Before I Got My Eye Put Out – The Poetry of Emily Dickinson: Crash Course English Lit #8

Hi I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature, and
today we’re gonna talk about this lady, Emily Dickinson. By the way we don’t have a book today cause
she’s on my Nook. Emily Dickinson was a great 19th Century American poet who- Mr. Green! Mr. Green! I already know everything
about her: she was a recluse and you can sing all of her poems to the tune of “I’d like
to buy the world a coke”, like: [sings] “because I could not stop for death, he kindly stopped
for me”‘ – Stop, Me from the Past, you cannot sing! Fortunately,
your inability to sing does insulate us from copyright claims, because I, for one, did
not recognize that as “If I could buy the world a coke.” Also, Dickinson’s
meter is more complicated than you’re making it out to be, but yes, you could sing most
of her poems to “If I could buy the world a Coke”, also, “Yellow Rose of Texas”. More importantly, these poems have a lot to
say about the relationship between death and life, between faith and doubt, between the
power of god and the power of individuals, so let’s focus on that, because it actually
might change your life and stuff. [Theme Music] So Joyce Carol Oats once called Emily Dickinson
“The most paradoxical of poets, the very poet of paradox”, and this can really frustrate
students and literary critics alike, particularly when Dickinson seems to contradict herself
within a single poem. Take, for example, this bit of light verse.
”Faith’ is a fine invention when gentlemen can see – but microscopes are prudent in an
emergency”. So this seems like a pretty pro-science, anti-religion poem right? I mean, faith is
put in quotation marks and called an invention. But she also implies the possibility of a
different and valuable kind of sight, only available to some people at some times, “when”
gentlemen “can” see. And this is where is becomes important to look at how Dickinson,
for lack of a better phrase, “sees” sight. Dickinson often imagines seeing as a sort
of power, so much so that seeing, not just literal sight, but also the ability to witness
and observe and understand, becomes the central expression of the self. Like her famous poem
that begins “I heard a fly buzz when I died” ends with the line “I could not see to see”
associating the lack of sight, with death itself. Dickinson also often played with the fact
that this “I” and this “eye” sound the same. Her poem beginning, “Before I got my eye put
out” is about death, for instance, not just monocularizaton. In that poem, she clearly
associates sight not just with the power to observe but ownership. She writes, “But were
it told to me, today, that I might have the sky for mine, I tell you that my heart would
split, for size of me – the meadows – mine – the mountains – mine -“.
Of course in 19th century America, the idea that an eye, possibly a female eye, could
own the mountains, the meadows, and the sky was a little bit radical. I mean, all the
stuff was supposed to be under the control of God, not any human being who could see
it. All this is made even more complex and interesting
by the fact that Dickinson’s poems sounded like hymns, and throughout her life you can
see her faith waxing and waning in her poetry. In short, I don’t think you can make easy
conclusions about microscopes and faith in Dickinson’s poetry, but that’s precisely what’s
so important about it. Dickinson’s work reflects a conflicted American
world view. I mean, we’re a nation of exceptional individuals who believe that we control our
success and our happiness, but we are also more likely to profess a belief in an omnipotent
god than people in any other industrialized nation. All right, I know you guys want all the creepy,
macabre details of Dickinson’s biography so let’s go to the thought bubble. So, Emily
Dickinson was born in 1830 to a prominent family. Her father because a US congressman,
and lived her whole life in Massachusetts. She was haunted, by what she called, the menace
of death throughout her life. Although, then again, who isn’t? Between 1858 and 1865, Dickinson
wrote nearly 800 poems, but she also became increasingly confined to her home in those
years, and eventually, rarely left her room. She usually talked to visitors from the other
side of a closed door, and didn’t even leave her room when her father’s funeral took place
downstairs. Dickinson published few than a dozen poems
in her lifetime. In fact, no one knew that she’d been nearly so prolific until her sister discovered
more than 1800 poems after Emily’s death in 1886. Dickinson was considered an eccentric in Amherst,
and known locally for only wearing white when she was spotted outside the home. In fact,
her only surviving article of clothing is a white cotton dress. This image of a pale
wraith clad all in white is a symbol of the reclusive, brilliant poet, but it’s worth
noting that for Dickinson, white was not the color of innocence, or purity, or ghosts.
It was the color of passion and intensity. “Dare you see a soul at the white heat? Then
crouch within the door,” she once wrote. She called red, the color most associate with
passion, “fire’s common tint.” For Dickinson, the real, true rich life of a soul even if it was physically
sheltered burned white hot. Thanks thought bubble. Oh, it’s time for the open letter?
An open letter to the color white. But, first let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh, it’s a Dalek. Stan, more flagrant pandering to the Whovians. Dear White, you are a complicated and symbolic
— AH! DALEK! They’re not very bright. So, white you’re often associated with purity,
