Dickinson’s “Microscopic Meter”
It’s easy to get caught up in the entrancing language, images, themes in Dickinson’s work, and gloss over the forms in which they are embodied and the sheer music of her poetry. This week we get down to the nitty-gritty of Dickinson’s metrical forms, considering prosody (poetry’s patterns of rhythm and sound) and scansion (marking the stresses or beats in a line of poetry to determine its rhythm; for further explanation, see “scansion made easy.” Often, the forms of the poems are crucial in making their meanings. English poet Ted Hughes refers to Dickinson’s “microscopic meter,” suggesting that it achieves its effects by tiny, subtle shifts, but ones that magnify the development of meaning. We will have to look closely at these weighty details.
Despite some popular notions that all of Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” readers find her forms varied and the effects she achieves transgressive––more so, for some, than the obvious innovations of Whitman. Cristanne Miller has studied Dickinson’s forms intensively and in the context of the metrical practices of her contemporaries. She finds that Dickinson composed in terms of the stanza, and that studying her use of stanzas in the Fascicles reveals patterns that “suggest that Dickinson thinks of her poems in terms of formal patterns in addition to or rather than in thematic clusters.” Miller treats the fascicles as Dickinson’s “fair copies,” but Dickinson revised continuously and there are often different formal versions of poems. For a competing view, see Susan Howe, Jerome McGann and others who read Dickinson’s texts as “visually intentional” with important “graphemic” elements such as word spacing, length of dashes and handwriting.
Given Dickinson’s wide reading, her familiarity with the metaphysical poets, John Donne and George Herbert, her adored Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she had the Western metrical tradition at her fingertips. Still, she avoided the meter that predominated among these poets and dominates English verse––iambic pentameter (a ten syllable line made up of five “feet,” a 2 syllable unit with a rising rhythm of unstressed/stressed syllables). Unrhymed iambic pentameter (called “blank verse”) is the meter of Shakespeare’s plays, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Browning’s long poem, Aurora Leigh, which was a favorite of Dickinson’s. Dickinson used this meter sparingly and adapted it strategically, as in the beginning of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” to render the “formality” of numbness and then show its disintegration.
Rather, Dickinson wrote the majority of her poems in the hymn’s form of common meter, also known in secular terms as “the ballad measure.” This shorter form served her desire to work in a communal idiom and her need for concision and compression. Some feminist scholars argue that this was a conscious decision on her part to reject the poetic norms of a patriarchal culture. Others counter that such decisions are not always fully conscious.
Growing up in a Congregational household in a predominantly Puritan community and attending church every week until she stopped when she was around thirty, Dickinson was steeped in the Protestant hymn tradition, epitomized by the English hymnist, Isaac Watts.
Dickinson’s mother owned a copy of Watts’ Hymns and the household had his Church Psalmody and Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
In several poems Dickinson quotes or echoes Watts and rewrites him, often in playful or ironic ways, using his familiar devotional rhythms as counterpoint for some of her more radical and skeptical notions about God, faith and salvation.
But she was also deeply influenced by the ballad tradition, an older, looser and more imaginative narrative form that had been revived in the 18th century and deeply influenced the British Romantic poets. Because hymns were written to be sung communally to a handful of familiar tunes, they needed to be more regular, while ballads were more metrically inventive and meant for popular consumption.
The first bestseller in Puritan New England drew from this tradition: The Day of Doom by the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, published in 1662, two hundred and twenty four stanzas narrating the Last Judgment and its theology. The bouncing rhythm of its meter (called “fourteeners,” or lines of 8 and 6 syllables) made it easy to memorize, and into the nineteenth-century, many elderly folks could be found in New England still reciting it from memory.
Dickinson used several versions of hymn form, as we will see, but she especially relished the looser form of the ballad measure. She also sometimes abandoned regular or recognizable form altogether, writing a form of free verse, which might have been influenced by Whitman and seeing parts of the King James Bible lineated as verse.
We will get into the details of her verse form in the discussion of the poems for this week. Below, in our section on history (page 2), we highlight the kinds of poems she would have come across in her newspaper and journal reading for the week.