• Email
  • Print

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.

1.

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.

2.

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.”

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.

3.

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—
Summer—Sister—Seraph!
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—
Tonight—
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?

There can be no serious doubt that Dickinson played with her handwriting. She adjusted it to the bizarre shapes of the scraps of envelopes and stationery on which she often drafted poems, curled around watermarks and printed headings, and employed bold strokes like “the stunning flourish” that, as Smith notes, “crosses both T’s in ‘Tonight.”’ Whether such characteristics, hardly foreign to the manuscripts of other poets, should be treated as essential to understanding the meaning of the poems is another question altogether. John Hollander and others have argued that Dickinson, had she allowed her poems to be printed, would have yielded to editorial regularizing. (She did not complain, for example, about how “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was printed, with her dashes and capitalizations eliminated, in the Springfield newspaper.)

Martha Nell Smith, in her contribution to a new collection of essays called The Emily Dickinson Handbook, takes the extreme position that Dickinson, at least in the later fascicles with their frequently unresolved word choices, was not writing “with the printed page in mind.” In Smith’s view, Dickinson was deliberately inviting her future readers to “pick and choose” among the variant wordings of her apparently unfinished manuscripts. Smith adopts a liberationist rhetoric in her effort to “free” Dickinson from editors’ attempts to “fix” and “finish” her manuscripts by “translating” them into print. She shares the view of the poet and Dickinson scholar Susan Howe that there is something typically male about these editorial practices. (“It takes a woman,” Howe has written, “to see clearly the condescending tone of these male editors when they talk about their work on the texts.”)

Smith wants a Dickinson “unbound and liberated from the fixed patternings that books cannot eschew.” In an interesting combination of pre-Gutenberg aesthetics and postmodern technology, she claims that the best manner of publishing Dickinson is to reproduce her handwriting electronically. “Computer technologies that will enable distribution of facsimiles across the World Wide Web and on CD-ROM… create even more possibilities for thorough critical interrogations of the material evidence left by the poet at work.” The Internet, according to Smith, “encourages pliant and accommodating principles of judgment” and “readers’ free play.”

Smith, Howe, and their supporters, who have now formed the Dickinson Editing Collective, deserve credit for raising questions about Dickinson’s writing practices. But their some-assembly-required procedures, where the reader is invited to “coauthor” Dickinson’s poems, are not how most readers expect to encounter poetry. (If you don’t like the opening lines of “I measure every Grief I meet/With narrow, probing, eyes—,” just click the mouse and substitute Dickinson’s alternative, “Analytic eyes.”) The end result of such technological innovations will be to make a poet already regarded as eccentric seem even more so.

4.

Martha Nell Smith wants to undo the “fixity and finality” of the poems as printed by Johnson and others. You might think that she would be drawn to a similarly open-ended view of Dickinson’s psychology. But precisely where we could expect to find fluidity, in a passionately imaginative unmarried woman’s relations with men and women, Smith identifies a coded landscape with a single key. In a bold argument aired last fall in The New York Times Sunday magazine,3 Smith claims that Dickinson and her sister-in-law Susan were lovers, hence the subtitle of her edition, jointly edited with Ellen Louise Hart, of “Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters” to Sue. The letters, Smith told the Times, are “powerful witness to a lesbian passion.” Smith and Hart argue that Dickinson’s “ongoing passion” survived “the unavoidable shift in Susan’s availability once she undertakes her wifely duties” in her marriage with Austin Dickinson in 1856.

The biographical assertions of Smith and Hart can be seen as the latest in a long history of Dickinson biography to identify Dickinson’s elusive lover. The initial impetus for this search came, oddly enough, from Susan Dickinson herself (as Marietta Messmer points out in the Handbook), followed by her daughter Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s fingering of the Reverend Charles Wadsworth. The definitive statement about all such efforts to pin down Dickinson’s affections comes from Elizabeth Bishop, in her review of Rebecca Patterson’s The Riddle of Emily Dickinson, which appeared in The New Republic in 1952. Patterson, like Smith and Hart, thought the “riddle” of Dickinson’s life and work could be solved by attention to her love affairs with women—first, according to Patterson, with Susan, and then with another friend, Kate Anthon. “That her thesis is partially true,” wrote Bishop, “might have occurred to any reader of Emily Dickinson’s poetry—occurred on one page to be contradicted on the next, that is.”

No one has ever denied that Emily Dickinson wrote passionate letters to Susan before and after Susan’s marriage. “Oh Susie,” she writes on a stormy night in 1852, “I would nestle close to your warm heart, and never hear the wind blow, or the storm beat, again. Is there any room there for me, or shall I wander away all homeless and alone? Thank you for loving me, darling.” Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, in her influential work on what she calls “the female world of love and ritual,” demonstrated how common such gushing rhetoric was among women friends in nineteenth-century America. But Smith and Hart are out to show that “Emily and Susan’s relationship surpasses in depth, passion, and continuity the stereotype of the ‘intimate exchange’ between women friends of the period.”

Smith and Hart make much of the fact that Dickinson’s letters to Susan were selectively mutilated after her death. Susan’s name was erased from some of the poems Dickinson sent to her, and affectionate passages in the letters were crossed out or excised. In Rowing in Eden, Smith argued that “the censorship of Dickinson’s papers at the end of the century suggests that her passionate friendship with Sue was not simply innocent.” In Open Me Carefully, Smith and Hart do not claim that the mutilation of Dickinson’s letters, which they ascribe to Mabel Todd, was a nervous cover-up of a lesbian relationship. Instead, they argue that Todd was trying “to hide Susan’s central role in Dickinson’s writing process,” and to “suppress any trace of Susan as Emily’s primary audience.” For Todd and Higginson, “the most marketable image of Dickinson the poet was that of the eccentric, reclusive, asexual woman in white.” Smith and Hart want to substitute a passionate Dickinson whose literary relationship with her sister-in-law was “collaborative,” and whose correspondence with Sue alludes “to unkempt appearance, shared cups of coffee, and private interludes, which Susan’s daughter Martha described as taking place in the back hallway of the Homestead.”

