Emily Dickinson’s Wisdom

Review: Cristanne Miller, ed., ‘Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them’

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson / Wikimedia Commons
• May 7, 2016 4:58 am


A popular approach to Emily Dickinson’s poetry is to read it as a subtle critique of patriarchy. Her frequent dashes supposedly mark a fissure in the poet herself. She is a woman who—at least internally—does not live according to nineteenth-century definitions of womanhood. Her rejection of tradition is found in her occasionally irregular meter and rare off rhymes. Her elegies undermine the "male pastoral elegy," and her religious verse questions God’s "jealousy" and the reality of judgment.

There’s a kernel of truth in this. Dickinson could certainly be slyly subversive. But to read her only as some sort of proto-feminist is rather narrow, to say the least. It binds her to men, ironically enough, more tightly in death than she ever was in life and can create the impression that her poetry is valuable only to the extent that it expresses a contemporary view of womanhood. Worse, it smoothes out the eccentricities of one of America’s most idiosyncratic poets with the jack plane of "theory."

A new collection of her poems offers an opportunity to revisit her particularities. Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller, presents all of Dickinson’s more than 1,100 poems that she copied on folded sheets of stationary and bound in small booklets. Mabel Loomis Todd, one of Dickinson’s early editors, called these "fascicles." It also collects nearly 700 additional unbound poems. All are beautifully presented without the identifying numbers that Thomas H. Johnson and Richard W. Franklin assigned to their respective editions of Dickinson’s collected work. Revisions are noted discreetly in the margins and central allusions—mostly Biblical—are explained in endnotes.

Reading the volume straight through, it’s a pleasure to discover and re-discover Dickinson’s odd metaphors and strange sounds in poems that oscillate between whimsical riddle and hard-nosed philosophical meditation. Dying daisies ooze in "crimson bubbles / Day’s departing tide" in one poem. In another, she takes note of "The Cordiality of Death." She imagines her brain flying out of the top of her skull in one poem and remarks: "The fellow will go where he belonged – / Without a hint from me, // And the world – if the world be looking on – / Will see how far from home / It is possible for sense to live." In another, education is compared to the "Dark Sod" through which a "Lily passes sure."

Dickinson was, of course, a pastoral poet. Her poems are filled with flowers, robins, and butterflies, which may or may not show us something about human nature, freedom, or fate. She tells us "how the Sun rose – / A Ribbon at a time!"

Still, while she may have lived in the age of Emerson and can sometimes sound like Emerson (or Jonathan Edwards for that matter) in her delight in nature, unlike the Bard of Concord, she also knew the value of old books. "A precious – mouldering pleasure – ’tis," she writes,

To meet an Antique Book –
In just the Dress his Century wore –
A privilege – I think –

His venerable Hand to take –
And warming in our own –
A passage back – or two – to make –
To Times when he – was young –

His quaint opinions – to inspect –
His thoughts to ascertain

That "quaint" may sound a bit condescending to our ears, but the word still carried the sense of "wise" or "clever," thus "out of the ordinary," in Dickinson’s time.

This brings us to a central, but rarely discussed, aspect of Dickinson’s poetry: its wisdom. Expressed in maxims or tightly constructed arguments, Dickinson’s poems can read like a collection of (sometimes heterodox) psalms and proverbs. She is, by turns, to risk a bit of patriarchy, an American Pericles or Marcus Aurelius. "The Brain, within its Groove," she warns in one poem:

Runs evenly – and true –
But let a Splinter swerve –
’Twere easier for Your –

To put a Current back –
When Floods have slit the Hills –

In another, she recommends contentedness:

The Lark is not ashamed
To build upon the ground
Her modes house –

Yet who of all the throng
Dancing around the sun
Does so rejoice?

The best way to avoid "Adversity" is to store up "interior" rather than exterior resources.

Other insights are less uplifting. "Denial – is the only fact / Perceived by the Denied –." "Water is taught by thirst." "I can wade Grief –," she confesses in one poem, "Whole Pools of it – / I’m used to that – / But the least push of Joy / Breaks up my feet –."

While Dickinson revels in the beauty of nature (she is, as she put in one of her most anthologized poems, and one of the few to be printed in her lifetime, a "Debauchee of Dew"), she also confessed a too-strong attachment to this world and occasionally recommends the suppression of desire. "Undue Significance a starving man attaches / To Food –," she writes in one poem. "Partaken – it relieves – indeed – / But proves us / That Spices fly." Like the Stoics, she regularly claimed not to fear death while also praising those that died honorably. "It may be – a Renown to live –," she writes in a poem on the Civil War, "I think the Men who die – / Those unsustained – Saviors – / Present Divinity –."

Her relationship to God was complex. Unlike her father and sister, she never made a profession of faith. In some poems she longs for God’s mercy. "Papa above!," she writes in an early poem, "Regard a mouse / O’erpowered by the Cat! / Reserve within thy kingdom / A "Mansion" for the Rat!" In others she lashes out at what she views as his overly high demands and pettiness.

She can occasionally come across as spoiled and pompous, and she is not above making the odd banal statement, though these are rare. "To fill a Gap," she recommends in one poem, "Insert the Thing that caused it." Overall, though, she is strikingly original and wise over nearly 1,800 poems—no small accomplishment.

Miller notes that Dickinson may have collected poems in fascicles to develop particular themes. In some, a theme is clearly apparent. Fascicle fourteen seems to deal with bounty and poverty—both worldly and spiritual. A number of the poems in fascicle twenty-eight deal with prayer. In others, a theme is less apparent.

Miller also claims that the volume will be of interest both to the scholar and student, as well as the general reader. That may be true, though its seems to me that the lack of editorial numbers, which makes individual poems difficult to find, and the useful but limited endnotes, will make it of less utility to the former. But that’s no great loss. There are already enough schoolmen versions of Dickinson. What we need is more Emily, and Emily Dickinson’s Poems delivers.

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