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Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s Because I could not stop for Death

By NASRULLAH MAMBROL on July 5, 2020 • ( 0 )

One of Dickinson’s most famous and widely discussed poems, Fr 479 appeared in the first 1890 edition of her poems, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Higginson had given it the inappropriate title “The Chariot,” thinking, perhaps, of an image from classical times that survived in Victorian paintings of Apollo, patron of the arts, carrying the artist to heaven in his chariot. (Farr, Passion, 329). The editors seriously disfigured the poem by omitting the fourth stanza; and Mrs. Todd “improved on” the poet’s exact rhyme in stanza 3, rhyming “Mound” with “Ground” instead. Not until the publication of Johnson’s 1955 Poems were readers able to see the restored poem. Despite this, it had already been singled out as one of her greatest and continues to be hailed as a summary statement of her most important theme: death and immortality. As in all of Dickinson’s complex works, however, the language and structure of the poem have left readers plenty of room to find varying and sometimes sharply opposed interpretations. At one end of the spectrum are those who view the poem as Dickinson’s ultimate statement of the soul’s continuance; at the other end are those who see the poem as intrinsically ironic and riddled with doubt about the existence of an afterlife; in the middle are those who find the poem indisputably ambiguous.

Scholars have suggested that Dickinson’s carriage ride with Death was inspired by a biographical incident—the 1847 death of Olivia Coleman, the beautiful older sister of Emily’s close friend Eliza M. Coleman, who died of a tubercular hemorrhage while out riding in a carriage. But there are also abundant cultural sources for the image. The poem’s guiding metaphor of a young woman abducted by Death goes back to the classical myth of Persephone, daughter of Ceres, who is carried off to the underworld by Hades. In medieval times, “Death and the Maiden” was a popular iconographic theme, sometimes taking the form of a virgin sexually ravished by Death.


Doubtless aware of these traditions, Dickinson made of them something distinctly her own. Not only did she transplant the abduction to the country roads of her native New England, she transformed the female “victim,” not into a willing or even passionate lover of Death, but into an avid witness/participant in the mysterious transition from life to death, and from human time to eternity. The speaker never expresses any direct emotion about her abduction; indeed, she never calls it that. She seems to experience neither fear nor pain. On the other hand, there is no indication that she is enamored of Death: She is too busy to stop for him and it is he, the courtly suitor, who takes the initiative. But she does not resist. Death’s carrying her away is presented as a “civility,” an act of politeness. And she responds with equal good manners, putting away her labor and her leisure, too, that is, the whole of her life. What does draw her powerfully is the journey, which she observes and reports in scrupulous detail. The poem is her vehicle for exploring the question that obsessed her imagination: “What does it feel like to die?” Note that there is a third “passenger” in the carriage—“Immortality”—the chaperone who guarantees that the ride will have an “honorable” outcome. Immortality is a promise already present, as opposed to the “Eternity” of the final stanza, toward which the “Horses’ Heads” advance. Eternity is the ultimate transformation of time toward which the poem moves. In stanza 1, the speaker, caught up in this-worldly affairs, has no time for Death, but he slows her down. By stanza 2, she has adjusted her pace to his. Stanza 3, with its triple repetition of “We passed,” shows them moving in unison past the great temporal divisions of a human life: childhood (the children competing at school, in a ring game), maturity (the ripeness of the “Gazing Grain”) and old age (the “Setting Sun”). As the stages of life flash before the eyes of the dying, the movement of the carriage is steady and stately.

But with the pivotal first line of stanza 4, any clear spatial or temporal orientation vanishes; poem and carriage swerve off in an unexpected manner. Had the carriage passed the sunset, its direction—beyond earthly life—would have been clear. But the line “Or rather—He passed Us” gives no clear sense of the carriage’s movement and direction.

It is as if the carriage and is passengers are frozen in time. The sun appears to have abandoned the carriage—as reflected in the increasing coldness that envelops the speaker. She is inadequately dressed for the occasion, in “Gossamer,” which can mean either a fine filmy piece of cobweb or a flimsy, delicate material, and a “Tippet,” that is, a small cape or collar. While tippets were commonly made of fur or other substantial materials, this one is of “tulle”—the fine silk netting used in veils or gowns. All at once, the serenely observing speaker is a vulnerable physical presence, dressed for a wedding or ball, but “quivering” with a coldness that suggests the chill of the grave. A note of uneasiness and disorientation, that will only grow stronger from this point on, has been injected into what began as a self-assured journey. This is a stunning example of how “Dickinson, suddenly, midpoem, has her thought change, pulls in the reins on her faith, and introduces a realistic doubt” (Weisbuch, “Prisming”, 214).

