portrait of Emily Dickinson


a digital humanities project

our project: historical and linguistic context


Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was an American poet known for her experimentation with poetic style and her solitary lifestyle. Not becoming a prolific writer until after her death, Dickinson nonetheless wrote roughly 1,800 poems throughout her life. Many of these poems were addressed to a multitude of recipients — often some of her only communication with people outside the walls of her home.

Much of Dickinson's time, then, was spent writing. Her work features recurring, elaborate themes such as nature, religion, emotion, and the craft of poetry itself. Furthermore, she is also known for experimenting freely with linguistic features in her poems, often bending the rules of grammar and syntax at the time, and frequently ignoring traditional poetic conventions. Overall, her style is generally characterized as elliptical, lyrical, and eccentric.


In terms of linguistics, elision or ellipsis is the omission of words. More specifically, it is a linguistic phenomenon in which some part of a construction is missing so that the form of what is actually read (in the case of poetry) does not align with the form it should have based on its understood meaning. When a word or words are elided (omitted), the sentence may possibly become ungrammatical, ambiguous, or sometimes even incomprehensible. However, in a lot of cases, the missing material is recoverable based on linguistic context, which is why we are able to retrieve the elided parts to recreate what the sentence, in its entirety, could look like. Examples will be provided below.

Emily Dickinson employs ellipsis liberally in her work, often creating both syntactic and semantic ambiguity, which was a main focus of what we wanted to research and explore.

So for this project, we analyzed Dickinson's poetry for instances of ellipsis that fall into three categories (nominal, verbal, and clausal), as well as an "ambiguous" fourth category:

Nominal: A noun or noun phrase is elided.

For example, Dickinson wrote in an 1859 poem that we analyzed, "Tenderly took it up from toil." There is elision in this sentence because a noun (phrase) is omitted. If the sentence was complete, it would likely read "The angels tenderly took it up from toil" due to previous context in the poem. Because a noun is the part of speech that was elided, this is considered nominal ellipsis.

Verbal: A verb or verb phrase is elided.

In an 1858 poem, Dickinson wrote, "A little boat adrift!" Elision is present here because a verb was omitted. If the sentence was complete, it would probably read something like, "A little boat is adrift." Because a verb is what was elided, this is considered verbal ellipsis.

Clausal: An entire clause is elided.

See this line from an 1870 Dickinson poem: "How often foundering at sea." Again, this sentence is technically a fragment because it lacks a main elements of a complete sentence or clause: a subject and auxiliary verb which would connect the different parts of the sentence. If the sentence was complete, we suppose (by using context from earlier in the poem) that it would read "How often the mind is foundering at sea." "The mind is" would be a clause, because it consists of a subject (the mind) and a connecting verb (is). Thus, we consider this kind of elision to be clausal.

Ambiguous: It is unclear what part of speech is elided. Depending on how you interpret the sentence, elided material could be a clause, a noun, or a verb.

An 1863 Dickinson poem states, "Had he the offer of — ". Something is elided after "of," but it could be multiple different parts of speech. Thus, we have declared it to be ambiguous.

See our methods section for further explanation of how we handled ellipsis markup.


Our project

On Dickinson

On ellipsis

Note: We referenced these links to understand more about ellipsis and elision, both in general and in the context of Dickinson's work itself.