The Life and Poems of Emily Dickinson
Students learn about the life of poet Emily Dickinson; then look for reflections of her life in her poetry.
Emily Dickinson, biography, poetry, interpret, interpretation
Share a picture of Emily Dickinson with the class.
Possible picture sources:
Portrait of Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson (scroll down the page)
Ask anyone if they know who is pictured. Write the name "Emily Dickinson" on the board and ask students to share anything they might already know about her. Write those characteristics under her name.
Explain to students that in order to fully understand the poetry of Emily Dickinson, it is vital to first understand her. Explain to students that this is true for all poetry. Ask: Can anyone explain why it might be important to know about the life of a poet before exploring his or her poetry? (It is important because most of what a poet writes is reflective of their own lives, regardless of whether or not they are the speaker in the poem. In order to fully grasp the concepts the poet is presenting, it is essential to understand the background of the poet.)
Introduce a brief biography of Dickinson's life. You might use your own source or select from one of the sources below. Students might all read the same biography or you might arrange students into groups, give each group a different biography to read, then come together after reading to share what was learned about the poet's life. Online resources include the following:
After students read the biography(s) -- in their groups or as a class -- ask students to identify some characteristics of Emily Dickinson that they learned from their reading. Add those characteristics to the list on the board.
Students might mention characteristics such as family oriented, isolated, alone, lonely, longing for happiness, not publicly recognized, content with who she was
As students identify characteristics of Dickinson, repeat that understanding those characteristics will be extremely helpful to them as the attempt to interpret her poetry.
Next, pass out to students a copy of the Dickinson poem I'm Nobody! Who are you? Ask students to read the poem silently to themselves. Encourage them to think about the characteristics of Dickinson that relate to the poem. Then choose someone to read aloud the first stanza of the poem. Talk about the characteristics that are reflected in the words of the poem. Repeat this activity for the poem's second stanza.
If the link above is not working, Bartleby.com is another good source of the works of Dickinson. See The Complete Poems: Emily Dickinson.
Next, have a student read aloud another of Dickinson's poems, Pain -- has an Element of Blank. Instead of discussing the characteristics that apply to this poem, have students think to themselves about them. Have students write a sentence or two to describe what characteristics of Dickinson they observe in the words of the poem and what the poem means to them. Then have students volunteer to share what they have written.
In this poem, some characteristics that students see might include Dickinson's sense of being alone, her isolation and loneliness, her longing for happiness, her depression
Next, you might arrange students into small groups to read and discuss another Dickinson poem, My life closed twice before its close. Walk around an observe students' conversations about the poem. Are they able to interpret the poem based on what they know about Dickinson's life?
Tell students they will be writing in class tomorrow as a follow-up activity. You might share the assignment ahead of time so they can be thinking about it:
Ask students to write a brief biography about their own lives (only about 3-4 paragraphs) and then write a 2-3 stanza poem that is reflective of their own lives.
You might work on this follow-up activity/project over 2-3 class sessions.
Now that you have modeled interpreting poems of Dickinson based on what is known of her life, have students work independently to interpret another of her poems, I felt a Funeral, in my Brain. Challenge them to interpret what Dickinson is conveying in the lines of the poem and to link the language of the poem to the biographical information they have learned about her.
Rhiannon Brownlee, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown
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