R.I.P. EMILY DICKINSON
December 10, 1830 - May 15, 1886
The Maid of Amherst, Emily
Dickinson, sang quietly
Far from the roar of the madding throng,
But now she holds her breath too long.
William H. Shurr of the University of Tennessee has been mining Dickinson's letters for nuggets overlooked by other Dickinson scholars, even Thomas H. Johnson whose The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, contains what the ordinary reader might have thought were all of Dickinson's poems, including those to be found originally in her letters. Evidently Shurr believes he hit paydirt in Dickinson's inexhaustible vein, for in September of 1993 he published his New Poems of Emily Dickinson, in which he claimed to have discovered "Nearly 500 short epigrams and longer lyrics excavated from Dickinson's correspondence but not previously presented in poetic form. — 'Most of all, these poems continue Dickinson's remarkable experiments in extending the boundaries of poetry and human sensibility,'" as it was reported in the EDIS Bulletin.
Nearly simultaneously a review titled "Emily Warmed Over" by Gary Lee Stonum appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Professor Stonum wrote that these "New Poems [are] Anything but New." He continued, "The 'New Poems of Emily Dickinson,' sad to say, are not new, not often poems, and not even quite Emily Dickinson's. To produce this volume William Shurr has mined Dickinson's published letters, sometimes finding gems and sometimes fool's gold, but only rarely extracting anything Dickinson herself would have owned as one of her poems."
The book had a casual inception, according to Anita Manning, who wrote, "On a whim, Shurr set out some passages" from Dickinson's letters "as poems....” Evidently, according to information supplied on the title page of his book and elsewhere therein, Shurr's chief excavators were a graduate student, Anna Dunlap, and Shurr's daughter, Emily Grey Shurr, who did the exhumation under the editor's direction.
"The discovery is 'an exciting, innovative and important advance in Dickinson studies,' wrote Dickinson scholar Emory Elliott of the University of California, Riverside, on the book jacket. He called Shurr's work 'a major advance in our knowledge of Dickinson as poet and person.'"
"These poems use her [Dickinson's] preferred hymn or ballad meters and unusual rhymes," Shurr averred not only in his book and in the Bulletin, but in many of the media, including newspapers, television and radio. However, what struck this reader most strongly was the fact that "these poems" did not use rhymes — unusual or not — at all. Perhaps graduate students may be excused for being unaware of the various definitions of prosodics and verse forms, but one expects editors and scholars to know them.
Pertinent standard definitions (from my The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, third edition) are as follows:
BALLAD: Universal in the Western world. Folk ballads are written in podic prosody, literary ballads in accentual-syllabics. The BALLAD STANZA is [rhymed] a4 b3 c4 b3. [The superscripts indicate line lengths.] For related forms see COMMON MEASURE (95-97).
Emily Dickinson did not write ballads, which are medium-length lyric narratives, nor did she write in the accentual folk ballad measure called "podic prosody"; thus, "ballad meters" is the wrong term — there is a clear difference between a "meter" and a "stanza." The correct term is common measure stanzas, which Dickinson found in the hymnals of Amherst and used as her models:
COMMON MEASURE: Accentual-syllabic. Rhymed. A QUATRAIN STANZA written in iambics.... The rhyme scheme is abcb. The first and third lines consist of four iambic feet; the second and fourth lines, of three iambic feet (119). HYMNAL STANZA is the same, except that it rhymes abab [ibid.].
Common measure and hymnal stanza must rhyme. Since the "poems" under discussion here do not rhyme, and only the most optimistic scansion would show that they were purposely written in iambic meters, they are not cast in Emily Dickinson's standard common measure and hymnal stanza patterns. Here is an example, "One of Shurr's favorites among the new poems," according to Manning:
A Letter always seemed to me
for is it not the Mind alone,
without corporeal friend?
If "lines" one and two seem to set up a couplet rhyme pattern, then the reader's expectation is that lines three and four will do the same. Their complete failure to do so has the effect of anticlimax, undercutting not only the chime of the poem, but our expectation of what a Dickinson poem should accomplish. Taking these lines out of their context in this way, as though they were a finished quatrain, destroys the effect that they had in the letters and tends to trivialize the rest of Dickinson's verse oeuvre.
If it is true that Emily Dickinson never consciously wrote an unrhymed poem in her life, it follows that the passages in New Poems of Emily Dickinson cannot possibly be said to be "new" poems by the Amherst poet under any of the circumstances its editor has discussed. Although she did sometimes use the same lines in both letters and poems, unless she used lines from the former in the latter, Dickinson clearly meant them as prose passages, and prose passages they remain, despite an editor's having "lineated" them according to phrasal patterns. People since the twentieth century have been calling line-phrased prose "free verse" (a contradiction in terms — “verse” is “metered language, “prose” is unmetered language; thus, “verse” cannot be “free”), but we know what Emily Dickinson thought of Whitman's prose poems.
