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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Versions of Emily

In a comment to the previous post on Emily Dickinson, I was asked if I preferred the version I posted of the poem which begins "Low at my problem bending" to a version which is available at (another great site), and if I have a book which explains why there are various versions of some poems.

I do prefer the version I posted, which comes from this book, edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Though it contains all 1775 of Dickinson's poems, it is, according to the introduction, a condensed version of the 1955 3-volume variorum edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson (also edited by Johnson — I've never laid eyes on it) which contained all extant versions of her poems as well as fragments.

According to the introduction to The Complete Poems, there seem to be various reasons for the existence of various versions of poems. One reason is that when Emily's sister Lavinia found 900 poems of Emily's in a box after her death and persuaded some folks to select and transcribe some of the poems for publication there was some apprehension about the public's willingness to accept the poems in their full eccentricity in 1890.

So a man named Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who had corresponded with Emily for years, often about poetry, "undertook to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete provincialisms, and substitute 'sensible' metaphors. Thus 'folks' became 'those,' 'heft' became 'weight,' and occasionally line arrangement was altered¹."

Today, I suppose, most of us would see that as an incredibly arrogant and heavyhanded approach to preparing someone else's poetry for publication. Yet we also should note that in doing so Higginson honed the thin end (a volume of 115 poems) of what we now might think of as the wide, wide wedge of Dickinson which is firmly, perfectly, and thankfully driven between the increasingly insipid Romantic-style poets of the late 19th-century and those we conveniently lump together as the Modern poets (and their strange descendants) beginning probably with H.D., Pound, etc., in the very early 20th-century.

Another reason for the existence of various versions of Dickinson's poems is that she had never formally made final copies for publication: "several [versions of some poems] exist in semifinal form: those for which marginally the poet suggested an alternate reading for one word or more. In order to keep editorial construction to a bare minimum, I have followed the policy of adopting such suggestions only when they are underlined, presumably Emily Dickinson's method of indicating her own preference²."

¹ From p. ix of Johnson's introduction to The Complete Poems
² From p. x of the introduction


Humble Servant said...

Thanks for answering--I wonder why Emily corresponded for 25 years with a guy who sounds like such a prig (just per the link)?

I do think Emily has a "modern" voice, but I feel uncomfortable calling her a wedge for Pound et al. She was, after all, one of the ultimate individualists/loners that America so espouses (poor Emily--no real person would actually espouse her). Pound promoted a movement that she would probably have ignored (IMHO). So, yeah, maybe she prepared the way, but it wasn't strictly her way (those rhymes and, whether sometimes corrected or not, that mostly regular meter) and I'm not convinced "ways" are so important anyway--who cares about knowing the ultimate example of an imagist poem if it isn't a good poem (though that would probably be the Pound Station of the Metro thing, which I do like)? I philosophically dislike the ideas of Romanticism, but Shelley and Yeats wrote beautiful things anyway, categories be damned.

So, I know what you mean, but Emily will never be sitting in a tree kissing Ezra. Yecchh.

And I like the cipher version of the Problem Bending (is Emily bending, or is it the problem?) poem better. Just to pick an argument.

MackJohnny said...

Apparently Emily D. initiated the correspondence with Higginson in April, 1862, by sending him four poems in response to an essay of his called "Letter to a Young Contributor" which had just appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. As far as I know, he was her only significant contact with the literary world throughout her life. A prig by our standards, I suppose, it seems he was thought of as liberal in his day.

And given Emily's lack of -- for want of a better word -- "affirmation" for her work during her life, the ongoing contact with Higginson -- he did encourage her -- was probably a very pragmatic choice on her part in that it may have given her some respite from a feeling of complete subjectivity towards her writing even though she seemed to be aware that Higginson could not fully comprehend what she was doing.

I'm pretty sure that I don't intend to imply that Dickinson was a wedge for Pound, et al, especially since her work was really not very well-known until after the Imagist movement had begun. I was leaning more towards her work as a sort of evolutionary branch in poetry which filled a niche left open by the growing homogenity (or inbreeding) of the later Romantic-style poets. I think she adapted, and adapted to, that niche to make it the amazingly beautiful sphere of her own that it became.

Only in a strict chronological sense, I think, does Emily come between the so-called Moderns and the so-called Romantics, and it was in that sense that I used the wedge image. I'd say Pound and the others were also adapting to openings left (or created) by the increasing sterility of 19th-century poetry. And probably knowing little to nothing of Emily, they used those openings in their own ways.

I'd say Emily was both bending to, and bending, the problem(s). I think I see why you'd like the "ciphers slip" version of the poem better. It does work that way, both for content and sound. And of course the idea/image of deciphering "Time Eternity" is strong. Still, I find that the use of "slip" makes that version too passive for me, and that the original and (I think) main meaning in Emily's day of "cipher" as being equivalent to "zero" contradicts the last two lines of that version in that it implies that she's found answers.

I like the "figures file" version because I can read it in at least these three ways:

1. her filing her figures on something day-to-day away in the face of bigger questions

2. her figures file away in some sort of musical procession or progression that she may not understand but is moved by, and strengthened by

3. she's faced with bigger questions but knows that even in the face of them she must continue to work away at day-to-day things --- if she is to have a chance at solving the bigger problem she must work toward it through the smaller problems

Whew! That's a long comment on a comment. Sorry about that.

MackJohnny said...

"homogeneity," not homogenity

Humble Servant said...

That's a link to the etymology of cipher (and may I say that that site is not worthy to clean out the OED's pocket lint?). I'd guess that cipher as "code" (derived again from math with the bonus of a numerology connection) was at least one of Emily's intended meanings. Her puzzles or uncertainties, indeed perplexities, slip slide away.

I like slip--that's exactly what a pencil does when you accidentally let it go from inattention. One slips the surly bonds, lets slip the dogs of war, moves into the slipstream, messes up in the space twixt the cup and the lip, is a mere slip of a girl, takes the slope going down.

And I gotta go with Time Eternity as the very intrusion of an untamed concept into a poem about the same--it's one of those alien elements that are so great about her--"thy perplexities" in contrast makes sense in context.

MackJohnny said...

I see and appreciate what you're saying about cipher and Time Eternity. I'm glad that both versions of the poem exist -- I'm starting to think that they complement each other very well.

But I still like figure better. Mandelshtam!

Humble Servant said...

Damn--looks like I need to go take a lesson on making links here.

Mandelshtam. Oship Mandelsham. (Say that like "Bond. James Bond.")

MackJohnny said...

In a Bogart voishe, of courshe.

Humble Servant said...

Schure thing, schweetheart.