In stanza 5, the carriage “pauses” at “a House that seemed/ A Swelling in the Ground—,” presumably the speaker’s newly dug grave. The word “Swelling” is ominous, suggesting an organic, tumorlike growth. But there is no unified physical picture of what the speaker sees. In line 2, the ground is swelling upward. In lines 3 and 4, the House has sunk; its cornice, the ornamental molding just below the ceiling, is “in the Ground.” The repetition of the word “Ground” stresses its prominence in the speaker’s consciousness. It is as if all her attempts to hold on to the things of this world—the children at school, the grain, the setting sun, the cobweb clothing, the shapeless swelling of a House—have culminated in this single relentless image.

Then, in a leap that takes us to the poem’s final stanza, the speaker is in a different order of time, where centuries feel shorter than the single day of her dying. This is the poem’s only “description” of Eternity and what it implies is that life is immeasurably denser, fuller, weightier. Eternity has no end, but it is empty. Significantly, in the speaker’s recollection of the final, weighty day, “Death” is not present. Instead, she invokes the apocalyptic vision of “the Horses’ Heads” (a synecdoche for the horses) racing toward Eternity. But, for the speaker, seated in Death’s carriage, the horses’ heads are also an obstruction, “they are all she can see, or what she cannot see beyond” (Cameron, “Dickinson’s Fascicles,” 156). They point to the fact that the poem is an artifice, an attempt to imagine what cannot be imagined. “Toward Eternity—” remains only a “surmised” direction.

FURTHER READING Sharon Cameron, “Dickinson’s Fascicles,” in Handbook, Grabher et al., eds., 149–150, 156, and Lyric Time, 121–133; Judith Farr, Passion, 92–93, 329– 33; Kenneth L. Privratsky, “Irony in Emily Dickinson’s ‘Because I could not . . .,’ ” 25–30; Robert B. Sewall, Life, II, 572, 717–718; and Cynthia Griffin Wolff, Emily Dickinson, 274–276; Robert Weisbuch, “Prisming,” Handbook, 216–217.

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Interesting Literature

10 of the Best Emily Dickinson Poems Everyone Should Read

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

So it is that we’ve taken it upon ourselves to suggest the ten best Emily Dickinson poems to begin with, as a way into her unique and wonderful world. Follow the title of the poem to read it – the top two links also provide an analysis of the selected poem. What do you think is the greatest Dickinson poem?

1. ‘ I’m Nobody! Who are you? ’.

I’m Nobody! Who are you? Are you – Nobody – too? Then there’s a pair of us! Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

A glorious celebration of anonymity, this poem beautifully showcases Dickinson’s individual style. It is actually quite nice to be a Nobody rather than a Somebody, and anonymity can actually be preferable to fame or public recognition.

This is a personal favourite and, to our mind, one of the finest Emily Dickinson poems in her entire oeuvre. Follow the link above to read the full poem and learn more about it.

2. ‘ I heard a Fly buzz – when I died ’.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm –

One of Dickinson’s best-known poems, this is one of several poems on this list which takes death as its theme. Death never seems to have been far from Emily Dickinson’s mind, and this poem, which muses upon the moment of death with everyone gathered around the speaker’s deathbed, also features a Dickinsonian favourite: the mysterious fly. Follow the link above to read the full poem.

3. ‘ Hope is the thing with feathers ’.

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –

In this poem, Dickinson likens hope to a singing bird, a ‘thing with feathers’ which ‘perches in the soul’. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it. Like ‘I’m Nobody!’, another oddly affirmative poem. Follow the link above to read this glorious Emily Dickinson poem in full.

4. ‘ The heart asks Pleasure – first ’.

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 its Inquisitor The liberty to die –

Its title memorably borrowed by composer Michael Nyman for his soundtrack to the 1993 film The Piano , this poem examines what one’s ‘heart’ most desires: pleasure, ideally (or first), but failing that, relief from pain. And if the ‘anodynes’ don’t work, then sleep or unconsciousness is desirable – and, failing that, death (yes, death again).

5. ‘ I felt a Funeral, in my Brain ’.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, And Mourners to and fro Kept treading – treading – till it seemed That Sense was breaking through –

This poem focuses on a different kind of death: the death of the mind, or the fear of going mad. It is, if you like, an elegy for the (imminent) death of reason, using the funeral as a powerful extended metaphor. This Emily Dickinson poem is about going mad, about losing one’s grip on reality and feeling sanity slide away – at least, in one interpretation or analysis of the poem.

