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Emily Dickinson’s Challenge to the World: Edit This

An analysis and comparison of the editing of Emily Dickinson's work, including a discussion of the various unique grammatical and figurative licenses she used.

Insanity inspires genius. History is a decoupage of literary figures that stood teetering upon the edge of reality. Edgar Allen Poe, Flannery O?Connor, and Lewis Carroll have all been rumored to have had peculiar perspectives on life. Yet no one in his right mind could forget the controversy that surrounds the life and writings of poet Emily Dickinson. Her poetic form and manipulation of the English language have earned her a reputation as one of America?s most gifted poets?and one of the most insane.

Compared to the literary standards of her day, Dickinson?s verse is chaotic and bold. During her lifetime, her verse was shunned by a society not yet ready for such impertinence (R. Miller 37). Yet after her death, it was decided to proceed with the publishing of Dickinson?s lyrical diary. First, however, the poems needed to be watered down so as to be fit for public consumption (R. Miller 39). In an attempt to improve upon the original, Dickinson?s editors have tampered with the poetic genius of her works, altering her intended themes, connotations, and poetic structure. There is also reason to believe that some of the unskilled surgeons who took a pen to her poems did it not for the sake of preserving Dickinson?s verse, but for their own economic gain.

The world was first introduced to Emily Dickinson on December 10, 1830. Born to a prominent Amherst, Massachusetts family, she had the potential to live a privileged life (Sewall xvii). This was not the case. ?I have a brother and a sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too bust with his briefs to notice what we do,? Dickinson wrote to mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Dickinson {Letters }254).

Dickinson?s isolated family life influenced her writings (R. Miller 37). To Dickinson, her poems were a journal. When she confined herself to her room for fifteen years, they were a reflection of such. While she herself could not leave her room, her mind and inspirations could (R. Miller 35). It is because of the personal sentiment invested in each of these poems that even more importance should be placed upon preserving her intended meanings. As literary critic John Crowe Ransom states:

"Emily Dickinson is one of those poets who make almost constant use of the first person singular. If the poems are not autobiographical in the usual sense of following actual experience?.then they are autobiographical in the special sense of being true to an imagined experience, and that will be according to the dominant or total image which the artist proposes to make up for herself (Ransom 96).

In poem number 959, Dickinson describes her isolated childhood, reflecting upon deep-seated feelings of loss and loneliness. Also discussed is her qualm of accepting her family?s strict religious beliefs. Finally, she ironically chides those who focus on the past, or ?oppositely,? (Sewall 328):

A loss of something ever felt I-- / The first that I could recollect / Bereft I was-- of what I knew not / Too young that any should suspect // A Mourner walked among the children / I notwithstanding went about / As one bemoaning a Dominion / Itself the only Prince cast out-- // Elder, Today, a session wiser / And fainter, too, as Wiseness is-- / I find myself still softly searching / For my Delinquent Palaces-- // And a Suspicion, like a Finger / Touches my Forehead now and then / That I am looking oppositely / For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven-- (Dickinson {Complete }448-449).

Dickinson?s poetic form in verses such as these creates vivid imagery and a unique flow, but to nineteenth century Americans, it was uncharted territory. Countless times Dickinson sent her poetry to mentors and newspapers, but no one encouraged her to publish (R. Miller 37-38). Free verse was too obscure for the modern reader of the day. Even confidant Thomas Wentworth Higginson concluded that the poems were simply too unusual for the public. Higginson was also convinced that Dickinson would not approve of the changes publishers would require (Lewis 2).

Nevertheless, Dickinson continued to write. Somewhat discouraged from the negative feedback, her poetry began to focus inside the spectrum of the mind (R. Miller 37). She examined the intricacies of life, death, and eternity, as demonstrated by poem number 754. Also woven into the lines is a tone of frustration-- it remains unclear, however, what the exact cause is. In classic Freudian style, critic Dr. John Cody believes that this poem stresses tendencies towards anger, compulsions, and disappointments that could point towards the degeneration of the psyche. Conversely, he contradicts himself by stating that the author of the poem was in a normal, competent state of mind. Therefore, it could be assumed that Dickinson?s mental state did not undergo a major breakdown and that she maintained her intellectual facilities (Sewall 606):

My Life had stood-- a Loaded Gun-- / In Corners-- till a Day / The Owner passed-- identified-- / And carried Me away-- // And now We roam in Sovereign Woods-- / And now We hunt the Doe-- / And every time I speak for Him-- / The Mountains straight reply-- // And do I smile, such cordial light / Upon the Valley glow-- / It is as a Vesuvian face / Had let its pleasure through-- // And when at Night-- Our good Day done-- / I guard My Master?s Head-- / ?Tis better than Eider-Duck?s / Deep Pillow-- to have shared-- // To foe of His-- I?m deadly foe-- / None stir the second time-- / On whom I lay a Yellow Eye- - / Or an emphatic Thumb-- // Though I than He-- may longer live / He longer must-- than I-- / For I have but the power to kill, / Without-- the power to die-- (Dickinson {Complete }369-370).

