"This is My Letter to the World" Poem Analysis
Emily Dickinson’s “This Is My Letter to the World” is a work of metafiction; that is, it is literature that is consciously self-referential and highlights rather than conceals the work as a created piece of art. In the first line, the speaker makes clear exactly what this text is: a letter. You could argue therefore that this is not a poem at all but exactly what it purports to be. However, it is difficult to brush aside the fact that this text was published as a poem and not sent to somebody through the mail.
The first line, “This is my letter to the world,” anticipates questions from the reader: What will this letter say? To whom does “the world” refer? Why does the speaker of the poem feel the need to write this letter? These are all questions to think about while reading the poem and doing an analysis.
Initially, the letter's meaning might be unclear. A literal reading of the poem will help reveal its surface meaning. This is a good time to use a dictionary. For example, read lines 5 and 6: “Her message is committed / To hands I cannot see.” You might think that the word “committed” here means to be obliged -- in which case the clause does not make much sense. However, if you look in the dictionary, you will find a meaning that better suits the context of the poem: to entrust. That is, Nature’s message is entrusted to invisible hands. A literal translation of the poem into prose could be, “I wrote a letter to the world even though the world never wrote anything to me. I wrote about what Nature told me, and I am entrusting it to an invisible audience. Please, don't judge me harshly because of what I have written.”
Before you can figure out who might be the recipients of the letter, there is still at least one mystery that remains, even in a prose translation: What are the “invisible hands,” or to whom do they belong? At first thought, you can only deduce that even though these hands are unknown or invisible to her, she still trusts, or has enough faith in them to deliver this message to the recipients. Of course, these could simply be the hands of the mail carrier, but it would be difficult to argue that is the case. A better reading might be gleaned by referring to the idiomatic phrase, “It is in God’s hands.” Moreover, if that is the case, perhaps we dealing with a spiritual message rather than a written one.
The speaker of the poem -- the fictional writer of the letter -- is definitely showing it to someone: He or she chooses to begin with a phrase of presentation: “This is. ...” Is the writer showing it to you, the reader? Alternatively, could it be meant for someone else? The speaker does state that the letter is written “to the world,” but does that mean it is intended for everybody? However, as seen in line 7, the writer directly addresses the recipients of the letter as his or her own “sweet countrymen.” Who you decide these people are or what country they share -- worldly or otherwise -- will greatly affect your analysis of the poem.
Why Say Anything?
In any poetry analysis, you should attempt to decipher the speaker’s intent: In this case, why did he or she write the letter? What does the speaker hope to accomplish by sharing the letter? A hint can be found in the last line of the poem: “Judge tenderly of me!” Has the speaker done something wrong that would necessitate the forgiveness of his or her countrymen? Alternatively, is the speaker suffering alone for a hidden sin? Although it is almost never wise to automatically equate the speaker of the poem with the poet, if you do some biographical research on Dickinson, you will discover that she was a shut-in for most of her life and, even though she was deeply religious, even stopped attending church by the time she was 30. This fact may influence your final verdict on the poem.
Based in Montreal, Emily Valentine has been editing academic papers and writing short stories since 2001. She is a contributing writer to Synonym.com, and various other websites. She holds an Honors Bachelor of Arts in English literature from the University of Toronto. Her specialties include writing fiction and nonfiction, and the history of the English language.