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Inside Emily Dickinson's Revealing Lost Papers

Illustration by Maria Menshikova

The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson's Envelope Poems by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin (New Directions/Christine Burgin)

I was unnerved to learn in my twenties that the poems of Emily Dickinson that I had memorized as a girl were not the poems as she had written them. Her first editors, hoping to make her eccentric verses palatable to the general public, regularized, rewrote, censored, and titled them. In that form, the poems were relished, diffused, commented on, and memorized. Readers first encountered Dickinson’s actual poems in 1955, in the three-volume edition by Thomas H. Johnson, which was supplanted in 1998 by Ralph Franklin’s three-volume edition. Both editions included the varying drafts of the poems, revealing Dickinson’s instant or retrospective self-corrections.

But a printed page cannot reproduce a handwritten one, and it became inevitable that scholars wanted to see exactly how Dickinson’s page looked, rightly suspecting that Dickinson cared about the graphic arrangement of her lines and stanzas. Most of the poet’s manuscripts still awaited photographic reproduction. A digitized version of the Dickinson letter manuscripts, begun some years ago under the auspices of the scholar Marta Werner, has now been complemented by a digitized version of the poetry manuscripts as they appear in Franklin’s three-volume variorum. Harvard University and Amherst College have jointly issued these poems at This is a relatively uncomplicated database, in which each manuscript can be viewed side by side with its transcription into print, the manuscript placed on the left and the transcription on the right.

Still, a transcription cannot render the whole appearance of the digitized manuscript page to its left. The faintness of the digitized page means that many readers will look first at the printed poem as transcribed. Is there anything to be learned from the manuscript itself that is not evident from the print transcription? I decided to seek out one of my favorite poems, “The Bible is an antique Volume –.” The most intriguing feature of the poem is Dickinson’s repeated rethinking of a crucial element: what quality in a preacher would make unwilling boys want to come to church? Her first adjective for the desired preacher is the rather feeble “thrilling”: 

Had but the Tale a thrilling Teller,
All the Boys would come –
Orpheus’ Sermon captivated –
It did not condemn – 

But after writing the word “thrilling,” and marking it with the miniature plus sign that was her sign for a word she might revise, she appended thirteen possible substitutions for that one word. In Franklin’s printed volume, these thirteen substitutes are run horizontally across the page, separated by small bullets and including a single comment by Franklin in italics and parentheses:

typic • hearty • bonnie • breathless • spacious • tropic • warbling • (written twice) • ardent • friendly • magic • pungent • winning • mellow 

But in the manuscript, they appear below the poem, like this:

typic – hearty – bonnie –
breathless – spacious –
tropic – warbling –
ardent – friendly –
magic – pungent –
warbling – winning –
mellow –

Does the manuscript tell us something that the printed version does not? Is it enough to say “warbling (written twice)” without showing us (as the manuscript does) where it turns up a second time, which might suggest why? (Surely it is not accidental that “warbling” reappears matched with the alliterating “winning.”) All later manuscripts show “warbling” as the sole survivor among the alternatives. Why did “warbling,” twice inscribed in separated lines, win out over the other possibilities?

Dickinson’s alternatives always reveal her successive intellectual positions. “The Bible Is an antique Volume –” (headed, in one version, “Diagnosis of the Bible, by a Boy –”) suggests that the Bible stories could be retold from the pulpit in ways much more interesting than the usual ones. The preacher could draw his boyish audience with adventure-story descriptions of biblical places and people:

Eden – the ancient Homestead –
Satan – the Brigadier –
Judas – the Great Defaulter –
David – the Troubadour – 

These are epithets derived from plot. But in the subsequently added final stanza, with its thirteen possible substitutions for “thrilling,” Dickinson is rebuking her own first notion. She begins to think that manner is more powerful than matter, style more convincing than any rendition of plot. What manner, then, should the Teller adopt if his Tale is to be “captivating”?

Perhaps, she first reflects, the Teller’s manner should be like that of an evangelist bringing the good news: “breathless” and “ardent.” Or warm, like that of a genial leader: “winning,” “friendly,” and “hearty.” Or ripe with experience: “mellow.” Or sophisticated in interpretation: “tropic” and “typic.” Or the Teller need only be good-looking: “bonnie.” Or spell-casting: “magic.” Or rhetorically striking: “thrilling” and “pungent.”

All of these features might be attractive in the pulpit. But they have to do with the conveying of meaning through words (or through personal handsomeness), and that is not, Dickinson reflects, what art is. The art of utterance persuades initially by its music and its rhythm, before semiotic or personal characteristics come into play. And so the preacher must have a manner without words: he must “warble,” not “speak” or even “sing.” Dickinson is remembering Milton’s “L’Allegro,” in which The Happy Man goes to the theater not for plot or character, but to hear Shakespeare “warble his native wood-notes wild.” 

Even so minor an instance as this can reveal to what degree the transcription does not fully reproduce manuscript evidence. (Also, all of Dickinson’s tiny plus signs are dropped, making us lose her little self-suspension: “Think again.”) It is possible to over-interpret the graphic appearance of manuscripts, and a strong cautionary note has been struck in Domhnall Mitchell’s brilliant examination of the evidence in his Measures of Possibility: Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts. Caution should be present in the case of any transcriptions, such as those gathered in the recent New Directions publication by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin under the title The Gorgeous Nothings.

