Emily Dickinson: Iambic Meter & Rhyme

Dickinson the Imp

emilydickinsonEmily Dickinson possessed a genius for figurative language and thought. Whenever I read her, I’m left with the impression of a woman who was impish, insightful, impatient, passionate and confident of her own genius. Some scholars  portray her as being a revolutionary who rejected (with a capital R) the  stock forms and meters of her day.

My own view is that Dickinson didn’t exactly “reject” the forms and meter. She wasn’t out to be a revolutionary.  She was impish and brilliant. Like Shakespeare, she delighted in subverting conventions and turning expectations upside down.This was part and parcel of her expressive medium. She exploited the conventions and expectations of the day, she didn’t reject them.

The idea that she was a revolutionary rejecting the tired prerequisites of form and meter certainly flatters the vanity of contemporary free verse proponents (poets and critics) but I don’t find it a convincing characterization. The irony is that if she were writing today, just as she wrote then, her poetry would probably be just as rejected by a generation steeped in the tired expectations and conventions of free verse.

The common meters of the hymn and ballad simply and perfectly suited her expressive genius. Chopin didn’t “reject” symphonies, Operas, Oratorios, Concertos, or Chamber Music, etc… his genius was for the piano. Similarly, Dickinson’s genius found a congenial outlet in the short, succinct stanzas of common meter.

The fact that she was a woman and her refusal to conform to the conventions of the day made recognition difficult (I sympathize with that). My read is that Dickinson didn’t have the patience for pursuing fame. She wanted to write poetry just the way she wanted and if fame mitigated that, then fame be damned.  She effectively secluded herself and poured forth poems with a profligacy bordering on hypographia. If you want a fairly succinct on-line biography of Dickinson, I enjoyed Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes.

The Meters of Emily Dickinson

Dickinson used various hymn and ballad meters.

Searching on-line, there seems to be some confusion of terms or at the  least their usage seems confusing to me. So, to try to make sense of it, I’ve done up a meter tree.


The term Hymn Meter embraces many of the meters in which Dickinson wrote her poems and the tree above represents only the basic four types.

If the symbols used in this tree don’t make sense to you, visit my post on Iambic Pentameter (Basics). If they do make sense to you, then you will notice that there are no Iambic Pentameter lines in any of the Hymn Meters. They either alternate between Iambic Tetrameter and Iambic Trimeter or are wholly in one or the other line length. This is why Dickinson never wrote Iambic Pentameter. The meter wasn’t part of the pallet.

Common Meter, by the way, is the meter of Amazing Grace, and Christmas Carol.

And then there is Ballad Meter – which is a variant of Hymn Meter.

I’ve noticed that some on-line sites conflate Common Meter and Ballad Meter. But there is a difference. Ballad Meter is less formal and more conversational in tone than Common Meter, and Ballad Meter isn’t as metrically strict, meaning that not all of its feet may be iambic. The best example I have found is the theme song to Gilligan’s Island:


Obviously the tone is conversational but, more importantly, notice the anapests. The stanza has the same number of feet as Common Meter, but the feet themselves vary from the iambic strictness of Common Meter. Also notice the rhyme scheme. Only the second & fourth line rhyme. Common Meter requires a strict ABAB rhyme scheme. The tone, the rhyme scheme, and the varied meter distinguish Ballad Meter from Common Meter.

For the sake of thoroughness, the following gives an idea of the many variations on the four basic categories of Hymn meter. Click on the image if you want to visit the website from which the image comes (hopefully link rot won’t set it). Examples of the various meters are provided there.


If you look at the table above, you will notice that many of the hymn and ballad meters don’t even have names, they are simply referred to by the number of syllables in each line. Explore the site from which this table is drawn. It’s an excellent resource if you want to familiarize yourself with the various hymn and ballad meters  Dickinson would have heard and been familiar with – and which she herself used. Note the Common Particular Meter, Short Particular Meter and Long Particular Meter at the top right. These are meters you will find in Dickinson’s poetry. Following is an example of Common Particular Meter. The first stanza comes from around 1830 – by J. Leavitte, the year of Dickinson’s Birth. This stuff was in the air. The second example is the first stanza from Dickinson’s poem numbered 313.  The two columns on the right represent, first, the number of syllables per line and, second, the rhyme scheme.