These concerns of mine were embodied in a letter I wrote to Dr. Shurr on 8 August 1993, after he and I had attended the 1993 meeting in Amherst, Massachusetts, of the Emily Dickinson International Society. Dr. Shurr replied with a letter justifying his book. It was difficult to know where to begin to correct his errors, but I decided to start with this quotation from his response: "It is almost a cliché in Dickinson studies for nearly a century now to call this unit ['the two-line unit that alternates iambic tetrameter with iambic trimeter'] ballad meter, or hymn meter, or more usually fourteeners."
If it is cliché it is also erroneous and another proof of something I have long bemoaned: Most scholars and critics of American literature know nothing whatever about prosodics and are quite disdainful of those who do. No doubt it is the "intuitive" Emerson/Whitman influence; as Dana Gioia has pointed out in a recent essay:
"Today prosody is a neglected subject.
"Few literary critics know more than the rudiments of metrics, and, in the aftermath of the free-verse revolution, even many poets have never studied versification. The last century, however, considered prosody an essential part of literary education" (93). "Surely one reason for the drop in Longfellow's reputation has been the decline of interest among both scholars and poets in formal prosody."
That does not, however, excuse the ignorance, nor ought one to condone its continuance.
First, that "two-line unit" is not a "unit." Many of the "poems" Shurr has identified are two lines long, what he calls "fourteener epigrams." However, fourteeners are not used singly, and Dickinson never intended that they should be; fourteeners are always paired with another line — either another fourteener, or an Alexandrine line to form a couplet of Poulter's measure (see pp. 226-227 of The Book of Forms). There is a caesura after iambic foot four of each fourteener, and the line has long been broken at that point to form two lines (small x = an unstressed, unrhymed syllable; capital X = a stressed, unrhymed syllable; capital A, B, C — any syllable other than x = a stressed, line-ending syllable that may rhyme):
xX xX xX xX · xX xX xX, i.e.,
xX xX xX xX ·
xX xX xX
If this were all, Shurr might have a case for his "fourteener epigram," but another fourteener is required to complete the unit, which is a couplet unit:
xX xX xX xA
xX xX xB
xX xX xX xC
xX xX xB
This quatrain is called common measure, (not "ballad meter" unless it is written in podic prosody), and when Dickinson used it as a poem or stanza form, she rhymed it as tradition required.
Shurr cited poem "J. 497" from the Johnson collection to prove that Dickinson sometimes did not rhyme her poems:
He strained my faith —
Did he find it supple?
Shook my strong trust —
Did it then — yield?
Hurled my belief —
But — did he shatter — it?
Racked — with suspense —
Not a nerve failed!
Wrung me — with Anguish —
But I never doubted him —
'Tho' for what wrong
He did never say —
Stabbed — while I sued
His sweet forgiveness —
Jesus — it's your little "John"!
Dont you know — me?
It is true that, as Johnson has printed this poem, it does not rhyme. However, the poem first appeared as no. 608 in the section titled "Poems Incomplete or Unfinished" of Bolts of Melody. In that incarnation it was printed thus:
He strained my faith — did he find it supple?
Shook my strong trust — did it then yield?
Hurled my belief — but did he shatter it?
Racked with suspense, not a nerve failed!
Wrung me with Anguish — must be I deserved it,
Though for what wrong he did never say,
Stabbed — while I sued his sweet forgiveness.
Jesus — it's your little "John"! Why me slay?"
This version certainly rhymes or, to be accurate, the first stanza consonates (off-rhymes) and the second true-rhymes. It took me less than five minutes to find this version in my personal library. To be sure, it would take me a bit longer to discover why there are differences in the versions — for instance, in the second version, "must be I deserved it" instead of "But I never doubted him — " in the "Wrung me with Anguish" line, or "Why me slay?" instead of "Don't you know — me?" in the last line.
According to Mrs. Todd, editor of Dickinson's 1931 Letters, "In her early twenties Emily began to conclude her letters with a poem, but as part of the text, written as prose, as if half hoping that the correspondent might not detect its presence. — Later, poems, as such, were not only part of the text; sometimes a poem constituted the entire letter." (455) Morever, she would often use the same "poem" in more than one letter; a note in Bolts says, "In Mrs. Todd's copy the last two words [of the last line] are inverted." (304) Some scholars have argued, however, that none of Dickinson's "prose" pieces ought to be counted a "poem" unless it appears in one of the "fascicles," the little ribbon-bound manuscript chapbooks that were found among the poet's effects after her death, and I tend to agree with this view.
