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Analysis of the Poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Billy Collins and a Summary of "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" is a poem that outrages some, confuses others and quietly pleases the rest. Since its publication in the magazine Poetry in February 1998, it has caused quite a stir.

In the 47 lines and 9 stanzas, Collins weaves in allusions to Emily Dickinson's work, using popular lines from her more well known poems.

In one sense, it is a love poem, an imagined scenario, where a modern male poet meets with one of his female inspirations from the past, enjoying a passionate encounter.

The accessible nature of Collins's work contrasts neatly with the more ambiguously complex lines created by Dickinson.

Feminists and others sympathetic to the cause of women have labelled it sensationalist and misogynist. Basically, the notion of a live, male poet wanting to undress a dead, female poet in a poem disgusts and shocks, despite the general understanding that the poem is an extended metaphor.

Here is a line from Mary Ruefle's book Madness, Rack, and Honey, 2012, collected lectures, which seems to sum up these feelings of yuckiness:

'Though the actions described in the poem couldn't be gentler, it is the idea here that uses force.'

She suggests that the poem tends toward rape, even if the language used by Collins is anything but rapacious.

The argument goes on and is likely to continue indefinitely. Emily Dickinson is one of the great, original poetic voices in the English language—to use her in such a way is, according to some, both outrageous and sacrilege.

  • In essence, those who feel the poem is an obscenity and an abuse of power and privilege, as well as poor in taste, tend to believe the idea is in itself abhorrent. They describe the poem as a cheap fantasy, nothing but titillation, thinly veiled vulgarity.
  • Those who think the poem is a work of art and therefore a valid vehicle as a metaphor tend to interpret it as a way of getting to know Emily Dickinson's poetry by removing the layers and becoming intimate with her work and mind, so to speak.

Here's Billy Collins himself explaining the reason why he wrote the poem:

I mean, I actually at one point, when there were so many books out about speculating particularly on Emily Dickinson's sexuality, you know, was she lesbian, was she celibate, did she have an affair, I was driven actually by all of that curiosity and speculation to write a poem called "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," in which I attempted, in a kind of playful way, to put the matter at rest by having sex with her.

So the poet is quite clear and candid in this interview answer he gave. The poem is his uniquely creative way of working through the issue of Emily Dickinson's sexuality, clearly a subject that interests many within the world of letters.

As with all poems, it's up to the reader to finally endorse or reject the lines, apply a personal censor or not, leave well enough alone, give it up as a bad job, or embrace and come to terms with it.

"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" by Billy Collins

First, her tippet made of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer's dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor.

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and moorings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything -
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house,
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

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Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

Here's a breakdown of the poem by each individual stanza.

First Stanza

The opening three lines involve the speaker removing the first item of clothing, a tippet, scarf or short shawl worn over the shoulders, made of tulle, a light fabric, almost a netting, similar to that of a ballet skirt. This is placed on a wooden chair back.

Emily Dickinson in her poem "Because I could not stop for Death" (Fr479) uses tippet and tulle in the 4th stanza:

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

So this is a clear allusion to one of her poems.

Second Stanza

The shortest stanza in the poem. Next comes the bonnet, a common enough item worn by almost all women in the mid to late nineteenth century. The bow ties up in a knot at the front, under the neck, and comes loose when pulled gently.

Again, there are poems written by Emily Dickinson with bonnets and bows in them. For example:

Glowing Is Her Bonnet (Fr106)

I sing to use the Waiting (Fr955A)

Third Stanza

Seven lines, a single sentence, continuing the process of the speaker disrobing the poet. Emily Dickinson's museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, comprised of two houses, one of which was the poet's residence, has on display the actual white dress worn by the reclusive writer.

There are more details in this stanza: the mother-of-pearl buttons for example are a part of that white dress. Note the hint of slight impatience as the buttons are undone one by one.

