April 16-22: Poems in the first letter to Higginson

On Choosing the Poems

Dickinson's Writing Desk
Dickinson’s Writing Desk

For this week’s poems, we include the four poems Dickinson sent to Higginson in her first letter: “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,” “The nearest Dream recedes unrealized,” “We play at Paste,” and “I’ll tell you how the Sun rose,” as well as two more that reflect his presence in her work. Martha Nell Smith observes that the four poems Dickinson chose to introduce herself with suggest that

as had [Elizabeth] Barrett Browning, she sought “to disprove the assertion that women” were only capable of occasional verse and could not “write true poetry.”

To illustrate how various and playful Dickinson’s responses to Higginson’s specific recommendations about writing were—she accepted few and deliberately flouted others—here is a partial list of Higginson’s advice and Dickinson’s response.

1. TWH: Deliver a neat manuscript, not like Pope who wrote his manuscript of the Iliad “chiefly on the back of old letters.” This is precisely what Dickinson will begin doing later in her writing life—composing poems on the back of old letters and cut up envelopes! See Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings, edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin (2013) for examples.

2. TWH recommends “shaping, smoothing, dovetailing, and retrenching,” which is what he will do when he edits Dickinson’s poems posthumously, implying that she did not.

3. “For intellect in the rough there is no market.” Dickinson clearly heeded this and avoided the market.

4. TWH: “Dr. Channing established in New England a standard of style which really attained almost the perfection of the pure and the colorless … but the defect of this standard is that it ends in utterly renouncing all the great traditions of literature, and ignoring the magnificent mystery of words. … it is easy to see that a phrase may outweigh a library.” Dickinson got this point and ran with it.

5. TWH: “There may be phrases which shall be palaces to dwell in, treasure-houses to explore; a single word may be a window from which one may perceive all the kingdoms of the earth and the glory of them. Oftentimes a word shall speak what accumulated volumes have labored in vain to utter: there may be years of crowded passion in a word, and half a life in a sentence.” This perfectly describes Dickinson’s famous techniques of compression.

6. TWH refers to the clothing of words “as a little girl does for her doll.” This is one of many comparisons he makes in the letter that put women in what seems like an inferior place, but Dickinson will take the metaphor up seriously in her subsequent letters.

7. TWH talks about having to please the popular and “average” tastes: “—something more undying than senates and more omnipotent than courts, something which rapidly cancels all transitory reputations, and at last becomes the organ of eternal justice and infallibly awards posthumous fame.” This spoke to Dickinson.

8. TWH’s first demand is to be attractive, amusing: “Charge your style with life, and the public will not ask for conundrums.” This is why Dickinson asks first if her poems are “alive.”

9. TWH asserts that experience can be from books: “books remain the chief quarries.” Did this help to justify Dickinson’s self-protecting withdrawal?

10. TWH: “Be noble in affluence and economy of diction: How few men in all the pride of culture can emulate the easy grace of a bright woman’s letter!” And he would begin to receive many letters from this extraordinarily “bright” woman.

11. TWH uses imagery of royalty to describe the creation of neologism: “But do not undertake to exercise these prerogatives of royalty until you are quite sure of being crowned.” Clearly, Dickinson ignored this bit of advice.

12. TWH really likes Emerson: “The diction of Emerson alone is a sufficient proof, by its unequalled range and precision, that no people in the world ever had access to a vocabulary so rich and copious as we are acquiring.” Dickinson liked Emerson as well, though they have their differences.

13. And TWH on New England: “Thus the American writer finds himself among his phrases like an American sea-captain amid his crew: a medley of all nations, waiting for the strong organizing New-England mind to mould them into a unit of force.” In a poem, Dickinson describes herself as “seeing New Englandly.”

14. TWH: “Do not habitually prop your sentences on crutches, such as Italics and exclamation points.” Advice that Dickinson happily ignored.

15, TWH on cohesion: “As Biddy at her bread-pan gradually kneads in all the outlying bits of dough, till she has one round and comely mass.” This simile would have spoken to Dickinson, who excelled at baking.

