Emily Dickinson Writing A Poem
November 9, 2006 11:44 AM   Subscribe

One of only ten poems published during Emily Dickinson's lifetime, the poem beginning "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" continues to be reproduced in conflicting versions. Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem lets us leaf through images of Dickinson's original manuscripts and correspondences concerning the poem. According to the site, this documents surrounding this poem offer "the only example of Emily Dickinson responding directly to another reader's advice." At one point, Dickinson apparently struggled to decide between at least three alternatives of the much-contested second verse. Also included is a history of the poem's early printings, providing an opportunity to note how many publications have ignored Dickinson's idiosyncratic punctuation.
posted by treepour (14 comments total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You know, normally I'd like a break from her ballad stanzas, but what's with all the dactyls flying around here? Doesn't it sound a bit like schmalzy Poe?
posted by kid ichorous at 12:26 PM on November 9, 2006

80% of Emily Dickinson's poetry can be sung to the tune of Yellow Rose of Texas.
posted by MotherTucker at 12:29 PM on November 9, 2006

If you read the dashes as hesitations or slight pauses, they interrupt that "Yellow Rose of Texas" meter in extremely interesting ways.
posted by treepour at 12:39 PM on November 9, 2006

This is good, both for readers and for teachers of Dickinson.

To be fair, virtually every single one of Dickinson's poems "continues to be reproduced in conflicting versions." The early, i.e. repunctuated and extensively mangled, editions are now out of copyright, and so the least editorially sound texts are the easiest ones to find on the Web. The texts we're used to seeing — with the omnipresent long dashes — are from Thomas Johnson's edition, which is still under copyright (and, though I haven't checked this specific poem, the linked page at poetryx.com appears to be infringing on it). The recent Franklin edition is the scholar's choice at this point, and often differs quite a bit from Johnson (who selected versions based on his personal preference). Punctuation fans may be interested in the Franklin edition's use of multiple lengths of dashes.

"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" is a nice entry into Dickinson's cosmology. (Though kid ichorous is right to say it's not one of her most metrically interesting works.)
posted by RogerB at 12:41 PM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wow, it's great to see the actual MSS and the printed newspaper version—the poem is familiar, but this freshens it right up. And the relationship with Sue Gilbert/Dickinson is fascinating to me; some years ago I read a book whose thesis was that Sue was the great love of Emily's life, and though I'm not completely persuaded I discuss it obsessively with Dickinson experts whenever I run across one. To see their letters in their handwriting is wonderful. (And the sentence "Has girl read Republican?" sounds downright 21st-century!)

Interesting discussion of the punctuation; it's not clear that she would have wanted her eccentric MS system preserved in printed versions, but of course she never got the chance to decide, and the Johnson dashes are far better than the awful normalizations of the 19th century.

Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 12:50 PM on November 9, 2006

So, RogerB, what do you think about the Emily-Sue relationship?
posted by languagehat at 12:51 PM on November 9, 2006

Thanks! It's a very good day to think about Emily Dickinson.
posted by taosbat at 1:06 PM on November 9, 2006

I'm not exactly a Dickinson scholar, but what interests me most about the Susan Gilbert question is how undecidable it is. Or maybe I should say that what's most interesting is how it forces us to reflect on what question, exactly, we are trying to answer by asking about it. There's very little chance anyone will ever have decisive evidence about the actual sex acts that might or might not have been involved. So the question is whether the letters and poems, which are undeniably passionate, can also fairly be called erotic, and if we're willing to call them that, then whether the erotic charge is conscious or unconscious and what kind of relationship it indicates the two women had. It's served as a kind of Rorshach test for critical presuppositions on both sides of a mostly manufactured argument, while all the really thoughtful readers I've known have been more or less agnostic on the question.

By the way, anyone who enjoys looking at the linked manuscripts really ought to check out The Manuscript Notebooks of Emily Dickinson, a gorgeous facsimile edition of most of her poems in the order of the little "fascicle" notebooks she bound together (instead of the chronological order of all the printed editions). It's expensive, but university libraries ought to have a copy. The recent trend toward thinking about the manuscript poems as the best texts to study, as though Dickinson were almost a forerunner of concrete poetry, is explained almost entirely by the niftiness of this edition.
posted by RogerB at 1:15 PM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

A former professor of mine has written about what we really need in an edition of Emily Dickinson. Her idiosyncratic punctuation, obviously, but more importantly, the fact that she loaded alternate readings into her own damn poems. In her manuscripts, she's put an X in front of certain words. At the bottom of the page, she'd have three or four alternate word choices.

An edition that could faithfully illustrate this would be awesome.

See also Susan Howe's "My Emily Dickinson."
posted by bardic at 4:11 PM on November 9, 2006

Or, what I missed in RogerB's post! Getting a chance to peruse the Manuscript Notebooks is great. It's high time a cheaper version came out that included the alternate wordings.
posted by bardic at 4:12 PM on November 9, 2006

On the tour of the Dickinson homestead, the docent mentioned Emily used several different handwritings throughout her life... I was amused and wondered how they'd ever know if one was a forgery!
posted by Gable Oak at 4:42 PM on November 9, 2006

Interesting stuff and nice to see this but I am surprised that none of the comments took a position on preferred rendering of stanza two, and why.
posted by Postroad at 6:20 PM on November 9, 2006

I'll give my preference:

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—

"Worlds scoop their Arcs" compresses the motion of the spheres into 4 words. And I love the quasi-synesthesia of "Soundless as dots -- on a Disc of Snow --". The image is simultaneously auditory and visual; I get the sense of a horizon silently receding to infinity. All in all, I guess it's this stanza's "metaphysical vertigo" that I find so attractive.
posted by treepour at 7:42 PM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

Whoo! A wonderful post for this Emily Dickinson fan. Thanks!
posted by tickingclock at 10:48 PM on November 9, 2006

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