Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Responding to Emily Dickinson: Poetic Analysis


The Lesson


In this lesson, students will explore Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” both as it was published as well as how it developed through Dickinson’s correspondence with her sister-in-law Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson. The Dickinsons’ letter manuscripts provide a fascinating insight into the process of Emily Dickinson’s craft, while simultaneously complicating commonly held notions that she was a recluse who wrote purely in isolation. Dickinson in reality maintained many dynamic correspondences throughout her lifetime and specifically sought out dialogues on her poetry. These correspondences—both professional and private—reveal a poet keenly aware of the interdependent relationship between poet and reader.

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 develop her voice as a poet, especially as reflected in her correspondences with Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson about the poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”?

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 Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson’s editorial relationship with Emily Dickinson
  • Explore the variants of Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers”
  • 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. If necessary, download and print out any other documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Poetic Analysis
  • As a class, read through the first stanza of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" (216), available at the Dickinson Electronic Archives as it appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican in 1862, and at the American Verse Project as it was published in 1891 (students will compare these to the manuscript version shortly). Have your students look closely at the poem and consider the choices Dickinson makes. Jot down the students' observations on word usage, imagery, rhythm, etc. They should note her use of architectural terms, such as "chambers," "rafter," "roof," and her references to building materials, like "alabaster," satin," "stone." They might also note a feeling of quiet, with such words as "safe," "untouched," "sleep," and the pause that results from the repetition of "untouched." Then, there's the absence of "Morning" and "Noon," which suggests that whatever Dickinson is speaking of must be "untouched" by the sun. Ultimately, your students should recognize that Dickinson is writing about tombs.
  • Next, guide the students in a discussion of how this poem reflects Dickinson's voice: Does the poem match the image Dickinson draws of herself in her letters (see Lesson One)? For example, do you believe the poem expresses exactly how Dickinson felt when she viewed the tombs? Why, or why not? What freedom does poetry give her here that prose would not?
  • Now, if you have access to a computer lab, direct the students to the "Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem" site, which will illustrate how Dickinson sought critique of her work and used such critique in the process of revision. Working in pairs, have the students spend about 20 minutes reading through the collected letters and manuscripts, focusing primarily on the manuscripts H B74a, H B74b, H B74c, H 11c, and H 203c d, (note: all links lead to the manuscript copy accompanied by a transcript). If students do not have access to computers, provide them with printouts of the relevant manuscript pages.
  • Ask the students if Sue's input helped Dickinson to maintain her voice and achieve her goals. You may want to guide them to the line that reads, "I am not suited dear Emily with the second verse -- It is remarkable as the chain lightening that blinds us hot nights in the Southern sky but it does not go with the ghostly shimmer of the first verse as well as the other one."


  • Finally, as means of emphasizing the possible positive and negative effects of editors, refer the students again to the manuscript versions of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," available at the "Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem" site, and to a version of the poem as edited by Higginson, available on the EDSITEment reviewed American Verse Project website. Together as a class, discuss the following question: How does Higginson's editing change the way you read the poem?
  • Redirect the students to the various versions of the second stanza of the poem (in, H B74a, H B74b, H B74c, H 11c, and H 203c, d.) Still working with their partners, ask the students to decide, in their opinion, which second stanza is most effective. Have each student compose a letter to Dickinson explaining their choice. The letter should address Emily's own desires for her poetry (as expressed in her letters) and describe the effectiveness of the stanza's language, images, and rhythm in meeting that desire.

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.

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
  • Interpretation
  • Literary analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Julie Kachniasz (AL)