16. TWH: “Reduce yourself to short allowance of parentheses and dashes.” HA!!

17. TWH: “Literature is attar of roses, one distilled drop from a million blossoms.” Dickinson was especially fond of roses and this image appealed to her. We include in our cluster the poem, “This was a Poet,” which uses this image. The next year, Dickinson will repeat Higginson’s words almost exactly in the poem, “Essential Oils are wrung” (F772A, J 675), but she add an incomparable Dickinson touch:

The Attar from the Rose
Is not expressed by Suns – alone
It is the gift of
Screws –

Ouch! So much for excessive sentimentality.


Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Letter to a Young Contributor.” Atlantic Monthly 15 April, 1862.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992, 196 (quoting from Jay Leyda, The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 2:220.)

Safe in their Alabas
ter Chambers - 
Untouched by Morning - 
And untouched by noon - 
Sleep the meek mem
bers of the Resurrection, 
Rafter of Satin and
Roof of Stone - 

Grand go the Years, 
In the Crescent above
them - 
Worlds scoop their Arcs - 
And Firmaments – row -
Diadems – drop - 
And Doges – surrender - 
Soundless as Dots, 
On a Disc of Snow. 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet III, Fascicle 6. Includes 17 poems, written in ink, ca. 1859. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in the Springfield Daily Republican (1 March 1862), 2, apparently from the lost copy to Susan Dickinson ([A]).

The EDA lists nine different entries for this poem that contain four versions of the second stanza. We discussed its complicated compositional history, in which  Susan Huntington Dickinson served as poetic critic and commentator, in the post on Sue. Sue was dissatisfied with three revisions of the second stanza Dickinson sent to her and eventually argued that the first stanza could stand alone. But she submitted the first version to Samuel Bowles for publication in the Springfield Republican. Dickinson included this poem in Fascicle 6 in 1859 and Fascicle 10 in 1861, in which she included  three different versions of stanza two. Dickinson sent the second version she sent to Susan, printed above, to Higginson, and it is the one Franklin chose for his edition. Johnson printed both the first and the second versions.

Helen Vendler locates the pervading “blasphemy” of all versions of the poem—Dickinson’s rejection of the notion of the resurrection and nature’s indifference to human strife—in a small variant. Both Franklin and Johnson print the 1859 version, but in 1861, Dickinson substituted “Lie” for “Sleep” in line 4. The Biblical intertext for this line is from 1 Corinthians 17-18 where Paul says,

And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain. … Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished.

Vendler argues that in rejecting Paul’s exact words, and substituting the first word in the traditional gravestone inscription (“Here lies…”), Dickinson

refutes Paul on resurrection, and emphasizes instead the buried body.

In the version Higginson received, the “meek members” awaiting resurrection and believing themselves “safe” in the first stanza disappear in the second stanza, replaced by images of the cosmic sweep of planets and time, in which the earthly power of queens (“diadems”) and Doges (“The chief magistrate of Venice and Genoa:” Dickinson's Webster’s) shrink to “dots” in a wintry New England landscape. It is a gorgeously orchestrated though bleak vision, much grander and more ambitious than the first, which takes place in a harmonious spring or summer landscape rich with Nature’s “cadences.” Was Dickinson hoping to catch Higginson’s attention with this deeply iconoclastic poem?


Miller, Cristanne. “Approaches to Reading Emily Dickinson.” Women’s Studies 16. nos. 1-2 (1989): 223-228.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992, 180-97.

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010. 38-42.

The nearest dream ms. p. 2

The nearest Dream
recedes – unrealized - 
The Heaven we chase - 
Like the June Bee -
before the School Boy - 
Invites the Race - 
Stoops – to an easy
Clover - 
Dips – evades – teazes -
deploys - 
Then – to the Royal
Lifts his light Pinnace -
Heedless of the Boy - 
Staring – bewildered -
at the mocking sky - 

Homesick for steadfast
Honey - 
Ah – the Bee
flies not 
That brews that
rare variety! 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in BPL – Ms. Am. 1093(12) – p. 1. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, Boston, MA.  First published in Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 445; Poems (1891), 24.

