"On a Columnar Self" by Emily Dickinson


Though little known during her life, Emily Dickinson is held to be one of the most influential figures in American poetry. Frequently her poems depart from poetic conventions of her time, including short lines rather than longer lines in standardized structures, lack titles (requiring later editors to title her poems with the first lines), and employ unconventional punctuation and grammar. She was considered an eccentric during her lifetime (by the end of her life she rarely ventured outdoors) and the bulk of her work was discovered and published only after her death. In this particular work, Dickinson materializes an abstract idea. She likens the hard-to-define concept of self to the sturdiness of a stone column.

On a Columnar Self —
How ample to rely
In Tumult — or Extremity —
How good the Certainty

That Lever cannot pry —
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction — That Granitic Base —
Though None be on our Side —

Suffice Us — for a Crowd —
Ourself — and Rectitude —
And that Assembly — not far off
From furthest Spirit — God —

Reflection Questions

  1. What features of a column does Dickinson relate to the concept of the self? 
  2. What elements of wordplay does Dickinson employ to communicate her message? 
  3. How does the unusual punctuation of this poem add to its meaning? 
  4. How does Dickinson play with the more traditional elements of poetry (like rhyming conventions)?

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