- Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century
Reading in Time brings Cristanne Miller's exhaustive knowledge of Emily Dickinson's prosody to bear on the project of recreating, for a twenty-first-century academic audience, what her poems would have looked and sounded like to their first readers and hearers. Such a project reminds us of just how "long ago" Dickinson's poetry has become in the year 2012. When Thomas H. Johnson's variorum edition was published in 1955, there were living people who had read the first editions as they appeared in the 1890s. Robert Frost was one. His few comments about Dickinson's verse are gnomic and suggestive, because they did not have to be expository and analytical. He had direct knowledge of how Dickinson's work would have appeared, and sounded, to her contemporaries. We do not.
Such losses are inevitable. Knowledge of poetic conventions has a lifespan. Academic argument—claims and counter-claims about how the forms of poems mean—supplies its place. Some of Dickinson's twenty-first-century readers see hers as primarily a visual art, crafted on the manuscript page. Some see her as an aural artist, working in the realms of memory and music.
Miller has been the leading proponent of the aural approach, which has taken a back seat in recent decades. "Reading Dickinson's poetry according to the primary concerns of her own era ... requires attention not just to poetic form but to elements of form that manifest themselves aurally" (37-38). She is careful in Reading in Time, however, not to make this issue an either/or polemic. Dickinson's poetry has always been both visual and aural. "Mabel Loomis Todd," notes Miller, "records in her diary that she first persuaded [Thomas Wentworth] Higginson to agree to publish Dickinson's poems by reading them aloud to him; he was 'greatly astonished,' having had 'no idea there were so many in passably conventional form'" (97). Even for the poet's contemporary acquaintances, the visual and the aural could come to the fore by turns, yielding contrasting impressions of the poetry. [End Page 108]
Miller patiently and exhaustively establishes that Dickinson worked from an underlying sound pattern. "[T]he rhythm lurking in her mind as she composed was most often the stanza, even when she was composing in what we might call free verse" (79). The received notion has been that she used a hymn stanza; Miller would say instead a ballad stanza. Ballads and hymns by Dickinson's contemporaries used similar, but not identical, prosody (57-58). Ballad verse was accentual rather than syllabic, and accommodated different metrical patterns within the same text. When Dickinson varied the number of syllables in a line, or shifted patterns within a poem, she was drawing on the traditions of ballad form.
"[C]omposition in the head" makes use of the rhetorical canon of memory (227n70); Dickinson's poetry is memorable because she committed so much of it to memory in the process of composing it. Hence she chose rhyme and meter, hymn and ballad, however varied, over more radical verse experiments. In fact, Miller shows that there was considerable variation in the published verse that Dickinson most likely read, so that her departures from formulae are not as wildly eccentric as some early readers felt, and criticism has long assumed.
At the heart of Miller's book are long, extraordinarily carefully formal analyses of individual poems. She scans representative—or just plain excellent— poems, from many different formal categories, laying out their syllabic and accentual patterns. She then attentively guides the reader through the rhythms of the poem. Miller is too good a critic to insist mechanically that a certain kind of sound must reinforce a certain kind of meaning or mood. But she does not make the countervailing mistake of supposing that sound is arbitrary, or moves in its own ways irrespective of the poem as a whole.
About half of Reading in Time, then, pursues the title's project by looking at "time...