The version of this poem Dickinson copied into Fascicle 14 in early 1862 had three variant words that she adopted in the version she sent to Higginson. It is an example of her free verse; the rhythm does not settle into a fixed pattern, though a loose rhyme scheme provides coherence. This freedom from the hymn form is appropriate for the theme: the receding of “our nearest Dream,” a belief in Heaven and resurrection. This theme echoes in milder tones the iconoclasm of “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.”

Other images in this poem reprise “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers.” The “bee,” which appeared in the first version of “Safe” babbling “in a stolid ear” of the “meek members,” returns in this poem to tease the schoolboy with dreams of honey, metaphors for believers’ hunger for salvation. The royalty dwarfed by the cosmos in the second version of “Safe” reappears here as “the Royal Clouds” that sail in the sky, indifferent to human status, power, or desires. Less bleak, this poem evinces, according to Jay Deppman,

[p]henomenological attitudes towards consciousness and embodiment,

and was meant to impress Higginson with its seriousness.


Deppman, Jay. “‘Say Some Philosopher!’” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013: 257-67, 265.

We play at Paste - 
Till qualified for
Pearl - 
Then, drop the Paste - 
And deem Ourself
a fool - 
The Shapes, tho', were
And our new Hands 
Learned Gem Tactics 
Practicing Sands - 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in BPL – Ms. Am. 1093(12) – p. 1; Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection, Boston, MA. First published in Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 445; Poems (1891), 24. Both appearances followed the Higginson copy (B), with line 3 divided into two lines.

In 1865, Dickinson made a fair copy of this poem, but by that time, she had stopped gathering poems in fascicles. She clearly felt this poem revealed something about herself she wanted Higginson to know.

Dickinson’s Webster’s defines “paste” as “a soft composition of substances” like flour and water for cooking or earth and water used in various arts and manufactures, or “An artificial mixture in imitation of precious stones or gems, used in the glass trade.” In the poem, playing at “paste” contrasts with the more highly qualified playing with “Pearl,” a precious gem. The “shapes” of the play are similar, the speaker says, and from playing with the artificial, our hands learn “Gem Tactics / Practicing Sands– .”

So far, this sounds like a description of maturing in one’s craft, but “Pearl” has other, religious connotations, such as Christ as “the pearl of great price.” Furthermore, in Dickinson’s personal mythology, she associated pearls with Susan Dickinson. And, of course, pearls form around an irritating grain of sand, so that the “real” gem contains the irritant or immature within it. “Gem tactics” is a resonant phrase, perhaps describing the important “play” that Dickinson does not want to give up even as she is presenting herself to Higginson as a serious and dedicated poet: learning how to handle, cut, and facet something precious from the materials of her world.


Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.

I'll tell you how the Sun rose - 
A Ribbon at a time! 
The Steeples swam in Amethyst! 
The news like squirrels ran! 

The hills untied their Bonnets! 
The Bobolinks begun! 
Then I said softly to myself 
"That must have been the sun"! 

But how he set, I know not! 
There seemed a purple stile 
Which little yellow boys and girls 
Were Climbing all the while - 

Till when they reached the other side, 
A Dominie in gray 
Put gently up the evening bars 
And led the flock away! 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXVII, fascicle 10. Includes 22 poems, written in ink, ca. 1860-1861. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 94, from the fascicle (A).

The earlier version of this poem appears in Fascicle 10, recorded in early 1861. It is the most formally regular in the group of poems sent to Higginson, 7686 syllables, rhyming abcb. When listing the titles in this group, “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” seems always to come first, and is the most accomplished and remarkable poem of the group. Still, this deceptively simple poem would have been a good introduction to the subject of Dickinson’s religious iconoclasm and her deft handling of natural imagery.

While some scholars regard it as a “nature” poem, and it certainly employs the metaphor of the daily cycle, the burden of the poem appears to be the speaker’s not knowing “how” the sun set, and offering a kind of parable to explain it. Margaret Freeman finds in this poem a strong “identification with the unknown,” and Joan Kirby classes it as a “child-like” poem about death. Fredrick Morey sees the ambition in it:

The entire poem covers the ground of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience.


