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Dickinson & Death

In response to:

Amorous in Amherst from the April 23, 1987 issue

To the Editors:

Robert Craft’s sardonic, rambling essay [NYR, April 23], that begins with Austin’s love life and ends up with Emily’s poems about death, contains a number of mistakes, of which two ought not to pass unchallenged.

By quoting from Cynthia Wolff’s book without comment, he seems to agree with her that “a poetry of faith had emerged” by either the mid-1860s or the early 1870s and that “the poetry described a long pilgrimage to faith.” The evidence suggests otherwise. Dickinson seems to have been rather changeable in her religious beliefs, and there are late poems as well as early that express skepticism or defiance or a sense of having lost salvation.

And where on earth did Mr. Craft get the idea that the quatrain

To pity those that know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her, know her less
The nearer her they get

is an unflattering comment on Austin’s wife Susan? This is the conclusion to one of Dickinson’s more lucid poems, and the pronoun refers, quite unmistakably, not to Susan, not to a woman at all, but to “nature.”

Robert Mezey

Pomona College

Claremont, California

Robert Craft replies:

A ramble through the Belknap editions of Emily Dickinson’s poems and manuscript books might have saved Professor Mezey from making an ass of himself in public. Emily Dickinson’s variant of the last two stanzas of poem 1440 reads:

But Susan is a stranger yet—
The Ones who cite her most
Have never passed her Haunted House
Nor compromised her Ghost—

To pity those who know her not
Is helped by the regret
That those who know her know her less
The nearer her they get—

This was published as long ago as 1932, from a transcript of Emily Dickinson’s signed manuscript. (No manuscript survives for the complete poem, including the lines that Mezey quotes, and mispunctuates; Mrs. Todd’s transcription, to judge from the alternative readings included in her copy, was evidently made from a less-than-final draft.) So much for unmistakable pronoun references.

What seems easy to Mezey—“one of Dickinson’s more lucid poems,” indeed—was anything but that for Emily Dickinson’s first editors, who omitted the poem’s puzzling second stanza; and for Emily Dickinson herself, whose struggle over four further lines can be traced in a draft (manuscript extant).

Obviously, Mezey did not read the books I reviewed since Polly Longsworth includes the two stanzas from the 1932 version (and to the same purpose as mine), and since that blustery, condescending “the evidence suggests otherwise” exposes Mezey’s obliviousness to Cynthia Wolff’s sifting of the evidence in ways and directions that the conclusion he takes issue with could not be expected to reveal—her conclusion, not mine, which, as I wrote, and not at all sardonically, is that death is Emily Dickinson’s abiding theme.

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