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  • Dickinson's "Decoration"
  • Mary Loeffelholz

In June of 1877, near the third anniversary of her father's death, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson to say that she had been "rereading [Higginson's poem] 'Decoration.'" Dickinson had first encountered "Decoration" three years previously, in the June 1874 number of Scribner's Monthly Magazine. After her first reading Dickinson wrote Higginson twice, first to praise his "beautiful thought," then—in the immediate aftermath of her father's death—to thank him again for his "beautiful Hymn": "It has assisted that Pause of Space which I call 'Father.'" Three years later, reminding Higginson of her earlier reading of "Decoration," Dickinson oddly continued with the suggestion to Higginson that he "may have forgotten it."1 Forgotten his own poem, as if to publish words were to forget them? Or forgotten Dickinson's admiration for it? Whichever defect of memory Dickinson meant to imply, she then made good by supplying a quotation—not from Higginson's own poem, as the letter's context would imply, but rather a quatrain of her own, words that Higginson could not in fact literally have forgotten because he had neither written nor read them before:

Lay this Laurel on the OneToo intrinsic for Renown— Laurel—vail your deathless Tree— Him you chasten, that is He!2

Higginson seems to have taken his cue to "remember" Dickinson's words in place of his own graciously. Many years later, he made a transcript of the poem for Mabel Loomis Todd, "for the pleasure," as he told her, "of copying it." Higginson's transmission of Dickinson's words to Todd reinscribed not only Dickinson's poem but the phraseology of the letter in which he first encountered it: she "wrote it," Higginson wrote to Todd, "after re-reading my 'Decoration.' It is the condensed essence of that and so far finer"—an acknowledgment whose generosity by then must have come more easily in the wake of the lively success of Todd and Higginson's first published volume of Dickinson's poems.3 [End Page 663]

This well-known exchange between Dickinson and Higginson has been read both biographically, as a record of Dickinson's mourning for her obscurely gigantic father coupled with a reflection on her own poetic obscurity, and aesthetically, as typifying the strategies of condensation and epigram she deployed over found cultural materials—as "a model," in her biographer Richard Sewall's words, "of a poetic procedure she followed many times." In hindsight, what Sewall's canonical 1974 reading of this small exchange tacitly offers is a New Critical allegory of the relations between poetry and history. In this allegory, Higginson's poem mediates (both for Dickinson and for her posthumous readers) the raw matter of history, both by virtue of its reference to the Civil War and by virtue of its representing dead poetic forms—"the standard memorial day tradition," in Sewall's dismissive words—that are now, in the familiar phrase, of historical rather than literary interest.4 "Decoration" is what literary biography remembers in order that it may be forgotten. What makes Dickinson's quatrain legible as a lyric poem against the backdrop of Higginson's verse is the work of compression that eliminates overt historical reference and puts in its place aesthetic self-reference, the "intrinsic" virtue of poetical and grammatical reflexivity: "Him you chasten, that is He!"5

The relation of foreground to background assumed in Sewall's reading of "Lay this laurel" against Higginson's "Decoration" has been both widespread and extraordinarily resilient in nineteenth-century American literary studies. For many critical and pedagogical purposes, most nineteenth-century American poetry shares with "Decoration" the work of standing in place as background to Whitman and Dickinson. My intention in this essay is to put this emblematic exchange between Dickinson and Higginson in the service of a different model of reading, one concerned with reconstructing the intricacies of poetry's public and private circulation and with attending to the formal languages Dickinson shares with Higginson as part of the condition of her revising him. This model of reading takes a less dismissive view of the role of received nineteenth-century poetic culture in...


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