- New Poems of Emily Dickinson
When in 1971 Edith Wylder theorized that punctuation and capitalization in the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson's poems had a rhetorical basis, she borrowed for her title—The Last Face—a phrase from one of the poet's letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson.1 In his New Poems of Emily Dickinson William H. Shurr now reformats part of that letter (405), including the sentence "The Ear is the last Face," as a poem, to which he assigns the number 256:
Death obtains the Rose,but the News of Dying goesno further than the Breeze.The Ear is the last Face.
Obliquely, Shurr's "discovery" recalls the larger truth implicit in Wylder's argument. Let me explain. [End Page 128]
It will be recalled that Wylder's theory that the dashes in Dickinson's poetry were markers on how to "voice" the poems met with considerable scholarly opposition and has obviously not prevailed. After all, Dickinson punctuated her letters in similar fashion (as did her sister Lavinia and her brother Austin). The coup de grace to the theory was considered to be the fact that Dickinson pointed in similar fashion her transcription of a neighbor's recipe for coconut cake.2 The not-at-all fanciful conclusion one might draw from that observation is not that it dashes Wylder's theory, but that it reinforces one's sense that Dickinson had a way of dramatizing everything she wrote. None of her writing—from poems to recipes (and of course letters)—was alien to the poetic impulse.
How could she not have wished to turn all experience into poetry? Shurr italicizes this characteristic truth by unearthing nearly five hundred examples of extractable poetic material embedded in the surviving letters. Many readers will quarrel reasonably with his decision to upgrade these materials into "poems" and "epigrams," just as they may question the fanfare which accompanies his overall claim to discovery. After all, while Shurr acknowledges that Thomas Johnson had preceded him in culling poems from the letters (but only in an instance or two), his ample net does not pick up the three "newly-found" Dickinson "poems" identified a generation ago by the poet-anthologist Oscar Williams.3
Coincidentally, one of the poems found by Williams comes from the same letter to Higginson that in Shurr's reading yields a quite different poem, though the two poems share the line that gave Wylder her title. Williams' discovery begins with that line:
The ear is the last face.We hear after we see,Which to tell you firstIs still my destiny[.]4
In a generous moment Shurr allows for such discrepant discoveries among the same poetic materials. "There will always be room for dispute and refinement concerning exactly which lines to choose from the letters," he [End Page 129] acknowledges, "[for] at times the sutures between poetry and prose are almost invisible" (43). Many of the more attentive readers of Dickinson's poems and letters have surmised as much and said so.
There are things to say against Shurr's book, especially his claim for its newness (though his Keatsian awe is touching), his occasional liberties with the materials, his rather precocious arguments about genre (especially with the properties of the epigram and the proverb, too easily equating the two, while forgetting that a proverb is by definition public and anonymous—"The wisdom of many and the wit of one"), and his failure to take into account some of the earnest and honest work of others.5
Yet when all is said and done, I for one am glad to have Shurr's work. Seen as a sort of common-place book, it will remind her readers that Dickinson never confined her use of poetic materials to what most of us easily recognize as poems. The truth is that Dickinson was every inch the poet, and that at some point in life, her ordinary self all but disappeared into her poetic self. There is no written evidence to indicate that it was otherwise...