On Choosing the Poems
The poems for this week reflect the range of metrical forms Dickinson adopted, invented and employed, as discussed in the introduction to this week’s post. As we explained there, Dickinson’s prosody was heavily influenced by hymnody with a healthy dollop of the ballad tradition, but contained experimentation with free verse. The poems we have selected to discuss, all from 1862, illustrate these forms.
The years 1862-63 marked the height of Dickinson’s experimentation and invention with metrical form. Cristanne Miller estimates that around 30% of the poems composed in this two-year period are “irregular” in stanza structure, line length and rhyme. Dickinson experimented with enjambment, continuing the poetic sentence across a line break or stanza break, which traditional hymns avoided. She also elaborated the texture of poems by varying tempo through the use of dashes, modulating tone by varying meter and using arresting sound patterns, words and images.
After this period, Dickinson’s poems become more regular, which might have something to do with Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s criticism of what he saw as her unorthodox meter. In a letter dated 7 June 1862, Dickinson responded to such criticism by parroting:
You think my gait “spasmodic”– I am in danger– Sir–
You think me “uncontrolled” – I have no Tribunal. (L265)
“Gait,” of course, refers to poetic feet, the rhythm of her lines; there are many such references in her poems as well. “Spasmodic” is a descriptor associated with the Azarian School of New England women writers, discussed in the second post in January. Higginson championed many of these writers; still, we can infer that he found Dickinson’s meter unruly and untutored.
Dickinson responded in August, opening her letter with an impatient question: “Are these more orderly?” (L271) and enclosed two poems, “Before I got my Eye put out” (F336, J327) and “I cannot Dance upon my Toes” (F381, J326). In the the latter poem, a speaker discloses that “No Man instructed me,” but it is a confession that cuts several ways: I have not had formal instruction in my art, and I have not had male instruction in that art. What is Dickinson telling Higginson? We are lucky to have so many poems written according to her own sense of metrical music before Higginson damped that down.
Here are descriptions of Dickinson’s most frequent metrical forms:
- Common meter is a hymn stanza of four lines of 8686 syllables rhyming abab. It is called an “accentual-syllabic” stanza pattern because it counts beats or accents as well as syllables.
- Ballad measure is similar to the common meter, but where the common meter is determined by the number of syllables per line, the ballad measure is determined by beats or accented syllables per line, four beats in lines 1 and 3, three beats in lines 2 and 4. It is called an “accentual” pattern and often rhymes abcb, the rhyme scheme Dickinson favored. She also varied stanza forms within poems, which does not work in hymns and links her to the ballad tradition.
- Other hymn forms:
- Short meter is a four line stanza of 6686 syllables rhyming abab or abcb
- Long meter is a four line stanza of 8888 syllables rhyming abab or aabb
- Common particular meter is a six line stanza of 886886 syllables rhyming aabccb
“Heaven” – is what I cannot
The Apple on the Tree –
Provided it do hopeless – hang –
That – “Heaven” is – to Me!
The Color, on the cruising cloud –
The interdicted Land –
Behind the Hill – the House
There – Paradise – is found!
Her teazing Purples – Afternoons –
The credulous – decoy –
Enamored – of the Conjuror –
That spurned us – Yesterday!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1860-1862. First published in Poems (1896), 17, the first two stanzas. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This is an excellent example of Dickinson’s most frequently used form, the common meter, an accentual-syllabic quatrain of 8686 rhyming abcb. It is the form of many of her most memorable poems, such as “A solemn thing – it was – I said” (F307), “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died” (F591), “My Life had stood a Loaded Gun” (F764), “Alone and in a Circumstance” (F1174), to mention just a few. It maintains a consistent stanza structure throughout, but shows that in this popular form and despite its regularity, Dickinson could produce poems of great power and effect.
It is notable that though the rhythm of the poem is iambic—that is, it is made up of feet of two syllables of unstressed/stressed (uS)—the first word of the poem, “Heaven,” is what we call a “trochee,” a foot where the syllables are stressed/unstressed (Su), which gives the poem an emphatic start. A similar but even more disrupting emphasis occurs in line 8, “There – Paradise – is found,” where both syllables of the first foot “There – Par” are stressed (SS). This is called a “spondee” and creates a double beat at the opening of this emphatic line of discovery (and contradiction of orthodox belief) that reinforces it; we cannot miss it.
