Sample Argumentative Essay: Closely Examining The Theme of Defiance in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Essay Literature
Jun 5, 2019

Emily Dickinson is an influential author who dared to challenge 19th-century ideas. She lived an eccentric life away from the public and perceived the world from a unique perspective. As a poet, Emily wrote thousands of poems that explored the concepts of love, science, faith, death, and immortality. She challenged the established definitions of these concepts and brought them to a new light. Her poetry conveyed her defiance of social norms through her self-made definitions and disregard for established poetic forms.

Emily Dickinson’s Background

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. She had two siblings, William and Lavinia. Their father was Edward Dickinson, a lawyer, and their mother was a housewife, which historical records indicate was dedicated to the sciences (“Emily Dickinson”[PoetryFoundation]). The Dickinsons were not a wealthy family, however, Emily and her siblings were able to receive a proper education. Through this, Emily discovered her interest in academics and began developing skills that would aid her career as a poet.

In her adult life, she spent most of her time indoors. She became an eccentric; rarely leaving the home and preferred to keep to herself. Her life became a living manifestation of the concept of defiance. She refused her parent’s wish to become a devout Christian, distanced herself from society and its influences, and defied the concrete definitions of concepts through her writing (“Emily Dickinson [Mount Holyoke College]). Emily alienated herself from the world and decided to live her life in her own way. Even her death wish, which was for Lavinia to burn all her writings, showcased her detachment from society. She did not want others to read her works nor did she desire to leave a legacy. Unfortunately, Lavinia defied her last wish, resulting in the publication of Emily’s poems. 

Emily’s Defiance of Science

Emily liked academics and appreciated the learning experience. However, some of her poems chastised science for its pure objectivity (“Emily Dickinson”[PoetryFoundation]). Emily criticized the objectivity of the scientific approach which often looks at topics through emotionless lenses. In poem 70, the one that begins with “‘Arcturus’ is his other name”, Emily described how scientists quantify the natural world instead of appreciating its beauty. She wrote how “a monster with a glass” objectively observes and quantifies a flower’s stamens. This describes science’s aim to classify the natural world and put everything in categories. 

Emily also wrote in the poem that “it’s very mean of Science” to refer to a particular star as “Arcturus”. From this part of poem 70, Emily may be referring to how science removed the “magic” of heavenly bodies by classifying and describing them. Before science, or at least the scientific approach to heavenly bodies, stars were mysterious objects that individuals looked at with awe. However, advances in astronomy have allowed scientists to define a star and describe its physical characteristics. Poem 70 showcases Emily’s attempt to criticize the cold scientific approach to an individual’s unique perception.

Despite criticizing science, it is important to note that Emily respected the field. Her defiance of science is not an attempt to invalidate its societal role but a critique of how it reveals the mysteries of the universe; making it dull. Emily understood that science allows humans to understand the universe and themselves (Harbster). While she chastised the scientific approach, she was also interested in it since it broadens human knowledge. In Poem 632, the one starting with “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—”, Emily described the significance of the brain and scientific inquiry (Harbster). Emily described the brain as something that is beyond anything; a powerful tool that one can use to analyze and observe the natural world. While she did not mention the term “science”, she implied the approach to scientific inquiry. Through poem 632, Emily expressed the importance and power of the human mind.

Defiance of Religious Devotion

As mentioned earlier, Emily refused to become a devoted Christian. She did not want to join the church since it would limit her access to the world (“Emily Dickinson and the Chruch”). While she did not directly refute faith, some of her poems raised questions regarding religion. One of these is poem 1545, a piece that began with the line “The Bible is an antique Volume”. In this poem, Emily described the Bible as an old object that “faded men” wrote. One can interpret “faded men” as past individuals who are now insignificant. Through this interpretation, the poem conveys the message that the Bible, its authors, and its content are now insignificant. If “faded men” wrote the book, then their message should also be “faded” since the world has changed.