In the first stanza, the poem’s speaker uses the metaphor of the funeral for what is going on inside her head (we will assume that the speaker is female here, though this is only surmise: Dickinson often uses male speakers in her poetry). Her sanity and reason have died, and the chaos inside her mind is like the mourners at a funeral walking backward and forward.

The insistent repetition of ‘treading – treading’ evokes the hammering and turbulence within the speaker’s brain. Follow the link above to read the poem in full.

6. ‘ I died for Beauty – but was scarce ’.

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 – Themself are one – We Brethren 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 –

In this short poem, reproduced in full above, Dickinson takes up the Keatsian double-act of Truth and Beauty, using – again – the speaker’s death to convey its central idea.

The speaker died for Beauty, but was placed in the tomb beside another person, who died for Truth. They are both the same, they conclude. A fine enigmatic poem, this.

7. ‘ Because I could not stop for Death ’.

Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality.

Yes, death again. Or rather, Death – the Grim Reaper, who calls to visit the speaker of this macabre poem. Death is not to be feared, the poem seems to say. Eternity isn’t so bad. This is a wonderfully surreal glimpse into Dickinson’s world – and, consequently, one of the finest Emily Dickinson poems.

This is a long poem by Emily Dickinson’s standards, so follow the link above to read it in full and to read our analysis of it.

8. ‘ My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun ’.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – In Corners – till a Day The Owner passed – identified – And carried Me away –

The image of the ‘Loaded Gun’ is used in this poem as an extended metaphor for bottled-up rage that builds up within, eventually finding an outlet. This anger has the power to kill, but not the power to die: once one gives vent to one’s rage, it is very difficult to suppress it.

‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ may have arisen out of Emily Dickinson’s attitude to her father, and the sense that she felt compelled to write her poems in secret (as is well known, very few were published during her lifetime).

The poem’s central metaphor of a loaded gun to describe the speaker’s life suggests pent-up rage, as does the reference to Mount Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in the year 79 famously wiped out Pompeii.

9. ‘ A narrow Fellow in the Grass ’.

A narrow Fellow in the Grass Occasionally rides – You may have met him – did you not His notice sudden is –

The ‘narrow Fellow’ is, of course, a snake – seen from a child’s-eye view. Along with D. H. Lawrence’s ‘Snake’, it’s one of the greatest poems about our reptilian friends: the snake in Dickinson’s poem appears and disappears suddenly, is apt to be mistaken for other things (e.g. a whip), and eludes our understanding.

Given that the poem is partly about something being mistaken for something else, it’s remarkable just how deftly Emily Dickinson makes  us  as readers mistake one word for another.

So not ‘Upbraiding’ – nothing so indignant – but ‘ Un braiding’, in a curious neologism. Not ‘ stopping  to secure it’, but ‘stooping’ to do so – but in doing so, inviting  us to stop and do a double-take, and secure the meaning of Dickinson’s line. Follow the link above to read the rest of this fine Emily Dickinson poem (and our discussion of it).

10. ‘ This World is not Conclusion ’.

This World is not Conclusion. A Species stands beyond – Invisible, as Music – But positive, as Sound – It beckons, and it baffles – Philosophy – don’t know – And through a Riddle, at the last – Sagacity, must go – To guess it, puzzles scholars – To gain it, Men have borne Contempt of Generations And Crucifixion, shown – Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – Blushes, if any see – Plucks at a twig of Evidence – And asks a Vane, the way – Much Gesture, from the Pulpit – Strong Hallelujahs roll – Narcotics cannot still the Tooth That nibbles at the soul –

There is more to lived experience than the world around us, Dickinson proclaims in this poem, reproduced in full here; yet we cannot grasp this greater reality, though philosophers and theologians have tried. Dickinson ends with a characteristically idiosyncratic image, of a tooth nibbling at the soul.

Continue your poetry odyssey with these Emily Dickinson quotations , our selection of great poems by Hilda Doolittle , this pick of the  best short poems by women and these classic Sylvia Plath poems .

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6 thoughts on “10 of the Best Emily Dickinson Poems Everyone Should Read”

You’re are quickly becoming my favorite blog page! <3<3<3<3

Thank you! :)

I agree with your choices! Thanks for posting them all in one place, and for the notes which are welcome to this particular English major, out of college for too many years!

