Emily Dickinson’s poetry explores the relationship between the temporal world and the infinite, teasing out the ways in which the ineffable presses upon the mortal and ephemeral. Wallace Stevens notes that the pressure of reality on the imagination varies with circumstance (wartime, for example), but for Dickinson, the pressure of the infinite on mortality is constant and compelling:
For Death – or rather
For the Things ’twould buy –
This – put away
Life’s Opportunity –
The things that Death will buy
Are Room –
Escape from Circumstances –
And a Name –
With Gifts of Life
How Death’s Gifts may compare –
We know not –
For the Rates – lie Here –
(Miller 325; Franklin 644)
Death and life, in her world, overlap and compete, although death always has some advantage: since it leads to eternity, it is permanent. Keeping this binary opposition in mind clarifies our reading of her work, which is sometimes oblique and idiosyncratic. Her characteristic hymn-like rhythms and structures enable a range of aesthetic tactics, and her wide array of topics impresses, but her primary focus on the stress and strain of the immortal pushing upon the mortal runs like a live wire through all of her work.
This essentially religious concern does not explain Dickinson’s reluctance to present her work to the world at large. Nor does it resolve the apparent contradiction between her unwillingness to publish and her care in preserving the bulk of her poetry. One might expect a poet concerned with the most major of human issues to offer her poems to a larger audience than a handful of relatives and friends, but only ten poems appeared in print while Dickinson lived, some more than once—but none with her approval. Despite oddities of punctuation, diction, rhyme, and rhythm, her cumulative achievement surprised Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her first editors. No one, not even her sister Lavinia, had foreseen such a large and powerful body of work. Higginson, in the 1860s, had judged her poems too eccentric for publication; but after her death, when he saw how much she had accomplished, he realized how seriously he had erred and used his full influence to promote her work. The enthusiastic public response since her first book appeared (in 1890, four years after her death) has never abated.
About a dozen collections, most of them edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi (Emily’s niece) or Millicent Todd Bingham (Mabel’s daughter), followed that first book. All early editions revised her poetry to conform to ordinary conventions of punctuation, and, often, to correct her wayward rhythms and rhymes. They also frequently added titles, which Dickinson had usually avoided. All editors selected from the whole (or at least the available) range of her work until Thomas Johnson published his comprehensive three-volume variorum edition in 1955. Johnson arranged the poems chronologically, depending partly on his understanding of the evolution of Dickinson’s holograph over the years of her writing career. He honored her eccentricities, including her reliance on dashes, her resistance to titles, her sometimes challenging sense of rhythm, and her off-rhymes. In 1998, R.W. Franklin produced a heavily revised variorum edition, also nominally chronological. But well before that, in 1981, he complicated the textual issues by publishing a two-volume facsimile edition of Dickinson’s forty “fascicles,” small thread-bound compilations of poems.
These fascicles may not always include only poems from a narrow time period (although Franklin seems confident that, for the most part, they do), and therefore may challenge the assumed chronology. To complicate things, Dickinson, after the first eight fascicles, includes alternate words and phrasing for many of the poems, so we cannot be sure that she considered even this orderly presentation to be close to final. Although Franklin arranged the fascicles chronologically by holograph, Dickinson usually discarded her worksheets when she transcribed her poems into her little folders, so a given poem may have been composed years before she copied it. Hers was a complex compositional process. We might wonder if one reason she chose not to publish, aside from her argument that “Publication — is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man—” is that she never actually finished any of her poems.
In 1986 I published an essay in ESQ arguing that at least some of the fascicles were linked by common themes, subjects, or motifs. Many scholarly essays and several books have since delved into the fascicles, exploring Dickinson’s selection and arrangement and offering various theses about the intention and accomplishment of these tiny books. While this has been a fruitful discussion in many ways, I no longer believe that theme, topic, or motif are germane. If, as I now believe, all of her poems, regardless of their superficial subject, engage the meta-subject of temporality and infinity and expend themselves revealing the interstices and tensions of those concepts, then any arrangement or juxtaposition will amplify that basic concern.
Still, the issue of presentation haunts the Dickinson world. Should the presumptive chronology and almost imperceptible development of her precocious style shape our reading, as Johnson's and Franklin’s variorums suggest? Has tracing her work chronologically, through heroic textual editing, helped us understand her complex and oblique art? I don’t think that, so far, it has. If chronology hasn’t helped, should we then read her gatherings as determined sequences, or as a psychologically acceptable substitution for the publication she claimed to detest? Are the little poem-packets working toward finished products, or would she have arranged her poems in yet another form for actual publication? Did she hope that her small established audience, particularly her sister-in-law, Susan Gilbert Dickinson, (to whom she sent some 250 poems) would find and read these packets? Can such considerations shape our critical readings in useful ways? Numerous Dickinson scholars have gnawed at these questions without arriving at a general consensus.
