Emily Dickinson had the extraordinary ability to convey in her poetry her experience of reality. For her, there were both surfaces and evasive underlying meanings. Unlike her contemporaries, she refused to provide definite readings of life’s surfaces, and her ambivalent, contradictory, and at times baffling poems reveal this rebellion against doctrinaire certainty, this willingness to reside in indeterminacy.
Confused by such indeterminate verses and concerned about public reaction, Dickinson’s first editors conventionalized her poems. They smoothed her syntax, her rhythms, and her rhymes, they altered word choices they believed to be eccentric, and they arranged her challenging poems in categories with interpretive headings such as “Love,” “Death,” and “Nature.” Although done with the best of intentions, these editorial decisions “robbed” (a term Dickinson herself once used under similar circumstances) the poet’s lines of much of what makes them powerful and difficult.
In her elliptical, intensely compressed verses (usually four-line stanzas averaging twenty lines), Dickinson omitted conjunctions, used imperfect rhymes, tossed aside agreement between nouns and verbs, created her own adverbs when there were none that fit her needs, and incorporated the subjunctive tense seemingly at will. Especially upsetting to Higginson, Dickinson ignored rules governing article usage, as in her use of the indefinite article in the line “I wish I were a Hay.”
In setting her thoughts to rhythm, Dickinson did turn to the conventional meters of popular nineteenth century hymns (the hymn meter of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter), but in order to achieve meaning she often incorporated this meter with a twist, such as the addition of an occasional one-or two-stress line. Her “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” is metrically provocative and startling, terms a contemporary also used when describing Dickinson’s piano improvisations. In tone, Dickinson is at one moment intimate and the next stark, at one...
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