On Choosing the Poems
This week we present several more student projects from Steve Glazer’s unit on Emily Dickinson. To contextualize the work the students did, we offer a section from Steve’s lesson plan for the unit, “There’s a Certain Slant of Line: Emily Dickinson’s Sound, Sense, and Syntax.” Note that all the “textbooks” he refers to—grammar, rhetoric, dictionary, Bible, and hymnal—come from the Dickinson family library. Steve took photographs from the replica collection in the Amherst Historical Society and we include some images of them here.
from Lesson Plan: “There’s a Certain Slant of Line: Emily Dickinson’s Sound, Sense, and Syntax.” Glazer, Sound Sense Syntax-Full Lesson Plan
Students will approach Emily Dickinson’s poetry from three perspectives: sound, syntax, and sense.
Introduce the essential questions:
(i) What makes a poem memorable?
(ii) What factors contribute to the distinctive power of Emily Dickinson’s poetry?
(A) We will begin by reading this Dickinson poem aloud. Listen carefully. We will change the reader with the changing of each line. We’ll read it through twice . . . and then a third time as a chorus.
Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
‘Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain – (F620, J435)
(B) Titles . . . or not!
Notice . . . there is not a title. Emily Dickinson rarely titled her poems. Because of that, students of poetry refer to the poems using the first line, in this case “Much Madness is divinest Sense.” Many scholars use R. W. Franklin’s manuscript numbering system. This poem, composed in 1863, is also referred to as Franklin number 620, or F 620. You can find the Franklin number by consulting The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition. Fascicle information can be found using the index in Cristanne Miller’s Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them. Digital images of the manuscripts can be found at the Emily Dickinson Archive, www.edickinson.org,
Neatly and accurately transcribe this poem on a sheet of lined paper. Skip lines to leave room for your annotation and analysis.
Look at the punctuation. What do you notice? Highlight Dickinson’s punctuation using a yellow colored pencil. How many times does she employ a dash in this short poem? Can you describe the different ways that Dickinson uses her dashes? Dickinson seems to employ dashes to meet a variety of punctuation needs: to pause; to separate syntactical units; for apposition (or renaming); for contrast; as a vehicle for parallel construction.
The Dickinson library includes a copy of Well’s A Grammar of the English Language (1846). Here are the instructions for the use of dashes:
What do you notice about Emily Dickinson’s use of capitalization? Highlight her capital letters using a green colored pencil. The Dickinson library includes a copy of Well’s A Grammar of the English Language (1846). Here are the lessons concerning capitalization of letters:
(F) Stanza Form
Count the lines! Number them! The poetic term for a stanza with eight lines is an OCTAVE. While Dickinson wrote many octaves, she often composed using the quatrain, or four-line stanza.
(G) Line Length
Read the poem silently and make a mark for each syllable. Can you find see or hear pattern in the length of Dickinson’s lines? In fact, Emily Dickinson paid careful attention to the rhythm of her lines. Most (but not all) of her poems feature lines with six to eight syllables. The family library included The Sabbath Hymn Book, which featured many hymns like this one by Isaac Watts:
(J) Slant Rhyme
Students and scholars of poetry use the term slant (or “half”) rhyme to describe a partial rhyme. Dickinson is a master of slant rhyme! She will complete or close her rhyme using an incredible array of approaches: repeating the first letter (alliteration), repeating a vowel (assonance) or consonant (consonance) sound, repeating a single letter, or a sequence of letters that look the same yet sound different (eye rhyme).
One way of making a poem more memorable—and more musical—is by repeating the initial sound of a word. You can think of this as being a bit like the opposite of rhyme: instead of repeating the ending sound, a writer is repeating (or echoing) an initial sound.
Powerful writers bring careful attention to diction, to their word choice. Sounds can also be repeated across and within many words or lines. Read the first two lines aloud. What sounds do you believe that Dickinson is playing with?
Authors repeat sounds; they also repeat words. Repeating a word (or words) at the beginning of a line is called anaphora. Find it.
Authors also repeat words but change their order. Chiasmus means “crossing.” Find it.
Antithesis is the parallel presentation of paired opposites. Find it.
Clearly, Dickinson cares about her diction, her word choice. She also owned and used the 1844 edition of Noah Webster’s Dictionary. Below are the 1844 definitions of assent and demur:
(Q) Is My Verse Alive?
On April 15, 1862, Emily Dickinson wrote to T. W. Higginson and asked, “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” Clearly it is alive: vibrant, compressed, and startling.
Curiously, Newman’s A Practical System of Rhetoric (1839), part of the Dickinson family library, offers these pointers to achieving “vivacity,” or life, in composition:
Do you see these qualities in Dickinson’s work?
Here are six more poems and the wonderful projects produced by the Crossroads students.
"Hope" is the thing with
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without
the words –
And never stops – at all –
And sweetest – in the Gale -
is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the
That kept so many warm –
I've heard it in the chillest
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.
I see thee better in the dark,
I do not need a light,
The love of thee a prism be
I see thee better for the years
That hunch themselves between,
The miner's lamp sufficient be
To nullify the mine.
