

For other poems, no manuscript in Dickinson’s hand survives. Scholars must rely on transcripts of poems and letters made by others (such as her Norcross cousins) from the now-lost manuscripts.

Dickinson’s existing letters are thought to represent only about a tenth of her correspondence, but the range and scope of the surviving letters give scholars useful insights into her composition practice.

Fascicles and Other Methods of Recording Poetry

During Dickinson’s intense writing period (1858-1864), she copied more than 800 of her poems into small booklets, forty in all, now called “fascicles.” Dickinson made the small volumes herself from folded sheets of paper that she stacked and then bound by stabbing two holes on the left side of the paper and tying the stacked sheets with string.

Among her papers were fifteen unbound gatherings of poems, which scholar R. W. Franklin terms “sets.” The sets contain about 250 poems.

Letter to Helen Hunt Jackson

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Letter from Emily Dickinson to author Helen Hunt Jackson. Dickinson sent Jackson the poem “A Route of Evanescence.” Click here to enlarge

In addition to the fascicles and sets, Dickinson had other methods of recording her poetry. Dickinson sometimes copied poems onto individual sheets of paper. Folds in the paper may suggest that Dickinson intended to send it to a recipient but for whatever reason decided not to. R. W. Franklin refers to these as “record” or “retained” copies.

Poems in Letters

Dickinson shared about 500 of her poems with more than forty correspondents. She was particularly generous with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson; her correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson; her cousins Frances and Louisa Norcross; and family friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.

Poem fragment

Image: Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

A poem fragment  Click here to enlarge

This private form of distribution seems to have appealed to the poet more than did formal publication. Sometimes she sent the same poem to more than one reader, as in the example of “A Route of Evanescence,” which she shared with at least six recipients.

The format of the poems in letters varied. Often the poems were sent with a letter on separate sheets of paper. At other times Dickinson introduced the poem with a note on the same page. In still other cases, the line between letter and poem is more difficult to distinguish.


Among the most intriguing documents that Dickinson left to posterity are about 100 fragments or scraps. Some contain prose; others, poetry; some are without genre, what Dickinson scholar Marta Werner calls “extrageneric.” The papers are both literally scraps—torn or reused paper—and, more figuratively, fragments of partial ideas or less finished poems than appear in fascicles or other retained manuscripts.