Short Particular Meter is the reverse of this. That is, its syllable count is as follows: 6,6,8,6,6,8 – the rhyme scheme may vary. Long Particular Meter is 8,8,8,8,8,8 – Iambic Tetrameter through and through – the rhyme schemes may vary ABABCC, AABCCB, etc…

The purpose of all this is to demonstrate the many metrical patterns Dickinson was exposed to – most likely during church services. The singing of hymns, by the way, was not always a feature of Christian worship. It was Isaac Watts, during the late 17th Century, who wedded the meter of Folk Song and Ballad to scripture. An example of a hymn by Watts, written in common meter, would be Hymn 105, which begins (I’ve divided the first stanza into feet):

Nor eye |hath seen, |nor ear |hath heard,
Nor sense |nor rea|son known,
What joys |the Fa|ther hath |prepared
For those |that love |the Son.

But the good Spirit of the Lord
Reveals a heav’n to come;
The beams of glory in his word
Allure and guide us home.

Though Watts’ creation of hymns based on scripture were highly controversial, rejected by some churches and meaures-of-possibilityadopted by others, one of the church’s that fully adopted Watts’ hymns was the  The First Church of Amherst, Massachusetts, where Dickinson  from girlhood on, worshiped. She would have been repeatedly exposed to Samuel Worcester’s edition of Watts’s hymns, The Psalms and Spiritual Songs where the variety of hymn forms were spelled out and demonstrated. While scholars credit Dickinson as the first to use slant rhyme to full advantage, Watts himself was no stranger to slant rhyme, as can be seen in the example above. In fact, many of Dickinson’s “innovations” were culled from prior examples. Domhnall Mitchell, in the notes of his book Measures of Possiblity emphasizes the cornucopia of hymn meters she would have been exposed to:


One more variation on ballad meter would be fourteeners. Fourteeners essentially combine the Iambic Tetrameter and Trimeter alternation into one line. The Yellow Rose of Texas would be an example (and is a tune to which many of Dickinson’s poems can be sung).


dickinson-book-coverAccording to my edition of Dickinson’s poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, these are the first four lines (the poem is much longer) of the first poem Emily Dickinson wrote. Examples of the form can be found as far back as George Gascoigne – a 16th Century English Poet who preceded Shakespeare. If one divides the lines up, one finds the ballad meter hidden within:

Oh the Earth was made for lovers
for damsel, and hopeless swain
For sighing, and gentle whispering,
and unity made of twain

All things do go a courting
in earth, or sea, or air,
God hath made nothing single
but thee in His world so fair!

How to Identify the Meter

The thing to remember is that although Dickinson wrote no Iambic Pentameter, Hymn Meters are all Iambic and Ballad Meters vary not in the number of metrical feet but in the kind of foot. Instead of Iambs, Dickinson may substitue an anapestic foot or a dactyllic foot.


So, if you’re out to find out what meter Dickinson used for a given poem. Here’s the method I would use. First I would count the syllables in each line. In the Dickinson’s famous poem above, all the stanzas but one could either be Common Meter or Ballad Meter. Both these meters share the same 8,6,8,6 syllabic line count – Iambic Tetrameter alternating with Iambic Trimeter. (See the Hymn Meter Tree.)

Next, I would check the rhyme scheme. For simplicity’s sake, I labeled all the words which weren’t rhyming, as X. If the one syllabically varying verse didn’t suggest ballad meter, then the rhyme scheme certainly would. This isn’t Common Meter. This is Ballad Meter. Common Meter keeps a much stricter rhyme scheme. The second stanza’s rhyme, away/civility is an eye rhyme. The third stanza appears to dispense with rhyme altogether although I suppose that one should, for the sake of propriety, consider ring/run a consonant rhyme. It’s borderline – even by modern day standards. Chill/tulle would be a slant rhyme. The final rhyme, day/eternity would be another eye rhyme.

It occurs to me add a note on rhyming, since Dickinson used a variety of rhymes (more concerned with the perfect word than the perfect rhyme). This table is inspired by a Glossary of Rhymes by Alberto Rios with some additions of my own. I’ve altered it with examples  drawn from Dickinson’s own poetry – as far as possible. The poem’s number is listed first followed by the rhymes. The numbering is based on The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson.



perfect rhyme, true rhyme, full rhyme

  • 1056 June/moon

imperfect rhyme, slant rhyme, half rhyme, approximate rhyme, near rhyme, off rhyme, oblique rhyme

  • 756 prayer/despair
    123 air/cigar
    744 astir/door

augmented rhyme – A sort of extension of slant rhyme. A rhyme in which the rhyme is extended by a consonant.bray/brave grow/sown

  • (Interestingly, this isn’t a type of rhyme Dickinson ever used, either because she was unaware of it or simply considered it a rhyme “too far”.)

diminished rhyme – This is the reverse of an augmented rhyme. brave/day blown/sow stained/rain

  • (Again, this isn’t a technique Dickinson ever uses.)

unstressed rhymeRhymes which fall on the unstressed syllable (much less common in Dickinson).