And in the grave I see thee best –
Its little panels be
A'glow, all ruddy with the light
I held so high for thee!
What need of day to those whose dark
Hath so surpassing sun,
It deem it be continually
At the meridian?
An illustration by a Crossroads student.
The Moon is distant from
the Sea –
And yet, with Amber Hands –
She leads Him – docile as a Boy –
Along appointed Sands –
He never misses a Degree –
Obedient to Her eye –
He comes just so far – toward
the Town –
Just so far – goes away –
Oh, Signor, Thine, the Amber
And mine – the distant Sea –
Obedient to the least command
Thine eye impose on me –
An illustration by a Crossroads student:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till
My mind was going numb –
And then I heard them
lift a Box
And creak across my Brain
With those same Boots of
Then Space – began to toll,
As all the Heavens were
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in
And I dropped down, and
And hit a World, at every
And Finished knowing – then -
+Crash +Got through–
A recitation of the poem by a Crossroads student, in a suitably creepy locale!
There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –
We can find no scar,
But internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any –
'Tis the Seal Despair –
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens –
Shadows – hold their breath –
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death –
A recitation of There's a Certain Slant by a Crossroads student in 2018 with her illustration.
An analysis of There's a Certain Slant by a Crossroads student in 2019.
How many Flowers fail in Wood –
Or perish from the Hill –
Without the privilege to know
That they are Beautiful –
How many cast a nameless Pod
Opon the nearest Breeze –
Unconscious of the Scarlet Freight –
It bear to other eyes –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXV, Fascicle 28-10. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (137a,b) I reckon – when I count at all -, J569, Fr533; How many Flowers fail in Wood -, J404, Fr534. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Further Poems (1929), 82, from the fascicle copy (B).
Here is a Crossroads student's close reading of this poem.
Crossroads Academy 2019
My Dear Susan,
How fragile life is! How dreary to be alone in a world full of hatred and loathing, when your strongest shield has vanished like dust in the breeze. When the color has vanished from your complexion, and the world has been overcome by the shadow of the most heart-rending of separations. Never again will I hear her voice say, “Vinnie.” Never again will I receive her beautiful letters, dried plants, and flowers hidden inside as confetti. Never again will I wonder what thoughts swirl around her brilliant, yet confusing mind. I am sure you and I can relate to this incredible feeling of anguish that has wrapped its arms around me. However, a moment of joy came upon me yesterday, and I felt determined to share this not only with you but everyone with a love for poetry.
You and Emily were always extremely close, and so I have concluded that you should be the first to know of this marvelous discovery. Yesterday morning I walked into Emily's house, tears streaming down my face for my lost sister. This feeling that all color had been lost from the world followed me around like a cloud of misery. I was going through her belongings, seeing as to what I could keep as a memory, what was of value, and what could be used in my own home. Boxes, filled with candles, paintings, and her many white dresses spread across the floor. I placed the last dress inside the box when I came upon a small crumpled piece of paper that fell out of the pocket. Intrigued, I opened it up and found this poem inside:
The Sky is low – the Clouds are mean.
A Traveling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go -
A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometime caught
Without her Diadem -
Soon after, I found countless other lyrics inside of drawers, hidden from sight in every crevice and corner of her house, and inside further dress pockets. There were poems on the bedside table, taped to walls, and dug into chairs. Not only did I find hundreds of these poems around her house, but also forty small handmade booklets placed in the drawer of her work table. I was fully aware of her love for poetry and literature, and I knew she had written poems, but could not fathom poems of this ample! It was incredible, for I counted about one thousand five hundred poems, and I am sure I could find later when I look again.
I have spent the entire night reading through her small books. My eyes droop with fatigue, and the weariness of night, but this determination to show her incredible talent to the world has fueled me. I write to you today, not only to see how you are coping with the loss of a dear friend but also to ask for help in Emily's publication. If I may, I am sending about a hundred of Emily's poems. Please take good care of them for her. I dream that you will assist me in transcribing, editing, and publishing her work. I hold firm to the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to read her poems.
Reading the small booklets last night brought me into such an uncontrollable sob that I cannot quietly sit and see them be forgotten. Please, dear Susan, help both Emily and me by showing the world her talent. The world is but a star, dear Susan. The obscurity that allows us to see its shining surface, but not the distress and collapse within. You and I and simply one of those who walk on top such a star, experiencing the gleaming surface, as well as the catastrophe inside. Emily, however, has shown me that she too, is a star. When you looked upon this being of light, you forever wondered about the pain and suffering underneath her convincing facade. You forever contemplated the ideas conjectured by her brilliant mind. I have now experienced the frailness of life, and the decrepitude of being. As fleeting as a grain of sand washed away from the shore, and as hidden as a sullen star. I now know that in truth, all stars must come to an end. Our fragile and fleeting star has fallen, and I feel certain that we shall never see such a star again, dear Susan.
With much Love,
Lavinia Norcross Dickinson
Devoted sister of Emily Dickinson