The evidence for literary collaboration in those back hallways is slight and unconvincing. “Susan was the only reader at whose behest Emily changed a poem,” writes Smith in her entry on Susan in An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia.4 The wording suggests that there might have been more than one poem changed. But some unfinished drafts included in Open Me Carefully as evidence of collaboration were in fact, according to Ralph Franklin, sent to Susan after Dickinson’s death. Susan’s remarks on the one poem she is known to have discussed with Dickinson, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” were high-handed and wrong-headed, and Dickinson wisely ignored them. Susan’s obituary for Dickinson, reproduced in Open Me Carefully, strikes a condescending note, praising Dickinson’s poems for “their simplicity and homeliness” and their lack of any identifiable “creed.” Dickinson, “hardly knowing the names of dogmas,…walked this life with the gentleness and reverence of old saints.” For Susan, Dickinson was an innocent child of nature, to be praised in a tired and sentimental sequence of comparisons as “a part of the high March sky, the summer day and bird-call.”

5.

Dickinson’s erotic life is one of the many unknown things about her, and she evidently preferred to keep it so. We don’t know what she looked like as an adult (the lone daguerreotype shows her as a seventeen-year-old); what audience, if any, her poetry was intended for; why she gradually withdrew from society. She assiduously guarded her privacy, and spoke, to Higginson and others, in a deliberately riddling way, shrugging off his questions (“You ask of my Companions Hills—Sir—and the Sundown”). “All men say ‘What’ to me,” she told him, “but I thought it a fashion.” As a consequence of her reticence, it has been easy for her many and diverse admirers to invent their own private Emily: Emily the fierce feminist; Emily the pliant lover; Emily the “voice of war”; Emily the prophet of modernism; Emily the guardian of old New England; and so on. But it is the reticence itself that tells us most about Emily Dickinson.

The overwhelming impression conveyed in Dickinson’s letters to Susan Dickinson and to her other correspondents is of someone who couldn’t stand—who had a visceral shudder in the presence of—the flatulent rhetoric of church and state around her. I don’t believe that her feelings toward Susan were modified by Susan’s “availability” after her marriage to Austin. I think they cooled when Dickinson discovered that Susan was conventional in her language and in her religious views, and that Susan tolerated her and enjoyed her poems as one might enjoy the quirky writings of a child.

Susan was not equipped to understand that Dickinson’s genius lay in her brittleness of language, and her refusal to indulge in the dead metaphors and sentimental nature worship that studded Susan’s prose. Dickinson was out to purge her own language of deadness. This is what she meant when she asked Higginson whether her verse was “alive.” This is what she was trying to explain when she told him that she shunned men and women “because they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog.” This is why people constantly disappointed her, including Higginson, who remarked after an intense visit with Dickinson in 1870 that “she often thought me tired.” With Higginson, with Susan, and others, infatuation yielded to a friendly formality, as Dickinson increasingly preferred the company of children, animals, and people of her father’s more restrained generation.

Already in her teenage year at Mount Holyoke Dickinson had shown her intellectual honesty in her refusal to count herself among the “saved.” Hollow religious language disgusted her: “He preached upon ‘Breadth’ till it argued him narrow…The Truth never flaunted a Sign—/Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence/As Gold the Pyrites would shun.” Dickinson was immune to the war fever around her as well. Scholars have combed her verse and prose for mention of the Civil War, which coincided with her greatest outpouring of verse. But her inspiration during those years seems to have been resistance to high rhetoric. A reference to bells tolling here and to bullets there have been adduced to show her awareness of the war. (As though she could have been oblivious to it!) But Edmund Wilson may well be right in claiming that she never referred to the Civil War in her poetry. Her father’s commitment to the Whig values of compromise—he had served a term in Congress and campaigned for Zachary Taylor and Henry Clay—may have tempered her response. While Julia Ward Howe was writing her saber-rattling “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Whitman his “Drum-Taps,” Dickinson was quietly demolishing myths of heroic pomposity:

Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for the “Golden Fleece”

Fourth, no Discovery—
Fifth, no Crew—
Finally, no Golden Fleece—
Jason, sham, too—

Dickinson’s language, oblique and sharply objective, can be seen as one response to the degraded verbiage of the Civil War era, and the Gilded Age pieties that followed. This is one explanation for her special appeal to such poets and translators of her work as Paul Celan (discussed in an essay in The Emily Dickinson Handbook by Kerstin Behnke) and Eugenio Montale.5 In these poets we find a kindred prosody of obliquity and harsh specificity in the face of the degradation of the Italian language under Mussolini and the German language under the Nazis. That the leading German-language poet of the post-Nazi era and the leading Italian poet of this century looked to Emily Dickinson should invite us to read her in this way, as a voice raised against the pompous posturing of both sides. She once mentioned to Higginson her adamant resolution to “never try to lift the words which I cannot hold.” She never did. In its modesty and majesty, it could serve as her epitaph.

Letters

The Poet Position’ October 21, 1999

  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.

  3. 3

    November 29, 1998.

  4. 4

    See Eberwein, editor, An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia, p. 78.

  5. 5

    Montale’s versions of Dickinson are included in the recently published volume (based on Thomas Johnson’s edition) of Dickinson’s complete poems in Italian: Emily Dickinson: Tutte le Poesie, edited by Marisa Bulgheroni (Milan: Mondadori, 1997). Celan’s eight translations date from 1961.

  • Email
  • Print