September 17-23, 1862: Poems in Translation

On Choosing the Poems

Dickinson's Writing Desk
Dickinson’s Writing Desk

Translation of literary works, and the translation of poetry in particular, present many challenges because of linguistic and cultural differences. The case of translating Dickinson is further complicated by her ambiguity, extreme compression and irregular syntax and punctuation. Furthermore, some languages indicate gender in ways that make rendering Dickinson’s specific or ambiguous gendering difficult without lots of additional lexical indicators.

Biblical and religious references in her poetry also complicate translation. As Gunhild Kübler and Alfred Habegger observe in their conversation about translating Dickinson into German, they decided rather than quoting from the King James Version that Dickinson read, they would use “Luther’s translation, the standard for German poets for centuries.” Their conversation (find a link in Sources below) is a good introduction to the issues translators face when translating Dickinson, although each language presents its own specific challenges.

In his intensive study of Dickinson, Simon Vestdijk translated 64 of her poems and published 30; the remaining 34 were published in 1986. Several of these translations appear in his long essay, “On the Poet Emily Dickinson,” the first glimpse most readers in Netherlands had of the poet. Peter Verstegen, the primary translator of Dickinson into Dutch, criticizes these translations as having “severely diluted the poems metrically” and also notes “ambivalence” in Vestdijk’s “appreciation” for her. This ambivalence, Verstegen argues, ranges from adulation to a willful ignorance of her biography and letters:

he has only read a few fairly tales about her … While he could easily have known better …

Also, Verstegen considers “slightly scandalous” Vestdijk’s remark

That she owned three books, Emerson, Keats and the Bible.

Of her portrait, Vestdijk said she had

the head of a tormented hamadryad.

Despite these shortcomings, Vestdijk recognized the genius of Dickinson, who, he argues, “was sung down by Poe, shouted down by Whitman.” He calls her “a modern avant la lettre” and dubs her poetry of “the intentional type” as opposed to the “sound” or “musical” type, which is destined,

because of its simplicity and lack of showiness, to flower in secret … The poetic impulse … here remains naked and defenseless.

Vestdijk then had an important insight into the dynamic of her poetics:

I know of no other poetry that seems so little, yet is so much. … here too the intention is fulfilled, but in such a way that the intention itself almost becomes the fulfillment, a fulfillment we have to catch in flight, as it were. Intention and realization, and potential and fulfillment lie very close to one another, which, on the one hand, guarantees the living and spontaneous character of this art, while on the other requires more co-operation on the part of the reader. In Emily Dickinson’s art we do not have perfectly crystallized (or rather, completely crystallized) works of art, but it is as if we are watching an artist during a living process of crystallization.

Vestdijk also glimpses the mind working behind the poetry:

Emily Dickinson devotes herself in a carefree manner to the living movement of the psyche, regarding nothing as being too low or too high to become the reason for writing poetry. These short poems potentially contain everything, because she seems to have tapped the flow of the psyche as near to its source as possible … alongside great terseness stands great universality, not an extensive universality as with Whitman, but the suggestive universality of a microcosm, of a monad.

In a 1994 review of Vestdijk’s pioneering work on Dickinson, Hans Bak concluded:

In Dickinson’s art he recognized the product of a kindred poetic sensibility, one with which he could deeply empathize and which yielded the kind of “intentional poetry” Vestdijk himself hoped to write. As many critics have testified, for the Dutch literary community it was a truly pioneering act. Not only did Vestdijk singlehandedly introduce Dickinson to the Netherlands in what remains the finest essay on her poetry in Dutch, but his translations also long remained the only ones available. Vestdijk’s early appreciation of Dickinson is the more remarkable since, in the early 1930s, there was no reliable textual edition of her poetry.

All of the poems for this week were translated by Vestdijk in his essay. We leave in his quotations from the earlier, regularized versions but  provide our readers with links to the EDA manuscripts. We also include some of his commentary on the poems. It illustrates some of the major foci of his analyses: tone, imagery, nature poetry, religious poetry, introspective/psychological poetry, poems about time and philosophy, and love poetry, the last which he regarded as Dickinson’s consummate subject.

I know some lonely Houses
off the Road
A Robber'd like the look of –
Wooden barred,
And Windows hanging low,
Inviting to –
A Portico,
Where two could creep –
One – hand the Tools –
The other peep –
To +make sure all's asleep –
Old fashioned eyes –
Not easy to surprise!

How orderly the Kitchen'd look,
by night –
With just a Clock –
But they could gag the Tick –
And Mice  wont bark –
And so the Walls – dont tell –
None – will –

A pair of Spectacles ajar
just stir –
An Almanac's aware –
Was it the Mat – winked,
Or a nervous Star?
The Moon – slides down the
stair –
To see who's there!

