Poems of Emily Dickinson

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The most persistent image of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) is that of the recluse, a woman whose creative endeavors were so hidden that even her sister Lavinia was taken aback by the amount of poems (currently estimated at 1,789) discovered shortly after her death. Like most myths, that of Dickinson as a recluse lacks subtlety but still has some truth to it. Biographical evidence shows that Dickinson stopped attending church and other public events in her twenties; after two enforced stays in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for eye treatment (in 1864 and 1865), she never again left the family house on Main Street, Amherst, and became extremely selective about receiving visitors. And her obituary (by her sister-in-law Susan Dickinson, thought to have known her better than most) acknowledged this domesticity as a willed arrangement, rather than something enforced by her father, caused by romantic disappointment, or resulting from mental distress—the three most common and erroneous explanations for her gradual withdrawal from civic life.

Such intense privacy makes Emily Dickinson's relation to history an oblique one: three other factors obscure it even further. First, Dickinson wrote lyrics, and though her earliest editors are often criticized for organizing her poems according to imposed categories (life, love, nature, and time and eternity), Dickinson often took as her subject areas of experience (is there more "than Love and Death?" she asked in L873; citations prefaced by "L" are to letter numbers in The Letters of Emily Dickinson) that she deemed to be essential, universal, and not culture dependent. Second, it is not always easy to reconstruct even the basic sense (who is speaking, what is being said) of some of Dickinson's best poems: there is a great deal of grammatical irregularity; standard punctuation is largely replaced by the dash; nouns and verbs are sometimes used interchangeably; normal syntax is often disrupted; and in addition to verbal play and innovation there are references to events that seem to derive from Dickinson's private history—events that are difficult and occasionally impossible to recover. Third, only ten of Dickinson's lyrics were printed, anonymously, in her lifetime, and there is no clear evidence that any appeared with her consent: unpublished poems intervene less directly in nineteenth-century concerns such as the abolition of slavery or the future of Native Americans than do, say, topical novels on these themes such as (respectively) Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) or Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona (1884).

Viewing history through the lens of Emily Dickinson entails a shift of focus: instead of systematic commentary on catastrophic events such as the Civil War, for example, one sees that she composed hundreds of poems from 1862 to 1865, more than at any other period in her life. Such a sustained and massive loss of life (in one battle, 23,000 men died) clearly affected her, but otherwise the war was treated in a variety of ways: directly and specifically in a few poems (P518 "When I was small, a Woman died" and P524 "It feels a shame to be Alive," both from 1863; citations prefaced by "P" are to poem numbers in The Poems of Emily Dickinson), but also more obliquely in phrases such as "Uniforms of snow" (P138) and "Bodiless Campaign" (P629). At still another remove is her contesting what is meant by terms such as "Liberty" (P524 again), "Defeat," and "Victory" (P704). Dickinson's characteristic procedure in such lyrics is to privatize, redirecting attention to inner conflicts (between faith and skepticism, for instance) or contrasting acts of military bravery with less visible struggles for meaning in the face of loss and death (as in P1325, "I never hear that one is dead"), in order to assert that individual lives were often wracked by pressures that were equally dramatic and worth recording.

Dickinson's fractured grammar and obscurity can also be read (though not solely) in ways that are inflected by developments in nineteenth-century America. If grammar derives from a belief in an ordered and rational universe, then it follows that its dislocation may be attributed in part to a breakdown of those certainties—either passively (through a weakening of faith in the ideology of American progress occasioned by the Civil War, for example) or actively (as a desire to produce new forms of writing that are appropriate to an American identity that was still very much in the process of definition).

Even Dickinson's celebrated isolation can be linked to nineteenth-century experiments in alternative lifestyles: Dickinson too wrote about herself, about nature, and about God (or his absence), but unlike Henry David Thoreau (in Walden, 1854) or Nathaniel Hawthorne (in The Blithedale Romance, 1852), she did so without publicity. Indeed, with Dickinson we need to adjust our equation of publication with the circulation of printed texts. Martha Nell Smith was the first to argue that Dickinson's habits of enclosing manuscript poems in letters, and sometimes as letters, to family, friends, neighbors, and strangers is significant: that five to six hundred poems were distributed this way reveals a profoundly social aspect to her aesthetic practice. And Dickinson did not confine herself to poetry. Those letters that survived number over a thousand, and her correspondents were often nationally eminent (including the newspaper owner and editor Samuel Bowles; the novelist Helen Hunt Jackson; Otis Lord, judge of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court; and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a New England abolitionist and man of letters).


