February 5-11: Poems on Meter

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 post 1:2. Clearly, Higginson found Dickinson’s meter unruly and untutored, perhaps unintentionally so.

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) 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 her 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

Sources

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.