In poems such as this, Dickinson shows unusual word patterns and stylistic traits to convey her thematic intentions (C. Miller 21). She craftily manipulates the words to suit her meaning--even if this means leaving words out. Often, Dickinson would omit words from her poems for the sake of her meter without altering her lucidity or meaning (C. Miller 28). This use of recoverable deletion creates a sense of ambiguity in dense poems (Schmit 106). By rearranging the text, the original syntax can be attained, as seen in an altered version of the concluding stanza of ?My Life had stood-- a Loaded Gun:?
Though I may live longer than He [may live]
He must [live] longer than I [live]
For I have but the power to kill,
Without [having] the power to die (C. Miller 28).[/q]

In conjunction with deletion, Dickinson uses a unique choice of line breaks to create her own original meter and maintain flow and rhythm. Honored by only some editors, these line breaks leave the poems just vague enough to allow multiple interpretations (?Respecting? 1). Critic Jerome McGann states that ?We come to edit her work for bookish presentation, therefore, we must accommodate our typographical conventions to her work, and not the other way around (?Respecting? 2).

Dickinson?s use of dashes also makes way for unique analysis. Rarely functioning as syntactic, the dashes isolate and echo words and meanings--especially by creating a feeling of redundancy. By using a dash, Dickinson allows the reader to make his own conclusion as to the type of punctuation/pause necessary in that particular area (C. Miller 51-53). However, some critics have expressed drawbacks to the elusiveness of the dash:

"The Dickinson practice was to punctuate by dashes, as if the reader would know what the dashes meant--both grammatically and dramatically--by giving the verses voice. Within her practice, and to her own ear, she was no doubt consistent. To find out what that consistency was, and to articulate it for other readers and other voices, requires more of a system than ever bothered her (Blackmur 78)."

Despite such commentary, the effective use of the dash as well as the line break can be seen in the second stanza of poem number 341: ?The Feet, mechanical, go round-- / Of Ground, or Air, or Ought-- / A Wooden way / Regardless grown, / A Quartz contentment, like a stone.? The pause that hides between nearly every word creates the echo of reluctance of every movement the narrator makes (C. Miller 51).

Yet another hotly debated topic on Emily Dickinson?s form is her lack of titles. Of the twenty-four total poems that Dickinson did give a title, twenty-one were poems sent to friends, in which the supposed title had been placed in the letter and not on the manuscript of the poem (Mulvihill 1). According to literary critic Judith Farr, the titles ?were obviously selected because [Dickinson] knew titles were customary, not because she conceived of them as improving the coherence of her work (Mulvihill 1).?

Also to be taken into consideration is the fact that Dickinson does not distinguish her so-called titles the same way she marked the titles of other poets. In her own poetry, she merely capitalizes the major words in her titles, instead of offsetting them with an underscore or quotation marks as she did with other writer?s titles (?Respecting? 2).

Finally, capitalization plays a key role throughout Dickinson?s poetics. Critic Cristanne Miller states that ??.they give her words a symbolic referentiality. Perhaps partly for the practical reason that so many of Dickinson?s capitals begin nouns, multiple capitalized words may lend particular substantiality to ideas or things. Even when the capitalized nouns are themselves insubstantial, the stress of capitalization gives the words added weight in the line (C. Miller 58).?

Dickinson also makes use of common figures of speech such as simile and metaphor. Critics have often used these figures of speech to attempt to read into Dickinson?s thoughts on a much deeper level. Similes in particular seem to take a special place in the poetry. Critics have developed two different categories for these: centripetal and centrifugal. Each represents a different ?dialectical process (Sharon-Zissser 1).?

