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The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson Handbook

edited by Gudrun Grabher, by Roland Hagenbüchle, by Cristanne Miller
University of Massachusetts Press, 480 pp., $34.95

To prepare a new edition of a poet’s work, a scholar may spend years in the archives, weeding out the “corruptions” planted by previous editors and scribes, only to see his own decisions denounced by the next generation of editors. In his poem “The Scholars,” W. B. Yeats saw a comic contrast between the passionate poet and the painstaking editor:

Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair….

For a century now, however, the editing of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been entangled with human passions, sex, and blindered partiality, as though the editors were (and sometimes they were) the despairing lovers tossing on their beds. Despite impressive scholarly attempts, by Thomas Johnson in 1955 and now by Ralph Franklin, to resolve disputes and provide a text based on widely shared principles, there are already indications that the squabbles initiated a hundred years ago will continue, and perhaps even intensify, in the wake of Franklin’s careful work. This unsettled situation arises from several factors, including Dickinson’s own fraught relations with publishers; the strange fate of her manuscripts after her death; current critical views of her work; and, finally, the very nature of her poetry.


Audacity marked Emily Dickinson’s career from the beginning—if “career” is the right word for her improbable persistence in the face of patronizing advice and general incomprehension. She was born in 1830, the middle child of three. Her privileged childhood as a lawyer’s daughter in Amherst, Massachusetts, gave her the time and literary education, as well as the confidence, to try her hand at writing verse. Her father, she noted affectionately, was “too busy with his Briefs—to notice what we do—He buys me many Books—but begs me not to read them—because he fears they joggle the Mind.” After a solid course of study at the private Amherst Academy, she spent a year at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary a few miles away in South Hadley. Though she found the religious rigor of the founder Mary Lyon’s regimen somewhat oppressive, she enjoyed her fellow students, who were not as “rough & uncultivated” as she snobbishly expected. In her letters home we can already see her imaginative way of making national events her own. “Wont you please tell me when you answer my letter who the candidate for President is?” she wrote her brother Austin in the fall of 1847, when she was sixteen.

I have been trying to find out ever since I came here & have not yet succeeded…. Has the Mexican war terminated yet & how? Are we beat? Do you know of any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon would furnish us all with daggers & order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.

The “mind-joggling” intellectual debates of her time, such as revivalism versus the inroads of modern science, elicited a similarly wry and idiosyncratic response from her, as in this early verse epigram:

Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

During her twenties, as she settled into her life in her family’s capacious and conspicuous house on Main Street (hardly the frontier outpost suggested by its nickname “The Homestead”), Dickinson was part of a lively circle of friends with literary tastes that included Susan Gilbert, her future sister-in-law. At times, Dickinson seemed as infatuated with Susan as her brother Austin was. “I love you as dearly, Susie, as when love first began, on the step at the front door,” she wrote in 1855. When Susan and Austin, who were married the following year, moved next door into the Italianate villa known as the Evergreens, the circle became even tighter. Dickinson wove snatches of verse and even complete poems into her lyrical correspondence with Susan, such as her birthday greeting for 1858, which begins:

One Sister have I in our house—
And one, a hedge away.
There’s only one recorded,
But both belong to me.

Such “letter-poems,” as Susan called them, gave Dickinson a chance to try out poetic strategies without committing herself to an audience beyond the trusted recipient.

Emily Dickinson turned thirty in 1860. She had never formally submitted poems for publication, though Susan—turning, as she later put it, “love to larceny”—had sent some of Dickinson’s verses to friends like Samuel Bowles, the young and dashing editor of the local Springfield Daily Republican. On March 1, 1862, the following poem by Dickinson appeared in the Republican:

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning,
And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence:
Ah! What sagacity perished here!

Susan criticized the second stanza of this now famous poem, and Dickinson sent her an alternative, with the note, “Perhaps this verse would please you better—Sue.” In the new ending, Dickinson substituted planetary and political cycles for the birds and bees, amplifying the contrast between the noisy life above and the dead asleep in their tombs.
> Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of snow—

Susan liked this ending even less.1 Perhaps to emphasize the Resurrection, which is all but obliterated in those alliterative dots and discs, the devout Susan advised Dickinson to cut her losses and treat the first stanza as a complete poem. “Strange things always go alone—,” Susan told her sententiously, “as there is only one Gabriel and one Sun.”

Emboldened by the publication of the poem, and frustrated with Susan’s response, Dickinson was ready to aim for a wider and more sophisticated audience. In April 1862, six weeks after the appearance of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” she enclosed it (with the ending Susan liked least) and three others in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a well-known man of letters from Boston. Higginson, a kindly man with “bird-lidded eyes” and “inalienable muttonchop whiskers” (Edmund Wilson’s description), had written a column in The Atlantic offering advice to young contributors. “Are you too deeply occupied,” she wrote Higginson, “to say if my Verse is alive? The Mind is so near itself—it cannot see, distinctly—and I have none to ask.”