  • 345 very/sorry
    1601 forgiven/hidden prison/heaven

eye rhyme – These generally reflect historical changes in pronunciation. Some poets (knowing that some of these older rhymes no longer rhyme) nevertheless continue to use them in the name of convention and convenience.

  • 712 day/eternity (See Above)
    94 among/along

identical “rhyme” – Which really isn’t a rhyme but is used as such.

  • 1473
    Pausing in Front of our Palsied Faces
    Time compassion took
    Arks of Reprieve he offered us –
    Ararats – we took
  • 130 partake/take

rich rhymeWords or syllables that are Homonyms.

  • 130 belief/leaf

assonant rhyme – When only the vowel sounds rhyme.

  • 1348 Eyes/Paradise

consonant rhyme, para rhyme – When the consonants match.

  • 744 heal/hell
    889 hair/here

feminine para rhyme – A two syllable para rhyme or consonant rhyme.

scarce rhymeNot really a true category, in my opinion, since there is no difference between a scarce rhyme and any other rhyme except that the words being rhymed have few options. But, since academia is all about hair-splitting, I looked and looked and found these:

  • 738 guess/Rhinoceros (slant rhyme)
    1440 Mortality/Fidelity (extended rhyme)
    813 Girls/Curls (true rhyme)

macaronic rhyme – When words of different languages rhyme. (This one made me sweat. Dickinson’s world was her room, it seems, which doesn’t expose one to a lot of foreign languages. But I found one! As far as I know, the first one on the Internet, at least, to find it!)

  • 313 see/me/Sabachthani (Google it if you’re curious.)

trailing rhyme –  Where the first syllable of a two syllable word rhymes (or the first word of a two-word rhyme rhymes). ring/finger scout/doubter

  • (These examples aren’t from Dickinson and I know of no examples in Dickinson but am game to be proved wrong.)

apocopated rhyme – The reverse of trailing rhyme. finger/ring doubter/scout.

  • (Again, I know of no examples in Dickinson’s poetry.)

mosaique or composite rhymeRhymes constructed from more than one word. (Astronomical/solemn or comical.)

  • (This also is a technique which Dickinson didn’t use.)



one syllable rhyme, masculine rhyme – The most common rhyme, which occurs on the final stressed syllable and is essentially the same as true or perfect rhyme.

  • 313 shamed/blamed
    259 out/doubt

light rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with a secondary stress – one of Dickinson’s most favored rhyming techniques and found in the vast majority of her poems. This could be considered a subset of true or perfect rhyme.

  • 904 chance/advance
    416 espy/try
    448 He/Poverty

extra-syllable rhyme, triple rhyme, multiple rhyme, extended rhyme, feminine rhyme – Rhyming on multiple syllables. (These are surprisingly difficult to find in Dickinson. Nearly all of her rhymes are monosyllabic or light rhymes.)

  • 1440 Mortality/Fidelity
    809 Immortality/Vitality
    962 Tremendousness/Boundlessness
    313 crucify/justify

wrenched rhyme – Rhyming a stressed syllable with an unstressed syllable (for all of Dickinson’s nonchalance concerning rhyme – wrenched rhyme is fairly hard to find.)

  • 1021 predistined/Land



end rhyme, terminal rhyme – All rhymes occur at line ends–the standard procedure.

  • 904 chance/advance
    1056 June/moon

initial rhyme, head rhyme – Alliteration or other rhymes at the beginning of a line.

  • 311 To Stump, and Stack – and Stem –
  • 283
    Too small – to fear –
    Too distant – to endear –
  • 876
    Entombed by whom, for what offense

internal rhyme – Rhyme within a line or passage, randomly or in some kind of pattern:

  • 812
    It waits upon the Lawn,
    It shows the furthest Tree
    Upon the furthest Slope you know
    It almost speaks to you.

leonine rhyme, medial rhyme – Rhyme at the caesura and line end within a single line.

