Ex Libris: Emily Dickinson’s Poems – As She Preserved Them

Image used by permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1118.3 (13a)

Emily Dickinson has always been one of my favorite poets. Her words, her punctuation and her rhythm all draw me into a hypnotic enchantment … despite the fact that Dr. Paul Ragan, an English teacher at Hammond School, once pointed out that many of her poems could be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas, a coincidence that surely would have her rolling in her grave! Dickinson wrote nearly 1,800 poems in her 55 years (December 1830 – May 1886), which were spent predominantly in her native Amherst, Massachusetts. A noted eccentric and recluse, Dickinson maintained most of her relationships through her pen.

In her poetry, Dickinson is known for abstruseness. By leaving much unsaid and ambiguous, she paradoxically achieves a much higher meaning by leaving her poems open to the interpretation of her readers. She allows her readers to imprint their own distinct experiences onto the poem and interpret them with a meaning specific to themselves; hence through the absence of words and lack of specificity, she allows for infinite significance in her poems through the active participation of numerous individual minds, which would be impossible with a limited set of highly specific words.

Throughout her poetry, the motif that I find perhaps most fascinating is her exploration of the irony of full possession of anything being only achieved through its complete loss. In the poem quoted above, “Water, is taught by thirst,” she explores generative fullness found in absence by examining various aspects of life that are easily taken for granted and forgotten but, when stripped away, can conversely be more fully obtained and thus truly understood. The absence of an object oftentimes more fully embodies it than its presence and is therefore quintessential to its identity. Without thirst, water is meaningless and undefined; Dickinson suggests that without an antithesis, nothing can truly exist as the object becomes meaningless. She joins the polarities of presence and absence, life and death, victory and defeat as corresponding pairs.

In “A wounded Deer - leaps highest -,” she illustrates that in moving from life towards death, one reaches a latent vigor otherwise untapped. It is when the deer is wounded and on the brink of dying that it leaps higher than at any other point in life, and it is the face flushed in fever that shows the most sanguine vitality. Only in the loss of health can one truly know its meaning and, in truly knowing it, fully possess it. She thus alludes to the dual nature of death not only as life’s opposite, but also as an agent simultaneously deepening and enriching it; hence vitality is amplified upon the encroachment of mortality. “The trampled Steel that springs!” continues the poem. For a spring to reach its maximum potential length and be most effective in its existence, it must first be crushed flat, losing its inherent springiness by becoming a mere circular, flat piece of steel to then expand into its fullness. 

In an earlier poem, she writes, “Success is counted sweetest/ By those who ne’er succeed. To comprehend a nectar/ Requires sorest need.” It is impossible to value and wholly taste the sweetness of success without knowing its deficiency; no one who does not know failure can truly know success. Like peace, love and water, so life, health and victory can only be appreciated, and therefore owned, until they are lost.

Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them is a complete annotated edition of her poetry that, for the first time, distinguishes the approximately 1,100 poems she carefully copied onto folded sheets to retain from those she kept in rougher form or apparently did not keep at all. It is also the first edition to include the alternate words and phrases in the margins that Dickinson wrote on her copies, thus allowing readers to see, and determine for themselves, the extent to which a poem is resolved or fluid, thereby continuing Dickinson’s active engagement with the reader’s personal interpretation.