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  • Editing the New Poems of Emily Dickinson
  • William Shurr (bio)


After working with Dickinson's writings for many years, I have come to take two statements as fairly axiomatic. The poems we have known for a century now usually (though not always) take on the pattern of one line of iambic tetrameter followed by a line of iambic trimeter. This metrical pattern most profoundly characterizes Dickinson's poems as we have known them from the beginning. So deeply ingrained is this meter in her poetic practice that it can validly be called her signature as a poet. I have used the term "fourteener" for this pattern to call attention to the poet's connection with the tradition of hymnody. It has also been identified as an element in the traditional ballad. One of Dickinson's most famous poems clearly demonstrates the practice: [End Page 118]

Because I could not stop for Death —He kindly stopped for me —The Carriage held but just Ourselves —And Immortality. . . .


Like her contemporary, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897), Dickinson drew enormous power from immersion in the hymn form and in the newly popular folk forms being re-discovered in her time. Like Brahms, Dickinson sharpened her poetic technique and deepened the appeal of her poems by supple variations on these traditional vernacular forms.

Together, the double source of Dickinson's prosody suggests her preference for a vernacular tradition (in hymns and ballads) rather than the more political, patriarchal, and public tradition of iambic pentameter. These metrical matters are the bases of my work, as clearly set out in New Poems. Obviously, investigation of the manuscripts was not necessary for this procedure; I was looking for the rhythms of the words, not their shape and placement on the page.

My second axiom expresses the observation that the poet, in her letters, occasionally formatted the same group of words as poetry in one letter and as if they were prose in another letter. Let me cite the following example from New Poems: Dickinson wrote out the poem that Johnson prints as number 1640 ("Take all away from me") in two different letters; she wrote the first two lines as prose in a third letter. Many other examples are presented in New Poems.

A third principle that eventually came to guide my editorial work arose from the growing conviction that Dickinson did not write letters the way most people probably do. She did not send quickly written first drafts. The existing manuscript evidence suggests that she made numerous drafts of her letters before they were sent. Parts of no fewer than three drafts of a letter to Helen Hunt Jackson are extant and are indicative of this practice. She also seems to have used preexisting writings —some of them poems —in constructing her letters, employing the same lines in different contexts and in messages addressed to different correspondents, as if parts of [End Page 119] the letters had a free-standing existence of their own. Dickinson's methods of composition suggested what seemed a fair practice for my fellow editors and me to follow.

Two conclusions are obvious from these letter-writing characteristics. First, Dickinson transported some units (including whole poems) from one context to another in different letters, or even left them to stand free from any context. And second, Dickinson felt completely licensed to write out her poems in traditional prose format.

Further criteria were needed, though, for "canonizing" the new poems I found embedded in the letters. I could not accept just any random set of fourteeners or rhyming passages. The metrical groups had to be able to stand on their own apart from the letters. Generally they should have no intrinsic dependence upon the letters in which they appeared. The 498 examples I printed in New Poems seemed to be the most finished and most independent poems of the hundreds that are imbedded in her known prose letters. My editing principles were thus suggested by Dickinson's own practice —and by other considerations more fully developed in New Poems. She led the way; why not follow suit?

It is essential to note that I have worked primarily with letters and poems of Dickinson...


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