Setting Emily

By Kimball, Carol | Journal of Singing, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview

Setting Emily


Kimball, Carol, Journal of Singing


Musicians wrestle everywhere

All day-among the crowded air

I hear the silver strife . . .

-Emily Dickinson1

ENIGMATIC. INTENSE. SECLUDED. PASSIONATE. All these terms could describe poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), now recognized as one of America's most distinguished nineteenth century poets. She chose to live a reclusive life, residing until her death with her parents and her sister Lavinia in the family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Only ten of her poems were published during her lifetime; after her death her sister discovered almost 1,800 manuscript poems and fragments, neatly packaged in stacks and stored in a bureau drawer in her room. Her poetry was largely unknown during her lifetime, and it was not until 1955 that a complete scholarly edition of her collected Poems appeared, followed by her letters, published in 1958.2

Lately, I have had occasion to research the work of American poets. There are many whose poems have ignited the imaginations of art song composers, but perhaps none so consistently as Emily Dickinson. The abundant number of musical settings of her poetry has enriched the American art song repertoire many times over.

What draws composers to her verses? In 1992, Carlton Lowenberg published the results of his research on musical settings of Emily Dickinson; Musicians Wrestle Everywhere identified 1,615 musical settings by 276 composers.3 Since 1992, countless others have been composed, published, and performed. Mezzo soprano Virginia Dupuy writes in an introductory note to her 2004 CD of art songs on Dickinson texts, that through her own collection she has identified over 3,000 settings.4 Now, eight years later, we can only begin to guess at the myriad new art songs being created from Dickinson's abundant catalog of verse. If composers show no signs of tiring of setting Dickinson's poems, one only has to look in any large library's catalogue to see how many literary authors outside the music realm are engaged probing Dickinson's elusive personality and her provocative body of work.

Dickinson's aesthetic remains dramatic and communicative. She wrote lyric verse that was characterized by author Helen McNeil as a process of "passionate investigation."5 Her poems remained in an unchanging form-common meter as generally found in the church hymn stanza. Carolyn Cooley devotes a substantial chapter of her book on Dickinson to the metric schemes of a number of familiar Protestant church hymns, comparing the word stress in some of Dickinson's poems with them. Dickinson tenaciously used the four-line hymn stanza for her poems. Its simple structure balanced with her energetic quicksilver images. Dickinson often spoke of her poems as "hymns," using the terms interchangeably. Her interest in hymns may be traced throughout her letters-this, coupled with "her participation in hymn singing, especially during her formative years, provides ample evidence of the importance of hymnody to Emily Dickinson."6 The influence of hymn meters is apparent in her poetry, but Dickinson transformed them to fit her intricate and rich poetic phrases. Poet Michael Ryan observed: "the variety of the poetry she extracts from a single limited form-a liturgical form (the hymn stanza)-is astonishing."7

In the introduction to her recent book of critical commentaries on 150 selected poems by Dickinson, Helen Vendler writes,

Dickinson the writer: How do we characterize her? She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny-and the list of adjectives could be extended since we have almost 1,800 poems to draw on.8

Despite its four-line structure, Dickinson's poems have an animated character and energy that seem at times quite theatrical. Author E. Miller Budick describes it this way:

The metaphors and images of Dickinson's verse, capitalized and set off by dashes to declare their individuality and self-sufficiency, are in their own right the actors and sets that fill the stage of an intensely immediate drama. …

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