A number of features in Dickinson's work are unusual by the standards of poetry written in her day—among them the primacy given to the dash and the habit of capitalizing nouns. She might have learned the latter in part at school: capitalizing nouns was a feature of the German she studied. But it also serves to suggest that a word is being deployed in a figurative or symbolic way or in ways that may include an everyday meaning but that gesture simultaneously in other directions. The dash is more complicated: letter and journal writers in the nineteenth century commonly used it instead of formal punctuation, and some authors (Sarah Fielding among them) wrote in the expectation that professionals would replace their dashes with more exact punctuation at a later stage in the process of editing and typesetting. But interpretations of the dash are mediated by aspects of Dickinson's biography. Some scholars feel that because Dickinson did not publish she did not have to be careful about her punctuation; others argue that Dickinson refused publication on the grounds that her use of the dash—a free and improvisational form of phrasing—would be compromised by inflexible standards in the publishing industry. Still others say that because the dashes in Dickinson's handwritten originals vary in length and angle, they are equivalent to elocutionary accents that direct how her work is to be read (with a falling dash suggesting pathos or sadness, for instance).

A noticeable feature in some poems is the powerful first line: P764, "My Life had stood – a loaded Gun"; P479, "Because I could not stop for Death"; and P591, "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died" are among the best known. Some seem directly challenging: P260, "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" and P401, "Dare you see a Soul at the 'White Heat'?" for instance. At one level, such openings can be understood as a rhetorical technique, designed to capture attention. But there are equally startling lines in other poems that do not appear only at the start, and there is evidence for supposing that they reflect a belief in how language—and not just poetry—works. A common denominator in some of Dickinson's most positive instances of reading or listening is a rendering of the experience in physical or elemental language—a propensity she shared with Susan Dickinson, who wrote of a variant of P124 "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" that it was "remarkable as the chain lightening . . . I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again" (note to L238). As Alfred Habegger points out, Susan's image of the lightning was repeated in P348, where the speaker longs for "the Art to stun myself / With Bolts – of Melody!" And note what seems close to admiration in the following (P477):

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The poem not only reports an experience; it seeks to reenact it through forceful, even violent, imagery, and through a perfect control of rhythm—which is why there are four dashes in line 11, preceded by mid-line dashes in lines 7, 8, and 10, delaying the movement of the verse at the same time as there is a delay in the process being described. (This is even more successfully realized in a later copy, P477B, where there are three dashes in line 8, followed by mid-line dashes in lines 9, 10, and 11.) This is a poetic, then—a statement of how language of any kind, successfully delivered, works on the reader. The scalping of the soul, and the references to shifting temperatures, tally with a statement attributed to Dickinson by her friend and correspondent Thomas Wentworth Higginson:

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Though what is being described here can be almost anything—sexual, literary, religious, even natural (dictionary definitions of "thunderbolt" include both lightning and the act of vehement censure or ecclesiastical denunciation)—it was certainly not unusual for nineteenth-century sermons to be composed, and responded to, in similar ways. In The New England Mind, Perry Miller likened one strain of preaching to "holy violence in the pulpit" (p. 301) and quoted a comparison between the start of a sermon and the opening bars of a piece of music. The speaker of P477 meshes both sets of metaphor: the "Hammers" in line 7 may take up the image of piano music established by the reference to "Keys" in the first stanza, but they are also tools capable of dealing a blow to the body (and of opening it up).

