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The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

Mabel Todd, who had published stories and travel sketches in prominent magazines, was an effective publicist for Dickinson’s poems, attracting the attention of William Dean Howells (who welcomed this “distinctive addition to the literature of the world”) among others. But whatever gratitude she had earned from the Dickinsons was shattered when Austin Dickinson died in 1895, leaving a strip of land to his mistress in his will. Lavinia was outraged, and sued Todd successfully for the recovery of the land. The rift between Mabel and Susan, each of whom possessed a substantial collection of manuscript material, was eventually bequeathed to their daughters. From 1914 to 1945 more poems and letters appeared in dueling editions edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham. With Bingham’s publication of Bolts of Melody in 1945, nearly all Dickinson’s poems had appeared in print, with various degrees of editorial intervention. It fell to Thomas Johnson, a noted scholar of early American poetry enlisted by the Harvard University Press, to make order among these many editions.

Johnson’s three-volume variorum edition of 1955, and the publication of Dickinson’s letters three years later, marked a watershed in the public response to Dickinson. Readers had a fresh sense of Dickinson’s idiosyncratic poetic practice—her pervasive use, for example, of dashes, and of unexpectedly capitalized words. Her best known poem at the time, “Because I could not stop for Death,” gained a stanza previously excised by Todd and Higginson. And Johnson’s edition recorded the alternative words—sometimes placed at the bottom of the page, sometimes between the lines, and sometimes floating in the margins—that Dickinson marked on her later manuscripts, as her interest in publication waned. There was a general feeling that here at last was the “real” Dickinson, the poems as she had written them. Readers skeptical of her achievement were now persuaded. “Did I really make snide remarks about Emily Dickinson?” Elizabeth Bishop wrote Robert Lowell in 1956. “I like, or at least admire, her a great deal more now—probably because of that good new edition, really. I spent another stretch absorbed in that, and think…that she’s about the best we have.”

But there were problems with the Johnson edition, and they increased over time. Forced to work from photostats of many of the poems, Johnson made errors of transcription. Manuscripts unknown to him, generally variants of already familiar poems, continued to surface. And scholarly debates about the dating and the arrangement of poems on the page proliferated. For some time it has been evident that a new edition of Dickinson’s poems was needed. Ralph Franklin, director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, and the author of a searching monograph, The Editing of Emily Dickinson (1967), seemed the obvious choice for the job. Franklin’s edition is more an updating and correction of Johnson’s edition than an overturning of it, and some of the changes will merely cause inconvenience. Since Franklin has redated many of the poems, Johnson’s numbers—until now the accepted way of identifying Dickinson’s untitled poems—are now obsolete.

But Franklin has made startling discoveries through the whole corpus of poems, now numbering 1,789 to Johnson’s 1,775, which will help silence the cynical view that this new edition is Harvard University’s way of retaining the lucrative copyright on Dickinson’s work into the next millennium. He includes seventeen poems not in the Johnson edition. Many of these are short passages of verse, couplets and triplets, set apart from the prose of Dickinson’s letters, like this typical example from the early 1860s:

No Rose, yet felt myself a’bloom,
No Bird—yet rode in Ether—

Franklin’s research has led him to conclude that certain texts previously published as separate poems are in fact fragments of other poems. (The final poem in Johnson’s edition, which begins with the words “The earth has many keys,” is now identified as the ending from an earlier draft of the well-known and much-anthologized poem about a cricket, “Further in Summer than the Birds,” which ends, in Johnson, “Antiquest felt at Noon/ When August burning low/Arise this spectral Canticle/Repose to typify/ Remit as yet no Grace/No Furrow on the Glow/Yet a Druidic Difference/ Enhances Nature now.”) Other poems, previously thought to be parts of the same poem, are now separated. And five texts treated as poems by Johnson, such as the rhythmic letter to Austin that is the second poem in the Johnson edition (“There is another sky, ever serene and fair, and there is another sunshine, though it be darkness there…”) are excluded by Franklin, since they are not arranged as verse in Dickinson’s manuscript. While conceding that “there is no definite boundary between prose and poetry in Dickinson’s letters,” Franklin provides enough information in his annotations to make his decisions clear.

Those who argue that the absence of a “definite” boundary means there is no boundary at all will not be satisfied with this new edition. But I think there will be wide agreement regarding most of Franklin’s editorial decisions. He states his principles clearly and does not conceal his uncertainties (about the dating of individual poems, for example). He is deeply respectful of Dickinson’s writing practices, following her often erratic spelling and, “within the capacity of standard type,” her capitalization and punctuation. His textual apparatus is informative without being intrusive, and includes such useful information as where Dickinson broke her lines on her manuscript sheets, as well as any other information—pinned attachments, tears in the paper, and the like—that might have a bearing on interpretation. All scholars and readers of Dickinson are in his debt.