The use of simile . . . like a swimmer's dividing water . . . brings an alternative image into the scene as the hands move to part the fabric.

Emily Dickinson loved to wear white, and had a thing about it; perhaps for her it signified purity, innocence and simplicity. She mentions white in some of her poems:

“A solemn thing – it was – I said -/ A Woman – white – to be-”; “Dare you see a Soul at the ‘White Heat’?”; Mine – by the Right of the White Election!”

And in her letters, one of which portrays a death scene, while the other asks a question:

“eyes shut and a little white gown on, a snowdrop on my breast.”

“What would you do with me if I came ‘in white’?”

Fourth Stanza

A repeated seven lines, again a single sentence but this time addressed directly to the reader . . . You will want to know . . . the speaker slightly adjusting the perspective and inviting us in, like some narrator of a film documentary.

So there is the iconic poet at the window, looking down into the orchard, the dress fallen around her feet.

There are many poems by Emily Dickinson that contain the word window or windows (82 in total according to this website). She loved to look through them and out into the world at birds and trees and whatever.

Particularly interesting poems with windows (and orchards) include:

Fr218 You love me — you are sure —


I dwell in Possibility -

A fairer House than Prose -

More numerous of Windows -

Superior - for Doors -

and Fr 236 Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

Some keep the sabbath going to church –
I keep it, staying at home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –

Fifth Stanza

This is the stanza that most disgusts those who think the poem is in bad taste and obscene—the speaker attempting to lighten proceedings by going back in time as a polar explorer about to discover the 10% of Emily Dickinson above the surface, once the undergarments are removed.

Naturally, with the poem being an extended metaphor this fifth stanza is yet another aspect of the same theme: that of discovering and becoming intimate with the work of Emily Dickinson.

The poet herself used the idea of undressing in her own poem:

Fr 495

The Day undressed - Herself -

Her Garter - was of Gold -

Her Petticoat - of Purple plain -

Her Dimities - as old

Sixth Stanza

The tense changes. The speaker now looks back, into a notebook. The very thought—that the speaker recorded what went on between the two. Presumably this will remain a secret, an unknown . . . just as is the actual sexuality of the real Emily Dickinson. Not a single shred of direct evidence points straight at the subject.

The riding a swan into the evocative and provocative. And the mention of dashes relates to Emily Dickinson's use of the dash, prolific, unusual, as if her lines were read with very short breaths and small pauses.

Seventh Stanza

The speaker lets the reader know that it was indeed a sabbath (Sunday, day of rest and church), quiet, with a carriage passing the house, a fly in the windowpane. These last two mentions are from poems Emily Dickinson wrote.

Fr 479:

Because I could not stop for Death -

He kindly stopped for me -

The Carriage held but just Ourselves -

And Immortality.

And Fr 591:

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 -

These are two of her most popular poems, dealing with death, an absolute favourite topic of hers.

Eight Stanza

The silence enhances the sighs as the undressing continues. Check out this little-known poem by Emily Dickinson, Fr 1268:

A Word dropped careless on a Page

May stimulate an eye

When folded in perpetual seam

The Wrinkled Maker lie

Infection in the sentence breeds

We may inhale Despair

At distances of Centuries

From the Malaria -

This little poem has been a bit of a puzzle for analysts but suggests that words written down can be potent for many, many years, their effects sustaining, like a disease.

Ninth Stanza

Finally, the speaker loosens the corset to reveal...what? Lines of Emily Dickinson poems.


“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -

Fr 340 I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing - then -

Fr 764:

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners - till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away -

This repeated that line after line (termed anaphora) in this last stanza reinforces the idea of respect for Emily Dickinson's work, at least from the reader's perspective.


© 2020 Andrew Spacey


Rose McCoy on August 23, 2020:

Your thorough analyses never fail to amaze me; I don’t imagine anyone puts more work into their articles than you do. I loved this poem—especially the end! It made me laugh that he thought to reference some of her poems in such a way.

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