Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Poetry Wednesday

By Judith

Many people think of Emily Dickinson (1830 - 1886) as a small, quiet, reclusive lady who sat at home all her life and wrote nice little poems about daisies and bees. Well, sort of.

She may have been small of stature (she described herself as "small, like the wren"), but there was nothing little about her imagination or her favorite themes of life, death and eternity. She wrote 1,775 poems, approximately 2/3 of them before 1866. Less than a dozen were published during her lifetime. It wasn't exactly for want of trying. In 1862 she sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an essayist and reformer, to see whether he deemed them worthy of publication (although she had been previously published, albeit anonymously). He advised her to wait.

Most people who read her work didn't know what to make of it, for it didn't follow conventions of the day. Her use of unorthodox punctuation, capitalization and rhyming scheme was so unlike most other poets of her day (except, perhaps for that free spirit, Whitman). The poems didn't have titles, being known by their first lines. A rhyme scheme she often used was "slant rhyme", meaning that words might have different vowel or different consonant sounds, but still had a nearly-close rhyme sound. The sound was more jarring than pleasing, but this dissonance was a useful tool in conveying her thoughts on death and the hereafter. (A further force of life/Developed from within - /When Death lit all the shortness up/It made the hurry plain- )

After Emily Dickinson's death her sister found her vast store of poems and worked at getting them published. The first volume came out in 1890. In 1955 Thomas Johnson edited a complete edition of her poetry, numbered the poems, and, most importantly, presented them as the author had written them, without reformatting them with conventional rhyme and punctuation. His numbers are shown here.

1540 - written @ 1865

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away -
Too imperceptible at last
To seem like Perfidy -
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon -
The Dusk drew earlier in -
The Morning foreign shone -
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone -
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful.

1176 - written @ 1870

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies -

The Heroism we recite
Would be a normal thing
Did not ourselves the Cubits warp
For fear to be a King -

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