Heaven is, of course, a frequent and important subject in hymns. Here, Dickinson puts the word in quotation marks, as if it is an ironic citation of a concept she has heard about but does not accept as truth. She rejected traditional Calvinist teachings that heaven was an afterlife reward for denying oneself earthly pleasures. In a later poem from 1883, she wrote: “Who has not found the Heaven – below –/ Will fail of it above –” (F1609B, J1544).
The first stanza rehearses and reverses the temptation in Eden. Linda Munk comments on the thematic irony of the poem:
In three quatrains, she effectively revises Paradise Lost. … The Miltonic Heaven is not Dickinson’s.
Our study of Dickinson’s meter allows us to see how this irony is augmented by the poet’s choice of meter—definitely NOT the blank verse of the English tradition of epic poems.
Munk, Linda. “Recycling Language: Emily Dickinson’s Religious Word-play.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 32 (19896: 232-52.
Nuckels, Rosa. “Heaven.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998: 137-38.
A Bird, came down the
He did not know I saw –
He +bit an Angle Worm +shook
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then, he drank a
From a convenient Grass –
And then hopped sidewise
to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass –
He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
They looked like frightened
Beads, I thought,
He stirred his Velvet Head. –
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers,
And rowed him softer Home –
Than Oars divide the
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks
Leap, plashless as they
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85. First published by Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 446-47, from the lost copy to him ([A]); Poems (1891), 140-41, from the fascicle copy (C), with the alternative not adopted. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.
This fascicle version of the poem is an example of the second most frequent form in Dickinson’s canon, the short meter of quatrains of 6686 rhyming abcb. Other notable poems in this form are: “It would have starved a Gnat” (F444), “They shut me up in Prose” (F445), “The Heart asks Pleasure first” (F588), “Essential Oils – are wrung –” (F772).
In this much-read poem, the form achieves a comic effect and provides concrete details of the natural world the poet observes closely, which, according to some commentators, serves as an allegory for the human world. The short lines, elaborated by the longer 3rd line, combine directness with a fable-like quality.
Disturbance—metrical as well as thematic—occurs in the fourth stanza, whose lines contain 7676 syllables—a kind of rhythmic “crumb” thrown in the way of the reader. The extra syllable in “Cautious” alerts us to a shift in tone. That line is also an example of what Cristanne Miller calls “syntactic doubling,” a phrase that can apply logically to the bird and the speaker. Sharon Cameron notes that the poem
exemplifies a typical pattern of development in a good number of Dickinson’s utterances, as they linger on concrete, often trivial but entirely comprehensible phenomena, and then alter their focus in a tensile shift of the received lines into a shape that utterly perplexes them.
The last stanza shows the residual effect of this disturbance but begins to drop back into the earlier rhythm, in its irregular stanza form of 7686. Again, the extra syllable on “Ocean” signals that something special happens in this location. The sea is frequently a site of possible delirium in Dickinson's poems, as in this exclamation from a famous poem: “Rowing in Eden – / Ah – the sea!” (Wild Nights, F269).
Helen Vendler, who describes this poem as
about aesthetic ecstasy obliterating the memory of savagery,
calls our attention to the wonderful “charm” and “opulence” of sounds in this last stanza: the “oh” sounds in “rolled … rowed … Home … Oars … Ocean,” followed by the sibilant s’s of “silver … seam,” and then the weightless “Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,” culminating is the near onomatopoeia of “ Leap, plashless” to describe the flight of some by now allegorical winged thing.
Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, 6-7.
Miller, Cristanne. Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987, 37-39.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 160.
Not in this World to see his
Sounds long – until I read the
Where this – is said to be
But just the Primer – to a life –
Unopened – rare – Opon the Shelf –
Clasped yet – to Him – and me –
And yet – My Primer suits me
I would not choose – a Book
Than that – be sweeter wise –
Might some one else – so
learned – be –
And leave me – just my
A – B – C –
Himself – could have the
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXII, Mixed Fascicles, ca. 1862. First published in Poems (1890), 132. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This poem is an example of the common particular meter with six line stanzas of 886886 syllables, rhyming aabccb. In some way, it is, metrically speaking, the inverse of the short meter, discussed in relation to the previous poem. Here the longer stanza allows for a more meditative tone, but as the longer lines resolve into a shorter 3rd and 6th lines, they give the stanza a truncated feeling.
