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 published in three volumes in 1955, has the world been allowed to read her lyrics as she wrote and punctuated them.
The bare facts of the life of Emily Dickinson were so simple that they would seem to permit no garbling, no misinterpretation, but even here what might be called “creative tampering” has also been at work. Legend says she fell madly in love with the Reverend Charles Wadsworth and he with her. Supposedly he was willing to give up family and career for Emily, to renounce everything for love; but true to her Puritan background, she refused him. Now biographers are certain that no such double renunciation ever took place, that while she was greatly influenced by her feelings for Wadsworth and addressed to him many of her finest poems, their acquaintance was largely restricted to letters and he was probably never aware of her deep attachment.
Out of these tangles that have long surrounded her life and career, the reader is now able to judge and enjoy the work of one of America’s most original and remarkable poets. Using the Bible as her chief source of inspiration and the rhythms of the hymn books as a metrical starting point, Emily Dickinson developed with care a technique that produced poems breath-taking in construction; they are full of the magic of a child who balances blocks on top of one another, performing feats impossible for a shaky adult hand. Almost as daring as the rhythms are her experiments in all the variations on part rhymes. With the help of Whitman, Emily Dickinson pushed open the door through which the “modern” poets have rushed to find new ways of expressing themselves. Here is an example of her metrics and musical effect:
Success is counted sweetestBy those who ne’er succeed.To comprehend a nectarRequires sorest need.Not one of all the purple HostWho took the Flag todayCan tell the definitionSo clear of VictoryAs he defeated—dying—On whose forbidden earThe distant strains of triumphBurst agonized and clear!
Poems in this characteristic style were what brought forth Higginson’s pronouncement—“too delicate.” The judgment now seems particularly obtuse, for the very delicacy he objected to is one of the poet’s chief charms; and sometimes that delicacy conceals the strength of iron:
The Soul selects her own Society—Then—shuts the Door—To her divine Majority—Present no more—Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing—At her low Gate—Unmoved—an Emperor be kneelingUpon her Mat—I’ve known her—from an ample nation—
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