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Qwiz5 Quizbowl Essentials – Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is widely acknowledged as one of the greatest American poets of all time. Born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson is remembered today for her poetry’s keen observational eye as well as its ability to transcend the traditional poetic forms of the day. Dickinson’s poems are notable for their hymn-inspired meter, allowing Dickinson to rapidly speed up or slow down the rhythm of her poesy. The poems often end on a note of uncertainty, a refusal to provide the reader with easy answers. Let’s explore the words of this reclusive genius, one of the titans of American letters!

By analyzing questions, you can see patterns emerge, patterns that will help you answer questions. Qwiz5 is all about those patterns. In each installment of Qwiz5, we take an answer line and look at its five most common clues. Here we explore five clues that will help you answer a tossup on Emily Dickinson.


Dickinson lived the majority of her life in seclusion in the family home of Amherst. In 1976 William Luce published a one-woman play about her life titled The Belle of Amherst. The play draws on Dickinson’s poetry and extensive correspondence with her select circle of friends. Dickinson remains closely associated with the nickname “The Belle of Amherst” to this day.


Death was a common theme in Dickinson’s verses. In “Because I Could Not Stop for Death”, Dickinson’s speaker meets Death and likens him to a man riding a carriage. Dickinson’s speaker, Death, and Immortality drive slowly to the afterlife. The speaker dispassionately describes the scenes of life they pass on their ride, mentioning the Fields of Gazing Grain as well as the Setting Sun. It is uncertain that they reach their destination, but they pause before “A House that seemed / A Swelling of the Ground.” The poem ends by stating that whether or not eternity was reached, the heads of the horses pulling the carriage face in that direction.


Dickinson also addressed the transition between life and death in her poem informally known as “I Heard a Fly BuzzWhen I Died.” The speaker, now dead, relates how mourners were preparing themselves for “that last Onset – when the King / Be witnessed.” However, the still solemnity of death is interrupted by the noise of a fly. Dickinson’s speaker attributes a “Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz” to the insect. This is the last thing the speaker perceives, for they relate how “the Windows failed – and then / I could not see to see.”


“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” was one of the few poems published during Dickinson’s lifetime. The titular narrow fellow is a snake, and Dickinson’s speaker describes him with a certain dread, relating how as he moves “The Grass divides as with a Comb.” Dickinson’s speaker holds no love for the snake, contrasting it with others among “Nature’s People,” for whom she feels “a transport / of Cordiality.” The snake awakens fear and anxiety in the speaker, who claims that upon seeing the animal she experiences “a tighter Breathing / And Zero at the Bone.”


Dickinson takes a brighter view of the natural world in her poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”. This poem utilizes an extended metaphor to liken hope to a bird. Dickinson’s speaker relates how hope “perches in the soul” where it ceaselessly “sings the tune without words.” Hope is always with us. Dickinson’s speaker describes how she has “heard” it “in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea.” Like the song of birds, this hope is given to us freely: “Yet – never – in Extremity,” Dickinson’s speaker states, “It asked a crumb – of me.”


Quizbowl is about learning, not rote memorization, so we encourage you to use this as a springboard for further reading rather than as an endpoint. Here are a few things to check out:

  • What makes Dickinson’s style so intriguing? Read this article to learn more about the unique characteristics of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

  • Although reclusive, Dickinson was by no means ignorant of the wider intellectual trends going on in the world outside her door.

  • Susan Dickinson, née Gilbert, was Emily’s sister-in-law, but also her muse and the recipient of numerous love letters. Scandalous!

  • The unique rhythm of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has inspired many composers:


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