Emily Dickinson Emily Dickinson Poetry: American Poets Analysis

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Emily Dickinson Poetry: American Poets Analysis

(Poets and Poetry in America)

During her lifetime, only seven of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published, most of them edited to make them more conventional. After Dickinson’s death, her sister Lavinia discovered about nine hundred poems, more than half of the nearly 1,775 poems that came to form the Dickinson canon. She took these to a family friend, Mabel Todd, who, with Dickinson’s friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, published 115 of the poems in 1890. Together they published a second group of 166 in 1891, and Todd alone edited a third series in 1896. Unfortunately, Todd and Colonel Higginson continued the practice of revision that had begun with the first seven published poems, smoothing the rhymes and meter, revising the diction, and generally regularizing the poetry.

In 1914, Emily Dickinson’s niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, published the first of several volumes of the poetry she was to edit. Although she was more scrupulous about preserving Dickinson’s language and intent, several editorial problems persisted, and the body of Dickinson’s poetry remained fragmented and often altered. In 1950, the Dickinson literary estate was given to Harvard University, and Thomas H. Johnson began his work of editing, arranging, and presenting the text. In 1955, he produced the variorum edition, 1,775 poems arranged in an attempt at chronological order, given such evidence as handwriting changes and incorporation of the poems in letters, and including all variations of the poems. In 1960, he chose one form of each poem as the final version and published the resulting collection as The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Johnson’s text and numbering system are accepted as the standard. His job was thorough, diligent, and imaginative. This is not to say, however, that his decisions about dates or choices among variants must be taken as final. Many scholars have other opinions, and since Dickinson herself apparently did not make final choices, there is no reason to accept every decision Johnson made.

Dickinson’s poetry is at times sentimental, the extended metaphors occasionally too cute, the riddling tone sometimes too coy. Like any poet, that is, she has limitations; and because her poetry is so consistent throughout her life, those limitations may be more obvious than in a poet who changes more noticeably. They do not, however, diminish her stature. If she found her place in American literature only decades after her death, it is a place she will not forfeit. Her importance is, of course, partly historical: With Whitman she changed the shape and direction of American poetry, creating and fulfilling poetic potentials that make her a poet beyond her century. Her importance, however, is much greater than that. The intensity with which she converted emotional loss and intellectual questioning into art, the wit and energy of her work, mark the body of her poetry as among the finest America has yet produced.

Themes and form

One of Emily Dickinson’s poems (#1129) begins, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” and the oblique and often enigmatic rendering of Truth is the dominant theme of Dickinson’s poetry. Its motifs often recur: love, death, poetry, beauty, nature, immortality, and the self. Such abstractions do not, however, indicate the broad and rich changes that Dickinson obliquely rings on the truths she tells. Dickinson’s truth is, in the broadest sense, a religious truth.

Formally, her poetry plays endless variations on the Protestant hymn meters that she knew from her youthful experiences in church. Her reading in contemporary poetry was limited, and the form she knew best was the iambic of hymns: common meter (with its alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines), long meter (four lines of tetrameter), and short meter (four of trimeter) became the framework of her poetry. That static form, however, could not contain the energy of her work, and the rhythms and rhymes are varied, upset, and broken to accommodate the feeling of her lines. The...

(The entire section is 4,666 words.)