  • (Dickinson’s shorter line lengths, almost exclusively tetrameter and trimeter lines, don’t lend themselves to leonine rhymes. I couldn’t find one. If anyone does, leave a comment and I will add it.)


caesural rhyme, interlaced rhyme – Rhymes that occur at the caesura and line end within a pair of lines–like an abab quatrain printed as two lines (this example is not from Dickinson but one provided by Rios at his webpage)

  • Sweet is the treading of wine, and sweet the feet of the dove;
    But a goodlier gift is thine than foam of the grapes or love.
    Yea, is not even Apollo, with hair and harp-string of gold,
    A bitter God to follow, a beautiful God to behold?

(Here too, Dickinson’s shorter lines lengths don’t lend themselves to this sort of rhyming. The only place I found hints of it were in her first poem.)


By Position in the Stanza or Verse Paragraph

crossed rhyme, alternating rhyme, interlocking rhyme – Rhyming in an ABAB pattern.

  • (Any of Dickinson’s poems written in Common Meter would be Cross Rhyme.)

intermittent rhyme – Rhyming every other line, as in the standard ballad quatrain: xaxa.

  • (Intermittent Rhyme is the pattern of Ballad Meter and reflects the majority of Dickinson’s poems.)

envelope rhyme, inserted rhyme –  Rhyming ABBA.

  • (The stanza from poem 313, see above, would be an example of envelope rhyme in Common Particular Meter.)

irregular rhyme – Rhyming that follows no fixed pattern (as in the pseudopindaric or irregular ode).

  • (Many of Dickinson’s Poems seem without a definite rhyme scheme but the admitted obscurity of her rhymes – such as ring/run in the poem Because I could not stop for death – serve to obfuscate the sense and sound of a regular rhyme scheme. In fact, and for the most part, nearly all of Dickinson’s poems are of the ABXB pattern – the pattern of Ballad Meter . This assertion, of course, allows for a wide & liberal definition of “rhyme”. That said, poems like 1186, 1187 & 1255 appear to follow no fixed pattern although, in such short poems, establishing whether a pattern is regular or irregular is a dicey proposition.)

sporadic rhyme, occasional rhyme – Rhyming that occurs unpredictably in a poem with mostly unrhymed lines. Poem 312 appears to be such a poem.

thorn line – An un-rhymed line in a generally rhymed passage.

  • (Again, if one allows for a liberal definition of rhyme, then thorn lines are not in Dickinson’s toolbox. But if one isn’t liberal, then they are everywhere.)



broken rhyme – Rhyme using more than one word: 

  • 516 thro’ it/do it

(Rios also includes the following example at his website)

  • Or rhyme in which one word is broken over the line end:
    I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
    Dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing…

(I can find no comparable example in Dickinson’s poetry.)


Getting back to identifying meter (in Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for death) the final method is to scan the poem. The pattern is thoroughly iambic. The only individual feet that might be considered anapestic variants are in the last stanza. I personally chose to elide cen-tu-ries so that it reads cent‘ries – a common practice in Dickinson’s day and easily typical of modern day pronunciation. In the last line, I read toward as a monosyllabic word. This would make the poem thoroughly iambic. If a reader really wanted to, though, he or she could read these feet as anapestic. In any case, the loose iambs, as Frost called them, argue for Ballad Meter rather than Common Meter – if not its overall conversational tone.

The poem demonstrates Dickinson’s refusal to be bound by form. She alters the rhyme, rhyme scheme and meter (as in the fourth stanza) to suit the demands of subject matter. This willingness, no doubt, disturbed her more conventional contemporaries. She knew what she wanted, though, and that wasn’t going to be altered by any formal demands. And if her long time “mentor”, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, had been a careful reader of her poems, he would have known that she wouldn’t be taking advice.

If I think of anything to add, I’ll add it.

If this post has been helpful, let me know.

39 responses

  1. Didn’t realize anyone missed the meter in Dickinson until I read this. It did puzzle me that the books & essays I found didn’t talk about it. What a treat! So much fun! Can you direct me to anything you’ve written about how the music/rhythms of our time are reflected in poetry you enjoy, or don’t? Thanks so much for your work.


    • Can you direct me to anything you’ve written about how the music/rhythms of our time are reflected in poetry you enjoy, or don’t?

      You know, I think we would have to look long and hard before we found anything comparable in the poetry “of our times”. Nearly all of it is free verse which, by definition, avoids any sort of regular patterning or rhythms. There are free verse poets who go apoplectic when I write that, but look in any dictionary and it’s part of the definition. If they’re writing poetry with a regular pattern or rhythm, then they’re not writing free verse.