Freeman, Margaret H. “Nature’s Influence.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 56-66, 60.

Kirby, Joan. “Death and Immortality.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-68, 160.

Morey, Fredrick. “Dickinson-Kant, Part III: The Beautiful and the Sublime.” Dickinson Studies,  no. 67 (2nd half of 1988): 3-60, 19-20.

That first Day, when you
praised Me, Sweet, 
And said that I was strong - 
And could be mighty, if
I liked - 
That Day – the Days among - 

Glows central – like a
Between Diverging Golds - 
The Minor One – that gleamed
behind - 
And +Vaster – of the World's. 

    +this One – • different–

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XIX, Fascicle 22. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Unpublished Poems (1935), 92, with the alternative not adopted.

We chose to include this poem, which Franklin dated to later in the year of 1862, because it could possibly refer to Higginson and his recognition of Dickinson as a poet. Though, as we will see in looking more deeply into their relationship next week, he seems to have done more criticizing than praising, at least in the early years of their correspondence.

This poem could also be a retrospective tribute to Benjamin Franklin Newton (1821-1853), a law student of Dickinson's father who early in her life recognized Dickinson's talent and encouraged her. In 1850, Newton gave Dickinson a copy of Emerson’s Poems. She called Newton “My earliest friend,” “my dying Tutor” (L256) and “a gentle, yet grave Preceptor” (L153), a role into which she will later draft Higginson.

This poem also reprises some of the imagery in the poems Dickinson included in her first letter to Higginson. In particular, the imagery of jewels and gold, which echoes Dickinson’s identification of “Gem tactics” as what she has been practicing in her long poetic apprenticeship, which led her to Higginson. The last lines hint at a “vaster” and “different” kind of praise, the praise of the “World,” but the syntax makes it hard to determine if worldly recognition is “The minor One – that gleamed behind” the first or vice versa.

This was a Poet - 
It is That 
Distills amazing sense 
From Ordinary Meanings - 
And Attar so immense 

From the familiar species 
That perished by the Door - 
We wonder it was not
Arrested it – before - 

Of Pictures, the Discloser - 
The Poet – it is He - 
Entitles Us – by Contrast - 
To ceaseless Poverty - 

Of Portion – so unconscious - 
The Robbing – could not harm - 
Himself – to Him – a Fortune - 
Exterior – to Time - 

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21. Includes 17 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Further Poems (1929), 12, with the first nine lines as an eleven-line stanza; in derivative collections, as an eight-line stanza.

We chose to include this poem because its image of the Poet, who “distills amazing sense/From Ordinary Meanings” to produce an “Attar so immense,” directly echoes Higginson’s advice from “Letter to a Young Contributor:”

Literature is attar of roses, one distilled drop from a million blossoms. 

As if in response, Dickinson writes this description of “a Poet,” which some scholars read as her “ars poetica,” in direct relation to Higginson’s words.

The question is: does Dickinson endorse this view or undermine and, thus, disagree with it? We pointed out in the introduction to the poems for this week, that in the following year, she will write the poem “Essential Oils are wrung” (F772A, J 675), which endorses Higginson’s metaphor, but gives it a distinctly Dickinsonian twist: “It is the gift of Screws”—that is, it is wrung from intense pressure and suffering, even torture, not from the “sun” merely.

Some readers find this portrait of the poet to be one of almost deified power, resembling Emerson’s description of the Poet as “a liberating God” (from “The Poet,” Essays: Second Series, 1844). Some find it shot through with masculine power and privilege (Miller), while others see it as “a nearly superpersonal asexual force” (Farr). Still others spy tones of sarcasm and competitiveness. However we read this poem, its language indicates that Dickinson was thinking very deeply about Higginson’s recommendations.


Farr, Judith. The Passion of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1992, 324.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work.  New York: Facts on File, 2007, 207-209.

Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 120.