… Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence — …
When we look at poetry by Emily Dickinson today, we get strange big letters and a multitude of dashes which yet cannot give the special Bees, Birds, or Ears any real sense. To blame the reader
— “you know, the author was a mystic, metaphysical, only high minds get it” —
a Mystical Bee remains unappealing on a High Mind as well.
We can read commentary online.
… Dickinson’s idiosyncratic poetic practice—her pervasive use, for example, of dashes, and of unexpectedly capitalized words …
Students may have problems with the appearance of the poems–with the fact that they are without titles; that they are often short and compact, compressed; that the dash is so often used in the place of traditional punctuation.
Emily Dickinson’s poetry was a success with the people of her times. The people did not have problems, and they knew proper spelling. Emily Dickinson also was aware of orthography as in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights, and she certainly did not mean her poetry for just a joke, though she had a sense of humor and I hope to prove it.
Let us have a close look at a manuscript for the poem we began with, Safe in their alabaster chambers. The color red is not to correct. I like Emily Dickinson’s poetry really much and I would not alter it. The color is to emphasize dash height relative to letter.
I do believe this is an autograph.
The manuscript has “low dashes”. The markings belong well with the habit of the hand. This habit also has an open e that closes for sibilant clusters, for example. We can compare diadems, Doges, and soundless. Spoken language mattered in Emily Dickinson’s notation.
The habit of the hand was strong. We can see the “low dash” around the name of the addressee, Suz.
Why make such marks, when writing a poem? Let us think about language and inspiration. There is an occurrence in Emily Dickinson’s verse to correspond with Latin and Greek. The occurrence is beyond mere coincidence or unaware habit.
(Time and Eternity, XVIII, Playmates) Latin: collusor, companion at play; condiscipulus, school-mate; angelus, a messenger, an angel; lapillus, small stone, pebble (marble?); lusus, a game; Greek: ὁμηλυσία, omelusia, companionship.
God permits industrious angels
Afternoons to play.
I met one, — forgot my school-mates,
All, for him, straightway.
God calls home the angels promptly
At the setting sun;
I missed mine. How dreary marbles,
After playing Crown!
The inspiration is morpho-phonemic and humorous. Let us try a few more pieces. (Life, XXIII, Unreturning) ἀνάπλυσις, anaplusis, washing or rinsing out; ἀνήλυσις, anelusis, going up, return; ἤλυσις, elusis, step, gait; lenunculus, a small sailing-vessel, bark, skiff (the toddling little boat).
‘T was such a little, little boat
That toddled down the bay!
‘T was such a gallant, gallant sea
That beckoned it away!
‘T was such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the coast;
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!
We can compare the Greek -upo/ypo- for I asked no other thing (Life, XII, p. 213): ἰσότυπος, isotypos, shaped alike, συνυπόπτωσις, synypoptosis, simultaneous presentation to the senses; Latin cauponarius, a male shopkeeper, tradesman, ὑποπτερνίς, upopternis, a knob (a kind of a button that can twirl, in the modern use), and ὑπo, below, looking a picture up and down (as Brazil on a map).
I asked no other thing,
No other was denied.
I offered Being for it;
The mighty merchant smiled.
Brazil? He twirled a button,
Without a glance my way:
“But, madam, is there nothing else
That we can show to-day?”
Emily Dickinson marked her poetry for prosody as well as language morphology. The markings and big letters belong with drafts of her pieces, not the final forms. Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd knew the draft features and ignored them with print. We do not follow Thomas Jefferson’s “rough draught” for the Declaration of Independence, either.
I like Emily Dickinson’s poetry very much, but this does not extend to many interpretations. I think they exaggerate on the influence by the poet’s recluse lifestyle. To compare comprehension, or just out of curiosity, would you try to find the pieces by Emily Dickinson to tell about book dusting, or the ex libris? You may be interested in the Uncouth love theme (the “suspicious” love of language) in her poetry. You may like the thematic stanza, too.