      That said, if you search among rappers and hang out at poetry jambs, you will hear lots of rhythm – the music and rhythms of our time.

      In my experience, though, it never seems to translate to the page. It needs a performer. It’s poetry and then something more. So it would be hard for me, I think, to dissect in the same way I can dissect a poem by Dickinson.

      Does that make sense?


  2. From the Last Poets through early hip-hop, rhythm & rhyme drew me in. Jazz & pop propped up the slammers & poetry jammers. I never scanned those predictable yet compelling slam melodies. Now I wonder whether they constituted changes rung on forms I should have known. It’s been a while. In 2010, “beats” have infiltrated pop music and every church seems to have a different musical style, many rather simple & pop. So I was curious if someone who studies & is aware of how musical rhythms influenced a poet in the 19th century had identified newer musical conventions that might have affected late 20th century or early 21st century poets.
    I also was hoping to hear about poets who you felt more or less successfully used newer rhythms & forms.
    The past ten years I’ve gone back to Auden & Dickinson, but never thought to study them as you have. I’ve also enjoyed reading Heather McHugh and Alice Fulton for their wordplay, imagery and very particular perspectives, without analyzing the underpinnings of their poems. Have you written about any living or recently living poets?


    • So I was curious if someone who studies & is aware of how musical rhythms influenced a poet in the 19th century had identified newer musical conventions that might have affected late 20th century or early 21st century poets.

      And it’s a very interesting subject. I would say that the one musical convention that has had the most influence on back-street poetry is rap – but so much of this , if not all of it, is performance poetry. It doesn’t sit well on the page. And the poetry that interests me is the poetry that does all its work on the page (not because I think it’s better or purer but because that’s what interests me). Dickinson wasn’t so much influenced by the music, but by the meter and rhyme scheme required by the different hymns. There is no single rhythm or rhyme scheme in rap – rap, I think, is accentual rather than accentual syllabic. There may be some examples of accentual syllabic rap, but I can’t think of any. So, it would be very difficult to write the same sort of post for performance poetry. I’m not sure it could be done. So much depends on the performer…

      I also was hoping to hear about poets who you felt more or less successfully used newer rhythms & forms.

      But that’s the thing… contemporary poets (not lyricists or performance poets) are almost universally free verse poets and deliberately avoid newer rhythms and forms. However, that said, there are thousands of poets and I think it’s virtually impossible to be acquainted with them all. There may be some modern poets comparable to Dickinson, but I don’t know about them. Elizabath Alexander, who read at Obama’s inauguration, purportedly wrote a poem based on the African Praise Song (from what region the form originates, I don’t know), but the poem could hardly be called rhythmic or song-like. It was a dud and was based on an ancient rather than modern form. That’s the only example I can think of – that’s recent.

      Have you written about any living or recently living poets?

      No. Though I’ve been meaning to write up a poem by Ferlinghetti. I’m sorry to say, I just don’t find living or recently living poets (those I’m familiar with) to be all that interesting. On my Philosophy page, I write that:

      My bias is in favoring poetry that is written in meter, that uses form, or that plays with language in ways that separate poetry from prose – rhetoric, imagery, simile, metaphor, conceit, rhyme, meter. And my preference is to call this kind of poetry Traditional Poetry.

      And that:

      Free verse has all the advocates it needs.

      Which I think is true. However, I’m not dogmatic about it. If anyone introduces me to a modern poet who fuses rhythm (pattern & form) in new and novel ways, I’ll be as enthusiastic as anyone. Take a look at Annie Finch’s poetry. I wrote a review of her poetry and much of it is very chant-like. It’s not based on “newer rhythms & forms” but it’s new in the sense that she explores rhythms that other poets have overlooked. Take a look and tell me what you think.


  3. I wanted to thank you for the wealth of information and insight on your website. I am a 56 year old minstral of sorts. I had become smitten by Emily Dickinson and have been trying to understand why. I was seeking to learn about Common Hymn Meter and found this gold mine. I have written a few songs and poems, but without any method to the madness. You have given me tools I knew nothing about. Thanks for sharing your gift. I will continue to study your post and read your poems. Thanks!


  4. This is so well done. I’m an English teacher at an IB school, and I’m just learning WordPress myself. I see the potential now! Your explanations are crystal clear; my students will find this page invaluable.


