The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

After Emily Dickinson’s death in 1886, her sister Lavinia found forty-nine fascicles, or packets, of poems that Dickinson had sewn together during the late 1850’s and early 1860’s. Lavinia enlisted the help of Mabel Loomis Todd, the wife of an Amherst professor, to transcribe them. With the assistance of the literary editor Thomas Wentworth, they altered the rhyme scheme, regularized the meter, and revised unconventional metaphors for the 115 poems they published in 1890. These were well received and led to the publication in 1891 of 161 additional poems and, in 1896, of 168 more.

In 1914, Dickinson’s niece and literary heir, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, compiled other poems. She kept alterations to the verse to a minimum, as was also the case with additional volumes in 1929 and 1935. Millicent Todd Bingham in 1945 published the remaining 688 poems and fragments. When Dickinson’s literary estate was transferred to Harvard University in 1950, Thomas H. Johnson began to arrange the unreconstructed and comprehensive body of Dickinson’s poetry chronologically. The Poems of Emily Dickinson appeared in 1955, and The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson appeared in 1960. Aside from correcting misspellings and misplaced apostrophes, Johnson let Dickinson’s original punctuation and capitalization stand. To the previously editorialized publications, Johnson restored the original dashes and other nonconformist usage, listing for each poem both the approximate date of the earliest known manuscript and the date of first publication. There is also a helpful “Index of First Lines” (Dickinson did not title her poems) and a fairly comprehensive subject index based on key words or images in the poems, the three most prominent being life, death, and love.

Of those poems that celebrate life, a substantial number are about nature, the inhabitants of which Dickinson frequently praises. Dickinson describes her mission to reveal nature in #441: “This is my letter to the World/ That never wrote to me—/ The simple News that Nature told—/ With tender majesty.” In #111, “The Bee is not afraid of me,” butterflies, brooks, and breezes are among her dearest friends. She often pays tribute to these friends, nature’s creatures, as in “A fuzzy fellow, without feet” (#173), which catalogs the glorious transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly, or “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (#986), a multisensory description of a sleek but frightening snake. In “An awful Tempest mashed the air” (#198), nature is personified. In #214, nature is a “liquor never brewed” that inebriates the speaker with joy. The sunset is a “Housewife” who has swept the west with color in “She sweeps with many-colored Brooms” (#219). Nature assumes the role of “Gentlest Mother” in #790, bestowing “infinite Affection—/ And infiniter Care” on all the world. Likewise the “Juggler of Day,” the sun, blazes in gold and quenches in purple (#228). In “These are the days when Birds come back” (#130), Dickinson uses sacred—Sacrament, Last Communion—diction to welcome the holy return of spring. In “An altered look about the hill” (#140), she likens the return of spring to the resurrection with a biblical allusion to Nicodemus.

Nature is the focus of Dickinson’s spiritual life as well. Her play with custom is seen in her subverting of religious ceremonies. In “The Gentian weaves her fringes” (#18), Dickinson reveres nature, which pools her resources to memorialize “departing blossoms.” She joins with Bobolink and Bee, Gentian and Maple in this commemoration service, which she closes with a sacrilegious play on the Trinity: “In the name of the Bee—/ And of the Butterfly—/ And of the Breeze—Amen!” Refreshingly, these are the entities with which Dickinson is most comfortable: In #19, the Bee and the Breeze enable her transformation into a Rose; and in #111, the reader learns that her reverence of them is not based in fear, nor is it founded upon not knowing the Other. Rather, they share a mutual knowledge and comfortable relationship:

The Bee is not afraid of me.I know the Butterfly.The pretty people in the WoodsReceive me cordially—The Brooks laugh louder when I come—The Breezes madder play;Wherefore mine eye thy silver mists,Wherefore, Oh Summer’s Day?

Her communion with nature is a voluntary ritual, a genuine connection that makes her misty-eyed. Equally significant, she implies that it is a reciprocally nurturing relationship.

Dickinson resents the dominance of nature by predominantly male scientists and is “mad” about its co-optation, as she writes in #70:

“Arcturus” is his other name—I’d rather call him “Star.”It’s very mean of ScienceTo go and interfere!. . . . . . . .I pull a flower from the woods—A monster with a glassComputes the stamens in a breath—And has her in a “class”!Whereas I took the ButterflyAforetime in my hat—He sits erect in “Cabinets”—The Clover bells forgot.

She has contempt for the scientists, whom she mocks for thinking they can objectively know nature through detached analysis. She fears that such objectification of an entity that she reverences will destroy or endanger its spiritual aspect, “What once was ’Heaven’.” Poems #97, #108, and #185 are among others that indict science’s “advances” and its preoccupation with subduing nature, suppressing its playfulness, and interfering with its course.

Dickinson likewise makes a farce of militarism and its threat to life and the world; in #73 she criticizes the hypocrisy of militarism, first camouflaging her satire with the interrogative form, then affirming her disgusted sarcasm with exclamation points.

Who never lost, are unpreparedA Coronet to find!. . . . . . .How many Legions overcome—The Emperor will say?How many Colors takenOn Revolution Day?How many Bullets bearest?Hast Thou the Royal scar?Angels! Write “Promoted”On this Soldier’s brow!

She concludes that what makes “sense” to society is “Madness” (#435), whereas what society, with its undiscerning eye, would deem “mad” makes the most sense:

Much Madness is divinest Sense—To a discerning Eye—Much Sense—the starkest Madness—’Tis the MajorityIn this, as All, prevail—Assent—and you are sane—Demur—you’re straightway dangerous—And handled with a Chain—

Dickinson knows the cost of being labeled mad yet risks it, for she can discern the value of her genius and—in a society of one—it matters not whether anyone else can discern that value. The poet understands the price exacted for nonconformity or originality, but nature allows her to balance the risk with her sense of hope, “the thing with feathers—/ That perches in the soul—” (#254). The creator in “He fumbles at your Soul” (#315) stuns “by degrees” until he “Deals-One-imperial-thunderbolt—/ That scalps your naked Soul—.” Dickinson reveals her pantheism in “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” (#324), wherein the speaker stays at home “With a Bobolink for a Chorister—/ And an Orchard, for a Dome—.” Here, a choir of sextons makes for a heavenly service. Heaven is as accessible as our “Capacity” to imagine, according to poem #370, one of 366 poems written during Dickinson’s marathon poetry year of 1862. This seems quite understandable if one agrees with #383 that “Exhilaration—is within—” and is among...

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