like wedding dresses. You can symbolize heaven, or the creepy infinite nowhere where parts
of Harry Potter, and all of Crash Course Humanities take place. But, many 19th century writers
inverted those associations. Like, Melville’s famous great white wall of whale, that terrifying
blankness of nature. And to Dickinson, white, you were the color of passion and intensity.
This reminds us that our symbolic relationships aren’t fixed. We are creating them as we go,
communally. I mean, other than Daleks, which are universally terrifying no matter what
color they come in. Best wishes, John Green. Okay, let’s take a close look at a poem we’ve
already mentioned, sometimes called Poem 465, and sometimes known by its first line “I heard
a fly buzz when I died,”. Speaking of which, here in the studio we’ve had a genuine plague
of flies in the last few weeks. I mean, in the lights up there, there are thousands of
fly carcasses. Okay, let’s out aside the fly carcasses, and read a poem together about
flies. 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 – I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly – With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me – And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see – Okay, first let’s talk about the dashes. Some
critics think that Dickinson’s use of dashes as punctuation is just eccentric handwriting,
or else an accident. I mean, they point out that Dickinson also similar dashes, for instance,
in her cake recipes. Others argue that the use of dashes are a typographical attempt
to symbolize the way the mind works, or that the dash is used as a punctuation stronger than a
comma but weaker than a period. Regardless though, the appearance of a dash at the end of this poem at
the moment of death is a very interesting choice. So, in this poem the speaker is dying, or
I guess, has died in a still room surrounded by loved ones. A will is signed, and then
the fly with a “blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz -” comes between the light and the speaker.
This makes it so the narrator cannot see to see, and by now you know what happens in Dickinson
poems when people can’t see. They’re dead. So, Dickinson was just a smidge obsessed with
death, which means she got to imagine death in a lot of different ways: as a suitor, as
a gentle guide, but here death is a buzzing fly. So, everyone in the room is waiting for
the arrival of “the king”, which before Elvis took over the title in 1958 was a reference
to God. But, instead of the quiet, peaceful arrival of God they’re expecting it’s a dirty
little fly with “uncertain stumbling buzz” that gets between the narrator and the light. So, this poem features Dickinson at her most formal.
The lines are very iambic (John speaks rhythmically): “I heard a fly buzz when I died the stillness
in the room,”, and they alternate between tetrameter, four feet, and trimeter, three
feet. The rhyme scheme throughout the poem is ABCB,
which means that the first line ends with one sound, the second line with yet another,
the third line with another still, and then the fourth line rhymes with the second line. But, Dickinson employs her famous slant rhymes
here. Like in the first stanza, “room” is matched with “storm”. In the second, “be”
with “fly”. These words sort of, almost rhyme like “room” and “storm” both end in /m/ sounds.
“Be” and “fly both end in hard vowel sounds, but they don’t rhyme. This discomforting lack
of closure is a hallmark of Dickinson’s poetry, also of most of my romantic relationships. Only in the final stanza, when death comes
do we get a full rhyme. “Me”, the eye, is rhymed with “see” the thing the eye can no
longer do. So, is this a peaceful death? Hardly. I mean, the stillness in the room is broken
by the buzzing fly, and yet with that final full rhyme, Dickinson offers us a bit of peace and
closure that we didn’t get in the first two stanzas. To return to an old theme, even though we
live in an image drenched culture, this is a good reminder that language is made out
of words, and it might sound like over reading to you to say that a full rhyme brings peace.
But, I’m remind of the story of Mozart’s children playing a series of unfinished scales in order
to taunt their father, who would eventually have to go to the piano and finish them. Poetry isn’t just a series of images. It’s
rhythmic and it’s metric, and we crave the closure of a good rhyme at the end of a poem.
That’s why sonnets end with couplets. Dickinson gives us that closure, and the she gives us
a Jose Saramago-ine dash. The poet of paradox, still haunting us. Thanks for watching our
Crash Course Literature Mini Series. Next week, we begin a year of learning about US
History together. [Libertage]
[explosions and patriotic guitar riffs] Now begins the complaining by non-Americans
that we’re shallow and self-interested and call ourselves Americans, even though in fact,
this is America. But even my friends, if you don’t live here the history of the United States
matters to you because we are always meddling in your affairs. Thanks for watching. See
you next week. Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Miller. Our script supervisor is Meredith Danko. The associate producer is Danica Johnson,
and the show is written by me. Every week instead of cursing, I’ve used the
name of writers I like. That tradition is ending, but a new one will begin next week.
If you have questions about today’s video, you can ask them down there in comments, and
be answered by our team of literature professionals including Stan’s mom. Thanks for watching, and as
we say in my hometown, “Don’t forget to be awesome!”


