If Emily Dickinson were alive today, she’d definitely be a Swiftie.
Fans of Taylor Swift praise the poetic descriptions of love, heartbreak, and longing that appear in her latest album, evermore, and Taylor’s narrative songwriting is both relatable and creative in its subjects and themes. With songs like “marjorie” or “dorothea” that involve her family members or fictional characters, Taylor draws from real-life experiences to craft stories that win her praise from her fan base and music critics alike.
Her most important lyrical work in evermore, though, may be her references to one famous — and often misunderstood — poet.
Emily Dickinson was no stranger to the love and angst that Taylor sings about. Considered one of the most influential American poets, Dickinson lived from 1830 to 1886 in Amherst, Massachusetts and, following her death, garnered a reputation as a solitary woman that never left her room in her later years. One of the most interesting elements of her life concerns her relationship with her sister-in-law and close friend, Sue Gilbert, who was a “central source of inspiration, love, and intellectual and poetic discourse” for Dickinson (Hart and Smith). A popular conclusion made about their writing to and about each is that Dickinson was in love with Sue at one point in her life, but any possible romance between them was cursed: Sue was married to Dickinson’s brother, and romantic relationships between women were not socially accepted at the time.
Popular fan theories about evermore claim that Taylor references Dickinson throughout the album; these theories consider the singer’s intentional release dates, her quarantine activities, and her past literary references.
evermore was announced on December 10, which is Dickinson’s birthday — knowing Taylor and her tendency to drop clues about her music releases, this choice of date is hardly a coincidence. evermore was recorded during the COVID-19 lockdown period of 2020, so fans think Taylor occupied her time watching the binge-worthy Dickinson, an Apple TV+ series described as a coming-of-age retelling of the poet’s life. Taylor is good friends with Hailee Steinfeld, who plays Emily on the show; in supporting her friend’s series, Taylor might have been inspired by Emily and Sue’s relationship. Fans have also made observations about Taylor’s knowledge of famous poets based on her song “the lakes” from her album folklore, so it isn’t surprising that songs like “ivy” and “evermore” on evermore depict the same yearning that the real Emily and Sue probably knew — pun intended — all too well.
Because Taylor’s lyrics tell stories of forbidden love affairs and letters written to the fire, it’s easy to imagine Dickinson having the indie-pop album on repeat during her own Sad Girl Autumn.
If the characters of Emily and Sue are the subjects of “ivy,” Taylor imagines their relationship as full of love and devotion from Sue’s perspective. Ivy, as a plant, has been known to symbolize “friendship” or “reciprocal tenderness” (Seaton). Taylor writes about ivy growing and covering the song’s speaker, which demonstrates the closeness that Emily feels for Sue. The symbolic meaning of ivy could also be Taylor’s way of drawing connections between her lyrics and Dickinson’s poem, “One Sister have I in our house —”. The poem shows how Dickinson thought of Sue as a “most beloved friend, influence, muse, and adviser” (Smith). Dickinson uses the same kind of plant imagery when talking about Sue: “Still in her Eye / The Violets lie.” Violets have historically been considered lesbian symbols because of their presence in Sappho’s poetry and their use as identifiers for women who did not plan to marry (“Gay Symbols”). These examples of symbols in Taylor’s lyrics and Dickinson’s poem suggest a relationship that went well beyond friendship.
“ivy” also concludes that this relationship is filled with angst — “spring breaks loose, but so does fear.” Taylor comments on the heartache that Emily and Sue must have felt, and she repeats this idea of pain in the chorus: “My pain fits in the palm of your freezing hand / Taking mine, but it’s been promised to another.” These lyrics connect to “One Sister have I in our house —” and the lines “But up and down the hills / I held her hand the tighter — / Which shortened all the miles —.” Taylor references hand-holding in order to express the same sense of comfort that Dickinson herself writes about having with Sue. “ivy’s” lyrics communicate both the pain from the war-like and fire-like nature of Emily and Sue’s relationship and the perpetual love between them by adapting material from Dickinson’s own poetry.
Taylor tells the tumultuous story of Emily and Sue to listeners through her references to Dickinson’s language. She gets the name of her album and the song “evermore” from “One Sister have I in our house —,” which ends with the line, “Sue, forevermore!” This concept of eternity is present throughout Taylor’s album. In “evermore,” the lyrics are from Emily’s point of view; the poet writes letters “addressed to the fire,” which refers to Dickinson’s request for her writing to be burned upon her death. “evermore” explores themes of love lost and describes a speaker who concludes that her “pain would be for / Evermore,” though by the end of the song, she is comforted by thoughts of her lover being present during times of hardship; the narrative flips to reflect the speaker’s newfound strength in feeling that “this pain wouldn’t be for / Evermore.” Much like Emily and Sue’s real correspondence, “evermore” is sentimental and full of longing.
Though Emily Dickinson may seem like a literary figure from long ago, Taylor Swift proves that she was just a normal girl affected by the same feelings of love and heartbreak that we all can relate to. If Emily really was in love with her best friend, Sue, then Taylor’s music would surely be included on a yearning Spotify playlist, aptly named “forevermore.”
Dickinson, Emily. “One Sister have I in our house.” 1858, Emily Dickinson Archive.
“Gay Symbols Through the Ages.” The Alyson Almanac: A Treasury of Information for the Gay and Lesbian Community. Alyson Publications, 1989, pp. 99-100.
Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, editors. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson. Paris Press, 1998.
magiccereal. “Ivy is about Sue Gilbert Dickinson and Emily Dickinson.” Tumblr, 11 Dec. 2020, https://this-big-wide-city.tumblr.com/post/637260618252025857/ivy-is-about-sue-gilbert-dickinson-and-emily.
reddituser5639. “theory introduction: emily dickinson in evermore (ivy theory).” Reddit, 9 Jan. 2021, www.reddit.com/r/TaylorSwift/comments/ku6jv8/theory_introduction_emily_dickinson_in_evermore/.
Seaton, Beverly. The Language of Flowers: A History. University of Virginia Press, 2012.
Swift, Taylor. evermore. Republic Records, 2020.
———. “ivy.” evermore. Republic Records, 2020.
———. “evermore.” evermore. Republic Records, 2020.
— Riley O’Mearns (MA ’23)