The combination of similes, metaphors, and Dickinson?s poetic structure paved the way for complex symbolism. Dickinson used the same object to represent different meanings. A bird, for instance, could have merely a literal meaning to it, and the next time it would represent the poet?s song (R. Miller 43). Due to the many interpretations each element could bring, it is essential to maintain the way Dickinson fit the puzzle together herself. Critic Donald Thackrey emphasizes the importance of such preservation:
"It seems certain that Emily Dickinson approached the writing of poetry inductively--that is, through the combining of words to arrive at whatever conclusion the word pattern seemed to suggest, rather than using words as subordinate instruments in expressing a total conception (Thackrey 51)."[/q]

As Dickinson continued to add to her poetic legacy, she carefully placed important elements to help her reader attain a higher form of understanding. After her death 1886, it might be expected that these ?Letters to the World? would be preserved as such to honor the poets memory. Yet to editors, the field was simply too enticing (R. Miller 34). Dickinson, convinced the words of a poet could transcend the boundaries of time, explores these feelings in poem number 441:
This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me-- / The simple News the Nature told-- / With tender Majesty // Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see-- / For love of Her-- Sweet-- countrymen-- / Judge tenderly-- of Me (Dickinson {Complete }211).[/q]

The stylistic elements discussed earlier (line breaks, dashes, capitalization) are brought together in this poem to communicate some of Dickinson?s personal thoughts. The line breaks and dashes, present on all but three lines of the poem, allow her actual thought process to permeate the rhythm of the poem. Dickinson?s trademark capitalization draws the reader?s eye to words she felt were instrumental in the creation of the verse. In contrast, it is also interesting to note which words are not capitalized. While Dickinson felt the need to stress the importance of nature, majesty, and message, she did not feel the need to capitalize ?countrymen,? a patriotic term that, by assumption, would normally be capitalized in such a situation. It is not always the expected words and concepts that receive the special emphasis of Dickinson?s pen, and it is sometimes telling to notice what concepts are de-emphasized.

With such complicated and subtle elements working together to convey the intended meanings of Dickinson?s poems, one would hope that her readers would have access to her poetry as it was originally written. Unfortunately, Dickinson?s work was substantially edited from the very beginning of its publishing history as editor after editor justified alterations to her verse that changed or obscured the meanings of her poems (R. Miller 39).

After Dickinson?s death, Lavinia Dickinson became the catalyst in publishing her sister?s work. Determined to see Emily?s poems in print, she approached Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Franklin 4). After some deliberation, he accepted the job of editing Dickinson?s work, but only if Lavinia would find a suitable assistant to help in the copying and revising of the poems. Lavinia then asked Mabel Loomis Todd to be involved with the project, who readily agreed (Maun 1).

Together, Todd and Higginson copied and revised the poems for the first and second series of Poems. The first volume Higginson edited ruthlessly, even though he himself realized the significance of her work:
Such verse might inevitably forfeit whatever advantage lies in the discipline of public criticism and the enforced conformity of accepted ways. On the other hand, it may often gain something through the habit of freedom and the unconventional utterance of daring thoughts (Dickinson {Favorite }13).[/q]

After the first volume achieved success in the literary world, both Todd and Higginson made an even greater effort to retain as much of Dickinson?s own editing as possible. However, the result, Poems, Second Series, fell flat with readers and critics alike (Maun 1-2).

At this time Higginson, troubled by bouts of illness, resigned from his post of editor. Todd was more than happy to be able to have the final say (Maun 1). After the success of the first series, she had heartily enjoyed the public eye that had suddenly focused on her (Maun 2). She traveled to universities giving lectures on Dickinson and her verse. However, after the disappointment over Poems, Second Series, Todd found that her fifteen minutes of fame had reached the end. Desperate to rekindle the public?s affection for Dickinson, and indirectly, herself, she published a third series (Maun 2). This time, however, her editorial policy reached absurdity-- she removed anything that she felt could stir negative feelings from the public (Maun 2). She took out any lines, stanzas, or entire poems if she thought they bore any irreverence, madness, or other objectionable material (Maun 3).