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Literary Criticisms of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Throughout Emily Dickinson’s poetry there are three main themes that she addresses: death, love, and nature; as well as the impact of “the word”. When discussing these themes she followed her lifestyle and broke away from traditional forms of writing and wrote with an intense energy and complexity never seen before and rarely seen today. She was a rarity not only because of her poetry but because she was one of the first female pioneers into the field of poetry. One of the most fascinating things about Dickinson’s poetry is her overwhelming attention to detail, especially her “pin-point” insights on death.

In “I’ve Seen a Dying Eye,” by Emily Dickinson, is a poem about the nature of death. A sense of uncertainty and uncontrollability about death seems to exist. The observer’s speech seems hesitant and unsure of what he or she is seeing, partly because of the dashes, but also because of the words used to describe the scene. As the eye is observed looking for something, then becoming cloudy and progressing through more obscurity until it finally comes to rest, the person observing the death cannot provide any definite proof that what the dying person saw was hopeful or disturbing.

The dying person seems to have no control over the clouds covering his or her eye, which is frantically searching for something that it can only hope to find before the clouds totally, consume it. Death, as an uncontrollable force, -2- seems to sweep over the dying. More importantly, as the poem is from the point of view of the observer, whether the dying person saw anything or not is as significant as what the observer, and the reader, carry away from the poem. The suspicion of whether the dying person saw anything or had any control over his or her death is what is being played on in the poem.

The main idea the poem is trying to convey is that death force itself upon the dying leaving them no control, and if something hopeful exists to be seen after death, it is a question left for the living to ponder. Love is another prevalent theme in Dickinson’s poetry. “The Love of Thee-a Prism Be’: Men and Women in the Love Poetry of Emily Dickinson,” an essay by Adalaide Morris, a feminist critic, examines how Dickinson views love with an allegorical neatness created in her poem “The Love of Thee-a Prism Be” (98).

Emily Dickinson believes that it is the prismatic quality of passion that matters, and the “energy passing through an experience of love reveals a spectrum of possibilities” (98). In keeping with her tradition of looking at the “circumference” of an idea, Dickinson never actually defines a conclusive love or lover at the end of her love poetry, instead concentrating on passion as a whole (99). Although she never defined a lover in her poems, many critics do believe that the object or focal point of her passion was Charles Wadsworth, a clergyman from Philadelphia

In her poetry, Emily represents the males as the Lover, Father, King, Lord, and Master as the women take complimentary positions to their male superiors, and many times the relationship between the sexes is seen in metaphor-women as “His Little Spaniel” or his hunting gun. The woman’s existence is only contingent to the encircling -3- power of the man (104). It could be noted that the relationship with her father created some of the associations that Dickinson used in her work-her father being involved in government, religion, and in control of the family.

Dickinson’s linked imagery in her male love poetry focuses on suns, storms, volcanoes, and wounds (100). There are always elements of disturbance or extremes and explosive settings. There are also repeated examples of the repression of love causing storm imagery to become “silent, suppressed” volcanic activity-something on the verge of explosion or activity. Of course, in the repressed individual the potential for explosion or action can be very dangerous, and frequently in Dickinson’s work this kind of love relationship ends of with someone receiving a wound (100).

Another underlying theme in Dickinson’s poetry was nature. The Imagery of Emily Dickinson, by Ruth Flanders McNaughton, in a chapter entitled “Imagery of Nature,” examines the way the Emily Dickinson portrays nature in her poetry. Dickinson often identified nature with heaven or God (33), which could have been the result of her unique relationship with God and the universe. Dickinson always held nature in reverence throughout her poetry, because she regarded nature as almost religious.

There was almost always a mystical or religious undercurrent to her poetry, but she depicted the scenes from an artistic point of view rather than from a religious one (34). Dickinson also saw nature as a true friend most likely because of her time spent alone with it. She describes nature as a show to which she has gained admission. Dickinson saw friendship and entertainment in the world of trees, bees, and anthills. “The Bee is not Afraid of Me” is an excellent example of Dickinson’s communion with nature.

More is achieved through the use of precise description than could be done by examining the philosophical aspects behind a nature. Dickinson always felt as if she were one of them, the creatures of nature, and she felt more at ease with her world of crickets, dew, and butterflies. Even though spending life as a recluse seems like undesirable to most people, our world owes a debt of gratitude to Emily Dickinson for the way she introduced us to her world of nature in such a different and special way.

Another aspect of Emily Dickinson’s work that fascinates many critics is the importance and the impact of “the word” in her poetry. In Donald E. Thackrey’s essay “The Communication of the Word,” he talks about how “the power of the individual word, in particular, seems to have inspired her with nothing less than reverence” (51). Dickinson approached her poetry inductively, that is, she combined words to arrive at hatever conclusion the patterns of the words suggested, rather than starting out with a specific theme or message.

