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  • Why Dickinson Didn't Title
  • John Mulvihill (bio)

the knowledge of things is not to be derived from names. . . . no man will like to put himself or the education of his mind in the power of names.

Socrates Cratylus 439b, 440c

By intuition, Mightiest Things

Assert themselves—and not by terms—


Omissions are not accidents.

Marianne Moore

In April 1883, Emily Dickinson wrote to Thomas Niles, a Boston publisher, thanking him for his kind opinion of one poem she had sent him, and noting her enclosure of three others.

Thank you for the kindness.

I am glad if the Bird seemed true to you.

Please efface the others and receive these three, which are more like him—a Thunderstorm—a Humming Bird, and a Country Burial. . . .


There are eight other letters with similar references to poem enclosures. The references are remarkable for constituting nearly all the "titles" that Dickinson supplied for her poems. In Appendix 8 of his [End Page 71] 1955 variorum edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Johnson prefaces the short list of Dickinson's titles with this note:

Emily Dickinson herself gave titles to twenty-four poems; twenty-one of the titles are for poems which she sent to friends, three are for poems in the packets. In every instance but two, among the twenty-one for poems sent to friends, the title is supplied in the letter accompanying the poem, not on the copy of the poem itself. The exceptions are nos. 15 and 227.

Judith Farr comments on the four titles provided in the letter to publisher Thomas Niles: "The Bird," "A Thunderstorm," "A Humming Bird," "A Country Burial" (numbers 1561, 824, 1463, and 829). Farr says these titles "were obviously selected because [Dickinson] knew titles were customary, not because she conceived of them as improving the coherence of her work" (246-47). Yet Dickinson enclosed poems in scores of letters; why bow to custom and provide titles in just a few? We might conjecture that Dickinson added titles in the letters to Niles because Niles was a publisher, for whom titles were a tool of the trade. But Dickinson had not and would not submit to Niles the manuscript collection of her poems that he had requested (twice); that is, she was not sending the poems to him as if to a potential publisher. She was simply sending him a few poems as a gift, the way she did to several other correspondents. Also, the poem references are not peculiar to letters to Niles. They occur in letters or notes to Higginson, Mabel Loomis Todd, and nephew Ned Dickinson.2

There is another odd thing about these "titles," besides the fact that they occur so rarely in her letters: Dickinson does not mark them in the same way she does other titles. When she refers to other people's poems by title, she usually sets off the title with quotation marks or underscoring (see, for example, L85, L234, L368). However, she sets off the references to her own poems only by capitalizing the first letter of all major words. Even in the one place (L316) where she refers to a poem of hers that has been published with a title—"A narrow Fellow in the Grass," published as "The Snake"—she uses only capitalization.3 [End Page 72]

Farr characterizes the titles in the letters as "afterthoughts and primitive." But could it be that these are not even titles—at least that they were not intended as titles by Dickinson herself? As John Fisher has pointed out, "a title is not the only way to identify a work." For example, we can refer to The Praise Singer as "Mary Renault's novel about Simonides" (290). True, in some ways these references in Dickinson's letters look like titles: they are brief and nominal like many titles, and refer to the subject of the poem. On the other hand, in important ways they are not like titles. Besides not being set off with quotation marks or underscoring like titles, they are not in the title position heading the body of the poem; that is, as a reference they are a step...


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