The tone and subject matter here also seem like the inverse of the awe and enchantment expressed at the end of “A bird came down the Walk –”. This is a poem about renouncing the consolation offered by a doctrine of reward in the afterlife. If the speaker cannot see the face of a beloved, or of God, in this world (a sign of salvation), then in the first stanza she takes comfort in the “Primer” or book (Bible) that teaches her to wait for Heaven. But she rejects this idea in the second stanza for the doctrine contained in a different, less lofty, book, “My Primer,” a manual that teaches children to read and stands for an earthly life with “just my A – B – C –,” an allusion to the rudiments of her writing. The child-like persona works well to partly disguise Dickinson’s defiance and heresy, and it is well-served by a stanza structure that starts big but narrows down.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 148-49.
Kill your Balm – and it’s
Odors bless you –
Bare your Jessamine – to
the storm –
And she will fling her
maddest perfume –
Haply – your Summer night
to Charm –
Stab the Bird – that built
in your bosom –
Oh, could you catch her
last Refrain –
Bubble! “forgive” – “Some better” – Bubble!
“Carol for Him – when I
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XIV, Mixed Fasciles, ca. 1860-1862. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 289. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This poem is an example of Dickinson’s use of long meter, quatrains of 9898 syllables that often rhyme abab, but where, as in this poem, the odd numbered lines use syllabic, assonantal or slant rhymes. Cristanne Miller finds a similar form in John Greenleaf Whittier’s “A Memorial MAC,” from In War Time and Other Poems (1863), a volume that Susan Dickinson owned. Other Dickinson poems that use this stanza or slight variations on it are “Trudging to Eden, looking backward” (F1031) and “I am afraid to own a Body” (F1050).
This poem takes it lead from botany and recommends committing a certain, perhaps, necessary violence to produce positive effects. The Dickinson Lexicon defines “balm” as
a plant of the genus Amyris. Its leaves yield, when bruised, a strong aromatic scent; and from this plant is obtained the balm of Gilead,
a rare perfume used medicinally and mentioned in the Bible as signifying a universal cure. For example, at a time of crisis in Judea, the prophet Jeremiah asks, “is there no balm in Gilead?” (Jer. 8:22).
The prosody of this poem produces or enacts this violence with its many trochaic substitutions at the beginning of lines. Every line except line 3 begins with a foot that is stressed/unstressed (Su), substituting a trochee (Su) for an iamb (uS): “Kill your … Bare your … Haply … Stab the …Oh, could …Bubble! … Carol.”
Hallen, Cynthia, ed. Emily Dickinson Lexicon. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University, 2007.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
The Cat reprieves the mouse
She eases from her teeth
Just long enough for Hope
to +teaze – +stir –
Then +mashes it to death – +crunches
‘Tis Life’s award – to die –
Contenteder if once –
Than dying +half – then +part
For +consciouser – Eclipse – +totaller
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23, ca. 1862. First published in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 333, the first stanza, with the alternative not adopted; Bolts of Melody (1945), 257, entire, with the alternatives not adopted. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This poem illustrates what Cristanne Miller identifies as “Dickinson’s most common alteration of stanzas within a poem” from her most frequently used form, or 8686, to her second, 6686. We see this pattern also in “That first Day, when you praised Me, Sweet” (F470), “The Birds begun at Four o’clock –” (F504B), “I think to Live – may be a Bliss” (F757), and variations on the pattern in many other poems. Miller speculates:
Perhaps the fact that so many of her poems involve thinking through an implied question or a process of reflection encourages movement from one rhythmic structure to another.
This bleak poem, about dying a little every day, also features neologisms, Dickinson’s creation of words, to reinforce her theme. In three instances, she intensifies key adjectives to express the excess, but not the totality (that would require using the –est suffix), of “dying half:” “Contenteder,” “totaller,” “consciouser.” These neologisms are inevitably linked as signifiers of something out of the ordinary, some disruption of grammar, order, maybe even common sense. Shira Wolosky comments:
This poem seems remote from the hymnal; yet, the hymnal frame gives to it as to so many Dickinson poems, an extra resonance and force. Even original figures are often rooted in traditional ones.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 66.