For example, in poem number 280, Dickinson illustrates a persons break with reality. As she herself was often rumored to be insane, the poem carries a tremendous significance. Yet Todd, determined to preserve the virgin eyes and ears of the mentally stable public, decided to remove the climatic final stanza. With the removal of the ending, the full message of the poem cannot be conveyed (Maun 1-5):
I felt a funeral in my Brain, / And mourners, to and fro, / Kept treading--treading, till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through. // And when they all were seated, / A service like a Drum / Kept beating--beating--till I thought / My mind was going numb. // And then I heard them lift a box / And creak across my Soul / With those same boots of lead, again, / Then space began to toll // As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear, / And I, and Silence, some strange race / Wrecked, solitary, here // And then a Plank in Reason, broke / And I dropped down and down / And hit a world at every plunge-- / And finished knowing-- then (Maun 4-5).[/q]

After Todd?s editing binge, the next editor to come into contact with Dickinson?s poems was Martha Bianchi. Refusing to use the versions edited by Todd or Higginson, she astounded the public by presenting new copies of poems they already knew. The new versions were well received among the public and critics alike (R. Miller 41).

When Bianchi?s editing reign came to a close, the poems lay dormant until 1960 when Thomas H. Johnson, a Dickinson scholar who still saw the importance of the original works, undertook an arduous task. He set out to publish a complete volume of Dickinson?s poetry, supposedly making no changes from the original manuscripts (R Miller 41). While an admirable work ethic, it was not entirely true. In fact, it misled the public for years. Ralph W. Franklin finally published the first truly unedited collection of poems in 1998, in The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Dickinson {Poems }9).

Poets are often suspected of having a special understanding of life. Dickinson is no exception. She wrote with a higher purpose and placed stock in each word she wrote, as seen in poem 1243, Franklin?s version:
Shall I take thee, the Poet said / To the propounded word? / Be stationed with the Candidates / Till I have finer tried-- // The Poet searched Philogy / And was about to ring / For the suspended Candidate / There came unsummoned in-- / That portion of the Vision / The Word applied to fill / Not unto nomination / The Cherubim reveal-- (Dickinson {Poems }1872).[/q]

While the sanity of Emily Dickinson may always remain a question, the madness of editing her works will not. Over the years editors have gently declined their editorial liberties concerning Dickinson, resulting in an unedited collection of her works. Unfortunately there will always be those who feel the need to change Dickinson?s verse, despite the repercussions it has on her form and meaning.

Emily Dickinson had an eerie perception of the world, and she used her poetry to preserve it in words. Her unique style colored outside the lines of nineteenth-century American literature. Without her bold and brazen poetic style, poetry would not be what it is today. Dickinson is the genius behind the insanity of free verse poetry. Her writings are an inspiration to those who admire her.

[b]Works Cited[/b]

Blackmur, R. P. ?Emily Dickinson?s Notation.? {Emily Dickinson}. Ed. Richard B. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 78-87.

Dickinson, Emily. {The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson}. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 1890. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960.

---. {Favorite Poems of Emily Dickinson}. Ed. Mabel Todd Loomis and

T. W. Higginson. New York: Avenel, 1928. Rpt. of {Poems}. 1890. {Poems}, Second Series. 1891.

---. {Letters of Emily Dickinson}. Ed. Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: World Publishing, 1951.

---. {The Poems of Emily Dickinson}. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1999.

Franklin, R. W. {The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration}. Milwaukee: U of Wisconsin P, 1967.

Lewis, Jone John. {Emily Dickinson: Continuing Enigma}. 30 April 2002

Maun, Carolyn. ?Editorial Policy in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series.? {The Emily Dickinson Journal }3.2 (1996). 16 April 2002

Miller, Cristanne. {Emily Dickinson: A Poet?s Grammar}. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987.

Miller, Ruth. ?Emily Dickinson.? {The American Renaissance in new England}. Ed. Joel Myerson. Detroit: Gale, 1978. Vol. 1 of {Dictionary of Literary Biography}. 34-45.

Mulvihill, John. ?Why Dickinson Didn?t Title.? The Emily Dickinson Journal 5.1 (1996). April 2002

{Respecting Emily Dickinson?s Lineation}. 16 April 2002

Ransom, John Crowe. ?Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored.? Emily {Dickinson}. Ed. Richard B. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 88-100.

Sewall, Richard B. {The Life of Emily Dickinson}. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Schmit, John. ?I Only Said--the Syntax--Elision, Recoverability, and Insertion in Emily Dickinson?s Poetry.? {Style }27.1 (1993): 106-125.

Sharon-Zisser, Shirley. ?To ?See?Comparatively?: Emily Dickinson?s Use of Simile.? {The Emily Dickinson Journal }3.1 (1996). 16 April 2002

Thackrey, Donald E. ?The Communication of the Word.? {Emily Dickinson}. Ed. Richard B. Sewall. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1963. 78-87.

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