Dickinson seems to have learned a great deal from pulpit effectiveness: Charles Wadsworth (1814–1882), a Dickinson correspondent and celebrated preacher, made a lasting impression for this reason. Richard Sewall notes that "He fumbles at your Soul" might have been about Wadsworth, who twice visited the poet, but goes on to point out that Dickinson "had heard other great preachers and had been 'scalped' by them" (Sewall 2:450–451). Edwards Amasa Park (1808–1900), perhaps the leading theologian of his day, was one of them. In a letter to her brother Austin, Dickinson enthused about a sermon on Judas delivered by Park at Amherst's First Church on 20 November 1853: "I never heard anything like it, and dont expect to again, till we stand at the great white throne. . . . And when it was all over, and that wonderful man sat down, people stared at each other, and looked as wan and wild, as if they had seen a spirit" (L142). Park is useful because many of his directions on verbal usage are similar to Dickinson's description of the unnamed event in P477: if a sermon were to "merely charm the ear like a placid song," he argued, "it is not the identical essence which is likened to the fire and the hammer" (p. 95). The idea that successful oratory and writing somehow bypass the rational brain—but not the imagination or the affections—in order to strike home links Dickinson's view of language to nineteenth-century linguistic theories, especially those of Horace Bushnell and Park himself, who was associated with a theology of the feelings (the phrase derives from his lecture to a convention of Congregational ministers in Boston on 30 May 1850) that rejected a rational, scientific, approach to religious discourse—and especially to the Bible. Dickinson clearly agreed: in "The Bible is an antique Volume" (P1577), her speaker says that the best interpreter is the "warbling Teller"—the one who "captivates" through the spell of musical and poetic language. And Wadsworth wrote, "We are . . . killing the bird of heaven, that we may measure the tension of its muscle, and detect the secret of its fine mechanism" (p. 7). In P905, one of Dickinson's lyric selves adopted the image:

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Drawing attention to similarities between Wadsworth and Dickinson is not meant as a rehearsal of biographical speculations or—more properly—as an attribution of influence: it is simply a way of drawing attention to the fact that even the most apparently private of her poems may relate in significant ways to nineteenth-century codes, ideas or values that a reader in the twenty-first century may not always be aware of. Her use of meter and rhyme are a case in point. Dickinson's most common stanza is a four-line unit rhyming abcb and alternating between four and three beats, a quatrain that she inherited from the kinds of hymns featured in Isaac Watts's Hymns and Spiritual Songs (1707–1709). The significance of such borrowing has repeatedly been understood as embodying her opposition to religious or patriarchal orthodoxy. Certainly, it may represent a rejection of communal certainties, but it may also represent exactly the opposite—an alignment with a tradition of belief and a desire to continue that tradition in vibrant ways. By extension, modern readers often and mistakenly assume that hymn forms were static and limited; however, there were multiple combinations of meter and stanza, and about half of the rhymes in Watts are false. To interpret Dickinson's own looseness in rhyming as an implicit critique of the norms and values of established Christianity, as these are embodied in hymn forms, would therefore seem historically naive.


The social aspects of Dickinson's writing emerge from beneath its surfaces in the contexts of the words that she chose, for her vocabulary is saturated with terms derived from the cultural, ethnic, political, religious, and scientific issues of her day. For example, a contemporary reader of Dickinson's poems on butterflies and bees is easily lulled into seeing such scenes as sites of refuge. But nature in the nineteenth century was no longer an arena for pastoral retreat: Charles Darwin wrote about the same topics, as did scientists more local to Amherst—most important, Edward Hitchcock (1793–1864), professor of chemistry and natural history at Amherst College, and for ten years its president. Observing the life of plants and insects was one way in which nineteenth-century individuals attempted to fathom meaning or design in the lives of the world's species—explorations that were often seen as having implications for issues of race, class and forms of social behavior, organization and purpose. Even the title of Darwin's 1862 On the Various Contrivances by Which British and Foreign Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects, and on the Good Effects of Intercrossing can be viewed as having implications beyond its immediate subject matter—implications that also provide interesting contexts for Dickinson's many poems about flowers and their unregulated relations with bees.

