Because of Emily Dickinson’s cryptic poetry, her privately led life, and the complicated circumstances of her early publication, researching Dickinson is both daunting and fascinating. This page is intended as a tool to navigate the resources now available to students studying Dickinson.
Emily Dickinson’s Life
When reading about Emily Dickinson, it is important to realize that little about her life is known for certain. Many biographies explore theories about different aspects of her life.
For general biographical information about Emily Dickinson visit the Biography of Emily Dickinson. On that page, there are also links to more detailed biographical information.
The Special Topics page has links useful for studying different aspects of Dickinson’s life: family and friends, interests (reading, gardening, cooking), her white dress, her death, and her love life.
Often, introductions to Emily Dickinson books can be good biographical resources.
A good detailed biography is
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1974. ISBN 978-0674530805
Other biographies include:
- Gordon, Lyndall. Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds. New York: The Viking Press, 2010. (puts forth a theory that Dickinson was epileptic, explores the effects of her brother’s affair) ISBN 978-0143119141
- Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001. ISBN 978-0812966015
- Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Greenwood Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0313322068
- Longsworth, Polly. The World of Emily Dickinson. New York: W.W. Norton, 1990. ISBN 978-0393316568
- Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdsmans Publishing Company, 1998. (focuses on Emily Dickinson’s complicated relationship with religion) ISBN 978-0802821270
- Whicher, George Frisbie. This Was a Poet: A Critical Biography of Emily Dickinson. 1938. Reprinted with an introduction by Richard Sewall by Amherst College Press, 1992. ISBN 978-0208019049
Since only about 10 of Dickinson’s 1789 poems were published during her life, the publication process was very complicated. Visit The Publication Question for information on Dickinson’s publication and links to more detailed pages on the subject.
Where can I find Emily Dickinson’s poems?
There is no complete source of Emily Dickinson's poems available on-line. You need an actual book (try your library!) in order to find them all and in order to have really accurate representations of her poems. If you look online and in some poetry anthologies, you will find many early versions of Dickinson’s poems that are no longer under copyright. However, these should usually not be used because they are largely inaccurate to what Dickinson actually wrote. (Her early editors made many changes to her work.)
You WILL now find several good on-line sources for Dickinson's manuscripts (the poems in her own handwriting). See below in the "Manuscripts" section below for more information.
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Reading Edition. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1999. (For most purposes, this edition is best. It gives one version of each poem, highly accurate to what Dickinson wrote.)ISBN 978-0674018242
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1998. (This contains the different versions that Dickinson created of each poem, along with information on the surviving manuscripts.) ISBN 978-0674676220
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas Johnson. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1955. (This is also recommended, though Franklin’s edition has replaced it as the authoritative book of Dickinson’s poetry. Also, Franklin’s dating of the poems is more accurate.) ISBN 978-0316184137
Note: Because Dickinson did not give her poems titles, both Franklin and Johnson give each poem a number, Fr preceding the number for Franklin and J preceding the number for Johnson. The poems are also referred to by their first line. For example, Fr466 and J657 are both the poem “I dwell in Possibility -”.
Where can I find Emily Dickinson’s letters?
- The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas Johnson and Theodora V. Ward. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1958. ISBN 978-0674526273
- Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters. Ed. Thomas Johnson. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1971. ISBN 978-0674250703
Note: The letters are numbered. When referring to a letter number, it is preceded by an L. For example, the letter written to T.W. Higginson on April 15th, 1862 is L260.
For more information on the letters, refer to the Emily Dickinson’s Letters page.
Especially because of the complicated publication history, it can be useful and interesting to look at facsimiles (photocopies) of Dickinson’s own hand-written poems and letters.
Also there is a print source for her “fascicles” (hand-bound fair copies of poems):
- The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R.W. Franklin. Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 1981. ISBN 9780674548282
Note: Dickinson’s handwriting is hard to read, so refer to a text version of her poems or letters.
The most recent editions (Franklin and Johnson) of Emily Dickinson's poetry and letters are still under copyright. These editions--The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin, 1998; The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson, 1955; and The Letters of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas Johnson, 1958--are considered the most authoritative and the best available editions in print of her work. Harvard University Press administers the copyright to these editions. If you are going to publish your paper, you can seek information about applying for permissions at Harvard University Press Permissions.
Early editions of Dickinson's work are now in the public domain. These editions include those edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the 1890s, as well as some of Martha Dickinson Bianchi's editions. If you plan to publish your work, in order to avoid copyright problems, check with Harvard University Press to find out whether the text you wish to cite remains under copyright. For a complete list of the major posthumous publications of Dickinson's work, go to Major Editions of Dickinson's Writings.
How can I understand Emily Dickinson’s poetry?
Remember that Dickinson’s poetry is often ambiguous, and there can be many reasonable interpretations of the same poem.
Visit Tips for Reading Dickinson’s Poetry.
Visit The Emily Dickinson Lexicon. It is an online dictionary that defines the words Dickinson uses in her poems and how she uses them.
A useful book that provides interpretations of a selection of Dickinson’s poems:
- Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-0674066380
Citing this Website
To cite the Emily Dickinson Museum website as a research source, please list the author as "The Emily Dickinson Museum." No single author is responsible for all content.
Visit the Frequently-Asked Questions page.
For further resources, visit the Emily Dickinson Museum’s Resources and Bibliography page.
Contact the Emily Dickinson Museum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-542-8161.
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