Thoughts on Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Punctuation & Syntax

Punctuation is an extremely prolific feature used excessively by Dickinson, particularly dashes to section her poems. A less symbolic or poignant explanation for Dickinson’s excessive usage of dashes may be that it was simply a part of her idiosyncratic written style as she used them not only in her poetic works, but also in recipes as pictured below. Regardless of this, to the Late Modern reader, the presence of the dashes can serve to provoke a recognition of a deeper meaning in Dickinson’s poetry; sectioning particular words from one another, drawing emphasis to them. Her adoption of the use of dashes in her writing, even if it is idiosyncratic, does seem to suggest a certain flowing and organic nature to her work; arguably denoting a streaming of consciousness. This in itself gives further weight to the emotion carried in Dickinson’s poetry as it really adds a sense of integrity through the baring of her soul to us in her poems.

Dickinson's handwritten recipe for a “Cocoa Nut” cake.

Dickinson’s handwritten recipe for a “Cocoa Nut” cake.

Dickinson’s use of capitalisation is also a very notable feature that is consistent across her poetic works and – like her use of dashes – can serve to draw attention to specific themes and motifs in her poems. A notable example of Dickinson’s use of capitalisation, that seems out of place to a more modern reader, is in “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” in which she capitalises ‘Truth’ and ‘Beauty’ as to label them as important. This may – like Dickinson’s use of dashes – also be due to the idiosyncratic nature of her work in its 19th century context. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, the capitalisation of nouns was rather commonplace and was often subject to what the author felt important in their text until the grammarians (and yes, that is the official term) of the period decided that this type of usage was unnecessary. The practice began to fall out of use in the late 18th century but it could be argued that – as Dickinson was writing in the mid 19th century – that she still may have been likely to continue this style of writing, even just for the purpose of writing her poetry and drawing attention to the ideas in her poetry that she herself felt were important.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)