Dickinson mentions Darwin twice in her letters, but he is not referred to by name in the poems. To Mrs. Elizabeth Holland, she regrets not having had a chance to part with her in private, then moves to a more abstract meditation on departures in general (acute loss or absence being a familiar preoccupation):

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Whether the target here is Darwin in person or Darwin as a representative of science as a whole is unclear, but the message seems fairly unambiguous: even the most assured or arrogant of knowledge systems cannot penetrate all of the mysteries of human existence. And in a later letter, Dickinson reports to Otis Lord that

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Again, it is not obvious from this remark that Dickinson had read Darwin—who did not actually discuss Christ in On the Origin of the Species (1859). Instead, she appears to be relying on conservative formulations of his ideas: this is the man who knows everything and nothing, she seems to suggest in her first remark. That Darwin is dismissed for having discarded the redeemer relates to his argument that human beings had a common and remote ancestry with primates, which undermined the scriptural plot of humans having descended from a single set of parents, who had then sinned, necessitating the intervention of a savior whose death redeemed their sins and allowed for the possibility of eternal life for their descendents.

In the nineteenth century, then, nature was a site about which there were competing claims of ownership and definition. Dickinson's birth and first years in Amherst coincided with the publication in London of Sir Charles Lyell's three-volume Principles of Geology (1830, 1832, and 1833), which refuted the traditional Christian view of the earth's formation as a fairly recent and divinely ordained phenomenon. Lyell further negated the idea of a single catastrophic flood that had covered the earth—thus calling into question yet another key element in the scriptural explanation of the world's formation. But many American Christians had already begun to move away from a belief in the literalness of the Bible, and just as many—including Lyell himself—had few problems in adjusting their faith to accommodate apparent advances in scientific thinking. Emily Dickinson's textbook on geology at Amherst Academy was Edward Hitchcock's Elementary Geology (1843): in early 1877, she recalled that when "Flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock's Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence—assuring me they lived" (L488). Certainly there is no obvious conflict between scientific observation and the idea of an afterlife here (though "when a child" might signify a distance which is not solely temporal, but also intellectual), and in many of her poems Dickinson used the return of flowers in the spring as an emblem of resurrection. "My Cocoon tightens – Colors teaze" (P1107) is one of several that appears to draw on Hitchcock's writings: an illustration from his Religious Lectures on Peculiar Phenomena in the Four Seasons (1850) shows a butterfly emerging from precisely such a cocoon.

Dickinson heard Hitchcock at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. At Mount Holyoke too she was classified as a "no-hoper" (unable or unwilling publicly to profess an experience of conversion). Perhaps because of that, it is often supposed that Dickinson's sympathies would lie more with science than religion, and though it is possible to find poems and letters that support this view, just as many contradict it. "Too much of Proof affronts Belief," she had a speaker proclaim in P1240: at one level, what she means is that a search for evidence of God's existence is at odds with, and beneath the dignity of, religious explanations of the world and its creation; at another, belief would not mean anything if it were not for uncertainty and doubt. In 1873 Dickinson complained "Science will not trust us with another World," continuing,

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The poem P1641G offers another example:

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This is an elegy: four of its (slightly different) seven versions were sent, respectively, to Susan Dickinson (D: in a letter on the death of Samuel Bowles); to Dickinson's aunt Catherine Sweetser (E: in a letter on the deaths of her father and nephew); to Benjamin Kimball, Otis Lord's executor (F: in a letter on Lord's death); and to Abigail Cooper (G: perhaps on the death of Edward Tuckerman). "Though the great waters sleep" is therefore a good example of how Dickinson wrote poetry designed to transcend the specific circumstances of its occasion. enfolded physically in a letter to separate recipients, and semantically in the recent emotional history of each, its private relevance is nevertheless a profound and compassionate legerdemain capable of almost endless repetition.

Death, the poem may be construed as saying, obliterates the physical evidence of life represented by a human presence and therefore tests belief in the continuing existence of that person in a nonmaterial form. But our temporary absence from the world at night and in sleep (a conventional metaphor for death) does not prevent us from returning to fuller consciousness when awake: this is an emblem for the hope that death is a similarly illusive and nonpermanent removal. Of course, it is nature rather than human nature that the poet describes, and draws inferences from, here: a calm sea may appear motionless, but its power is simply invisible, and capable quickly of being roused again. In the context of scientific debates about the world's formation in fire or water, it is interesting that Dickinson situates her observations about "great waters" next to an emphatic reassertion of the world's creation by God—in fire. The balance is structurally and ideologically neat: what matters is not whether the world was created in one or the other but that it was created and that human beings express their intuition of this momentous truth in dramatic language. Whatever the poem's meaning, its vocabulary shows Dickinson mining a variety of descriptive systems for poetic materials: what attracts is not so much their accuracy as their figurative power. But there is a warning in the poem too. Evidence of a flood may no longer exist, but God's absolute power still remains latent in the ocean depths, and it would be wrong to grow too complacent.

