Emily Dickinson had only one literary critic during her lifetime: Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an American minister, author, abolitionist, and soldier. After he wrote a piece encouraging new writers in the Atlantic Monthly, Dickinson sent him a small selection of poems, knowing from his past writings that he was particularly sympathetic to the cause of female writers. He ultimately became her only critic and literary mentor. In their first correspondence, she asked him if her poems were "alive" and if they "breathed." He called her a "wholly new and original poetic genius." He then immediately advised her against publication. Most likely, Higginson felt that she was unclassifiable within the poetic establishment of the day—departing from traditional forms as well as conventions of language and meter, her poems would have seemed odd, even unacceptable, to her contemporary audience. Even though he failed her as a critic and colleague—telling her not to publish, never offering any real encouragement—she was pleased that he read her poems, and credited her audience of one with "saving her life."
Dickinson’s subject matter is best understood in how it reflects but also departs from her background and education. It is unclear to biographers and critics exactly what books Dickinson had access to, beyond the books that she makes mention of, often cryptically, in her letters. Among the 100 or so classic works found in her family library (some of which may not have been in the library during her lifetime) and a few hundred more mundane works and popular novels that she discussed in letters, it is unlikely that she had read more than a handful of philosophers, poets, and novelists. Influenced most by the Bible, Shakespeare, and the seventeenth century metaphysicals (noted for their extravagant metaphors in linking disparate objects), she wrote poems on grief, love, death, loss, affection and longing. Her presumed reading in the natural sciences, also reconstructed from studying her family library, allowed her to bring precision and individuality to natural subjects, observing nature for itself, rather than as a testament to the glory of creation, and touching upon the less beautiful aspects of nature, such as weeds and clover. Her forms were various and included riddles, declarations, complaints, love songs, stories, arguments, prayers, and definitions.
Drawing from primarily musical forms such as hymns and ballads, and modifying them with her own sense of rhythm and sound, a Dickinson poem is unusual in that it both slows down and speeds up, interrupts itself, holds its breath, and sometimes trails off. The reader is led through the poem by the shape of her stanza forms, typically quatrains, and her unusual emphasis of words, either through capitalization or line position. The meter varies quite a bit even from the stresses expected in a hymn or ballad. Hymn meter differs from traditional meter by counting syllables, not "feet." Unlike ballad meter, quatrains are typically closed, meaning that the first and third lines will rhyme as well as the second and fourth. Some common forms of hymn meter that Dickinson used are common meter (a line of eight syllables followed by a line of six syllables, repeating in quatrains of an 8/6/8/6 pattern), long meter (8/8/8/8), short meter (6/6/6/6), and common particular meter (8/8/6/8/8/6). However, unlike writers of traditional hymns, Dickinson took liberties with the meter. She also allowed herself to use enjambment more frequently than traditional hymn writers, breaking a line where there is no natural or syntactic pause. For example, in the second stanza of "I cannot live with you," she writes:
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
Dickinson breaks the first line after a preposition and before a direct object; in both places, one would not traditionally punctuate with a comma, semicolon, or dash, and there would be no pause.
Since so few of her poems were published during her lifetime, the posthumous discovery of Dickinson’s cache of poems presented an unusual variety of challenges. What is now known as her poetics or prosody is bound to a discussion of how her poems have been edited, and how her handwritten manuscripts have been interpreted in contemporary editions.
Beyond deciphering her handwriting and trying to guess at dates, editors have had to work from poems that often appeared in several unfinished forms, with no clear, definitive version. Early publications of her selected poems were horribly botched in an attempt to "clean up" her verse; they were only restored in the collected poems as edited by Thomas H. Johnson in 1955, first in three volumes with considerable variants for each poem, and then in a single volume of all 1755 poems five years later in which a "best copy" was chosen for each poem. In no case were several versions of a poem combined. Only twenty-five were given titles by Johnson, and those often reluctantly. The titling system used most frequently today is the numbers assigned by Thomas H. Johnson in his various collected editions, along with the first line of the poem.
A typical manuscript for a poem might include several undated versions, with varying capitalization throughout, sometimes a "C" or an "S" that seems to be somewhere between lowercase and capital, and no degree of logic in the capitalization. While important subject words and the symbols that correspond to them are often capitalized, often (but not always) a metrically stressed word will be capitalized as well, even if it has little or no relevance in comparison to the rest of the words in the poem. Early editors removed all capitals but the first of the line, or tried to apply editorial logic to their usage. For example, poem 632 is now commonly punctuated as follows:
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –
The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –
The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –
The above capitalizations, which include such seemingly unimportant words as "Blue," "Sponges," and "Buckets," capitalizing "Sky" but not "sea," were regularized into the following traditional capitalization and punctuation by early editors:
The brain is wider than the sky,
For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,
For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
For, lift them, pound for pound,
And they will differ, if they do,
As syllable from sound.
