An Editor Finds Hidden Verses In Emily Dickinson's Poetic Prose
ANYONE attempting a major task of scholarly editing today is engaging in a demanding discipline. Such an editor will know in advance that many will be dissatisfied with the results because choices have to be made, and many will disagree with the editor's decisions.
Emily Dickinson's work suffered many things of several editors before the definitive Thomas H. Johnson edition of her poems and, shortly afterward, his edition of her letters provided texts that have served as models of modern scholarly editing for nearly 40 years.
This is not to say no one has ever argued with Johnson's decisions. But his volumes have not been superseded. William H. Shurr, editor of ``New Poems of Emily Dickinson,'' has not found a new trove of poems. He has mined the Johnson edition of Dickinson letters to dig out 498 passages he claims should be additions to the Dickinson canon as independent poems.
Shurr has some basis for what he has done. For example, he points out that Johnson had ``isolated an obviously prose-formatted poem and published it as one of Dickinson's earliest works of poetry.'' Taken from letter 58, it became the second poem in the Johnson edition. It falls easily into iambic trimeter lines, with some variations in both its meter and a basic rhyme scheme of ``abcb.''
The author of ``The Marriage of Emily Dickinson: A Study of the Fascicles'' (University of Kentucky Press, 1983), in which he examined manuscripts for biographical speculations, Shurr is deeply familiar with the Dickinson texts. Using this familiarity and some precedent, he has found several categories of poems from which to build the basic text of his book. He comments that ``with the exception of spacing, the poems are presented just as Dickinson wrote them. Where she wrote them as prose, I have printed them in her usual poetic lines.'' He adds that Dickinson sometimes wrote the same lines either as prose or as poetry, and he says this justifies reformatting in verse any passages he sees as poetry, even though Dickinson did not write them that way.
He divides what he found into several categories, the most important of which he calls the epigrams. His chapter on epigrams contains 196 such poems, in ``fourteeners,'' that is in two adjacent lines of common hymn meter (an iambic tetrameter followed by an iambic trimeter). To make this system work, one must generally read the lines as not metrical, but accentual verse. Thus seen, a fourteener may have as many as 22 syllables, seven of them accented.
Other categories of poems Shurr has reformatted from the letters he calls new poems, tetrameters, trimeters, riddles, and workshop materials, the last being poetic materials he says are even rougher than the often very rough results in his other extractions.
As scholarly editing, this text can only be called reckless to the point of unacceptability, building surmise on supposition and then calling the results canonical Dickinson. But as a study of Dickinson's writing style, Shurr's ``New Poems'' has interest. His work has been assiduous. He has brought to easy attention some vintage examples of Dickinson wit and verve, as when she writes of the jays that she ``would have kissed their Lips of Horn'' if she ``could have caught them'' or when she says of ``Nature's faithful Blossoms'' that they are ``Magics of Constancy.''
Dickinson's letters are generally intensely personal and intimate, extremely original, and often substantially or wholly in accentual rhythms. The poems selected in this text as new are lifted from passages often entirely in basically the same rhythms as the parts chosen.
The process of selection is bewildering. For instance, in discussing a photo of two newlyweds, Dickinson wrote, ``The other face is deep and sweet, a lovely Face to sit by in Life's Mysterious Boat -[.]'' As Shurr's poem No. 418 this is rendered, simply,
A lovely Face to sit by/ in Life's Mysterious Boat -[.]
Why omit the iambic tetrameter of the first part of the sentence to select only that part that fits the editor's thesis?
If this text sends readers to Dickinson's letters, to find the enigmatic and quirky wealth there, the originality and concision that is Dickinson, then it will serve a function. But the general reader should not seek in this volume a series of new poems Dickinson wrote as such.
This book is for the specialist. Among them, it will be controversial but perhaps rewarding for Shurr's close scrutiny of Dickinson's compositional habits.
Dickinson is a truly major poet, and her writing should not be cavalierly handled. She is also persistently enigmatic. Yes, one of the tasks of literary scholarship is to clarify ambiguous writing in some construct of thought the scholar sees as illuminating.
But some shadow is Dickinson's proper and chosen surrounding, and the footlights' glare of this recasting of her writing wrenches her work from its setting, which involves a sidelong evasiveness and withdrawal.