Instead of purposefully working toward a final philosophical point, Dickinson preferred to use series of “staccato” inspirations (51). Dickinson frequently used words with weight in her work, and as a result her works usually cannot be grasped fully in one reading without dissecting each word individually. Often Dickinson would compile large, alternative word lists for a poetry before she would come to a decision on which word was “just right” for the impact she wished to achieve (52).

For example, this poem displays Dickinson’s use of alternative, thesaurus-like lists: “Had but the tale a thrilling, typic, hearty, bonnie, breathless, spaciousIt did not condemn”. Eventually, Dickinson came to rest on the word “warbling,” but one can see the meticulous care that she put into the decision on which word to use. -5- Another poem of Dickinson’s that shows her compositional method is “Shall I Take Thee? ” the Poet Said. ” In this poem, Dickinson discusses from where the power of the world comes In the poem, one can see the artistic style come through her composition.

Emily regarded the words she used as living entities that could have “being, growth, and immortality” (54). The idea that the word comes from the experience behind it takes precedence over the notion that a word is wasted when the vocal chords stop moving. Words have connotations that encompass the “entire circumference” of the idea in addition to its denotative worth (54). The complexity of the single, written word defined the limits of communication between human beings and, therefore, symbolized the isolation of the individual-a concept that can be seen in Dickinson’s personal, reclusive life.

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Emily Dickinson's Poetry: an Analysis of Death and Loss

  • Categories: Emily Dickinson Literature Review Poetry

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Published: Mar 18, 2021

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Works Cited

  • Franklin, R. W. (1999). The poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum edition. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Sewall, R. B. (1974). The life of Emily Dickinson. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Dickinson, E. (2016). The poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading edition. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Smith, M. (2007). Emily Dickinson: A biography. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Vendler, H. (2010). Dickinson: Selected poems and commentaries. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  • Grabher, G., Kaplan, C. F., & Mailoux, R. (Eds.). (2004). The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
  • Habegger, A. (2001). My wars are laid away in books: The life of Emily Dickinson. New York, NY: Random House.
  • Dickinson, E. (1999). The complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by T. H. Johnson. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Bingham, M. (1996). Emily Dickinson's home: The early years as revealed through her letters and journals. Amherst, MA: Amherst College Press.
  • Farr, J. (2011). The passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Joel Conarroe, ‘Hub of the New York Literary Wheel,’ Dies at 89

An influential arts administrator and educator, he was a trusted confidant to countless writers, notably Philip Roth.

A man in a dark suit and a multicolored vest leans against a column in a house and smiles for a picture. He wears black and white wingtip shoes.

By Alex Williams

Joel Conarroe, a celebrated arts administrator and professor who headed the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for nearly two decades and served as a friend and confidant to a pride of literary lions, including his close friend Philip Roth, died on Sunday in the Bronx. He was 89.

The cause of his death, in a hospital, was respiratory failure related to advanced melanoma, his nephew Ron Conarroe said.

Mr. Conarroe was a central figure in the world of letters for decades, with stints as executive director of the Modern Language Association, the nation’s leading scholarly organization for language and literature, and the president of the P.E.N. American Center, the writers’ organization. He was a tastemaker as the chairman of the National Book Award fiction jury, the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury and other such posts.

He was best known for helming the Guggenheim Foundation from 1985 to 2003, where he was only the third president in the history of the organization.

“He was attuned to changing cultural mores — the twists and turns in dozens of academic and artistic fields — while dealing with the financial challenges and working to raise the amount of fellowships so that people could do their own work,” Edward Hirsch, the current president of the foundation, wrote in an email.

Robert Caro, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Lyndon B. Johnson and the New York urban planner Robert Moses, served with Mr. Conarroe on the Guggenheim board and recalled his air of authority at the foundation.

“I had never seen meetings, sometimes with long, complicated agendas, run with such graciousness, and yet firmness,” Mr. Caro wrote in an email. “As I got a close-up of Joel in his professional life, I marveled again and again at the unchanging integrity with which he made decisions, and not just at the Guggenheim but on the many, many committees that award literary prizes.”

Mr. Conarroe’s prominence in the literary world extended to academia: He served on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania for nearly two decades, including eight years as a professor in the English department, rising to department chair. He spent two years in the 1980s as the dean of Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences.