There is also poem 376, a piece that presented a direct question about faith. The poem’s first two lines were, “Of Course–I prayed– / And did God care?”, asking the readers a question regarding God. The poem implies that the author, Emily, prayed to God but did not receive any answer. She compared God’s concern for her to a bird stamping its foot in the air–meaning nothing. Emily also described faith as a “smart misery” that was worse than being left in the “Atom’s Tomb”. “Atom’s Tomb” can have various interpretations but it may be a reference to Jesus’ tomb. Poem 376 is a complex and confusing piece, however, one of its possible messages is that faith often leads to nothing.

Similar to her poems on science, Emily did not only write pieces that questioned faith. She also wrote poems, such as poem 915, that romanticized religion. Poem 915 begins with the line “Faith–Is The Pierless Bridge”, indicating that faith connects humans to the unknown; that with faith, humans can see things beyond the naked eye. Emily describes faith as a necessity for humans. Relating this to her poems that defy science, one can infer that faith is necessary so that humans can see the world beyond its physical characteristics. Poem 915 conveys the message that faith makes the world more meaningful.

Defiance in Poem 384

Poem 384 is one of the poems where Emily directly talked about freedom and defiance. The poem’s first line is “No Rack can torture me”, a phrase that describes Emily and her works accurately. In the poem, she described the character as an individual that no one can harm since there is a tougher body underneath. The poem also described the concepts of captivity and liberty as consciousness. This may mean that Emily perceives the concept as states of the mind. She may be trying to imply that an individual can only be free or captivated if their mind is also in that state. So despite physical restrictions, one’s freedom relies on their state of mind.

Emily’s life and methods emulated this concept. Her lifestyle and ideas came from her own observations, decisions, and conclusions. She did not hesitate to challenge the norms and definitions of poetry which led to the unique form of her works ((“Emily Dickinson”[PoetryFoundation]). Even her ideas changed over time, as seen in her poems. She chastised science while appreciating its value; she criticized faith but understood its role. Her defiance is not just a rejection of definitions and concepts, but the acceptance of a complex and changing universe.

Conclusion

Emily Dickinson’s poems manifested her defiance of societal traditions. She challenged science, faith, and other concepts through her poetry and gave her own definitions of the topics. She approached life as if she were outside looking in; observing the world with unbiased eyes. Emily called out the things she disliked and praised the ones she appreciated. She defied aspects of science and faith but remained respectful to their contributions. Even the structure of her poetry defied traditional forms, such as that of sonnets . Emily’s poems expressed her defiance of established concepts through an indifferent lens observing the universe.

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Works Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 70”. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/arcturus-is-his-other-name . Accessed July 13, 2022.

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 376”. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/of-course-i-prayed. Accessed July 13, 2022.

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 384”. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/no-rack-can-torture-me. Accessed July 13, 2022.

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 632”. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/the-brain-is-wider-than-the-sky. Accessed July 13, 2022.

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 915”. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/faith-is-the-pierless-bridge . Accessed July 13, 2022.

Dickinson, Emily. “Poem 1545. Poetry Verse. n.d. https://www.poetryverse.com/emily-dickinson-poems/the-bible-is-an-antique-volume. Accessed July 13, 2022.

“Emily Dickinson and the Church”. Emily Dickinson Museum. n.d. https://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org/emily-dickinson/biography/special-topics/emily-dickinson-and-the-church/. AccessedJuly 13, 2022.

“Emily Dickinson”. Mount Holyoke College. n.d. https://www.mtholyoke.edu/175/gallery/emily-dickinson . Accessed July 13, 2022.

“Emily Dickinson”. Poetry Foundation. n.d. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/emily-dickinson. Accessed July 13, 2022.

Harbster, Jennifer. “Emily Dickinson and the Science of Poetry”. Library of Congress, 2013. https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/2013/06/emily-dickinson-and-the-science-of-poetry/#:~:text=Like%20many%20of%20the%20transcendentalist,the%20human%20role%20within%20it. Accessed July 13, 2022.

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