The life and literary career of Emily Dickinson were filled with irony. In deciding that some of the poems she sent him were not strong enough for publication, the essayist and critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson is said to have remarked that they were “too delicate.” This judgment is only one of the many strange blunders made in connection with a woman who has finally been accorded the rank of a major poet.
Proper evaluation of a contemporary writer is an uncertain business in any era, but literary criticism in Emily Dickinson’s time produced some especially ironic judgments. Of those who saw her poems during her lifetime, only Helen Hunt Jackson seems to have appreciated their real worth; Emily herself (and Emerson, who was astute enough as a critic to recognize the genius of Walt Whitman) thought Mrs. Jackson to be one of the great poets of her time, but she is now remembered almost solely for her championing of Emily. “Creative editing” is another irony that has plagued the work of the inspired recluse of Amherst. Only six of her poems appeared in print before her death; the mutilation of these by zealous editors who wanted to “correct” her vagaries of rhyme, meter, and punctuation was a factor in her decision not to seek publication but to take her chances with fame after death. Well-meaning editing continued to haunt her work long after she died and only recently, in THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson and...
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