    • Thanks for the comment Anon. It’s taken me a while to more fully appreciate WP’s potential. Glad you like the article on Dickinson. It was as much for my own education as anyone else’s. :-)


  5. Pingback: The Sheaves by Edwin Arlington Robinson « PoemShape

  6. Thanks for the information, it’s all really clear and was very helpful in allowing me to establish my own ideas about Dickinson’s poetry and to evaluate her use of meter – a really thorough and thoughtful essay, thankyou =)


  7. Pingback: On the subject of Rhyming « PoemShape

  8. A well done analysis of rhyme and meter. Thank you.
    I just recently re-discovered poetry after, say, 40 years since college and English 101. Actually, I recalled Frost’s “the secret sits in the middle and knows” and thought it was Dickinson. I bought the Complete Dickinson and read all the poems, (mostly) and did not find that poem, but had a good time of reading Emily.
    I read a note about E. Dickinson (probably Wikipedia) which I liked and agree. “Emily did poetry like most women of the time did embroidery.” That is, without thought of fame, or any other motives other than just something to keep busy. I feel that reading Emily is like reading her diary – with innermost thoughts, revealing her soul. It is, you know. Most of her writing probably were never shown to anyone, until after her death. Or so I am informed.
    Your last comment – my comment – “…Dickinson’s refusal to be bound by form. She alters the rhyme, rhyme scheme and meter…”. Well, if so, why the scholarly analysis of rhyme and meter here – Emily is not bound by it so why bother? Perhaps you can find others who color inside the lines and analyse them, perhaps?


    • Thanks Beruch, I’m not an expert on Dickinson, but I would strongly disagree with the Wikipedia quote. I could be wrong, but (on the face of it) the quote sounds very patronizing and dismissive. It might have been true for some (and men too) but many women were quite ambitious, and Dickinson esp. so. The problem (and I confess it’s one that I share) is that Dickinson really didn’t have patience for the aesthetic myopia of her era. The one editor whom she contacted immediately wanted her to edit her poetry according to the Victorian standards of the day. Dickinson would have none of it. Rather than compromise her artistic integrity, she chose obscurity. I think that it pained her, but writing in accordance with her own standards was the greater peace.

      //Well, if so, why the scholarly analysis of rhyme and meter here – Emily is not bound by it so why bother?//

      Because if she had been bound by the standards of the day, few (if any) of her poems would have been possible. It’s one thing to write free verse, which has less to do with poetry than prosetry, but entirely another to take a fairly rigid form and work freely within it. That makes things interesting. If Dickinson had written free verse, her poems would be much less memorable. It’s in the balance between structure and the breaking of structure that Dickinson’s genius emerges — in my opinion. :-)


  9. I think that an equivalent situation would be if a woman of the 1850’s would paint like Picasso or Chagal. Of course, in those days, everyone would think the paintings were scribble and childish. Only years later would the genius be recognized. Perhaps there are paintings in a box in a barn somewhere in the midwest by some farm-wife in the 19th century, that would be now recognized as genius.
    Would our imaginary painter have realized her own genius? Or would she have painted just for enjoyment and not ambitious? I opine the latter is the case with Emily. Is there any evidence to describe her with the word “ambitious”? If she really wanted to be published, and famous, she could have slanted her poetry to the times.
    To repeat (or just cut and paste) I feel that reading Emily is like reading her diary – with innermost thoughts, revealing her soul. So, the best proof is the poetry itself. If she was ambitious, she would say so. Could you write that much, and be that good, and not have the real you come thru, to open your soul to the world? Therefore, from reading her, I think that she was writing for her own pleasure, and not for fame.
    On a different slant, I think that I have noticed, that except for the very early poems, Emily always capitalizes her metaphors.


    • Since so little is known of Dickinson’s inner life, you may be absolutely right in your conjecture. I guess my own opinion is based on intuition and just a little bit of evidence. We know that Dickinson sent over a 100 poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Here’s how the brief bio at the Emily Dickinson Museum puts it:

      Higginson had a long association with the Atlantic Monthly, contributing a number of articles, essays and poems. In the April 1862 issue, he published “Letter to a Young Contributor,” in which he encouraged and advised aspiring writers. Within a month, he received a note from Emily Dickinson, then 31 years old, along with four poems, thus beginning a relationship that was to last until the poet’s death in 1886.

      Within a month… this doesn’t sound like a poet stitching glorified placemats. Dickinson was also friends with Samuel Bowles, editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican. Bowles, single handedly, could have elevated Dickinson’s reputation. They were genuinely friends, I think; but I also intuit a little design behind her friendship. Unfortunately, Bowles’ taste in poetry seems to have been fairly conventional and uninspired. I think, for that reason, Dickinson never took advantage of the friendship as she might have. But that she was friends with two such potentially formidable allies tells me she was not without ambition.