It was at this juncture that Dickinson’s courage as a poet was confirmed, for Higginson was not encouraging. A conventional poet and nature writer himself, he dutifully pointed out her departures from those conventions. We don’t know exactly what he said (his letters, like most others sent to Dickinson, were destroyed at her request after her death), but her follow-up letters quoted some of his strictures. She thanked him, twice, for his “surgery,” but didn’t change a thing in her poems. She magisterially deflected the words that must have hurt:

You think my gait “spasmodic”—I am in danger—Sir—
You think me “uncontrolled”—I have no Tribunal.

And to his most sweeping piece of advice, she is even more imperious: “I smile when you suggest that I delay ‘to publish’—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin.” She is like Coriolanus (one of her favorites among Shakespeare’s characters), who, when exiled from Rome, retorts, “I banish you!”

It is difficult to separate the defiance from the defensiveness in Dickinson’s letters to Higginson. The wonder is that with so little encouragement, Dickinson had the inner strength and ambition to keep at her task, and the confidence to know that her eccentricities of language—“spasmodic,” “uncontrolled,” “wayward”—were her strengths. She had no use for the conventional verse Higginson admired, and advised him of her resolution to “never consciously touch a paint, mixed by another person.” She knew that her own poems, if they were beautiful, had a new kind of beauty: “Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty.” In this regard she resembles Whitman, though she told Higginson, who evidently saw the resemblance, “I never read his Book—but was told that he was disgraceful.”

Rather than feeling discouraged, she seems to have taken provocation from her correspondence with Higginson. The following year, 1863, was her most productive (and not, as Ralph Franklin points out, 1862, as had previously been thought); she wrote or arrived at finished versions of nearly three hundred poems during that year alone. Though ten of her poems were published, none at her own instigation, during her lifetime, she was never seriously tempted by publication again. She did keep an orderly record of hundreds and hundreds of her poems, however, making sure at the same time that many more were in the hands of trusted friends.


A week after Dickinson’s death in 1886 from kidney failure, her sister Lavinia discovered in the Dickinson house a locked chest that held forty hand-sewn albums of Dickinson’s poems in manuscript, as well as many more poems neatly copied on loose sheets. Determined to get these “7 hundred wonderful poems” published, and with no literary expertise herself, Lavinia approached the two potential editors least likely to agree on anything. First she asked her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson, an obvious choice, since Susan, an amateur poet and occasional journalist, had received more poems from Emily—some 250—than anyone else. When Susan dawdled at the considerable task of choosing among the more than a thousand poems at her disposal, Lavinia asked her to return the albums. In a decision that showed perhaps as much hostility as impatience, Lavinia turned in early 1888 to Mabel Loomis Todd, wife of an astronomy professor at Amherst College. Mabel Todd, whom her biographer Polly Longsworth describes in an entry in the recently published Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia as “a pretty, vivacious woman with limpid brown eyes and bewitching mouth,” had been Austin Dickinson’s not very secret mistress for several years.2 While Mabel had corresponded with Emily Dickinson, and received poems from her, they had never met face to face—a concession, apparently, to propriety.

Working in conjunction with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was now free to perform the surgery that Dickinson had resisted, Mabel produced three popular volumes of Dickinson’s poetry from 1890 to 1896. Higginson and Todd have been much criticized for regularizing the rhyme schemes, punctuation, and capitalization of Dickinson’s manuscripts, rendering her work more palatable to turn-of-the-century taste. (Faced with Dickinson’s line “I wish I were a Hay,” for example, Higginson switched “a” to “the,” since “everybody would say that hay is a collective noun requiring the definite article.”)

Even in their cleaned-up versions, the poems were regarded as boldly innovative in language and subject. The approximate rhymes still grated for traditionalists; “‘Alcohol’ does not rhyme to ‘pearl,”’ as one English reviewer complained of the now familiar poem “I taste a liquor never brewed.” When anomalous or experimental poems by other poets appeared during the 1890s, they were often compared to Dickinson. The ironic, free-verse parables in Stephen Crane’s Black Riders, perhaps the most original poetic production of the 1890s, displayed for one critic an “audacity of…conception, suggesting a mind not without kinship to Emily Dickinson’s.” And Alice James, the brilliant sister of William and Henry James, noted with patriotic pleasure that British critics were deaf to Dickinson’s peculiarly American excellence. “It is reassuring to hear the British pronouncement that Emily Dickinson is fifth-rate,” she reflected in January 1892, “they have such a capacity for missing quality; the robust evades them equally with the subtle.”

  1. 1

    Dickinson eventually wrote two more endings for the poem. For a useful analysis of Dickinson’s departures from poetic conventions in this and other poems, see Elizabeth A. Petrino, Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in America, 1820-1885 (University Press of New England, 1998). In a chapter entitled “‘Alabaster Chambers’: Dickinson, Epitaphs, and the Culture of Mourning,” Petrino argues that Dickinson’s poems about the dead are “closer to the acerbic wit of the Puritan graveyards than to the mawkishness of the nineteenth-century elegy.”

  2. 2

    Jane Donahue Eberwein, editor, An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia (Greenwood Press, 1998), p. 289.

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