Study Questions for Dickinson
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Numbers refer to Poem Numbers 

216. What does the first stanza suggest about the "experience" of death. Why do you think 
Dickinson chose, and what is suggested by, the following words: "Safe"; "untouched"; "meek," "members"? Does the poem affirm or challenge the traditional Puritan view of death? Hint:  
Matthew 5:5: "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth." 

   In both versions of the poem, how does the second stanza differ in focus from the first? What 
is the effect of this contrast between the first and second stanzas? 
How does the 1861 second stanza differ from that of 1859? Which do you prefer and why?

 


 
258. What comparison does the first stanza make. What is unusual or confusing about the 
comparison? What image (mental picture or impression) is foremost in your mind at the  
end of the first stanza? What words in the first stanza have a positive connotation? Which are 
neutral? Which have a negative connotation? What feeling registers most strongly at the end 
of the stanza? 

   In the second stanza, what is contradictory about the expression "Heavenly Hurt"? What is 
Dickinson trying to express through this apparent contradiction? What effect does this hurt 
have? How could a "Slant of light" hurt? 

   In the third stanza, what does "it" refer to? Compare the expression "imperial affliction" to 
the earlier expression "Heavenly hurt." 

   Fourth stanza. What is "it"? What is "the Distance/ On the look of Death"? What effect does 
Dickinson's placement of dashes (--) have on the meaning?

 
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328. Notice the meter (rhythm) of this poem. Count the syllables (stressed and unstressed) in 
each line. Which line in each stanza is different? Which stanza in the poem is different 
from the others? 

   Now relate the structure to the meaning. What happens in the stanza that is structurally 
different? Does what the stanza describes indicate a change or development in the meaning of 
the poem? 

   How does the final stanza bring the poem to a new level? What metaphors does it use? What 
are "Banks of Noon"? 

   Study Dickinson's skillful and playful language. What pun is she making with the word "Grass" 
(stanza 2)? What does "Like one in danger, Cautious," modify (stanza 4)? What rhymes do you 
find? What near (or "slant") rhymes are there? What rhymes, alliterations, and phonetic 
correspondences does Dickinson make using words in the middle of lines in stanzas 2, 3, and 4?

 

 
341. What kind of "great pain" is implied by the first line? What is the "formal feeling" Dickinson describes? How does the imagery of the poem ("ceremonious, like Tombs"; "Quartz contentment") illustrate this formal feeling? 

What parallels might be drawn between the steps of the final line"Chill," "Stupor," "letting go" 
and the three stanzas of the poem?  

What purpose do the dashes (--) serve in the final stanza? 

How does the metrical structure of each stanza differ? Can you find any purpose in the meter  
of this poem?



 
448. In the first line: what is "This"? "It"? "That"? Can we say? Why is the first verb past tense  
and the second present tense? 

Who is "Us"? 

In what sense does the poet "Entitle Us by Contrast--/ To ceaseless PovertyŚ"? 

Who is "so unconscious" of "Portion"? Are there different possibilities? What "Robbing" 
is going on? (Who is robbing whom of what?) 

Think carefully about Dickinson's choice of the following words: "distills," "Arrested," "Entitles," "Robbing"? What metaphors are implied by these words? What relationships exist between them? 


465.  It is helpful in reading this poem to be aware of two aspects of the Puritan tradition that  
persisted through Dickinson's day. First, keeping watch at a deathbed was standard practice.  
Close scrutiny of the process of dying, and of the corpse, was considered a perfectly natural  
and healthy activity that would advance the spiritual state of the spectator. Second, in  
Dickinson's time there were many popular poems describing death sentimentally and  
devotionally as a difficult but ultimately redemptive passage to heaven. For example, here  
is a description of a dying eye from "The Lost Sister" by Dickinson's popular contemporary  
Lydia Sigourney: 

It's gathered film 

Kindled one moment with a sudden glow 

Of tearless agony,--and fearful pangs, 

Racking the rigid features, told how strong 

A mother's love doth root itself. One cry 

Of bitter anguish, blent with fervent prayer, 

Went up to Heaven,--and, as it cadence sank 

Her spirit entered there. 

Quoted in Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul's Society  
(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1984) 58.  

How is Dickinson's poem similar to Sigourney's? How is it markedly different?  


632.  Focus especially on the final stanza. What is the difference between "Syllable" and "Sound"  
and what does this difference say about the relationship between the brain and God? 


640.  What is the poem's persona giving up and why? 

In view of the footnote about the sexton's several duties, in what sense might life be something  
that the sexton puts up on a shelf like a cup? 

How do the speaker and her lover each seem to stand in regard to religion?  

In what sense is "Despair" a "White Sustenance"?  


712.  What is the conceit (extended metaphor) in this poem? 

What are the respective roles of the woman and the man in the particular relationship  
described in this conceit? 

How does the narrator manipulate perspectives of time and space, and why? 
 


754. What is the identity of the speaker in this poem? Is it possible to read the entire poem as a little story told from the perspective of a gun? If so, what is the relationship of the gun to its owner? One problem with this interpretation is that in the first line the speaker identifies her "Life" with a "Loaded Gun," a metaphor that would seem to rule out the possibility that she is herself a gun (A gun, if it could talk, would say, "I am a gun," not "My life is a gun."). Thus the reader is sent searching for the thing whose life the gun merely represents. What could this thing (idea, concept, entity, person, etc.) be? Use your imagination, but remember that whatever it is, it would need to be able (if it could talk) to sensibly say everything that the speaker says.  
 

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