Dickinson's interest in nature can be explained both personally and in relation to her cultural and religious heritage. Her education placed a heavy emphasis on the natural sciences. Though her interest in birds was not always accurate (real birds do not unroll their feathers, unlike the one in P359), she was known among her friends for her detailed knowledge of flora around Amherst, had her own conservatory (from 1855 onward), and compiled an impressive herbarium that survives to this day (it comprises 66 folios, with at least 450 entries). She sent flowers as gifts to friends, sometimes accompanied by poems, which tells us once again how she took an active but withdrawn part in a local, informal, economy of exchange. Many of her poems are about flowers: understanding them is helped to some extent by familiarity with the language of flowers that nineteenth-century men and women shared, where individual plants were associated with specific human emotions. Though flowers were important elements in middle-class American culture (they were objects of display, indicators of taste), they were also convenient subjects for a consciousness attuned to the frailty, transience, and dignity of human lives.


If the nineteenth century was, in the words of one historian, the age of association, when men and women formed societies against alcoholism, the disenfranchisement of women, illiteracy, slavery, poverty, and prostitution, Emily Dickinson's life and writing were again atypical: "The Soul selects her own Society," she wrote in P409. The words "abolition" and "suffrage" do not appear in her correspondence, and the single deployment of the former in a poem occurs in the context of a typically aristocratic dismissal of the world: "The Soul's Superior instants," we are told, "Occur to Her – Alone" (P630). After declining an appeal for some poems for charity, Dickinson told her young cousins, Miss P (thought to have been Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, editor of the Woman's Journal)

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By extension, there are no references to some of the major events of her time: no Seneca Falls women's convention and its Declaration of Sentiments; no references to labor disputes at the factories of Lowell, Massachusetts; no contemplation of death through overcrowding or poor sanitation and hygiene; no attention to ethnic or religious injustices.

Until the late twentieth century, discussions of Dickinson's politics tended toward the supposition of liberal alignment. The long-held view was that Dickinson's life and language embodied ideals of individualism that linked her implicitly with forms of social nonconformity. But some commentators, most notably Betsy Erkkila, have begun to complicate this picture, arguing that the same circumstances of biography and writing provide evidence of sympathies that are rather less than egalitarian. For example, in "I Came to buy a smile – today," Dickinson's speaker makes an offer that she claims would "be 'a Bargain' for a Jew!" (P258). And in "The Day came slow – till Five o'clock" (P572), another speaker describes an orchard that "sparkled like a Jew." Dickinson does not distance herself in any obvious way from the anti-Semitic stereotype of the miserly in one poem, or from the acquisitive in the other. But both works were enclosed privately in letters to friends, which suggests a lack of self-consciousness about their deployment—a confidence that such remarks constituted acceptable humor for people from the same ethnic and class background.

Consider the following:

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These quotations seem undeniably racist: in the last, the man is identified by his color only; Dickinson associates him with the lowest part of the body and herself with the higher mind; and she jokes about him being a cannibal. The laborer is referred to as a "Foot," and such a term derives from a long tradition in conservative thinking whereby parts of the human body were used to illustrate and justify hierarchical relations in society. The head thinks, the foot carries: each has its own function, designed by nature (which is designed in its turn by God). By extension, because the parts of the body were fixed, they supported the argument that the members of the body politic ought similarly to remain in the class to which they were born.

Quotations such as this are nevertheless misleading, for by removing statements from their epistolary and biographical contexts one exaggerates not so much their significance as their proportion. What we have here are comments interspersed among approximately one thousand letters and scattered over more than thirty years of writing. The attitudes expressed are unpleasant, but not everyone who repeats stereotypes to close friends would endorse or otherwise promote these seriously. And jokes about Jews or African Americans (or elsewhere about the Irish) do not add up in Dickinson to a program—a coherent and publicly argued political agenda.

