Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise

Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise

Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise

Emily Dickinson's Poetry: Stairway of Surprise

Excerpt

More than seventy years ago in the remote New England village of Amherst a little lady died at the age of fifty-five, unknown to the world and undreamed of as one of America's great poets. During Emily Dickinson's lifetime only seven of her poems had been published, and though a fairly large number had been shown to friends these were mostly light nature pieces, elegies, and expressions of thanks or sympathy, along with a fraction of her best work. Even the family was completely unprepared for the surprise discovery at her death in 1886. Her sister found hidden away in her bureau a mass of nearly two thousand manuscript poems, many of them copied out neatly in little 'volumes' and the rest in every imaginable state of composition, some revised, some unfinished, and some just fragments. This poetic legacy she described as her 'Letter to the World' that never wrote to her--namely, posterity.

The first problem in bridging the gap between a 'private poet' and her posthumous audience was an editorial one. How could these miscellaneous manuscripts be brought within the conventions of printing and made accessible to the modern reader, yet with all their uniqueness preserved? During the first half century after her death they were published piece-meal and inaccurately in a bewildering series of installments-- probably the most unfortunate publication history in modern literary annals, but too well known to need rehearsing here. Then at long last, in 1955, a complete scholarly edition was issued that resolves the problem of a definitive text as well as can be hoped for, though it still leaves some . . .

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