Emily +/- Dickinson

Posted by @ 11:35 pm on February 10th, 2011

Last night for school I was asked to give a brief presentation on the importance of Emily Dickinson’s dashes.  (I posted about this a few days ago.)  My one sentence conclusion: “They’re nearly as important as the words are.”  yeah ok whatever…

I did some further reading, though, and noticed/learned something I think is interesting: even among the “accepted,” contemporary, “dash-inclusive” collections of her work, the dashes still aren’t fully represented the way she wrote them in her manuscripts… and I’m not just talking about the hypen vs. en dash vs. em dash thing, but even their placement and existence.

Let’s get into some shit…

Here are two different versions of poem #365: 1) a copy of the original manuscript and 2) an all-inclusive print representation of the manuscript (both from Inflections of the Pen: Dash and Voice in Emily Dickinson by Paul Crumbley)

This is kind of interesting right?  Her final manuscripts include alternate word choices, sometimes more-than-marginally effecting the outcome of the poem (e.g. “she” vs. “it”).  Further, her manuscripts (most of them) were found bound in 40 separate booklets (“fasicles”), therefore possibly implying they were finished works — meant to be read with alternate words and all.

But she died.  And her sister found the poems and got them published and the dashes were famously removed by editors.

Here is poem #365 as it was published in 1924 (I think this was the earliest publication of it):


No dashes.  Went with “vivid” over “quickened,” “sated” over “vanquished,” “it” over “she,” removed some quotation marks and capitalizations, even changed some words.

Now here’s the poem as it appears in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson edited by Thomas H. Johnson and originally published in 1960 (sorry for the blur on the left):

No stanza breaks.  Quotations turned into italics.  Went with “vivid,” “vanquished,” and “it.” The dash after “conditions” becomes a comma, the one after “blaze” becomes a period, the one after “blacksmith” is removed completely.  (If you look at the manuscript, these marks are a little ambiguous, but I don’t see how you can call the line after “tint” a dash and not the lines after “conditions,” “Blaze,” or “blacksmith.”)

Here’s another contemporary version, this one from The Oxford Book of American Poetry edited by David Lehman (the retarded underlines are mine):

This is identical to the Johnson version with the exception of an added dash at the end of the first line.  This dash is not present in the print reproduction of the manuscript (the 2nd image), but if you look closely at the original manuscript image there is what might be a dash after the word “Heat” but before the question mark, although this could also be the missed place cross of the “t” — it’s hard to tell.  Either way, this dash in the Oxford version is a little weird.


So, if you buy into the power/theory of Dickinson’s dashes — that they break up conventional thought processes and provoke the reader to a more active reading (these are conclusions we came to in class) — then the above discrepancies are not totally inconsequential.  They make for different experiences and therefore different poems. For example, that dash at the end of the first line of the Oxford version could potentially be discussed ad nauseam (what does it mean???) even though it’s totally absent in other versions and might be a typo.  Does it change the poem entirely?  Not really. Is it a matter of life and death?  No.  I just think it’s funny that for all the “Dickinson without dashes is blasphemy!!” sentiment, there are still discrepancies between contemporary versions, and not all the dashes made the cut.

*Note: I am far from a Dickinson scholar.  If I am wrong about any of this, please call me out.

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