This volume, originally an expensive art book but now mercifully released at an ordinary price, exhibits fifty-two pieces that Dickinson penciled on envelopes or parts of envelopes. Earlier in her life Dickinson chose to discard her drafts once she had carefully made fair copies in ink. Later she tended to keep, on single pages, both the worksheet for a poem and a fair copy of its final form. Finally, from frugality or some unknown motive, she took to opening up and smoothing out envelopes as writing surfaces, sometimes ruling the resulting odd-shaped “page” into two columns, each accommodating a stanza. (Mitchell points out, incidentally, that Dickinson was not alone in writing on used envelope scraps.)

In reproduction, the envelope poems exert a curious fascination, because one never knows how Dickinson will inscribe the poem on these oddly shaped “pages.” Sometimes she tilted a square page into a diamond and wrote from the narrow point down to the wide middle and then all the way down to the bottom point. Such a manuscript, so deliberate in one sense, is so fragmentarily scrawled in pencil that one can hardly believe the intimations of tragedy or comedy in the few but often piercing lines. In The Gorgeous Nothings (the title is borrowed from Dickinson), each envelope poem is photographed and then exactly transcribed by the artist Jen Bervin, who respects Dickinson’s graphic creation of, say, a diamond-shaped poem. 

Some of the envelope fragments display vertical columns of words, with the poem unveiling itself down the page almost word by word. In Franklin’s edition of the poems, we can read Dickinson’s fair copy of #1,594: 

No Life can pompless pass away –
The lowliest career
To the same pageant wends its way
As that exalted here –

(Dickinson noted on the fair copy that she wanted to reverse the order of words in the first verse line, reverting to her draft version: “Pompless no Life can pass away –.”)

On the envelope draft pictured in The Gorgeous Nothings, the penciled poem presents itself atomistically, in single- or two-word units (I have regularized the left-hand margin):

no  Life
can  pass
away –
The lowliest
To  the
same pag-
eant  wends
it’s  way
as   that
here – 

Franklin says of this, “ED jotted potential readings on an envelope.” But what he calls “potential readings” are in fact, with respect to the first stanza, the very words of the poem itself, arranged in columnar fashion. (In Franklin’s defense, I must add that on the envelope the second stanza is only partially formed.)

Looking at the envelope fragment, the eye sees single words taking on an insistent presence. “Pompless” all by itself both adds and subtracts pomp; and how strongly “Exalted” rings out after the colorless monosyllables “wends its way as that” leading up to it. Did Dickinson sometimes “see” her poems unspooling in this word-by-word way, or was she simply constrained by the available space to put so few words on a line?

The virtual destruction of the graphic appearance of the hymn stanza by such isolated placement of words impedes easy metrical recognition, and this is the virtue of inspecting Dickinson’s drafts. Her capital letters reveal that she is conscious of the beginning of each new verse line, as Mitchell points out. Mitchell adds that reading the poems as if Dickinson intended them to be read in this step-by-step way is just as arbitrary as reading them in the poet’s fair copies, where the hymn-meter stanzaic shape is so firmly followed. Yet it is a stimulus to thought to read “Pompless” made monumental on its manuscript page.

Perhaps, for Dickinson, the principal unit of thought in poetic composition was sometimes not the stanza, not even the line, but the individual word. In her famous ars poetica, “Shall I take thee, the Poet said,” Dickinson herself suggests that she took as her unit the word. As the piece opens, we see a poet who, attempting to finish a poem, lacks one necessary word. Although she has in mind a candidate for that space, it does not quite satisfy her. She decides to try more “finely” by searching the dictionary, but finds nothing to her purpose: 

The poet searched Philology
And was about to ring
For the suspended Candidate
There came unsummoned in –

Here we expect the appearance of the mot juste, the result of all that searching. But it was not more ransacking of philology that was needed, but rather more work on understanding and completing the initial imaginative vision that structured the poem. It was not a word that was lacking, but a “portion of the Vision.” Only when the poet returns to her original inspiration, capturing the missing fullness of her Vision, does the sought-for word appear spontaneously, “unsummoned”:

There came unsummoned in –
That portion of the Vision
The Word applied to fill.

Visions, like angels, cannot be willed to appear by a forced summons nominating them as candidates: 

Not unto nomination
The Cherubim reveal – 

The sublime coordination between Vision and language has something unforeseeable about it. The poet must complete her Vision not with a stanza, not with a line, but with a return to the source of the Vision. That exploration is followed by an unexpected but given Word, bestowed by those Cherubim who guard the Ark of the Covenant.

What will we learn about Dickinson as a poet from the new database? The first conclusion—far more visible in the manuscripts than in the print volumes—is how tenaciously she worked on perfecting her nearly two thousand poems. Innumerable instances of revision abound. Each one rethinks the matter or the manner of the poem, but more significantly, each one rethinks an intellectual question. Just as “The Bible is an Antique Volume”—a minor homiletics in itself—redefines what would be persuasive in the mediation of the Bible to the young, so “Shall I take thee” reflects on the premature attempt to force art, insisting on the essential relation between poetry and its initiating “Vision.” Each of these poems end in satisfaction: biblical stories find their musical Orpheus, the struggling Poet’s frustration is relieved.