There's plunder – where –
Tankard, or Spoon –
Earring – or Stone –
A Watch – Some +Ancient
To match the Grandmama –
Staid sleeping – there –

Day – rattles – too –
Stealth's – slow –
The Sun has got as far
As the third Sycamore –
Screams Chanticleer
"Who's there"?

And Echoes – Trains away,
Sneer – "Where"!
While the old Couple, just
Fancy the Sunrise – left the
door ajar!

      + Guage the Sleep -  +Antique

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXIII, Fascicle 13-1 (part), Houghton Library – (126a). Includes 11 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1861. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1890), 28-29, from the fascicle (B), with the alternatives not adopted.

Simon Vestdijk cited this poem as an illustration of Dickinson's use of imagery:

One of the highlights is the stoical description of a burglary, a real one this time, in the middle of the night, where all the furniture and contents, right down to the grandmother’s spectacles, play their roles. Even the house itself becomes an accomplice: it is one of the small houses that are furnished with every facility for burglars, standing alone, away from the road, with low and inviting windows. Even the mice will not bark, the tick of the clock can be gagged. But everything watches the two thieves moving around; the mat winks, but this could equally well be nervously seeing stars; the moon slides down the stair to see who’s there! The ending is no less than surprising: the two old people, who have just been burgled, come innocently downstairs the next morning after the burglars have taken themselves off amidst the mocking crowing of the cocks, and ‘think that the sunrise left the door ajar’. Broad, country tranquility makes itself felt so strongly after all the murky goings-on in the night that this ending, seemingly nothing but grotesque, almost moves one to a strange kind of tears, without knowing whether they are suppressed laughter. It is beneficent, this grand dryness, this ‘Realphantastik’ [real fantasy] which nowhere becomes comical (and Emily Dickinson never tried to repeat this, one of her masterpieces, in any other form!). It can be compared with the related technical means used by some Expressionists. I can remember, for instance, a poem by Iwan Goll [Yvan Goll (1891-1950), a French-German poet] about a child murderess, in which objects, independent and almost alive, contribute to the atmosphere, but how unexpressive and mushy the poem is compared with this one.

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –
But, what of that?

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in  Poems: Packet XIII, Mixed Fasciles. Includes 27 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Houghton Library – (63c, d) To hear an Oriole sing, J526, Fr402; I reason, Earth is short, J301, Fr403. First published in Poems (1890), 134, from the fascicle copy (B).

Simon Vestdijk considered this poem in his group of religious poems, which he introduced by saying: Dickinson

must have assimilated the main ideas of Puritanism and Emerson’s transcendentalism in a most original way. … Here and there we can also find poems which are borne along by a great assuredness, if not as to the mercy of God, then as to the existence of heaven and life after death. She is sure of the reality of heaven “as if a map had been given us.” [“I never saw a moor” (F800, J1052; the line is “as if the Checks/Chart were given.”] The certainty here contrasts strongly with other passages in which she criticizes God for his parsimony with regard to allowing glory and joy, with the poignant: “God keeps his oath to sparrows who of little love know how to starve” [“Victory comes late–” (F195B, J690)] in which prayer is criticized in drastic tones as a device for throwing words into God’s ear; in which she expressly calls immortality into question (with the magnificent ending: “Parting is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell” [“My life closed twice” (F1773, J1732)]); and even remains dully indifferent to the possibility of reward in heaven, in a raw and dourly uttered refrain … Add to this the parody on the contents of the Bible, acute and ironic, full of remarkable flashes of thought.

Delight – becomes pictorial –
When viewed through Pain –
More fair – because impossible
That any gain –

The Mountain – at a given
distance –
In Amber – lies –
+Approached – the Amber
+flits – a little –
And That's – the Skies –

    + possessed + moves –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXV, Fascicle 28-15. Includes 23 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (138c,d). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1891), 41, with the alternatives not adopted.

Simon Vestdijk commented:

In her “diesseitige” (immanent and earthly) contemplative poetry [Dickinson] remains entirely impartial, both religiously and ethically. Impartial not in the sense of indifferent, but of untouched. What can be heard is only the powerful and unforgettable note of a primitive astonishment at the fundamental phenomena of life, an astonishment where no side is chosen. The questions raised here are not set out as problems to be solved, however. They are subjectivized into something that lies beyond, into an accent, an attitude to life, a direction of thought rather than thinking itself. In the main, this involves two themes that are fundamentally coherent: changing over time and antithesis. …