Wolosky, Shira. Emily Dickinson: A Voice of War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, 227-28.
Blazing in Gold – and
Quenching – in Purple!
Leaping – like Leopards the sky –
Then – at the feet of the
old Horizon –
Laying it’s spotted face – to die!
Stooping as low as the
kitchen window –
Touching the Roof –
And tinting the Barn –
Kissing it’s Bonnet to
the Meadow –
And the Juggler of
Day – is gone!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXIII, Fascicle 13 (part), dated ca. 1861. First published in Drum Beat (29 February 1864), 3, from the lost manuscript ([B]); reprinted in the Springfield Daily Republican (30 March 1864), 6, and Springfield Weekly Republican (2 April 1864), 7; Poems (1891), 166, as two quatrains, from the fascicle (A), with the revision adopted and with readings incorporated from Higginson’s copy (C). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
This poem is an example of Dickinson’s use of what Cristanne Miller calls
a loosened ballad meter throughout in a repeated chiastic rhythm (SuuS).
This chiastic, or crossed, rhythm comes in the very first line, “Blazing in Gold – and / Quenching – in Purple!” and is magnified by the line break and enjambment across it. Another good illustration of Dickinson’s use of the ballad measure, in a shortened or reduced form, is “Did we disobey him?” (F299A, J267).
Miller diagrams the poem’s form, showing how the lines vary from between 8-10 syllables, with between 3-4 beats per line. In illustration of the dampening effect of Higginson’s criticism of Dickinson’s rhythm, which we discussed in the introduction to this section, Miller also points out that
Dickinson syncopates the rhythm of her fascicle copy of this poem [reproduced here] through dashes and the splitting of metrical lines … but not in the copy published in Drum Beat in 1864 or the 1866 copy to Higginson, which contain no stanza division, split lines, or dashes.
Still, the ballad form is palpable in this poem and Miller attributes it to Dickinson’s reading of many poems in this form, especially Emerson’s “Each and All,” a poem she marked twice in the table of contents and along the margin of the page in the copy of Poems she owned. “Each and All” ends with the same chiastic rhythm:
Again I saw, again I heard,
The rolling river, the morning bird; —
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 70.
While “it” is alive –
Until Death – touches it –
While “it” and I – lap
one – Air –
Dwell in one Blood –
Under one Firmament –
Show me Division – +could +can
split – or pare!
+Faith – is like Death +Love
+Only, the longer – +Merely
+Faith – is like Death +Love
During – the Grave –
+Faith – is the Fellow of the Resurrection, +Love
Scooping up the Dust –
And chanting – Live!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #set 89. First published in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 98; Bolts of Melody (1945), 178, entire, as two quatrains. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.
This poem illustrates Dickinson’s use of free verse. It is unrhymed and uses meter but has no metrical norm or pattern. It creates its cohesion through repetition of words and rhythmic phrases, not through an organized stanza structure: “While it … While it …; Faith/Love is … Faith/Love is …” The variant of “love” for “faith” strengthens the interchangeability of these states that many of Dickinson poems encourage.
This free verse poem can be compared and linked to another free verse poem of this period, “It is dead – find it” (F434A, J417), which also makes extensive use of the pronoun “it” as a signifier of the riddling or occluded center of many of Dickinson’s poems:
It is dead – Find it –
Out of sound – Out of Sight –
“Happy”? Which is wiser –
You, or the Wind?
“Conscious”? Wont you ask that –
Of the low Ground?
“Homesick”? Many met it –
Even through them – This
cannot testify –
Themself – as dumb –
Cristanne Miller observes that Dickinson was familiar with free verse through her admiration for the writing of British poet, Martin Farquhar Tupper, a predecessor of Whitman in his experimentation with long, unmetered and unrhymed lines. The Dickinson household owned a copy of his Proverbial Philosophy: A Book of Thoughts and Arguments (1846), which was inscribed “E. Dickinson” and was marked heavily.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 75-77.
Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958: 409, 414.
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012: 74, 78.