If Dickinson occasionally attempted humor at the expense of other races and classes, she was nonetheless equally ironic toward the opponents of progressivism. In 1860 she wrote of the Bell-Everett party that were

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. She was writing about the candidates for president and vice president of the short-lived Constitutional Union Party, an essentially conservative group willing to compromise on the issue of slavery, and with whom her father was so closely allied that he was nominated for lieutenant governor of Massachusetts on their ticket. To the same cousins, Louise and Frances, who had read her derision of the charity-minded "Miss P," Dickinson sent a generous message encouraging them to contact Margaret Maher, the Dickinson family servant, whose brother had died in a mining accident:

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Two years later, in the incomplete fair copy of a letter to Otis Lord, Dickinson reported

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Finally, a touching letter from 1880 tells of an

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whom Dickinson invites into the back garden. This incident, and its extended, fond, recollection, does not fit straightforwardly into any thesis of ethnocentricity prompted by Dickinson's celebrated concern with "whiteness" in her poems, letters, and dress. With Dickinson, we need to be careful: three or four letters or poems will often suggest a rule that a fifth will utterly contradict. And we need to avoid thinking that a statement made in the nineteenth century can easily be equated with a political position in the twenty-first—or indeed that the political views of an individual must add up to a consistent and willed alignment.

As a middle-class woman of European descent, Dickinson was both disenfranchised and privileged: hers was a political identity that is not easily calibrated within conflicts among other forces. Perhaps that it why Dickinson's personae are often assigned the role of the spectator rather than that of the participant. The letter writer who watches from the woods as her father leads a march to celebrate the coming of the railroad to Amherst (L127), for instance, seems very like the lyric speaker who says of the train progressing across New England that she likes "to see it lap the Miles" (P383). Dickinson fails to mention the passengers on those trains, who were not only locals like her brother, coming back from teaching the children of Irish immigrants in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but eventually the Irish immigrants themselves, and other non-Americans, moving west in search of work and land. The forces of industrial technology, of immigration, and of class change can be observed, it seemed, but not checked or controlled, and this tells us a great deal about Dickinson's sense of her own social position: she has the power to witness but not to influence or change.


After Emily Dickinson's death, Lavinia destroyed her sister's correspondence (according to Dickinson's wishes and the practice of the day) and then found close to a thousand manuscript poems in a bedroom chest of drawers. About eight hundred of these were gathered in forty fascicles—manuscript books assembled (for the most part between 1859 and 1865) by the poet from folded sheets of stationery that she sewed together and into which she copied approximately nineteen to twenty poems.

The posthumous appearance of Dickinson's work, with no directions as to its future organization or distribution (if any), has had multiple consequences. To begin with, no single, authoritative, edition of the complete poems appeared until 1955, and because Dickinson did not date her poems or give them titles, they were arranged and numbered by Thomas H. Johnson in a chronological order based on estimated dates (derived from changes to the handwriting, and with precedence given to the latest composition, in the case of there being more extant version of a poem). Though Johnson's reconstruction was, and is, a superb scholarly achievement, it was not unproblematic: handwriting changes did occur from year to year, and even within a single year, but are harder to detect in 1863, when Dickinson wrote a poem a day. More seriously, Johnson disarranged the internal order of the fascicles: that twenty poems appeared sequentially in a manuscript book did not mean that they followed each other in 1955. Some scholars believe that these volumes are more than archival, that they have thematic or imagistic connections to each other. And some pursue the idea that the fascicles as a whole constitute a linked narrative—though it is not quite clear if they tell a story of doubt and Christian affirmation, or of secret love, birth, and marriage.

