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 shifts that magnify the development of meaning. We will 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 more obvious formal 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 of Dickinson's forms, 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 Barrett 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 first line 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, consisted of two hundred and twenty four stanzas narrating the Last Judgment when Christ will return and pass judgement on those saved and going to heaven and those damned and going to hell. The bouncing rhythm of its meter (called “fourteeners,” or long lines of 8 and 6 syllables) made it easy to memorize. 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 kind 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. In our section on history, we highlight the kinds of poems Dickinson would have come across in her newspaper and journal reading for the week.
“Badinage and the Ball Room, Bonnets and Bouquets.”
Springfield Republican, February 8, Review of the Week: “The status quo continues. The story of the week is soon told. Inaction and suspense everywhere … an embargo of mud and water all along the line, which only days – it may be weeks – of sunshine and wind can raise. … The news from the South is still of the same tenor. The disaffection and reaction increase … The tone of the English press is becoming more pacific. …
The best thing that has been done in Congress during the week is the expulsion of Jesse D. Bright of Indiana, from the Senate, for treasonable correspondence with the enemy.”
From Washington: “The gay dance which is to come off to-night at the White House produces much talk and considerable indignation among the members of Congress,” especially at this time of military inaction.
A column titled “Opportunities:”
…life has nobler opportunities than those of making money, or even spending it in gorgeous display. The present times give opportunity for self-sacrifice, for sorrow relieved and loss endured and temptation spurned. There sits a lady in our land to whom the fates have granted a possibility not open to one woman in a century, the privilege to lead the feminine loyalty of America, to bless with the charm of her sex and station the camp of the volunteer and the ward of the hospital, to pledge her fair hand, more honored than honoring, to all these womanly benignities that soften the horrors of war, to frown with severely truthful eye upon the shameless panderers to treachery and greed, and putting aside the ensnaring ties of a misguided kindred, to say truly to the hero of her choice,—“thy people shall be mine!” Such is the peerless opportunity, granted and lost. Such is the high privilege of winning a beautiful and enduring fame, a memory cherished in a nation’s heart of hearts,—all overlooked and wasted, all bartered for badinage and the ball room, bonnets and bouquets.
On the Emancipation Question:
The experience of all these islands [the West Indies] teaches that to emancipate the negro is to advance him at one stride further on the road of civilization than a century of slavery could do.
A column titled “Reading the Bible in Schools” discusses the Massachusetts State legislature’s consideration of this thorny question and finds that the Puritan majority feels
that the Catholic citizens of the state are not citizens in the full sense of the word, but interlopers, resident here by the sufferance of the Puritan majority, and having no claims to any larger share in the civil and social privileges of this community than the anti-Catholic majority may choose to concede to them.
The writer proposes a compromise and urges the passage of the act,
excusing all who have scruples on the subject … and let them institute measures for the preparation of a book of selections from the Scriptures which will be generally acceptable.
Original Poetry in Springfield Republican: “Buried Memories” written in quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab with some variations in the third line of 9 syllables, but fairly regular. Also, “The Soldier’s Wife,” written in quatrains of iambic tetrameter (8 syllable lines of 4 feet and beats, each with a rhythm of unstressed/stressed) rhyming abab, also very regular.
Hampshire Gazette: “From The Atlantic Monthly for February: ‘Song of the Negro Boatmen’” by J. G. W. [John Greenleaf Whittier, an outspoken abolitionist], set in Port Royal, Jamaica, and written in black dialect, 12 line stanzas of three quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab cdcd, with a refrain in the third quatrain rhyming efgf, very regular. Also, notice the reference to the “day of doom” (here, the concept and probably not Wigglesworth’s poem)!!
Oh, praise an’ tanks! De Lord he come
To set the people free;
An’ massa tink it day ob doom,
An’ we ob jubilee.
De Lord dat heap de Red Sea waves
He jus’ as ‘trong as den;
He say the word: we las’ night slaves;
To day, de Lord’s freemen.
De yam will grow, de cotton blow,
We’ll hab de rice an’ corn:
Oh, nebber you fear, if nebber you hear
De driver blow his horn!
