Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 1: In Emily Dickinson's Own Words: Letters and Poems


The Lesson


Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Credit: Courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

Dickinson’s letters expose a poet fully engaged in the process of crafting a persona. In a note to Higginson in the first year of their correspondence, Dickinson wrote, “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.” For students of writing and literature, who often struggle to develop a distinctive voice and then to modify that voice for different audiences, Dickinson’s dialogues offer an instructive model. Ultimately, reading Emily Dickinson’s letters alongside her poems helps students to better appreciate a remarkable voice in American literature, grasp how Dickinson perceived herself and her poetry, and—perhaps most relevant to their own endeavors—consider the ways in which a writer constructs a “supposed person.”

For a complete introduction to the three lessons in this curriculum unit, Letters from Emily Dickinson: “Will you be my preceptor?” review the curriculum unit overview.

Guiding Questions

  • How does Emily Dickinson perceive herself as a poet, especially as reflected in her correspondences with Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson?
  • In what ways does this perception manifest itself in her poetry?

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • Recognize Emily Dickinson's poetic style
  • Articulate Dickinson’s artistic development as reflected in her poetry and correspondence
  • Discuss Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s editorial relationship with Emily Dickinson
  • Examine the tensions in the poem “I dwell in Possibility”
  • Reflect upon the concept of artistic persona

Preparation Instructions

Review the curriculum unit overview and the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and other useful websites. Download the pdf worksheet, Emily Says, and cut out each individual quotation for distribution to student groups. If necessary, download and print out any other documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Letters
  • Before class have students read pages 444 through 447 of Thomas Wentworth Higginson's Atlantic Monthly essay, ending with "But, will you be my preceptor, Mr. Higginson?". The essay is available at Emily Dickinson's Letters on the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory Project website. Ask the students to write a one- to two-page response that addresses both the relationship Higginson portrays between himself and Dickinson and the image Dickinson paints of herself in her letters.
  • Together as a class, discuss the Higginson piece briefly. Your students should recognize that while Higginson is certainly impressed by Dickinson's writing and by her insistence on the integrity of her work, he also presents her to his readers as a rather odd figure, in so much as he emphasizes her desire to separate herself from the world and seems to view her work as a little too unorthodox (at least to the extent that he edits her poems for publication). The larger question, of course, is how much Dickinson actively contributes to his view through her letters. Might she desire to be seen as unconventional, at least as a poet?
Activity 2. Poems
  • Next, read together as a class Dickinson's poem "They shut me up in Prose-" (613), available at the Dickinson Electronic Archives via EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets (a version without annotations is also available). Ask the students what "prose" means to Dickinson. They should note her equating of "prose" with being imprisoned. Prose, to her, doesn't accomplish what she wants. Then, ask them to analyze the second and third stanzas of the poem: Why does she compare herself to a bird? Your students might conclude that Dickinson, like a bird taking flight, has the ability to will her own escape and that her means of escape is in her own mind.
  • Building on what the students learned from poem 613, read and analyze together the poem "I dwell in Possibility-" (657), available via EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets. What is Dickinson's means of escape here? Your students might consider, first, how Dickinson uses "Possibility" to describe her world and, second, how the next three lines of the stanza use the metaphor of a house to describe her relationship to poetry. Ask your students how Dickinson describes this particular house. They should consider its many "Windows" and "Doors." What do such features suggest about Dickinson's view of poetry? Now, direct your students to the poem's second stanza, which extends the house metaphor. Ask them what Dickinson might be saying about poetry when she writes: "Of Chambers as the Cedars—/Impregnable of Eye—." What might that tell you about her writing? At this point your students may note a tension in this poem between constraints and unlimited horizons, reinforced by the next two lines of this stanza: "And for an Everlasting Roof / The Gambrels of the Sky." Encourage your students to consider this tension with regards to Dickinson's role as a poet. The last two lines of the poem might help: "The spreading wide my narrow Hands / To gather Paradise-." Your students might note the juxtaposition of "wide" with "narrow" and reflect on what this might say about the power poetry grants Dickinson.
  • Now, divide the class into 8 groups, and pass out one quotation from the Emily Says handout to each group. Give the groups approximately 10 minutes to discuss the quotations. As a means of exploring their passage, they should consider the following questions: Why might Dickinson write poetry? What might she want her poetry to achieve?
  • Together again as a class, ask each group to share its quotation and resulting impressions. If the students don't make them first, guide the students to observations similar to the following: 1) Dickinson suggests to Higginson that poetry, for her, is a means of self-expression and catharsis. 2) She expresses a desire to show others something lovely or startling. 3) She sees poetry as reflective of a particular condition or sensation; thus, it can't be controlled or confined. Once the students are familiar with all of the quotations, discuss how Dickinson seems to be navigating between her need for private reflection and her desire to express her views publicly. Your students might also observe how Dickinson articulates her development as a poet.
  • Write the following quotations, written by Dickinson to her sister-in-law Sue, on the board, or project them on an overhead:
    • "Your praise is good — to me - because I know it knows — and suppose — it means —"
    • "Could I make you and Austin — proud - sometime — a great way off — 'twould give me taller feet —"

      Ask the students to think about how these statements fit with their current view of Dickinson-as-poet and to respond to the following questions: 1) In the first quotation, how does Dickinson react to Sue's review of her poetry? 2) What might the second quotation say about Dickinson's goals as a poet? 3) In light of these quotations, what do you make of biographical claims of Dickinson's reclusive nature? (You may want to revisit the contextual information on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Academy of American Poets.)
  • Discuss the students' observations together as a class. They will likely conclude that Dickinson seeks artistic dialogue both privately and publicly. Encourage them to dig further and think about Dickinson's desire for such an exchange: For whom is she writing? For herself, her family, or an even greater audience? And, what is her process? Does it include the input of others? Your students should observe that Dickinson is not writing purely in isolation. Students might revisit "I dwell in Possibility -" to explore the tension between notions of containment and freedom, isolation and openness.


Have students submit their one or two page response to Higginson’s article about Emily Dickinson. You might ask them to revise and update their response paper based on the day’s discussion. Alternatively, ask students to write a short interpretation of one of the two poems in the “Extending the Lesson” section: "Fame is fickle food" or "Success is counted sweetest."

If teaching the entire curriculum unit, teachers should ask students to submit all work in the form of a final portfolio, which may be evaluated based on the overarching curriculum unit assessment rubric found in the third lesson.

Extending The Lesson

Students can continue discussion about the purpose of writing and audience by examining more Dickinson poems, such as "Fame is fickle food" or "Success is counted sweetest."

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Internet skills
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • Julie Kachniasz (AL)


Activity Worksheets