      I sympathized with her. I think she deeply resented rejection. That’s a hard trait to mix with ambition, I know.


  10. Excellent page. I have recently learnt ‘Exultation is the going’ by heart and sing it to the Sacred Harp tune Beach Spring. I would like to know if anyone else has found a good matching tune for poems by Emily. I can’t find a tune for ‘I reason: Earth is short’ (metre 6644).

    On her life, Lyndall Gordon’s brilliant book ‘Lives like Loaded Guns’ suggests she had epilepsy. I find this convincing.


    • Hi Emma, I haven’t read the book, but I’ve heard this supposition elsewhere and I agree that it might explain a few things.

      Don’t think I can help you with a tune. A knowledge of folk music is just the thing for that, and that’s not the kind of music I really listen to. Probably a hymn tune — all of Dickinson’s poems, after all, are grounded on their meter. I wonder if she heard much other music? Maybe you need one of those hymn books?


  11. I feel as though I am years late to class here but what a wealth of information. A new perspective for me on E.D. who I tend to read aloud with no analysis of her use of any kind of meter. It makes sense of course that she would write in a hymn-like way. No matter what she’s writing about its that familiar rhythm that elevates her words to a sacred level. “The Grass so little has to do- A Sphere of simple Green- With only Butterflies to brood And Bees to entertain-”

    A worthy, smart site.


    • Thanks Peter. The posts may be old, but I always try to respond. Glad you liked the post on E.D.. :-) She must have sung lots of hymns in her lifetime, though I wonder as to how “religious” she really was.


  12. Thank you for the excellent discussion of meter in Dickinson. I’ve taught Dickinson in my university literature courses for many years, and admired her genius for decades before that. I’ll just offer a few of my own observations:

    1) While I much appreciate your detailed breakdown of hymn meter, common measure, and ballad meter, any discussion of Dickinson’s use of form must acknowledge how she uses dashes to disrupt those forms. If one reads her work aloud without pausing at the dashes, it does become somewhat sing-song, which in no way suits her topics or the depth of her insights. The dashes are most significant when they represent what I call atemporal breaks, which are moments in her poems when a potentially vast amount of time could have passed without change.

    For example, the suffering — specifically the thought that she was going mad — she describes in #340 (“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”) is not something she dealt with in an afternoon or day. When she writes, “Kept treading — treading” and “Kept beating — beating” she is describing an ongoing agony. When she writes, “Wrecked, solitary, here — / And then a plank in Reason, broke” that collapse of her rational mind comes as an inestimable mercy after some long period of torment. If a reader just plows through those dashes as if they don’t exist, we lose all of that.

    Similarly, #588 describes an entire lifetime in eight lines:

    The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
    And then — excuse from Pain —
    And then — those little anodynes
    That deaden suffering —

    And then — to go to sleep
    And then — if it should be
    The will of it’s Inquisitor
    The privilege to die —

    Every time we hit a dash, years might pass. But of course in retrospect, it’s an eye-blink, and she insists that we all end up in the same place eventually. And note that the poem ends not with death, but with begging for death, followed by another dash: one might end up begging a long time.

    One way Dickinson was truly revolutionary is that she found a way to make silence part of her poems. Usually silence surrounds a poem, but with Dickinson, it’s part of the text — and sometimes the poem continues even after it can no longer be spoken. That’s why Hart Crane, in his poem to her, called her “sweet, dead Silencer.”

    2) Dickinson had great faith in her own poetic genius, especially during the time when she was writing hundreds of poems per year. (She slowed down dramatically after 1865.) We can see the evidence in her poems. Of course, most people know #519 (Franklin numbering), which begins “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to me” but ends with her addressing future “countrymen,” which at least implies she believes her works will be read. But even better evidence is #448:

    I died for Beauty — but was scarce
    Adjusted in the Tomb
    When One who died for Truth, was lain
    In an adjoining Room —

    He questioned softly “Why I failed”?
    “For Beauty”, I replied —
    And I — for Truth — Themselves are One —
    We Bretheren, are”, He said —

    And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night —
    We talked between the Rooms —
    Until the Moss had reached our lips —
    And covered up — Our names —

    Keats, of course, was the poet who said (or more accurately had the Grecian urn say) that Truth and Beauty are the same thing. Keats was also Dickinson’s favorite poet — she had remarkably good taste. Like Dickinson, Keats had labored in obscurity (not as obscure as Dickinson) during his life, but at the time she wrote this, more than forty years after his death, Keats was well on his way to being regarded as one of the greatest poets in the history of the English language.