“Glimpses of Other Worlds”
Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 1862, Amherst College:
The first in our series of “home-made” lectures was delivered by Rev. Dr. Hitchcock, last Thursday evening… the lecturer’s subject was, “Glimpses of the Geology and Habitability of other Worlds.” Many astounding facts with reference to the Universe in which we dwell were developed, and some exceedingly ingenious and plausible theories touching the condition of the worlds around us were put forth.
Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) was a geologist, professor and later president of Amherst College, and friend of the Dickinson family. His many books on geology tried to reconcile science and Scriptures, and he was a strong influence on Dickinson. In a letter to Higginson from early 1877, Dickinson wrote,
When flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence – assuring me they lived (L488).
Susan Castillo Street
As a poet myself, I have learned that Emily Dickinson’s poems should be approached with the greatest caution. We are blown away by their power, and captivated by what looks like their elegant simplicity. Elegant they absolutely are: simple they most certainly are not. We soon find this out when we attempt to write “in the style of…” My own attempts in this direction are something with which I could be blackmailed for very large sums. The delicacy and subtlety of her rhyme schemes and her metrics are extraordinarily complex, and imitations of Dickinson’s style in less able hands have an alarming tendency to turn into unfortunate Tiddly-Pum verse.
That said: there is something about her use of ballad meter that I find powerfully seductive. Somehow it reminds me of the powerful ebb and flow of the hymns of my Southern childhood. The following poem isn’t written in ballad meter, but I’ve tried to capture a similar effect here:
My cousin Martha and I go crabbing.
She holds the string, I dip the net.
We don’t talk much. Two solemn pigtailed girls
intent upon our task. Heat beats down.
In the distance, Uncle John floats
out on the waves, spreads out X-shaped,
buoyed up by tractor tire. The waves go
hush hush hush against the shore.
The beach house is made of timber.
No running water. Aunt Mary boils and scrubs and cleans,
raises an eyebrow when my flighty mama
says to cousin Stevie let’s go fish.
Mama’s voice is low and sweet,
thick Mississippi honey. She and Stevie,
pirates both, conspirators.
They go out to the jetty, bait their hooks,
sit down to wait, legs dangling low.
Stevie, silent, straightens, motions to my Mama,
points to his bending pole.
We strain to hear their voices
but the words are indistinct.
She puts her arm around his shoulders,
helps him reel in a silver squirming fish.
His grin could light the sky.
I don’t know if I believe
in a Heaven full of wings and harps,
But if the Hereafter does exist,
I imagine it will be
Grand Isle with Uncle Johnny floating,
Aunt Mary bustling,
Martha and me crabbing
Mama and Steve, two pirates fishing.
Bio: Susan Castillo Street is an international woman of mystery. She has published two collections of poems, The Candlewoman's Trade (2003), Abiding Chemistry, (2015), and a pamphlet, Constellations (Three Drops Press, 2016). A third collection, The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, was published by Aldrich in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in Southern Quarterly, Prole, The High Window, Ink Sweat & Tears, Messages in a Bottle, The Missing Slate, Clear Poetry, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Foliate Oak, The Yellow Chair Review, Poetry Shed, The Lake, Smeuse, Algebra of Owls, Picaroon, Riggwelter, and other journals and anthologies. She is owned by three cats and lives in a restored oast in Sussex.
Her blog is The Salamander and the Raven.
Finch, A. R. C. “Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes.” PMLA, 102 (2 March 1987): 166-76.
Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 1985.
Ladin, Joy. “ ‘Where the Meanings, are’: Emily Dickinson, Prosody, and Postmodernist Poetics.” Versification, 5 (2010): 1-8.
McGann, Jerome. “Emily Dickinson’s Visible Language.” The Emily Dickinson Journal II, 2 (1993):
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 49-81.
Pugh, Christina. “Ghosts of Meter: Dickinson, After Long Silence.” The Emily Dickinson Journal xvi, 2 (2007): 1-26.
Ross, Christine. “Uncommon Measures: Emily Dickinson’s Subversive Prosody.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 10 (1, 2001): 70-98.
Hampshire Gazette, February 4, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 8, 1862
Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 1862