1. Think about Dickinson’s descriptions of nature, such as in “A Bird came down the Walk” and “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.” What techniques does she use to create her indelible images? What makes poems such as these memorable despite their thematic simplicity?
Her main techniques are metaphor and a new and startling application of language; both techniques result in powerful images. In “A Bird came down the Walk,” Dickinson spectacularly closes the poem with a stanza equating flight through the air with movement through water, leading to the breathtaking line, “Butterflies, off Banks of Noon / Leap, splashless as they swim.” In “A narrow Fellow,” she uses surprising language to convey the impression of a snake moving (“It wrinkled, and was gone—”) and of her own chill on seeing the snake (“Zero at the Bone”). Thematically uncomplicated, Dickinson’s nature poems nevertheless describe important ways in which human beings interact with creatures of nature—:These creatures can shy from humanity, like the Bird, or pose a threat, like the Narrow Fellow. In both cases, Dickinson creates memorable poems by closely observing details of the physical world and by vividly generating new images in the mind.
2. Dickinson is often described as a poet of “inwardness.” What do you think this means? How does Dickinson convey the inner workings of the mind in a poem such as “I cannot live with You”?
To say that Dickinson is a poet of inwardness is simply to recognize that her own thoughts and feelings are her most important subjects; moreover, her treatment of them avoids all reference to the relevant social or philosophical issues of her day. In “I cannot live with You,” Dickinson shows the mind as it speculates painfully on what might have been (life with the beloved, death with the beloved, heaven with the beloved) even as it acknowledges that these will never be; Dickinson indicates the despair inherent in this knowledge with the repeated rhetorical construction, “I cannot . . . with You.” In the final stanza, Dickinson’s speaker is unable to confront the reality of her separation from her beloved, and her delicate metaphors reflect this (as in “the Door ajar / That Oceans are”). Ultimately, however, the speaker realizes that she cannot evade her predicament, and she ends her poem with the single word that summarizes her feelings: “Despair.”
3. Think about Dickinson’s tone. Does she seem to be writing for other people or only for herself? How might she universalize private feelings?
Though she was a reclusive individual and a poet of extraordinary inward depth, Dickinson’s poems are not simply private shorthand for her own thoughts; on the contrary, Dickinson tends to embody her own experience in universalizing language, implying two things: one, that other human beings will identify with her thoughts and feelings; and two, that her poetry will enable her audience to enter into and share her experience. Poetry, like letter-writing (she described her poems as “My letter to the World / That never wrote to Me”), was never a solitary endeavor for Dickinson; she always had a reader in mind, even though she did not publish during her lifetime. Her most common technique for universalizing her own experience is to present her observations in the form of homilies, short moral aphorisms, such as “Success is counted sweetest / By those who ne’er succeed.”
1. Compare and contrast two of Dickinson’s poems that deal with the subject of death. How does Dickinson portray the fact of death in a new and startling way in each? What are her apparent attitudes about dying?
2. Throughout her poetic career, Dickinson relied largely on a single, powerfully focused style and on a single set of formal characteristics for her poems. What are some of these characteristics? How might her style be described? What is the effect of this kind of uniformity on the work of a poet with so much imaginative range?
3. Dickinson’s poems often introduce an idea, then develop it with a sequence of metaphoric images. Name two examples of this kind of poem. What are some of her images? How do they work as metaphors?
4. Compare an early Dickinson poem (such as “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”) to a later one (such as “My life closed twice before its close”). How has her work changed? How has it remained the same? Did Dickinson experience much development as a poet as she grew older, or did her work largely remain the same?
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