The punctuation is equally difficult to decipher; what is now known as Dickinson’s characteristic "dash" is actually a richer variety of pen markings that have no typographical correspondents. Dashes are either long or short; sometimes vertical, as if to indicate musical phrasing, and often elongated periods, as if to indicate a slightly different kind of pause. Poem 327, "Before I got my eye put out," the original manuscript of which can be found online, ends with one of these markings:
So safer – guess – with just my soul
Upon the Window pane –
Where other Creatures put their eyes –
Incautious – of the Sun –
In keeping with her background in church hymns, some modern critics have even discussed the upwards or downwards movement of a dash, as if it might correspond to a "lifting" or "falling" phrase. Dickinson uses dashes musically, but also to create a sense of the indefinite, a different kind of pause, an interruption of thought, to set off a list, as a semi-colon, as parentheses, or to link two thoughts together—the shape of any individual dash might be seen as joining two thoughts together or pushing them apart. One of the most characteristic uses of the dash is at the end of a poem with a closed rhyme; the meter would shut, like a door, but the punctuation seems open. In these cases, it is likely meant to serve as an elongated end-stop. The dash was historically an informal mark, used in letters and diaries but not academic writing, and removing the dashes changes, even upon first glance, the visual liveliness and vigor of her verses. While Johnson’s system of transcribing all dash-like markings as a printed "n-dash," or short dash (as above), is imperfect, in early editions, these dashes were replaced by more regularized punctuation, such as commas and periods. Poem 320, "We play at Paste," was changed in punctuation, capitalization, and even stanza form.
We play at Paste –
Till qualified, for Pearl –
Then, drop the Paste –
And deem ourself a fool –
The Shapes – though – were similar –
And our new Hands
Learned Gem-Tactics –
Practicing Sands –
The above poem, when published for the first time, looked like this:
We play at paste,
Till qualified for pearl,
Then drop the paste,
And deem ourself a fool.
The shapes, though, were similar,
And our new hands
Not only does the poem leave a completely different visual impression on the page, but the pacing created by the punctuation is distorted as well, causing "The Shapes – though – were similar –" to be compressed into "The shapes, though, were similar." Finally, a traditional period ends the poem with more certainty than the original would suggest.
While altering capitalization or punctuation seems like a horrible offense to these poems, other editorial gestures were even more egregious. In an effort to make Dickinson’s poems seem more educated, words were replaced. What is now known as "the heft/ Of cathedral tunes" (from 258) was altered, with no textual variant, to "weight" by Dickinson’s first editor, Mabel Todd. Other changes included fixing misspellings, which seems innocuous enough, but sometimes involved removing a New England pronunciation that she might have been trying to indicate, as well as more serious swapping of lines and regularizing of her most unusual rhythms and meters. The selected poems were arranged in no particular order; one great challenge of Dickinson scholarship has been reassembling her hand-bound packets, or fascicles, as they are sometimes called, to reflect the order that she may have intended. They were originally taken apart and deemed useless, or merely chronological. As is typical with most poets, the most frequently anthologized poems have not often reflected the breadth of Dickinson's political range, erotic sensibilities, theological challenges, or depth of darkness. Her poems were cleaned up not only in mechanics, but also in subject matter.
The critical reaction to Dickinson’s poems did not occur during her lifetime, as only seven poems were published, and those anonymously. Since she was "discovered," critical and popular reaction has historically trailed the various publishing strategies for her work. Once seen as religious, bland, even sentimental, she is increasingly becoming understood for her strangeness and versatility, especially after the publication of Johnson’s 1955 edition, and most recently, facsimiles of the manuscripts. The myth, or perhaps exaggeration, of her reclusiveness (recent scholarship has shown that at least an element of it was quite normal for an unmarried woman devoted to her family), and the tendency of biographers to attach her poems to a mysterious unrequited love, have obscured more serious scholarship for too long as critics have overlayed a fantasy of her life onto her poems. Unsurprisingly, she has benefited greatly from feminist scholarship, most notably in the biography by Alfred Habegger. She is now regarded as one of the two founders of American poetics, alongside Walt Whitman, but her legacy provides an alternate direction for American verse—her abstract, spare musicality and contemplative introversion providing a counterpoint to Whitman’s sprawling lines, concrete subject matter, and grandiosity.
Reading Dickinson requires that we tune our ear to her peculiarity, and look, as she did, into the "look of death," observe "a certain slant of light," and perhaps "play at paste"—consider ourselves to be, as she considered herself, "of barefoot rank" until we are transformed by this strange apprenticeship.