    So here is Dickinson imagining that upon her death she will metaphorically be interred next to Keats, that Keats and she are “Kinsmen,” and that they will continue to talk with each other — which we can read as their works being in conversation with each other’s — until both of their names are covered up, meaning until both are forgotten. If believing that her name will last as long as Keats’s doesn’t express confidence in her own poetry’s power, nothing does.

    3) Regarding her religion: one can’t understand Dickinson’s religious thought without reading Emerson. Emerson, who himself was influenced by the English Romantics, sought spirit in nature, and his concept of an Oversoul is effectively a non-anthropomorphic, non-gendered, universal spirit. #236 “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –” is a fine expression of this idea. In contrast, when she writes about YHVH, she is highly critical; she regards him as something of a bully. Her comments on Christ are more sympathetic, but they involve a strange level of identification: he seems mostly a means for her to explain her own level of suffering.

    Note that Dickinson’s relationship with his sister-in-law Susan apparently broke down over Susan’s insistence that the Dickinsons, who had never been a conventionally religious family (they knew Emerson personally, and Emerson stayed at Austin Dickinson’s house when he lectured in Amherst), join the local church. Susan’s motivation appears to have been more social than religious — she was determined that she and her husband would be the leading citizens in Amherst. The rest of the Dickinsons went along, but Emily refused.

    4) Reading Dickinson and Walt Whitman side-by-side is fascinating. Both admired Emerson and were deeply influenced by his ideas. They were probably the two greatest poets the U.S. has ever produced. They were contemporaries, and lived a few hundred miles from each other, yet we have no evidence that either ever read the other’s work. Dickinson mentions in a letter that she was told Whitman was “obscene” (and though I’m not convinced that would have stopped her, they are so different I don’t think she would have liked him, at least initially), and almost none of Dickinson’s works were published until the last year or two of Whitman’s life, when he wasn’t doing much reading.

    What is fascinating is that they both start with Emerson and then take him in completely different directions, both philosophically and stylistically. Whitman is expansive; Dickinson is a miniaturist. Whitman expresses total confidence in his role as a poet, to the point where he intended “Leaves of Grass” to be a new American bible; Dickinson consciously avoided the limelight and was content with posthumous fame. They’re both magnificent, but they are like matter and anti-matter.


    • Hi Richard, thanks for that great addition to the post! Some questions:

      1.) I’m inclined to agree with you on her use of dashes. I’m curious though, is this simply your opinion, opinion you’ve inherited from others, or do we have some record of what Dickinson thought?

      2.) Inasmuch as any number of poets (and contemporaries of Dickinson) had “great faith in their poetic genius” (including me, by the way), and inasmuch as only a handful of them were right (and that may not include me), Dickinson’s self-confidence is only interesting insofar as she didn’t pursue recognition (in the shameless way that Whitman did, for example). My guess is that she didn’t handle rejection well, especially rejection graced with the self-anointed, benevolent presumption of the advice-giver. If so, then I get it. I really, really get it.

      3.) Interesting perspective on Dickinson’s religious outlook. I haven’t given it as much consideration, but based on her poetry I’d say she was of an independent mind (which is to say, she was more of a theist than a deist) and, as you say, there’s her identification with Christ.

      4.) How “content” was Dickinson, really, with “posthumous fame”? I wonder about that. I see some bitterness in the matter, and also that her output eventually suffered for the lack of recognition. What do we know from Dickinson? I have a biography of hers I’ve been meaning to read, it’s high time.


  13. I’m knew to this blogging and happy I stumbled across this. I love rhyming poetry and hate free verse. I hope to make rhyming popular again. I simply write poems that touches people hearts. I’m self taught and gotten better with age. I use the same rhyme schemes as Dickinson before I even knew who she was. Lol I look forward to reading more of your stuff.


    • The little secret is that rhyming poetry is still by far and away the most popular form of poetry—just look at rap, Mother Goose, or consider that the best selling books of poetry remain, primarily, books of metrical and rhyming poetry. :) Build your blog, and they will come. And isn’t that something that you picked up on Hymn Meter without even realizing it.


  14. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up in the church, but I’ve always had that affinity towards the meters of hymns. I never realized the relation between the niche that is hymn-writing, and Emily Dickinson, though I knew “I like to see it lap the miles” was C.M.


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