Vestdijk then looks at a series of poems about pain: “Pain has an element of blank” (F760, J650) explored below and “I can wade grief” (F312, J252), which we explored in the post for June 4-10 on the Third Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. Then, he considers “Delight become pictorial:”

Concerning “antithesis:” such motifs are assimilated with almost obsessive inexhaustiability, motifs that can be covered formally by this concept. It is noticeable here that Emily Dickinson is not content merely to take on board the polar relationship as a static phenomenon. Opposites become dynamic, are given a life of their own; mutual relationships come into being, seeking one another time and time again without ever coming to rest in a third concept, a unity or synthesis, or being superseded, as it is called. I will choose two poems from the many possible examples, where once again she takes pain as her point of departure, this time from the perspective of the creative, stabilizing value it has. In the first, she slides down in an unusual way in the direction of aesthetic considerations. We can almost see the germ of a theory of the psychology of art being created in front of our eyes … Something akin to the well-known phenomenon of “interesselose Wohlgefallen” [disinterested pleasure] can be recognized in this indication of what distinguishes ordinary joy from pleasure in the arts, but in a much more intense form. On account of the fact that pain is introduced as the counterpart of joy, and particularly as its counterweight, a psychological motif of a positive nature is created, something which is virtually lacking in the somewhat moralizing disinterestedness of Kantian philosophy [an idea of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), a German philosopher who argued that the mind creates the structure of experience].

Pain – has an Element
of Blank –
It cannot recollect
When it begun – Or if
there were
A time when it was not –

It has no Future – but itself –
It's Infinite contain
It's Past – enlightened to
New Periods – Of Pain.

Link to EDA manuscript (no image). Originally in Fascicle 34-5 (H52) about late 1863. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 33, with the alternative adopted and the title “The Mystery of Pain.”

Simon Vestdijk observed:

Her most interesting poems, which have a bearing upon time, are those where it is not transience, but the suspension of time, which becomes the object of her poetry; as the possibility of a seemingly immense stretch of time, experienced by the individual, not therefore a mere perception of eternity, or of thought in terms of eternity…

 The introspective poems predominate within the genre that we could term psychological, which is understandable given her introversion and solitariness of character. She thus belongs fully to the type which Nietzsche, for instance, represents: the “menschenkenner [human connoisseur] or judge of human character, who obtains his insights into human nature chiefly indirectly (which for him is the shortest way, of course!) by way of self-reflection and self-analysis.

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), was an influential German philosopher who radically critiqued truth and Christian morality. It is striking that Vestdijk considered Dickinson in terms of the most eminent philosophers of the modern period.

I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true –
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe –

The eyes glaze once – and
that is Death –
Impossible to feign
The Beads opon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

Link to EDA manuscript.  [no image] Originally in in Fascicle 16-4 (h 53), about summer 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1890), 121 under the title "Real."

Simon Vestidijk commented:

It is remarkable in this context that one problem that Nietzsche [Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), an influential German philosopher who radically critiqued truth and Christian morality] constantly returns to (and also, in his wake, our contemporary Ludwig Klage [Ludwig Klages (1872-1956) a German philosopher, psychologist and theorist of handwriting]) is also touched upon by Emily Dickinson. This is the problem of authenticity. This could be formulated as follows: to what extent is a human being capable, for himself and thus also for others, of feigning feelings he himself does not undergo, of acting out events which do not concur with his nature, of adopting an attitude to life which is not part of him? This becomes the problem of the actor who, once he has left the stage, can no longer shake off his role. … here we encounter a woman who tackles the problem in a manner for which Nietzsche would have felt every sympathy.

Emily Dickinson did not, of course, reason when creating the poem which is relevant in this regard; we can however paraphrase her impulse to write as follows: what is the simplest situation in life in which every human being, however strong the tendency to dissimulate, divests himself of his cloak of deception, and stands naked and genuine? She finds this ultimate limit in a function of living which no-one will ever manage to escape: she wards off approaching death in an 8-line poem, and seeks, as if driven by aloof necrophilia, the point of death (not the state of being dead, no afterlife!), to enable her to grasp the highest value in life.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Link to EDA manuscript. [no image]  Original manuscript lost, transcribed by Mabel Todd (a 1896pc, 97), no date. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Poems (1896), 119.

Simon Vestdijk considered this poem in his discussion of nature poems:

This perfect little poem is a substitute for a whole dissertation on Kantism [Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) a German philosopher who argued that the mind creates the structure of experience]. And yet how light of touch, despite the outer condensation of the workmanship, how logically justified the composition. The separate line “And revery” is prepared for by the meditative repetition (with a witty alteration) of “one clover and a bee,” so that following this repetition – which delays the course of the poem, thus preparing us for the epilogue, and erases the somewhat naïve and didactic tone of the poem's beginning – the already so brief image of a meadow dissolves in a dream. In the epilogue, the thought that the human soul alone is sufficient to create the objects belonging in the outside world – a deeply philosophical idea, is it not? – is only suggested in an amusing manner, with an unmistakable emphasis on self-mockery: you are, as it were, led around the thought because there is a peculiar condition for absolute idealism: as it happens, few bees need be present!