Finally, several of Dickinson's latest interpreters have pointed to a discrepancy between handwritten poems and their printed equivalents. For instance, the first four lines of P1096 (as it is numbered in the latest, and best, of the editions) correspond to six rows of handwriting in Dickinson's second fair copy (version B; the first copy is lost):

A narrow Fellow in 
the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him –
did you not
His notice sudden is –

and seven rows of handwriting in the third (version C):

A narrow Fellow 
in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have
met him?
Did you not
His notice instant is –

The differences between the autographs might appear fairly minor—but the sequence from "You may have" to "not" breaks in different places, and according to manuscript critics, this shows Dickinson varying her lineation visually in order to achieve different effects. Standard printed editions render such experimentation undetectable.

The argument has an additional emotional force for two reasons. First, editions of Dickinson's work that followed her death, in 1890, 1891, and 1896, were amended by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson: capitals were discarded; dashes supplemented with or replaced by conventional punctuation; meter, word choice, and rhyme were tidied; and titles were added. (Public interest and critical queries about her "errant form" suggests that such emendations—however distorting, egregious, and unsanctioned—may have been a necessary stage in preparing a nineteenth-century readership for her unconventional voice). Second, "A narrow fellow in the grass" was one of the ten poems published in Dickinson's lifetime: the sequence under discussion ("You . . . not") was printed as one line but followed by a question mark (a mistake repeated by the poet's niece in her premature Complete Poems of 1924). Shortly afterward, Dickinson complained to Higginson:

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For many readers (especially those who read P519, "This is my letter to the World," as autobiography), this explains why Dickinson did not publish. Because the literary market refused her formal innovations, she left her materials to a more flexible posterity.

Fascinatingly, Dickinson refers to "You . . . not" as the "third" line, whereas the cumulative evidence of her manuscripts suggests that her handwriting would have taken up more space (and in the extant copies, this line occupies two and three rows). Granted, Dickinson's comments to Higginson refer to the published version of the poem, but even so it is interesting that she does not contest the lineation; rather, she contests a specific change to the punctuation at a particular point that robbed her of a meaningful connection between the lines. In addition, note that Dickinson begins certain rows in upper, and others in lower case: if she were truly experimenting with graphic alternatives to line and stanza, it would seem inconsistent to continue with the convention whereby the start of a metrically defined line was signaled by a capital. All of this suggests that the lineation in her manuscripts is not literal: in this case, Dickinson thought of the two rows of handwriting (in version B) and the three rows (in C) as the same metrical line of poetry.

Often overlooked in Dickinson's remarks to Higginson is her concern with deceit: having previously informed him of an aversion to publication, she now hastens to let him know that the poem appeared without permission. That desire to protect her privacy and reputation brings us back full circle to the Dickinson myth, but in fact it relates to changes in the status of the nineteenth-century writer. Washington Irving and Henry James (both writing about Shakespeare's birthplace) have amusing things to say about the public fascination with the author's private life. Dickinson was caught up in this cult of personality: she recommended biographies of her favorite novelists (Emily Brontë and George Eliot among them), had portraits of authors on her bedroom wall, and read about them in newspapers. But as a writer, she shunned attention that she could not control, celebrated being "Nobody" (P260) in an age when increasing value was attached to being somebody, and disparaged the publicity and fame associated with a media that, because of advances in the technologies of printing, communication, and transport, had a growing influence in literary culture. "The only news I know," she claimed in P820, "Is Bulletins all Day / From Immortality." Still, it remains for us to check her sources.

See alsoIndividualism and Community; Death; Ethnology; Letters; Lyric Poetry; Nature; Political Parties; Religion; Science


Primary Works

Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958. Citation by letter number, prefixed by "L."

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. 3 vols. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998. Citation by poem number, prefixed by "P."

Wadsworth, Charles. Sermons by Charles Wadsworth, D. D. New York: Eagle Book and Job Printing Department, 1905.

Secondary Works

Errkila, Betsy. "Dickinson and Class." American Literary History 4, no. 1 (1992): 1–27.

Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Random House, 2001.

Juhasz, Suzanne. "Materiality and the Poet." In The EmilyDickinson Handbook, edited by Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, pp. 427–439. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1960.

Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet's Grammar. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Miller, Perry. The New England Mind. 1939. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Park, Edwards Amasa. Memorial Collection of Sermons. Boston and Chicago: Pilgrim Press, 1902.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture:The Soul's Society. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

Domhnall Mitchell

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