And then, in 2013, just when we thought Dickinson’s textual adventures had peaked, a coffee-table book entitled The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems appeared. This facsimile edition presents scraps of writing—scrawls on envelopes, shreds with three or four words on them, and small draft pages, all carefully related to finished poems or known letters and handsomely reproduced full-sized in color—and poses yet more tenuous theses and questions. Although the editors insist that Dickinson’s is a visual art and finds the significance of these tatters in the poet’s sensitivity to space and layout, and although Susan Howe provides a brief, compelling, and suggestive (if factually challenged) preface, it’s not yet clear that this beautiful book has added much to the discussion. Like some other recent critical work, it challenges but does not disprove Franklin’s assertion that “a literary work is separable from its artifact.” That doesn’t mean that this edition is useless. Although Franklin took these fragments into account, further consideration by other critics might better establish the earliest genesis of some of her poems. And this large-format facsimile reminds us that Dickinson’s art is truly homemade, as Elizabeth Bishop might say (“Home-made, home-made! But aren’t we all?”), and that it originates in a domesticity that contrasts nicely with its vast metaphysical concerns.
So now Cristanne Miller’s new edition, Emily Dickinson's Poems: As She Preserved Them, enters the picture. Like Johnson and Franklin, Miller is a scrupulous and thoughtful editor. She has chosen to present the poems by first transcribing the forty fascicles, then the unbound sheets on which Dickinson transcribed poems without grouping or binding them. These constitute the work Miller believes that Dickinson most wanted to preserve, because she left it in the most orderly state. After these roughly eleven hundred poems, Miller presents poems left loose, transcribed by others, or sent to correspondents but not apparently retained by the poet. She reproduces the texts as Dickinson transcribed them: in a complete although possibly unfinished state. Miller calls her own process “genetic editing,” and acknowledges that Dickinson’s work was always in process and that the poems as she presents them may not embody the poet’s final vision of her work. We will never know how far this text varies from that theoretical state of completion. Even in the fascicles, Dickinson frequently lists alternative words or whole lines, and Miller, although not attempting another variorum text, transcribes those alternate words into the generous white space on the right side of her page. So although this intends to be a reading text, we do get a good sense of the flux of Dickinson’s process, as well as a clear signal that the texts we possess are tentative and inherently unstable.
It is conjecture to think that Dickinson intended the fascicles and the transcribed but unbound sheets to represent her poems as she wished them to be preserved. Perhaps she had no desire to preserve any of her work. If Bright’s Disease had not interrupted, maybe she would have eventually destroyed her poetry to protect it from the prying eyes of strangers. It is equally possible that if she had remained healthy for another decade she would have recopied her work, decided on final texts, and shipped them to a publisher. We just don’t know, and her extant manuscripts do not reveal whether she had any intentions beyond simply writing the poems and distributing a few of them to friends. So Miller’s subtitle, As She Preserved Them, must be regarded with skepticism. "As She Left Them" would be more accurate. Like the preceding editors of Dickinson, from Todd and Higginson to R. W. Franklin, Miller has bid for possession of Dickinson’s poems at the very auction of the mind that the poet claimed to deplore. But ultimately no one, no editor or reader, can fully possess these poems, which so easily escape our intellectual grip and evaporate into the ether.
Miller’s bid is, however, as valid as anyone’s. Some years ago, she wrote Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar, an insightful look at the poet’s demanding and eccentric style. And now, with further scholarly homework, she has produced a comprehensive, thoughtfully framed, and readable text. Her introduction, although it says nothing about the poems as poetry and nearly everything about the poems as textual problems, gives a clear overall picture of the issues involved, and her fifty-nine pages of notes are invaluable for the general reader. My only complaint is the awkward way in which this text coordinates with Johnson’s and Franklin’s variorums. She has resisted numbering the poems, as they do, because (as she notes) Dickinson did not do so. Granted, those numbers do not belong above the texts. But to compare her texts with that of the variorums, we have to refer to an index of first lines. Still, this is a minor issue. Miller has produced a conscientiously edited and highly readable text that gives us a clear overview of Dickinson’s work as she left it. This collection could supersede the paperback version of Franklin’s edition as the most useful one-volume Dickinson for classroom use, and it is a helpful supplement to the variorums and Franklin’s facsimile of the fascicles. Yet none of these complete editions is suitable for those new to Dickinson. For readers of poetry outside of the academy, if any exist, Johnson’s Final Harvest, a thoughtful and extensive selection from his 1955 variorum, remains the best introduction to Dickinson’s world.
Editions of Emily Dickinson’s poetry mentioned in this review:
Bervin, Jen, and Marta Werner, eds. The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems. New York: New Directions, 2013.
Franklin, R. W., ed. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Franklin, R. W., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955.
Johnson, Thomas H., ed. Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962.
Todd, Mabel Loomis, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, eds. Poems by Emily Dickinson. Boston: Robert Brothers, 1890.
Miller, Cristanne, ed. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016.