But his contributions to literature stretched far beyond the accomplishments listed on his curriculum vitae.

Known to be gregarious, courtly and wickedly funny, he often threw parties studded with literary stars like Mr. Caro and Calvin Trillin at the Century club in Manhattan. And he frequently presided over de facto literary salons at restaurants in the West Village, where he lived on West 11th Street amid towering stacks of books with his two cats, Betty (after Betty Comden , the Broadway lyricist and playwright, who had been a close friend) and Buster (after Buster Crabbe, the Olympic swimmer and actor).

“Joel was the hub of the New York literary wheel,” the author Patricia Volk, a longtime friend, said in an interview. “He brought people together, fixed them up, and it always took. He knew exactly who would like who.”

As another close friend, the novelist Benjamin Taylor, said: “His great gift was for friendship. He made each of us feel we were rare birds in his aviary.”

Perhaps none of his friendships were as close — or as complicated — as his half-century-long tenure as a defender and confidant of Mr. Roth , the brilliant and often profane giant of 20th century literature.

Mr. Conarroe was “without question Roth’s most intimate male friend,” Blake Bailey wrote in his 2021 book, “ Philip Roth: The Biography ” — so close that the author’s mother, Bess Roth, called him her “other son.”

Over the years, Mr. Conarroe provided Mr. Roth, who also served on the Penn faculty, valued feedback on manuscripts for his novels, watched baseball games and shared gossip with him, and accompanied him to parties and awards dinners. In 2006, he slept at Mr. Roth’s apartment on what Mr. Conarroe considered a possible suicide watch while the author was mired in a deep depression following the end of a passionate affair with a younger woman.

“Last night was grim,” Mr. Conarroe wrote in an email to Mr. Taylor at the time, as reported in the biography. “Long crying jags, with arias alternating between denouncing the selfish b**** and lamentations over the loss of ‘my darling beautiful girl.’”

It was hardly the first time that he had come to Mr. Roth’s aid when the author was distraught over a woman. In 1975, Mr. Conarroe moved in with him at his Connecticut country house following another Roth breakup. The two would whip up a lavish dinner and polish it off over a bottle of wine, with flowers on the table, Mr. Bailey wrote.

In those years, Mr. Conarroe had not yet disclosed that he was gay. Two years later, in fact, he began a long-term relationship with the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Del Tredici while tending Mr. Roth’s house while the author was in London.

Still, despite their closeness, he later said that there was not “a scintilla of sexual chemistry” between him and Mr. Roth, whom he rated a zero on the 0-6 Kinsey scale of straight to gay. “Everyone is a little gay, maybe,” he said. “But not Philip.”

Joel Osborne Conarroe was born on Oct. 23, 1934, in West Orange, N.J., the third of five children of Elvin Conarroe, an executive at the insurance company Metropolitan Life, and Elizabeth (Lofland) Conarroe, a secretary at the company. He spent much of his youth in the tiny town of Mountain Lakes, in the rolling hills of New Jersey’s Piedmont region.

The family moved to Bradenton, Fla., when Joel was in high school. After graduating, he received a bachelor’s degree in English from Davidson College in North Carolina in 1956, a master’s in English from Cornell University the following year and a doctorate in English from New York University in 1966. He began his long academic career as an assistant professor at Penn the same year.

He is survived by his sister, Harriet Conarroe.

While best known as a champion of other writers’ works, Mr. Conarroe proved more than capable with a pen himself. He published analyses of the poetry of William Carlos Williams and John Berryman and edited multiple poetry anthologies, including “Six American Poets,” a widely circulated 1993 survey of works by Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others.

That anthology found unlikely fame in the 1990s, when Joseph Brodsky , then the nation’s poet laureate, spearheaded a program to include a copy alongside the Gideons Bible in thousands of hotel and motel rooms around the country.

“I told Joel,” Ms. Volk said, “that it was the most stolen book in the history of publishing.”

Alex Williams is a Times reporter on the Obituaries desk. More about Alex Williams

emily dickinson literary analysis essay

Shipwreck Summary & Analysis by Emily Dickinson

  • Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis
  • Poetic Devices
  • Vocabulary & References
  • Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme
  • Line-by-Line Explanations

emily dickinson literary analysis essay

Emily Dickinson's "Shipwreck" (a title added by later editors) charts the demise of a ship in the gusts and waves of a great storm. Through this deceptively simple poem's picture of a lost ship on a huge ocean, Dickinson explores human vulnerability in the face of nature—and an indifferent cosmos more generally. Emily Dickinson probably wrote "Shipwreck" around 1863; like most of her work, the poem was only published posthumously, first appearing in the 1891 collection Poems .

