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.
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—
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
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—
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—
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
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,
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—
8. Wild Nights — Wild Nights!
Wild nights — Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Futile — the winds—
To a Heart in port—
Done with the Compass—
Done with the Chart!
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
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—
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—
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!
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—
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility—
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—
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—
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: