Emily Dickinson: Poetic Form and Lineation

Emily Dickinson was born on this day in 1830.

Emily Dickinson’s Poems: As She Preserved Them, widely considered the definitive edition of her poems, presents them for the first time “as she preserved them,” and in the order in which she wished them to appear. In the book, the world’s foremost scholar of Emily Dickinson, Cristanne Miller, guides us through these stunning poems with her deft and unobtrusive notes, helping us understand the poet’s quotations and allusions, and explaining how she composed, copied, and circulated her poems. Miller’s brilliant reordering of the poems transforms our experience of them. Here is a brief excerpt from Miller’s Introduction looking at form and lineation in Dickinson’s poems.

Dickinson was inconsistent about the stanzaic organization of her poems — for example, she frequently circulated poems without stanzaic division that she copied in stanzas for her own keeping. Although she typically marked stanzas by leaving space between lines and often drew a horizontal line following a poem (or following its alternatives) to indicate its conclusion, she sometimes drew lines between stanzas. This was a relatively standard practice at the time; her sister Lavinia, for example, drew a line between stanzas in a poem she wrote for Emily after their mother’s death. Dickinson also occasionally indented a line or patterned series of lines — especially in her early fascicles (see “Papa above!” F7 Sh3). Similarly, she occasionally assigned titles to poems in her fascicles or letters, sometimes formally and sometimes indirectly: she wrote the title “Snow flakes” on her fascicle copy of “I counted till they danced so” and sent a copy of “Heart not so heavy as mine” to Catherine Scott Anthon, referring to it as “Whistling under my window –.”

Although Dickinson’s increasingly large handwriting caused her to use more run-on lines in her later years, it is in most cases obvious where Dickinson chose to begin a new poetic line. She marked poetic lines by beginning with a capital letter written flush with the left margin (except where she indented to avoid a watermark or the tail of punctuation on the line above), often by leaving blank space at the end of the preceding row of script, and by syntax: Dickinson did not end poetic lines on an article (“the,”“a”)orminorpreposition(suchas“of”). Thedefinitiveuseofsuch patterns in her more than eleven hundred fascicle and unbound-sheet poems, and her continuation of these patterns in presentation copies of her later poems, make it clear that for her these were norms.

Meter is not always a clear yardstick for poetic form because Dickinson at times unambiguously flouted the metrical presentation of a line. Her most typical variation of the metrical line is to split it into two poetic lines — for example, in “There is a word / Which bears a sword.” Frequently such lines appear at the beginning of a poem, often to call attention to a rhyme or syntactic parallelism. For example, Dickinson split two lines to highlight parallel phrasing in “You’ll know it — as you know ’tis Noon –” (F15 Sh3):

You’ll know it — as you know ’tis Noon — By Glory –
As you do the Sun –
By Glory –
As you will in Heaven –
Know God the Father — and the Son.

One hears a common-meter quatrain (8888 syllables) but the lines as written (835358) emphasize the poem’s repetitions.

Far less frequently, Dickinson combined two metrical lines into a single poetic line, as, for example, in “I tried to think a lonelier Thing” (F25 Sh1). This poem’s first two lines initiate what we might expect to be a standard 8686 meter. The third poetic line, however, combines two metrical lines — as Dickinson indicated by ending her row of script with “An”; were she making metrical and poetic lines coincide, “An” would have begun a row of print. The fourth poetic line of this clearly marked stanza is a seven-syllable line that one would expect to begin stanza 2 — perhaps included as part of stanza 1 because it concludes the previous phrase: “An Omen . . . /Of Death’s . . . nearness –.” Consequently the poem’s first stanza has a syllable count of 8, 6, 13, and then 7 syllables, and the second stanza has only three lines, with a 676 syllable pattern. One hears 8676 7676, but in this edition one sees:

I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen –
Some Polar Expiation — An Omen in the Bone Of Death’s tremendous nearness –
I probed Retrieveless things My Duplicate — to borrow — A Haggard comfort springs

When Dickinson ceased predictably capitalizing the first word of a new line, and when poems conclude in margins, upside down, or on the backs of pages, it becomes more difficult to tell whether she might have had such linear variation in mind.

Even earlier, Dickinson’s lineation is occasionally ambiguous. In “She staked Her Feathers — Gained an Arc –” (F38 Sh3), Dickinson began a new row of script with a new syntactic phrase and the capitalized “Gained.” Because in the alternative for this line, “[She staked Her] Wings — and gained a Bush –,” she did not capitalize “gained” and began a new row of script at “Bush –,” and because nothing else in the single extant manuscript of this poem suggests patterned deviation from a metrical norm, I present the poem’s first stanza as:

She staked Her Feathers — Gained an Arc — [Her] Wings — and gained a Bush — Debated — Rose again –
This time — beyond the estimate [the] inference Of Envy, or of Men –

In contrast, “The Sea said” (Unbound Sheet 90) presents the possibility of a distinct pattern of split metrical lines and syntax; Dickinson ended successive rows of script with “said” and put the sea or brook’s speech on a new row of script. One might present this in print as:

The Sea said
“Come” to the Brook –
The Brook said “Let me grow” –
The Sea said
“Then you will be a Sea” — “I want a Brook –
Come now” –
The Sea said “Go” to the Sea –
The Sea said “I am he
You cherished” — “Learned Waters –
Wisdom is stale to me” –

A presentation that assumes a three-beat metrical line (except in the longer line 3) would read like this:

The Sea said “Come” to the Brook — The Brook said “Let me grow” –The Sea said “Then you will be a Sea” — “I want a Brook — Come now” –
The Sea said “Go” to the Sea –
The Sea said “I am he
You cherished” — “Learned Waters — Wisdom is stale to me” –

Both presentations are accurate in that they follow guidelines Dickinson herself implicitly established in writing out her poems. The first follows her splitting of metrical lines into patterned syntactic or rhetorical patterns; the second, her more frequent practice of writing metrical lines as run-ons when there was not adequate space to continue on a single row of script. A circulated copy does not break rows of script at “said” but leaves it ambiguous whether “Learned Waters –” might begin a new poetic line. This edition prints the poem following the pattern of lineation Dickinson used on the unbound sheet, as though that line splitting was deliberate, while acknowledging in a note the possibility of metrical lineation.

While I have more often than Franklin interpreted Dickinson to be splitting or combining metrical lines, like him I find that there must be strong indicators of such a pattern, given the prevalence of her use of run-on lines. To my mind, to present all Dickinson’s run-on rows of script as though they were poetic lines ignores her repeated and typical indication that she has a more deliberate sense of the line. At the same time, several manuscripts demand interpretive judgment as to whether she splits a metrical line. Here, as with many aspects of transcribing Dickinson’s poems, Emerson’s prescription against a foolish consistency allows the most sensitive and sensible response. Where this edition differs from Franklin’s (or Johnson’s) presentation of a poem, it is because I [1] am using a different source text; [2] interpret aspects of the same source text differently; [3] see a word or punctuation mark missed by previous editors; or [4] have chosen differently to emend, or not emend, a spelling idiosyncrasy.