BUFFALO, N.Y. -- In a new book that scholars are calling one of
the most important critical studies of Emily Dickinson ever
written, Cristanne Miller, SUNY Distinguished Professor of English
at the University at Buffalo and a noted Dickinson scholar, poses a
significant challenge to popular and longstanding beliefs about the
poet and her poetry.
"Reading In Time: Emily Dickinson and the Nineteenth Century,"
out in May from the University of Massachusetts Press, contests the
commonly held idea that Dickinson's work is defined by original
subject matter and unique forms that placed her at odds with her
mid-19th century New England contemporaries.
On the contrary, Miller says, Dickinson's forms and topics were
typical of her era, and quite accessible and acceptable to the
readers of her time.
A podcast interview with Miller produced by UB is available
Miller, Edward H. Butler Professor of Literature and chair of
the UB English Department, says, "Today's readers, unfamiliar with
the literary conventions of Dickinson's place and time, often
assume, unjustifiably, that her line lengths, meter, rhythm,
pattern of rhyme as well as her subject matter, differ wholly from
those of other poets of her day.
"In some ways, they definitely do, but in several significant
ways her poems are similar to those she read in the daily
newspaper," Miller says.
What actually makes Dickinson's work so different from that of
her contemporaries, Miller says, is "an electrifying sensibility;
conciseness, especially syntactic; crisp and colloquial diction
that lacks poeticisms or archaisms, and a greater disjunctiveness,
marked by many dashes as well as by quick logical turns that
challenge the reader to figure out the transitions."
Miller's conclusions rest on her extensive study of the
literature that influenced the poet from her childhood on: the
poetry in her school books from the Amherst Academy and Mount
Holyoke Female Seminary; verse published in popular newspapers and
magazines of her day and the books of poetry found in her personal
"Scholars agree that Dickinson addressed literary themes common
to her era -- love, death, sentiment, war, religion," says Miller,
"but they often insist that she did so 'differently' from her
"Her use of the modified hymn meter, for instance, is sometimes
cited as evidence of the 'revolutionary' nature of her expression,"
she says, "but many writers at that time used short-lined forms,
including, hymn and ballad meters, which were popular in the 1840s
and 1850s, when Dickinson was in school and developing her own
Miller adds that metrical irregularity and innovation in rhythm
and rhyme are also cited as extraordinary qualities in Dickinson's
work, but she says that in the United States at that time "poetry
was marked by significant innovations in meter and form. In fact,
in going through her schoolbooks I was struck by how many quite
irregular poems and short-lined verse forms were used as examples
for students to imitate."
Even the use of the slant or oblique rhyme that mark so much of
her poetry was not an entirely uncommon device, Miller says,
although Dickinson used it to far more striking and unsettling
Miller says the poet's subject matter also reflected popular
"She was an enthusiastic reader of the popular poets and fiction
writers of her day," says Miller, "and wrote several poems on
topics responding or alluding to the work of her literary peers.
Like them, she also wrote poems in the vein of popular modes like
the gothic, orientalism and dramatic lyrics."
Dickinson was not a literary recluse, Miller says, and a
comparison of her work with that of her contemporaries indicates
that she was vitally engaged with the literary and political
culture of her day.
"Only 10 of her poems were published in her lifetime," Miller
says, "and exactly why she did not publish must remain a mystery.
But the extent to which her poetry alludes to contemporary poetry,
widespread cultural concerns and even occasionally current events
indicates that she was writing back to her time, even if
Miller's book also addresses the fact that scholars frequently
describe all of Dickinson's poetry as if it shares the
characteristics of the poems she wrote in the last 20 years of her
"Dickinson wrote more than two-thirds of her poems between 1858
and 1865," Miller says, "and during that time, apparently once she
had made a clean copy of a poem, she discarded all drafts. She
saved more than 90 percent of these poems in manuscript booklets
and circulated on average around 25 percent of them. In other
words, the great majority of poems that Dickinson collected into
booklets were never circulated to friends.
"However, from 1866 until her death in 1886," Miller says,
"Dickinson largely stopped making booklets, circulated much more of
her work and frequently drafted poems on scraps of paper --
including the back of a baking chocolate wrapper and a page
containing a recipe for coconut cake.
"So the common description of Dickinson as a poet of fragments
and drafts written on unusual scraps of paper holds only for the
poems that she wrote after 1865, and those constitute less than a
third of her output," Miller says.
In "Reading in Time," Miller also explores Dickinson's literary
responses to the mystique of Asia to 19th-century Americans and the
dramatic lyric as an appropriate form with which to address the
horror and loss of the Civil War. Her book offers new ways to
understand the patterns of Dickinson's poetic practice in the
context of the social and literary culture in which she lived and
Cristanne Miller is the author of "Emily Dickinson: A Poet's
Grammar," co-author of "Comic Power in Emily Dickinson," and
co-editor of "The Emily Dickinson Handbook." She has written books
on poet Marianne Moore and other modernist women poets. She also
has co-edited the "Selected Letters of Marianne Moore," an
anthology of American Civil War poetry. She has served as president
of The Emily Dickinson International Society and the Modernist