Date of Thesis



Emily Dickinson’s poetry and correspondence constitute one of the most significant contributions to the literary canon. Dickinson’s singular voice and her unconventional punctuation and wordplay have elicited rich scholarship in a number of literary and theoretical methodologies. Formal studies of her dash use, theoretical readings of her work through women’s and gender studies lenses, and the recent “material poetics” (Kreider) emphasis are just a few areas of scholarship; but missing, in large part, from these critical approaches is one grounded simultaneously in literary and music theory. Though some musicological scholarship exists that examines composers’ settings of her poems, I argue that Dickinson’s use of musical language and allusions stems from and is informed by her broader musical background as an amateur pianist situated within nineteenth-century music consumption/performance practices. Within this context, Dickinson’s philological complexities and formal conventions in her poetry are best illustrated through the music theory concept of polyvalence, which is an instance of a harmonic gesture acting in two or more functions at the same time. Primarily through this polyvalence, Dickinson’s poetics cannot be separated into “literary” and “musical” writing(s) and reading(s), but rather her blended approach exemplifies a polymodal creative practice I term “musical poetics.” Finally, within the subset of polymodality as a neurological phenomenon, I posit a hermeneutic study of synaesthetic/chromesthetic aspects of Dickinson’s well-documented medical history and her texts. Synaesthesia, spelled with an “a” to distinguish it from the literary convention, is a complete and individualized polymodality of the senses, such as one’s seeing color for sound (chromesthesia) or tasting certain words. Due to Dickinson’s own eye problems, her musical background, her use of musical form, and her musical references/allusions, I suggest that she surpasses the realm of the figurative and instead enacts her own synaesthesia within her work. Dickinson’s use of synesthetic language becomes synaesthetic, an individualized, solipsistic experience rendered by the polymodality of the poetic and the musical mediums, and, within those, her manipulation of each medium’s spatial components.


Emily Dickinson, 19th century poetry, Synaesthesia, Music in literature

Access Type

Honors Thesis (Bucknell Access Only)

Degree Type

Bachelor of Arts



First Advisor

Saundra Morris