I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf

The Sexton keeps the key to –
Putting up
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –

Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –

I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other's Gaze
down –
You – could not –

And I – Could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Death's privilege?

Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus' –
That New Grace

Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –

They'd judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You
Or sought to –
I could not –

Because You saturated sight –
And I had no more eyes
For sordid +excellence
As Paradise

And were You lost, I would be –
Though my name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame –

And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not
That self – were Hell to me –

So we must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White +Sustenance –
Despair –

       +consequence +Exercise • Privilege

Link to EDA manuscript.  Originally in Poems: Packet IX, Fascicle 33-7. Includes 16 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862, Houghton Library – (41a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Poems (1890), 55-57, with the last stanza in seven lines and the alternatives not adopted under the title “In Vain.”

Simon Vestdijk introduced this poem at the end of his discussion of love poems, which comes at the end of his long essay, with these words:

There remains one poem for me to mention …, which for me represents the apogee of Emily Dickinson’s work. It is a poem in which all threads appear to come together: revolt and stoical acceptance, an antithetical disunity and a longing for love, metaphysical watchfulness and yielding to the mystery. All these opposing forces now achieve equilibrium in a poem that epitomizes the figure of the poet technically and poetically: rising in a hierarchically-subdued fashion, moving in sharply-defined stages towards a vanishing, visionary epilogue; the construction treading the middle course between rhyme and free verse; the rhyme in all it its blurred nuances; the tone: stammering, oracular, cut short on occasions like a stifled sob, then naïve-didactic once again; the original metaphors sketched out with a few strokes of the pen, with the most diverse of concepts bridged by three or four words. This poem draws the separation of the lovers through into the afterlife: the motif of Hero and Leander, hopelessly separated for eternity, each on their own side of the chasm …

And he goes on to say about the poem:

There is no lack of love between them, neither from the one side nor from the other; there is no fate which intervenes from without, no reactive hatred or antipathy of people living too close together emotionally, there is no third party. All there is, is the love itself, which emerges from within the powers which will keep the two separated on pain of self-annihilation. The stronger the love becomes, the greater the inexorability of their loneliness. They cannot live together, for what would that be but sitting on the shelf next to one another like two china cups, in due course growing old, becoming cracked and being discarded? Nor can they die together, since neither was prepared to shut their eyes to the other, nor to see the other shivering without wanting to feel this cold “Death’s privilege” with them at the same time and to the same extent. Nor can they rise together from the grave, the poem continues, for then neither would behold Jesus, who would be entirely surpassed by the lover; nor could they appear together at the Last Judgement since she, like him, has never been able to serve heaven during life, her life being so satiated by him so that she no longer has eyes for the ‘sordid excellence’ of Paradise.

It is in this poem that Emily Dickinson’s true greatness first becomes visible. It is as if all her poetry hitherto has served as a mere prelude to this one work. There are certainly better ones amongst the work, but nowhere is her main thought, the isolation and rejection of all that occurs in an individual life, described in such tragic accents. By this projection into the supernatural (without, incidentally, the least flavor of dogmatism, the weight of which is completely destroyed by the hubris of the three penultimate verses), this depiction moreover takes on a meaning which moves far beyond narrow personal considerations. I am unacquainted with other literature where the inner coupling of love on the one hand, and the general and complete annihilation of the individual on the other, can be felt as being a general and absolute inevitability. The fact that Emily Dickinson still manages to behave here as an individual does not diminish the perspectives she offers on total abandonment without qualification.


Hans Bak. “Simon Vestdijk: Dutch Critic of American Literature.” R. Hoefte and J. C. Kardux, eds. Connecting Cultures: The Netherlands in Five Centuries of Transatlantic Exchange. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1994: 261-280, 279.

Mitchell, Domhnall. “Translation and International Reception.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 343-350.

Habegger, Alfred and Gunhild Kübler. “Reading Emily Dickinson for Translation into German: A Dialogue.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 16, 2, 2007: 53-80, 54.

Verstegen, Peter. “Vestdijk and Emily Dickinson.” Lecture held for the Vestdijk Circle on 3 October 1987. Hollands Maandblad 1987: 470-81.

Vestdijk, Simon. “On the Poet Emily Dickinson.” Trans. Peter Tydell (2002). Forum 5 and 6, 1932/3.