Further study of Dickinson’s path and procedures in her exact reconsiderations of her first thoughts would afford insight into several aspects of her art: it could pursue her most frequent lines of self-correction—conjecture, denial, refutation, pathos; it could spell out the radiating possibilities of multiple poems constructed by a single word change (fourteen different poems retrospectively constructed by varying the successive adjectives for the persuasive “Teller” in the pulpit); it could illustrate the effect of changing nouns or gender pronouns from masculine to feminine; or it could examine the instances in which Dickinson refuses the sentimental in favor of the truthful. These are only a few illustrations of what the revisions might add to our sense of Dickinson’s creative mind.

Her revisions allow us to admire her lexical fastidiousness as she weighs closely related words. In the strange riddle poem on the Soul (titled “The Spirit” by her first editors, spoiling thereby the reader’s gradual solution of the riddle), should she say “imply” or “denote”? “Designate” or “intimate”? Should she prefer “function” to “customs”? Shall she say “unsurmised thing” or “Apocalyptic thing” or “Hyperbole”? These considerations are minutely related to the supernatural as Dickinson understands it or doubts it. I reproduce her riddle, showing the early choices to the right of the final version, in italics:

’Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe –
’Tis dimmer than a Lace –
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place –
Not any voice imply it here –           denote
Or intimate it there –                         designate
A spirit – how doth it accost –
What function hath the Air?             What customs
This limitless Hyperbole                  And this –  this unsurmised thing  
Each one of us shall be –                  And this –  Apocalyptic thing
’Tis Drama – if Hypothesis              This
It be not Tragedy –

What shall we become after death? A Spirit? A Ghost? A Soul? Dickinson, facing the difficulty of describing something invisible, resorts at first to whimsical comparisons—with the slender white plant called the “Indian Pipe,” with a piece of lace, with a fog. The early comparisons are queried (and replaced) only when the serious topic of voice arises: for a poet, the worst fear is the loss of voice. Dickinson first declares, by rejecting both “denote” and “designate,” that these verbs are too material and positivistic; she finds them unsuited to the ethereality of this spirit and its putative voice. Better to use such verbs as “imply,” which is secretive and tentative, or “intimate,” which whispers and suggests.

When Dickinson imagines the posthumous dwelling of the spirit, she at first domesticates its air-home with an anthropological question: what “customs” has the Air? But she reproaches herself as she admits that customs are enacted materially in social environments; she therefore ascribes to the Air, the future habitation of the spirit, the abstract, unrevealing, even algebraic word “function.” When she comes to describing what survives death, she begins vaguely: the spirit is “an unsurmised thing.” True enough—one can hardly surmise a fog or a function. Her second thought returns to the Bible, her most frequent source; what will the spirit, formerly a temporal thing, become at the end of the world? An “Apocalyptic thing”? But this is to assume what remains to be proved, that there will be an Apocalypse. Leaping to a different level of language altogether—the imaginative linguistic level on which she herself lives—she says the spirit is a “Hyperbole,” a conceptual exaggeration, something to which, on no evidence, we ascribe a “limitless” Eternity. Using the language of prophetic certainty (each one of us “shall” be—not “will” be—this entity), she invokes the Christian suspense of the soul’s immortal destiny—“’Tis Drama”—before appending her subversive skeptical doubt, in which she returns to the rhetorical level of Hyperbole in advancing her grim Hypothesis in which our spirits, not immortal but mortal, are victims in an ineluctable tragedy.

By entering into Dickinson’s revisions, then, we come to a fuller realization of the effort, imaginative and verbal, expended by the poet aspiring to speak truth at the highest degree of precision. Even the smallest changes count: “the spirit,” as it first appears, governs a modern verb (“No stature has it”). As Dickinson advances toward the Christian “Hyperbole,” which bestows immortality on the Soul, she reaches for an archaic Biblical resonance: “how doth it accost – / What function hath the Air?” Coming even closer to the religious supposition of immortality with her prophetic “shall” and the infinity of the adjective “limitless,” she turns the tables on the hyperbolic Christian exaggeration of the human drama, revising it into tragedy.

There are thousands of revisions in the Dickinson archive (and in the variorum volumes that preceded it). It is no offense to a Dickinson poem to read it and no more: we all begin as readers. But Dickinson’s habit of self-correction makes it inevitable that some readers begin to study the poem as well. The Dickinson archive allows her fertile and fluent mind to generate its dissents and assents right before our eyes. The ease of consultation of the digitized Dickinson archive makes repeated forays into it tempting rather than trying. And the beautiful reproduction, on the pages of The Gorgeous Nothings, of what might seem only negligible scraps of waste paper brings us closer to the restlessness of the constantly thinking poet who, in her later years, repeatedly seized her pencil and a fragment of an envelope to write about the lowliest and the most exalted states of being.

Helen Vendler is the A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (Belknap).