Recurring Women

Danny Karlin

  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition edited by R.W. Franklin
    Harvard, 1654 pp, £83.50, October 1998, ISBN 0 674 67622 X
  • The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition edited by R.W. Franklin
    Harvard, 692 pp, £19.95, September 1999, ISBN 0 674 67624 6
  • Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception by Domhnall Mitchell
    Massachusetts, 352 pp, £31.95, March 2000, ISBN 1 55849 226 7

Publication – is the Auction
Of the Mind of Man –


Editing Emily Dickinson’s poetry is a problem which continues to vex literary scholars and textual critics; meanwhile the publication, or dissemination, of Dickinson goes on apace. A trivial instance: the giant puppet of the ‘Belle of Amherst’, dressed in that distinctive ghost-white dress, which features in the movie Being John Malkovich. A hitherto ‘unknown’ photograph of Dickinson recently advertised on E-Bay, the Internet auction site. Shady dealings in allegedly ‘new’ poems by Dickinson – discovered, authenticated, sold and discredited. I recently received a flyer advertising Edie Campbell’s one-woman show at the Edinburgh Fringe, in which the actress ‘wants to be Emily’s mouthpiece’: My Life Has Stood: The Journey of a Portrayal unfolds with Campbell onstage, sewing the dress in which she is to portray Dickinson, while ‘delving into the very fibre of her poems and letters’. Dickinson’s murmur has been sent over the roofs of the world, just as emphatically as Whitman’s barbaric yawp. But not by her. Even Coriolanus was forced to stand in the street and show his wounds; but Dickinson was a greater despiser of the people.

The Soul selects her own Society –
Then – shuts the Door –
To her divine Majority –
Present no more –


You would search English poetry in vain for lines as anti-democratic as this. The leisured exercise of choice (which is power), the arrogant assumption of desirability, the aristocrat’s knack of taking for granted that the world will beat a path to the door you shut in its face. And the more she punishes us, this ‘divine Majority’ of one, the more we worship. We are all nympholepts, begging: choose us! The mise-en-scène is indefinitely repeated; readings of Dickinson replicate her self-image, like a virus taking over the natural function of a cell.

When Thomas Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955, it was thought that her texts had finally been restored to the state in which, had she agreed to be published at all, she would have wanted them to be read. Not a bit of it. Argument has continued over chronology, the order of the poems, the treatment of variants and the solution of cruxes – the normal business of textual criticism. Ralph Franklin gives the Johnson Dickinson a comprehensive overhaul. It is still recognisably the same model, in three volumes in a handsome slipcase, with similar typeface and layout (though Franklin naughtily and against the spirit of his own project gives the poems title headings from their first lines); the scholarly engine is more powerful, the editorial performance even more meticulous, and there are more features: twin appendices devoted to the ‘fascicles and sets’ in which Dickinson gathered (some of) her manuscripts, for example, and another appendix recording every instance in which the poet divided a word or phrase with a hyphen across a line, the kind of design detail that really counts with upmarket pedants. But the quality of the product is not the only issue, and Franklin’s methodology is not entirely accounted for by a desire to improve on his predecessors’ work. There are those who believe that to print her poems at all does violence to the particularity of Dickinson’s script, every detail of which has meaning (not just the handwriting but the layout, not just the punctuation but the size and shape of the paper, not just the orthography but the gaps between individual letters). Nothing is random or accidental, everything is wired into the circuit of meaning; Dickinson’s texts become like Inverarity’s legacy in The Crying of Lot 49, the source of a mysterious, labyrinthine, self-enfolding plot, the editor’s Tristero. All the manuscripts can be studied on the web, in facsimile, in the magnificent Dickinson Electronic Archives, compiled by an Editorial Collective (general editors Martha Nell Smith, Ellen Louise Hart and Marta Werner), which describes itself as ‘a wide and diverse community with shared interests in the writings and in the life of Emily Dickinson’, but whose manifesto is less than inclusive:

Persuaded that Emily Dickinson ‘published’ her work by distributing it in her letters and in the manuscript books she made and left for posterity to discover after her death, the Collective believes that print translations of her work, which erase most of her visual poetics, make practically unimaginable that world of Dickinson’s hands-on distribution. Thus, the Collective is editing images of her manuscripts for electronic distribution so that all her readers can enjoy her graphic productions ... By gaining a more vivid and nuanced sense of the hand-to-hand circulation of her work that Dickinson and her contemporary readers witnessed, Dickinson’s 21st-century readers are likely to deepen and broaden understandings of her poetic project.

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