  1. "Between 1858 and 1865, Emily Dickinson wrote over 800 poems."

    Sure, she was becoming more of a recluse at that time, but still, over 800 poems in seven years? Wow. And here it's been six years since I started writing my novel and I'm only on the second draft.

  2. I'm kind of a poet myself, but I don't think my poems are very good. Here's a limerick I made (it's actually two limericks talking about one thing):

    You see a girl in messy room,
    Clutching a very old broom.
    I guess you could say
    That this isn’t her day,
    But is that what we can assume?

    You can’t tell from what you’ve seen,
    But she actually loves to clean.
    There’s no dirt on her dress,
    And she isn’t a mess.
    …You know what I mean?

    This one just randomly came while I was thinking about writing something. I actually hate cleaning, but I guess I was thinking that some people like cleaning. By the way, one of the morals of this is that appearances can be deceiving.

  3. I learnt from Moriarty that it was a dying Bach who couldn't stand to hear his son play to wrong let's so he stood up to finish it himself???

  4. I wonder why she hardly ever left her room, when she thought that 'seeing' (or understanding or acknowledging or whatever) is such an important concept. I get that 'seeing' doesn't need to be always so literal, but I think in order to better understand and observe other lives and the world, one could have tried talking to more, or meeting new people, or traveling. Could anyone help me? Am I misunderstanding something?

  5. does "Blue" in "I Heard a Fly Buzz" signify something divine or angelic? is the Fly here just a dirty little fly or something more? 🙂

  6. I don’t understand a lot of things that authors write. they seem like really deep and a metaphor for something but I CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT. someone teach me how to understand things

  7. Re: US History
    "always meddling in your affairs" 😂
    or as someone I heard once put it- Unilateral (mis)adventures

  8. Oh by the way Thorough & Walt Whitman were walking through the Boston Commons ,Thorough told ,as talking about Leaves Of Grass it will never be excepted Ever! ..because of bisexual mentions ..Well Ta Da ! Bite Me Through ..Love It..just saying True Story

  9. I had the impression she was rather bright and cheerful (with a bit of wistfulness). But reading some of her poems today i get sort of the opposite impression- dark, brooding, heavy.

  10. The Dash… I don't know if you still read these but I have a theory. Say you are writing a poem and you want to write a sentence that is almost completely irrelevant but it still relates to the previous line. Obviously, it's difficult to add it in. Maybe Dickenson put the dashes so frequently to indicate that there's more which isn't on paper or there's more than meets the eye.

  11. She was obsessed with death..her creations were mysterious and somehow expounded death in more personified forms "because I could not stop death"was an example

  12. what about her poem of 419 "We Grow Accustomed to the light"? I would like to see an analysis of this poem explained.

  13. The King May have traditionally meant God, but it seems more likely to mean Death personified. Dickinson was not exactly traditional, as you implied in the video, John. Likely, she was using that association to imply that death was the real King in the mind of this poem’s speaker. Nice bit of controversy for Miss Emily there. Good course, as usual!

  14. Enjoyed this well-done video on the inimitable "Moth of Amherst", literary lioness Emily Dickinson…one of my favorite influences 🙂

  15. I love her poems. So deep and powerful. I've read a few modern poetry and to put it bluntly they suck. Most modern poems feel like shallow feel good garbage. Some of them don't even rhyme.

  16. 8:08 "This discomforting lack of closure is a hallmark of Dickinson's poetry, also of most of my romantic relationships"
    Hahaha same Mr Green.

  17. When she talks about sight and eyes she’s talking about the imagination and the brain. For instance, before I got my eye put out is talking about a singular eye, but why? You can still see with one eye, not as well, but you can. You can’t see without your brain tho and to Dickinson the sight of the mind was much more valuable than the sight of the eyes because this sight was simply a servant of the wants and needs of the mind with its own sight.

  18. I didn’t recognize that it was John Green, until I read the caption and I was like “wtf?! John Green?!”

    Well, i met him as a writer not as a teacher in youtube

  19. Mr Green, Mr Green! Can you pleaseee make a video on The Tempest by William Shakespeare? It would be of a huge help! And thank you very much for your videos, they save my life

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