Dickinson’s Humor

While much of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been described as sad or morose, the
poetess did use humor and irony in many of her poems. This essay will address
the humor and/ or irony found in five of Dickinson’s poems: “Faith” is
a Fine Invention, I’m Nobody! Who are you?, Some keep the Sabbath Going to
Church and Success Is Counted Sweetest. The attempt will be made to show how
Dickinson used humor and / or irony for the dual purposes of comic relief and to
stress an idea or conclusion about her life and environment expressed by the
poetess in the respective poem. The most humorous or ironic are some of the
shorter poems, such as the four lined stanzas of “Faith” is a Fine
Invention and Success Is Counted Sweetest. In “Faith”…, Dickinson
presents a witty and biting satirical look at Faith and its limitations. While
it still amuses readers today, it must be mentioned that this short poem would
have had a greater impact and seriousness to an audience from the period
Dickinson lived in. Dickinson was raised in a strict Calvinist household and
received most of her education in her youth at a boarding school that also
followed the American Puritanical tradition she was raised in. In this short,
witty piece Dickinson addresses two of the main obsessions of her generation:
The pursuit of empirical knowledge through science, faith in an all-knowing,
all-powerful Christian god and the debate on which was the more powerful belief.


In this poem Dickinson uses humor to ease her position in the debate on to the
reader. Dickinson uses her ability to write humourously and ironically (as seen
in her suggestion of the use of microscopes) to present a firm, controversial
opinion into what could be dismissed as an irreverent, inconsequential piece of
writing. In Success…, Dickinson’s emphasis is less on humor and more on
expressing irony. This poem may be partially auto-biographical in nature.

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Dickinson made few attempts during her life to be taken as more than an armature
poetess. On one occasion, she sent a collection of her poems to a correspondent
who was also a published poet. His criticism of the poems devastated Dickinson,
and she never made another attempt towards publishing her works. In Success…,
Dickinson reflects on the nature of success and how, ironically, it can be best
appreciated and understood by those who have not achieved it and have no taste
of it. As in “Faith”…, Dickinson powerfully presents her thoughts in
a few lines. The poem deals only with one, ironic but universal, idea in its
short length. It is the bitterness expressed at this irony (as found it
Dickinson’s juxtaposition of the words sweetest and sorest, separated by two
lines) that is most felt by the reader. While the previous poem expresses the
poetess’ bitterness and sorrow with one aspect of her life, I’m Nobody! Who Are
You? uses humor without irony to address another. In this poem, Dickinson style
appears almost child-like in its of descriptions including frogs and bogs, as
well as the lively energy expressed by the poem through its use of dashes and
brief wording. Dickinson seems to be addressing her spinster, hermit-like
existence (I’m Nobody) and her preference to it. The poetess seems to relate
that her situation has not left her without a sense of humor, but in fact has
allowed her to maintain a child-like outlook on life rather than adapting to the
boring norms of her society ( How dreary – to be – Somebody!). She mocks the
conventional need for self-importance through publicity (How public – like a
Frog – / To tell one’s name – the livelong June -), suggesting that the audience
isn’t that interested ( / To an admiring Bog). She instead seems to idealize her
solitude by creating the mysterious feeling of a secret society of social
outcasts (Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!). In this poem, she
effectively uses humor to soften a critique of certain members of her society.


While this poem is longer than the other poems discussed, it too is able to
express the quality of brevity and lightness in that it’s composition is full of
dashes, with even full sentences broken into short, quick actions that easily
roll off of the tongue when spoken aloud (How dreary – to be – Somebody). The
technical composition of this poem is two stanzas, however, Dickinson is able to
refresh the form with her use of dashes and short words to give it

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