For these, and many other reasons, the "poems" of Emily Dickinson are extremely problematic. Staying with the example Shurr chose, for instance, one might point out that, as he has given it, the poem not only does not rhyme externally, it also does not exhibit iambic meters. Here is an accurate scansion of the first "quatrain" in Johnson's version:
The only iambs are to be found in "line" one, which is iambic dimeter. Line two has no normative foot but consists of one anapest and an amphibrach. Line three has a trochee and a spondee. Line four is what a classical metrist would call a pyrrhic and a spondee, what Harvey Gross calls "a double iamb," and what J. R. R. Tolkien calls a "long rise" when he is discussing accentual (podic) prosody.
Nor is the "quatrain" written in podic prosody, for if it were written out as two lines of Anglo-Saxon prosody (which is the basis for podic prosody, TBoF, pp. 26-32), accentually it would look like this (the dot indicates the caesura in the center of the stich):
xX xX · xxX xXx
Xx Xx´ · xxXX
Stich two has five stresses, three in the first hemistich, where two would be required. In other words, this "stanza" is not written in verse, which is "metered language"; it is written in prose, "unmetered language." All that Johnson did was to break Dickinson's prose up into lines according to phrasing, what some have called "lineation" and what I call "line-phrasing." (I direct the reader's attention to the chapter titled "Whitman and I" in my book The Public Poet, where I go into this matter in some detail.)
Either one must maintain that Emily Dickinson sometimes wrote prose poems, or that this was not intended by Dickinson as a poem to begin with. If the Todd ("T. 608") version comes to light, one may suspect that Dickinson never arrived at a version of the poem that she thought of as complete, for it exists in a short-line (J. 497) and at least two long-line versions. Though the latter may show tendencies toward regular meter, the rhythms are quite rough and it is clear why the editors considered the poem to be unfinished.
Here is my numeration of the various feet in this "poem": iambs, 14 (counting the double iamb); trochees, 11; anapests, 2; spondees, 4; amphibrachs, 3. If iambs predominate, barely, over trochees, this piece is far from regular metrically, either as an iambic poem or as a podic poem (although it is actually more regular accentually than it is accentual-syllabically, for the number of stressed syllables ranges only between four and five accents).
These are the sorts of things I meant when I called Shurr's scansions "creative." That Johnson's were as creative does not speak well for his understanding of what it is that poets do. There is no excuse for scholars and critics of American literature to ignore the prosodic practice of the poets themselves, yet they seem to be willing to be ignorant and to excuse that ignorance by citing other scholars' ignorance. In my opinion the whole of Dickinson's "poetic" oeuvre needs to be gone over again prosodically to determine what she intended to preserve as verse poems and what she meant to leave as prose. Dickinson knew when she wanted her words to appear as finished verses, and she knew when she intended to leave them as parts of letters.
Works cited in “Iron Pyrites in the Dickinson Mine.”
Emory Elliott, book blurb on the jacket of Shurr, New Poems by Emily Dickinson, q.v.
Dana Gioia, "Longfellow in the Aftermath of Modernism," in The Columbia History of American Poetry, Jay Parini, ed., New York, NY: Columbia U. P., 1993.
Thomas H. Johnson, ed., The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard U. P., 1963.
Anita Manning, signed news item, USA Today, June 23, 1993.
William H. Shurr, editor, New Poems of Emily Dickinson, Chapel Hill, NC: U. of North Carolina P., 1993.
——, August 1993 reply to Lewis Turco's letter, q.v.
Gary Lee Stonum, "Emily Warmed Over," Cleveland, Ohio, Plain Dealer, September 5th, 1993.
Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin, Georgiana Strickland, ed., 5:1, May/June 1993.
Mabel Loomis Todd, ed., Letters of Emily Dickinson, New and Enlarged Edition, New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1931.
——, and Millicent Todd Bingham, eds., Bolts of Melody, New Poems of Emily Dickinson, New York, NY: Harper and Brothers, 1945.
Lewis Turco, Letter to Dr. William H. Shurr, 8 August 1993; printed as a review in The Hollins Critic, xxx:1, Dec. 1993, pp. 12-13.
——, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Hanover, NH: U. P. of New England, 2000.
——, The Public Poet, Ashland, OH: Ashland Poetry P., 1991.
A version of "Iron Pyrites in the Dickinson Mine" was originally published in The Emily Dickinson Journal, iv:1, 1995, pp. 108-117, copyright © 1995 and 2016 by Lewis Turco, all rights reserved: may not be quoted in whole or in part by anyone anywhere without the written consent of the author.
A collaborative book on poems derived from the prose letters of Dickinson is Emily Dickinson, Woman of Letters: Poems and Centos from Lines in Emily Dickinson's Letters Together with Essays on the Subject by Various Hands, edited with an introduction by Lewis Turco, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press (www.SUNYPress.edu), 1993. ISBN 0-791414-17-5, cloth; ISBN 0-791414-18-3, paper. All poems are collected in Fearful Pleasures: The Complete Poems of Lewis Turco 1959-2007, q.v.