Tailored Book Recommendations Tailored Book Recommendations Tailored Book Recommendations
Riot Headline The 2022 ALA Youth Media Awards: See Who Took Home the Newbery, Caldecott, Printz, and More!
Lists

The Best Emily Dickinson Poems: Ranked

Emily Dickinson wrote almost 1,800 poems in her lifetime. Only ten of them were published while she was alive, and they were published anonymously at that. Posthumously, Dickinson has become one of the most recognized and celebrated English language poets in the world. There’s a few reasons for that, and in this humble Rioter’s opinion, some of it has to do with her poetic form and subject matter, and some of it has to do with the woman herself.

Dickinson was a solitary individual who lived her entire life in her parents’ home in Amherst, Massachusetts. She didn’t have the desire to leave, nor did she need to; the family was moderately wealthy, and she didn’t need to publish for money. A variety of reports corroborate that she was never interested in the attention publishing would bring. Writing poetry was a personal, private endeavor, which is only reinforced by how her poems were discovered after she passed away at the age of 55. Her sister Lavinia found them among Emily’s things, and there were no instructions on what to do with them. Lavinia resolved to have them published (which is a whole story on its own), and Emily’s attributed work began circulating in the 1890s.

handwritten poem of "wild nights - wild nights!" by emily dickinson
Dickinson’s handwritten poem “Wild Nights – Wild Nights!”

Part of her success may come from her unusual approach to verse: she was quite simply ahead of her time, playing with structure, punctuation, and form in a way that would not become more widely popular until the Modernist movement from the early 1900s to the 1940s. Her lines are lyrical, charmingly offbeat, almost sing-song even at their most brooding. Dickinson tackled universal themes that were deeply personal to her, including isolation, identity, death, love, and family. Perhaps we’re most drawn to her poetry because Dickinson poured so much of herself into her body of work, and because the body of work had no intended audience but her own eyes. She didn’t write for anyone but herself, and there’s a brutal honesty and self awareness present that is hard to replicate.

December 10 is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, and I thought I’d try my hand at ranking the best of Emily’s vast collection of poems. How do I determine “the best”?

Dickinson had a knack for pairing striking visuals with the musicality of her poetic structure, and time has helped pluck out the “best” based on which lines and themes have resonated with the most people and risen to the top. As an English major, I can readily name five or six of the poems below that I’ve studied multiple times as both a high school student and a college student. Yes, she wrote a huge amount of poetry. But there’s a reason why we gravitate to a select few. They provide answers, they comfort, they lighten the heart, and most importantly, they make us feel less alone and more understood.

Here are the top 15 poems by Emily Dickinson, ranked by how ubiquitous the entire poems are, or even just a few lines that often get repeated in popular culture.

15. Dear March — Come In —

Dear March—Come in—
How glad I am—
I hoped for you before—
Put down your Hat—
You must have walked—
How out of Breath you are—
Dear March, how are you, and the Rest—
Did you leave Nature well—
Oh March, Come right upstairs with me—
I have so much to tell—

I got your Letter, and the Birds—
The Maples never knew that you were coming—
I declare – how Red their Faces grew—
But March, forgive me—
And all those Hills you left for me to Hue—
There was no Purple suitable—
You took it all with you—

Who knocks? That April—
Lock the Door—
I will not be pursued—
He stayed away a Year to call
When I am occupied—
But trifles look so trivial
As soon as you have come

That blame is just as dear as Praise
And Praise as mere as Blame—

14. My Life Closed Twice Before Its Close

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

13. To Fight Aloud is Very Brave

To fight aloud, is very brave—
But gallanter, I know
Who charge within the bosom
The Cavalry of Woe—

Who win, and nations do not see—
Who fall — and none observe—
Whose dying eyes, no Country
Regards with patriot love—

We trust, in plumed procession
For such, the Angels go—
Rank after Rank, with even feet—
And Uniforms of snow.

12. A Bird, Came Down the Walk

A Bird, came down the Walk— 
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angle Worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,  

And then, he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head.  

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers, 
And rowed him softer Home—

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim. 

11. Success is Counted Sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne’er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of victory

As he defeated — dying —
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

10. If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

9. I Dwell in Possibility

I dwell in Possibility—
A fairer House than Prose—
More numerous of Windows—
Superior — for Doors—

Of Chambers as the Cedars—
Impregnable of eye—
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky—

Of Visitors — the fairest—
For Occupation — This—
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise—

8. Wild Nights — Wild Nights!

Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Futile — the winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!

Rowing in Eden—
Ah — the Sea!
Might I but moor – tonight—
In thee!

7. Tell All the Truth, But Tell it Slant

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

6. 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—

The Eyes around — had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the Room—

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz—
Between the light — and me—
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see—

5. 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—

And now We roam in Sovreign Woods—
And now We hunt the Doe—
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply—

And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow—
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through—

And when at Night — Our good Day done—
I guard My Master’s Head—
’Tis better than the Eider Duck’s
Deep Pillow — to have shared—

To foe of His — I’m deadly foe—
None stir the second time—
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—
Or an emphatic Thumb—

Though I than He — may longer live
He longer must — than I—
For I have but the power to kill,
Without — the power to die—

4. 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!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog—
To tell one’s name — the livelong June—
To an admiring Bog!

3. 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.

We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring—
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—
We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather — He passed Us—
The Dews drew quivering and Chill—
For only Gossamer, my Gown—
My Tippet — only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice — in the Ground—

Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—

2. 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—

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum—
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My Mind was going numb—

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here—

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down—
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then—

1. 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—

And sweetest — in the Gale — is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet — never — in Extremity,
It asked a crumb — of me.


The order of this list may not reflect the order of other lists, but there’s great overlap in which of her poems make it to the top. Dickinson’s work stays with us for its power, its playfulness, and its hope. Thank you for your words, Emily.

If you’d like to learn more about her, check out these posts: