28 FEBRUARY 1970, Page 17

Cutting a dash


The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson (Faber 84s) This scholarly and well-printed book is im- portant, and it should be especially welcome to the reader who has not had access to the expensive three-volume edition which Mr Johnson edited for the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press in 1955. The ap- pearance of that edition was a considerable event in American literary history, because it made available for the first time the entire corpus of Emily Dickinson's poems, 1,775 of them. Mr Johnson had quite a problem on his hands. Miss Dickinson had never prepared her poems for publication, and her earlier editors frequently altered the spelling, the punctuation, the rhymes, even the order of lines, in the interests of 'normal' usage. Many readers of these former versions of the poems felt they were being cheated. After Mr Johnson brought out the Harvard edition with the 'original' texts, one could see the problem a bit more clearly.

His versions are something of a com- promise in two respects. First, he had to make the choice between variant readings in many cases (sometimes a difficult decision). These are all laid out in the three-volume edition, where presumably the reader is free to choose his own variant if he likes. Then there is the matter of the punctuation; this has bothered a number of readers. Emily Dickinson's customary way of marking was the dash, which certainly appears more fre- quently than one would expect it to. For ex- ample: Death—is but one—and comes but once—

Mr Johnson has preserved the dashes, odd as they sometimes look, with the idea that Miss Dickinson used them as a 'musical device'. Other scholars, however, have thought that the poet would surely have been more con- ventional if she expected to publish her poems, and that it is an editor's job to `regularise' the text for the general reader. The new Faber edition, suffice it to say, re- tains the text of the Harvard edition, and Mr Johnson has chosen the variants 'which the poet evidently preferred'.

The reader who is confronted by this em- barras de richesses may well feel like assembling his own anthology. There is no general agreement as to which are the best poems, though a dozen or so have turned up with fair regularity in the anthologies. Perhaps Miss Dickinson needs to be read entire; she is not one of those poets, like Marvell, who display their greatness in a few masterpieces. The larger number of her Poems are not so much unfinished as un-

developed: explosions of imagery which don't seem to lead to anything beyond themselves. But what explosions! In an age when many poets ruminated beyond necessity (surely The Scholar Gypsy', for instance, is too long), her brief poems, which seldom run to more than five quatrains, were exceptional. The Faber edition is a great heap of glittering fragments that one can sort out as one likes, and in the end one is reluc- tant to discard anything, even little epigrams like 'Fame's Boys and Girls, who never die/And are too seldom born—' Perhaps Emily Dickinson's posthumous reputation depended on a shift in the general taste of the literary public. In that case we needn't lament the fact that her earliest readers lacked the poems in the state that Mr Johnson has presented them. I cannot imagine any critic of the 1890s who would have accepted them. Four years after Miss Dickinson's death in 1886 the first collection of her poems was published, and these and two other collections had a considerable popularity in their day. Men like William Dean Howells praised them.

All the same, the official literary scholars were slow to concede her importance. As late as 1924 the Cambridge History of American Literature (the abbreviated one-volume edi- tion) simply omitted any mention of her. In that year Conrad Aiken, in a pioneering essay, ventured the opinion that Miss Dickinson was 'unquestionably the finest woman poet who has used the English language,' an opinion which is now difficult to refute. But it was a bold remark even then. Mr Aiken (who introduced a selection of the poems for Jonathan Cape) told me a few years ago that he had to disagree with Eliot and Pound, who rather disapproved of his bringing her out. He was perhaps the first American poet who experienced the 'shock of recognition' that counted. The next year Hart Crane mentioned her in the same sentence with Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Valery.

This is the company in which she should be placed. American literary scholars used to make her out as a kind of late metaphysical poet, and with some reason. Back of her stand Emerson and the tradition of pro- testant mysticism, George Herbert if not Donne (Herbert was read and admired in nineteenth century New England). But this tradition, which tends to be meditative, does not account for the sheer intensity of her poetry. Somehow, working in almost complete isolation from the literary world, she produced something like this:

There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons— That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes—

This poem (I have quoted only the first stanza) Mr Johnson dates c. 1861. Its ex- traordinary synesthesia thus follows by only a few years Baudelaire's est des parf urns frais comme des chairs d'enfants,/Doux comme les hautbois, verts conzme les prairies

One has to allow, of course, for the difference of her late-protestant sensibility, hard and clear, and her dependence on the rhythms of hymn tunes, but in her own way she cut into the mainstream of modern poetry. She made no, innovations in form, nor did she have the intellectual resources that allowed Baudelaire to write sustained poems like `Le Voyage'. Her audacities of

observation and syntax, however, put her closer to us. The Americans, beginning with Hart Crane, have in a sense continued where she left off, and the special intensity which she embodied has now become typical. For better or worse, it is what really distinguishes most American from most British poetry. At any rate, one is grateful to have her work available in its entirety. Readers who are picking it up for the first time have years of pleasure awaiting them.