This article is from the archives of the UB Reporter.

Scholar challenges popular ideas about Emily Dickinson

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By Patricia Donovan
Published: April 12, 2012

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 UB 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.

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 library.

“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 contemporaries.

“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 poetic style.”

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 effect.

Miller says the poet’s subject matter also reflected popular taste.

“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 indirectly.”

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 life.

“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 deeply participated.