The Texts of Dickinson's Poems and Letters


After Emily Dickinson died, she left behind several drawers full of poems in various states of completion: fair copies, semi-final drafts, and rough drafts, all strangely punctuated and capitalized. Her handwriting is difficult, and many manuscripts list alternate choices for words, lines, and stanzas. In the 1890s, T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd began publishing some of her poems in First Series (1890), Second Series (1891), and, by Mrs. Todd alone, Third Series (1896); these volumes included 449 poems. In order to create popular public acceptance, they often corrected grammar, conventionalized punctuation, improved rhymes, omitted stanzas, and supplied titles. In succeeding decades, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and A. L. Hampson edited several more small volumes and then collected many of the remaining poems into The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 1937. They took fewer liberties with the texts, but they misread many words in the manuscripts. In 1945, Millicent Todd Bingham issued her completion of her mother, M. L. Todd's, editing of another 668 poems, under the title Bolts of Melody, a carefully edited but also repunctuated text. (To repunctuate Dickinson is often to re-interpret her poems.) In 1955, Thomas H. Johnson edited from all known manuscripts The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Including Variant Readings. This edition, known as the Johnson text, attempted to report the manuscripts with complete accuracy and arranged the poems according to their dates of composition, as estimated by Emily Dickinson's changing handwriting, which helped establish Dickinson's yearly rates of composition. This volume also supplied poem numbers which are now almost universally used with first lines to identify each poem. This edition contains 1775 poems and fragments. When faced with textual variants, Johnson chose words and lines listed first, but he reported all the others in footnotes. In 1960, Johnson simplified the variorum edition into a single volume, reader's edition, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, recently reissued in a reduced-type paperback edition. The single volume edition occasionally departs from the textual choices of the variorum. In 1961, Johnson issued Final Harvest, a selection of 575 poems. Early printings of the one-volume edition and of Final Harvest contain a number of misprints. As for Dickinson's letters, a body of work which many critics believe to be as valuable as her poetry because of its imagery and ideas, two editions of selections from Emily Dickinson's letters appeared under M. L. Todd's editorship in 1894 and 1931. In 1958, T. H. Johnson gathered all known letters into the three-volume The Letters of Emily Dickinson. A number of the best known early critical essays on Emily Dickinson, including those by Conrad Aiken, Allen Tate, and Yvor Winters, quote from the sometimes mangled pre-Johnson texts. Most contemporary anthologies employ the Johnson texts, but the earlier editions still reside on library shelves and two selections of Emily Dickinson's poems that remain in print, edited respectively by R. N. Linscott and J. M. Brinnin, use pre-Johnson texts either wholly or substantially, sometimes misleadingly for the reader.

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