Introduction to Poetry


When Thomas Wentworth Higginson visited the American poet Emily Dickinson in 1870, she gave him the following definition of poetry:

"If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

If you were really so cold that no fire could ever warm you, or the top of your head were taken off, you would probably be dead. Of course this is not a literal description of what happens when she reads, but Emily Dickinson seems to view poetry as an experience so powerful that it opens up the reader’s brain. If you agree with her definition, you might enjoy a poem for the same reasons that film audiences enjoy horror films. She associates effective poems with intense and chilling sensations.

This poetry resource presents and explores poems with this theme in mind. Each poem is given with some contextualizing information, analysis, and questions to prompt further thought. Words or technical terms that may need further explanation are glossed (explained in the margin) as the resource progresses. If there are other words that you don’t know that aren’t glossed here, it’s also good to look these up. The poems are by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Horace Smith, John Keats, Emily Dickinson, Christina Rossetti, Abel Meeropol and Billie Holiday.


• To be introduced to new poets and a selection of poems from different literary periods
• To explore poems and understand meaning through analysis of poem structure and poet context

Some further reading you may find interesting....

Emily Dickinson's Letters - an archive of letters from 1891

Ode to a Nightingale - an
online copy of the John Keats poem ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ on the Poetry Foundation website

Resource activities


In this activity you will look at two poems called ‘Ozymandias’ by Shelley (1817) and Smith (1818). 


John Keats

This activity looks at the poem ‘The Living Hand’ by John Keats. 


Emily Dickinson

This activity looks at two poems by Emily Dickinson called ’There came a Wind like a Bugle’ and ’The Soul has Bandaged moments’.


Christina Rossetti

The poem featured in this activity is ‘The World’ by Christina Rossetti.


Strange Fruit

In this activity we will be looking at ‘Strange Fruit’ which became a famous song by Billie Holiday after being written as a poem by Abel Meeropol in 1930.  


Comparing Poems

You will be given some questions to act as prompts when comparing any two of the poems from the previous activities. 


Activity questions

  • Which poem did you find the most powerful?

Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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