  • Read the full text of “Shipwreck”

emily dickinson literary analysis essay

The Full Text of “Shipwreck”

1 It tossed and tossed,—

2 A little brig I knew,—

3 O'ertook by blast,

4 It spun and spun,

5 And groped delirious, for morn.

6 It slipped and slipped,

7 As one that drunken stepped;

8 Its white foot tripped,

9 Then dropped from sight.

10 Ah, brig, good-night

11 To crew and you;

12 The ocean's heart too smooth, too blue,

13 To break for you.

“Shipwreck” Summary

“shipwreck” themes.

Theme Human Vulnerability and Nature's Indifference

Human Vulnerability and Nature's Indifference

  • See where this theme is active in the poem.

Line-by-Line Explanation & Analysis of “Shipwreck”

It tossed and tossed,— A little brig I knew,— O'ertook by blast, It spun and spun, And groped delirious, for morn.

emily dickinson literary analysis essay

It slipped and slipped, As one that drunken stepped; Its white foot tripped, Then dropped from sight.

Lines 10-13

Ah, brig, good-night To crew and you; The ocean's heart too smooth, too blue, To break for you.

“Shipwreck” Symbols

Symbol The Brig

  • See where this symbol appears in the poem.

“Shipwreck” Poetic Devices & Figurative Language

  • See where this poetic device appears in the poem.


“shipwreck” vocabulary.

Select any word below to get its definition in the context of the poem. The words are listed in the order in which they appear in the poem.

  • O'ertook
  • Groped delirious
  • Drunken stepped
  • See where this vocabulary word appears in the poem.

Form, Meter, & Rhyme Scheme of “Shipwreck”

Rhyme scheme, “shipwreck” speaker, “shipwreck” setting, literary and historical context of “shipwreck”, more “shipwreck” resources, external resources.

The Emily Dickinson Museum — Visit the website of the Emily Dickinson Museum to find a detailed overview of the poet's life and work. 

The Poem Out Loud — Listen to a reading of "Shipwreck."

Emily Dickinson Archive — Visit the Emily Dickinson Archive to see images of Dickinson's manuscripts (including this poem) and learn about how they were discovered and published.

LitCharts on Other Poems by Emily Dickinson

A Bird, came down the Walk

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

A Light exists in Spring

A Murmur in the Trees—to note—

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

An awful Tempest mashed the air—

As imperceptibly as grief

A still—Volcano—Life—

Because I could not stop for Death —

Before I got my eye put out

Fame is a fickle food

Hope is the thing with feathers

I cannot live with You –

I cautious, scanned my little life

I could bring You Jewels—had I a mind to—

I did not reach Thee

I died for Beauty—but was scarce

I dreaded that first Robin, so

I dwell in Possibility –

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

If I can stop one heart from breaking

I had been hungry, all the Years

I have a Bird in spring

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -

I like a look of Agony

I like to see it lap the Miles

I measure every Grief I meet

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

I started Early — Took my Dog —

I taste a liquor never brewed

It was not Death, for I stood up

I—Years—had been—from Home—

Like Rain it sounded till it curved

Much Madness is divinest Sense -

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun

Nature is what we see

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted

Publication — is the Auction

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers

Success is counted sweetest

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—

The Bustle in a House

The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants

There came a Wind like a Bugle

There is no Frigate like a Book

There's a certain Slant of light

There's been a Death, in the Opposite House

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise

The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean

The Soul has bandaged moments

The Soul selects her own Society

The Wind – tapped like a tired Man –

They shut me up in Prose –

This is my letter to the world

This World is not Conclusion

'Twas the old—road—through pain—

We grow accustomed to the Dark

What mystery pervades a well!

Whose cheek is this?

Wild nights - Wild nights!

Ask LitCharts AI: The answer to your questions

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Indigenous author Alexis Wright wins 2024 Stella Prize for her novel Praiseworthy

An older Indigenous woman with shaggy brown hair and glasses wearing a navy blazer

Waanyi writer Alexis Wright has won the 2024 Stella Prize, worth $60,000, for her novel Praiseworthy, a 700-page odyssey set in a fictional town in northern Australia.

Wright is the first person to win the award twice, after taking out the Stella in 2018 for Tracker , her collective memoir of Aboriginal leader and economist Bruce "Tracker" Tilmouth.

