Poetry

Poetry Sunday: “As Imperceptibly as Grief,”
by Emily Dickinson

 

1540

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.

 

Born in 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, Emily Dickinson attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one year, then returned home, where she lived in near-seclusion for much of her life, maintaining active correspondences with other writers and intellectuals but spending most of her time with her family. Her poetry, penned in her room or on scraps of paper kept in her apron pockets, was prolific but mostly unknown during her lifetime. It was influenced by Dickinson’s reading of the 17th century Metaphysical poets, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Keats, as well as by her upbringing in a conservative Puritan New England town with strong Calvinistic leanings. Dickinson published only a few poems during her lifetime. Her first book came out after she died in 1886, when her family discovered forty handstitched volumes in a trunk in her room. These “fascicles,” as they were called, included nearly 1,800 poems, handwritten and characterized by unusual capitalizations and dash-like marks of various sizes and orientations. In the first printing, editors imposed their own stanza structures, punctuation, and sequence on the poems. The current standard version, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (Belknap Press 1981), attempts to re-create Dickinson’s intent, restoring her dashes and her original order of poems. [poets.org].

Dickinson was not encouraged to read the “scandalous” work of her contemporary, Walt Whitman, but many critics today connect these poets as the original authors of a uniquely American poetic voice. Dickinson’s abstractions; her spare, slant musicality; and her contemplative introversion contrast with Whitman’s more expansive lines, concrete subject matter, and tendency toward grandiosity. [poets.org]. Her subjects are drawn from her narrow physical world and the topography of her own psyche; her genius lies in the way she uses them to explore universal ideas and themes in nature, identity, religion, mortality, and love. Known for her compression, creative syntax, and brilliant and unusual diction, she coined the adage “tell it slant,” a phrase that describes her own work and has come to define what the best poetry aims to do.

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  • Henry Taylor September 2, 2018 at 2:04 pm

    I recommend, without reservation, the “reading edition” of The Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by R. W. Franklin (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999). It is based on his three-volume variorum, the definitive edition of Dickinson’s poetry. This poem is #935 in Franklin’s edition. The only difference in the two editions of this poem is in the formatting of the dashes. Not a big deal, but Dickinson lovers will find in Franklin many poems that are not in Johnson.

    Reply
    • Robin Flicker December 8, 2018 at 2:16 am

      I agree that the Franklin edition is more inclusive than the Johnson which, when I wrote my thesis on Dickinson in the 1980s, was the best there was. I think the formatting of the dashes is a big deal, and have argued as much in my writing on Dickinson. It’s thrilling to me that we have come so far in getting to what Dickinson intended her poems to be. She of course well knew how to use comas and semi-colons, and it behooves us as readers to recognize that her dashes were deliberate “staples in the song,” to use a phrase of hers.

      Thank you for this piece on Dickinson and for the comment above. She has too long been read as a simple, sentimental, poet of occasions. I would argue that she is among the most complex of poets, equal in imaginative and intellectual heft – and as radical in shifting the shape of language – as the brilliant poet of the Shoah, Paul Celan.

      Reply