As part of the preliminary work for his edition of the poems, Ralph Franklin brought out in 1981 a facsimile edition of Dickinson’s hand-sewn albums, or “fascicles” (as Mabel Todd called them), entitled The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. The fascicles had been unbound during the 1890s, and Franklin reconstituted the order of the poems, which required the most painstaking analysis of paper type, handwriting, holes, and folds. The publication of the poems in facsimile has inspired, somewhat surprisingly, some of the most influential criticism on Dickinson’s work of the past two decades. Critics have debated whether Dickinson’s ordering of the poems in the fascicles suggested a structure of meaning as well as convenience, and whether her handwriting was deliberately expressive. Since Franklin has done more to publicize the fascicles than anyone else, it is surprising that he himself has found no evidence for treating the fascicles as “careful constructs governed by theme, imagery, narrative and dramatic movement, or similar principle.”
Franklin has made some discoveries since the publication of the “manuscript books,” however, and a couple of these seem to me to suggest that some of the poems have at least some thematic order. Consider for example the following lines, first published in 1891, then as Poem 18 in the Johnson edition:

The Gentian weaves her fringes—
The Maple’s loom is red—
My departing blossoms
Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare—
And one below, this morning
Is where the angels are—
It was a short procession,
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be—
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze—Amen!

In his new edition of the poems, Franklin announces, astonishingly, that “The Gentian weaves her fringes” is not one poem but three. He bases this discovery on a hitherto unnoticed principle of division. “On earlier sheets [of the fascicles], which contain poems of more than one stanza, ED drew lines of separation where poem breaks needed to be distinguished from stanza breaks. On this final sheet, she did not draw lines, leaving only a blank space between poems, for here the distinction was unnecessary: every poem, regardless of length or form, was copied as a single stanza.” On the sheet with the “Gentian” poem, according to Franklin, “Dickinson appears to have been cleaning up, taking in various pieces lying at hand, including small ones such as ‘In the name of the bee.”’ I think that Franklin is right, and a couple of other examples of such fascicle pages—heretofore treated as single poems and now separated—are even more convincing.

And yet how tempting it is to read the three stanzas appended to “The Gentian” as somehow related. The speaking flower of the first stanza says that her departing blossoms “Obviate parade,” but in the second stanza “a short procession” is arranged anyway. And what better words for that aged bee to intone than “In the name of the Bee—/And of the Butterfly—/And of the Breeze—Amen!”? If the three stanzas aren’t part of the same poem, could they make up a poetic sequence? It is easy enough to imagine Dickinson “taking in various pieces lying at hand” and arranging them in an order that makes more sense than, say, these three stanzas in reverse, starting with “In the name of the Bee.”

Do such local linkings of poems mean that the fascicles in general are poetic sequences? Not at all. Just as a poet preparing a book for publication may associate certain lyrics with others, while at the same time leaving other poems more or less on their own, Dickinson probably had no grand principles of organization for her manuscript books. Twenty-five years of avid searching, and several books, have brought no convincing structural schemes to light. Those inclined to find patterns in the fascicles will continue to find them; those disinclined won’t.

The wide availability of Dickinson’s texts in facsimile has sparked a related debate about the possible expressive intent of Dickinson’s handwriting. Martha Nell Smith, a ubiquitous and influential feminist scholar of Dickinson’s work, asks us in her book Rowing in Eden (1992) to notice the “wide-mouthed W” in the first stanza of Dickinson’s popular love poem “Wild nights,” contributing in her view to the “breathless sexuality” of the poem:

Wild nights—Wild nights!
Were I with thee
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!

Critics like Smith treat Dickinson as a calligrapher, as much a visual artist as a verbal one. They believe that Dickinson’s run-over lines are themselves expressive, and do not—as Johnson and Franklin believe—simply mean that she ran out of space on her often narrow sheets and scraps of paper. So Smith insists that the final stanza of “Wild Nights” is made up of five lines instead of four:

Rowing in Eden—
Ah! The Sea!
Might I but Moor—
In Thee!

The word “Moor” almost reaches the right-hand margin of the manuscript sheet, and “Tonight,” the run-over word, is pretty long. But Smith argues that to print the poem as Franklin does, as a four-line stanza (with the third line as “Might I but moor—tonight—“), eliminates Dickinson’s “unconventional lineation” as well as the “passionate pause, consonant with the poem’s sensual suggestions.” Of course, it is possible to read the poem in this “breathless” way. But Smith’s treatment of “Tonight” as a “passionate pause” vulgarizes, to my ear, a poem that is wittily aware of its own excesses. And what exactly would a closed-mouth W look like?

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