Fiona Sweet, Stella CEO, said Praiseworthy was "a genre-bending, canon-breaking novel that has been described by international media as the most ambitious and accomplished Australian novel of this century".

In 2024, the Stella Prize — a literary award for women and non-binary writers — received 227 entries.

"It's been a very big year for women's literature in Australia," Wright tells ABC Arts.

"I'm truly honoured that Praiseworthy has won the Stella this year and joins the company of all the prestigious other winners of the mighty Stella Prize."

Beejay Silcox, Judges' Chair, said: "Praiseworthy is mighty in every conceivable way: mighty of scope, mighty of fury, mighty of craft, mighty of humour, mighty of language, mighty of heart. Praiseworthy is not only a great Australian novel — perhaps the great Australian novel — it is also a great Waanyi novel."

The 2024 Stella Prize judges praised the novel for showing the same mastery of form evident in Wright's earlier work Carpentaria , which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2007.

"Reflecting the landscape of the Queensland Gulf Country where the tale unfolds, Wright's voice is operatic in intensity," the judges said in their report.

"Wright's use of language and imagery is poetic and expansive, creating an immersive blak multiverse.

"Readers will be buoyed by Praiseworthy's aesthetic and technical quality, and winded by the tempestuous pace of Wright's political satire."

'An important book'

A book cover showing a yellow stroke of paint against a painted black and grey background

The novel centres around Cause Steel, his wife Dance, and their sons, Aboriginal Sovereignty and Tommyhawk, as a mysterious haze cloud descends on their hometown of Praiseworthy.

Wright says she began work on Praiseworthy and Tracker at the same time about 10 years ago, but finished Tracker first.

"It takes me a long time to write in the way that I do," she says.

"I knew Praiseworthy was going to take a lot of work, and I wanted to try to meet the scale of what is happening in the world right now."

Praiseworthy, Wright's fourth novel, is the product of her "deep thinking" about issues such as climate change and Aboriginal sovereignty.

The same day Wright won the Miles Franklin for Carpentaria — June 21, 2007 — then-prime minister John Howard announced the controversial Northern Territory Emergency Response , a policy known as the Intervention, which saw the introduction of measures such as alcohol bans and income management in Aboriginal communities.

"The Intervention was a big part of what was happening at the time of writing this book, [as well as] unprecedented climate change disasters and global viruses, the pandemic [and] war," she tells ABC RN's The Book Show .

"These are huge issues, and maybe they're too big for literature — some people might say that — but I really think that we have to join the conversation … as writers, about where we're heading, how we're getting there and what it will mean to all people in the world and the planet itself."

Wright describes Praiseworthy as "an important book" that, at its heart, is about survival.

"It's asking … what's plan A and what's plan B? Or is there any plan at all?"

An older Indigenous woman with brown hair and glasses reclines in a chair in a book-lined library reading room

'Build it big'

Wright's second Stella win confirms her position as one of Australia's most accomplished and innovative writers, but her path to literary success hasn't been without obstacles.

The Carpentaria manuscript was famously rejected by every major Australian publishing house before Ivor Indyk at Giramondo picked it up.

"He respected what I was trying to do," she says.

Wright wishes more publishers would follow Giramondo's example and take risks on new work.

"The publishing world is a bit stuck. It needs to become more exciting and … be more ambitious and be more visionary and support writers to go on those journeys into new ways of writing and exploring, expressing what's happening and bring the readership with them," she says.

"I challenge all publishers to get with the story and build it, build it big and build it mighty."

Since she published her first novel, Plains of Promise, in 1997, Wright has sought to constantly break new ground as a writer.

She says her goal has always been to challenge herself "to find a better way of writing fiction, in a way that suited a country like this with the oldest living culture in the world".

Wright looked to international writers in developing her distinctive style.

"I studied writers from all over the world, particularly writers who had a long unbroken tradition with their own country," she tells ABC RN's Awaye! .

She has taken great inspiration from the late Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, whose influence is felt in Praiseworthy's timeless, fable-like quality.

"In Western-style literature … there's always this idea that there's a start, middle, finish," Wright says.

"That was a big struggle for me … because the world isn't this linear thing."

Wright's risk-taking is paying off, with Praiseworthy winning the 2023 University of Queensland Fiction Book Award as well as the Stella.

The novel has also earned international attention, appearing on the shortlists of the International Dublin Literary Award and the UK-based James Tait Black Prize for Fiction.

"It's wonderful that the book is getting that sort of recognition," she says.

"It pushes Australian literature into a wider audience, and people are taking notice of what's happening here."

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  1. Emily Dickinson Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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