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Emily Dickinson and consciousness

Updated on March 6, 2017
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Linguist, specialized in American English and psycholinguistics; inventor of Language Mapping, a generative grammar; author and translator.

It is no longer as strange today for a woman to live on her own, or by a family — we might try to tell, except it was not as strange in Emily Dickinson's time, either. Well, a divorcee is more of a change since her times than a bachelorette.

The odd, the unusual, or maybe even the uneasy comes with her poetry interpretations that yet might yield, under a view to the poetic worktable.

"Idiosyncratic vocabulary"

“The extensive use of dashes and unconventional capitalization in Dickinson’s manuscripts, and the idiosyncratic vocabulary and imagery, combine to create a body of work that is far more various in its styles and forms than is commonly supposed”, says Wikipedia. There are more authors with similar impressions.

We do not have interviews with Emily Dickinson. She did not leave a memoir, and of poetry, "we have what we take": there is no universal key to interpret verse.

Therefore, let me present what I like as well as what I see about Emily Dickinson's poetry. It could not be only me to be able to perceive.

Latin and Greek

Where some readers would see a mystic, otherworldly imagery, or idiosyncratic word choices, other people might discern crafty inspiration with Latin and Greek.

The inspiration is morpho-phonemic. The words have a morpheme in common. Here, the morpheme is -lus-. Probably, Emily Dickinson arranged words and morphemes to make short, versed impressions.

Latin: collusor, companion at play; condiscipulus, school-mate; angelus, a messenger, an angel; lapillus, small stone, pebble; lusus, a game; Greek: ὁμηλυσία, omelusia, companionship.


God permits industrious angels
Afternoons to play.
I met one, — forgot my school-mates,
All, for him, straightway.

God calls home the angels promptly
At the setting sun;
I missed mine. How dreary marbles,
After playing Crown!

Intellect and education

Emily Dickinson definitely had the intellect and education to use morphemes. She learned English and classical literatures, Latin, Greek, botany, geology, history, arithmetic, and "mental philosophy," as Wikipedia yet cautiously puts in quotes.

The inspiration is actually a technique, if to compare other pieces, moreover, mostly mildly humorous.


‘T was such a little, little boat
That toddled down the bay!
‘T was such a gallant, gallant sea
That beckoned it away!

‘T was such a greedy, greedy wave
That licked it from the coast;
Nor ever guessed the stately sails
My little craft was lost!

Greek: ἀνάπλυσις, anaplusis, washing or rinsing out; ἀνήλυσις, anelusis, going up, return; ἤλυσις, elusis, step, gait; Latin: lenunculus, a small sailing-vessel, bark, skiff (the toddling little boat).

Morpheme -ypo-

Greek: ἰσότυπος, isotypos, shaped alike; συνυπόπτωσις, synypoptosis, simultaneous presentation to the senses; ποπτερνίς, upopternis, knob (a kind of a button that can twirl, in the modern use); πo, upo, below, looking a picture up and down (as Brazil on a map); Latin: cauponarius, a male shopkeeper, tradesman.

First Series, Life, XII, I asked no other thing

I asked no other thing,
No other was denied.
I offered Being for it;
The mighty merchant smiled.

Brazil? He twirled a button,
Without a glance my way:
“But, madam, is there nothing else
That we can show to-day?”

The definite and indefinite article

Where some readers would seek Emily Dickinson's delectation with death, or imply hauteur over Christianity and resurrection, others might focus on the definite and indefinite grammatical articles.

First Series, Time and Eternity, XXVI, Lost

I lost a world the other day.
Has anybody found?
You'll know it by the row of stars
Around its forehead bound.

A rich man might not notice it;
Yet to my frugal eye
Of more esteem than ducats.
Oh, find it, sir, for me!

The phrase I lost a world does not proclaim the end of the world.

And thus we might argue, a look of agony (First Series, Time and Eternity, Real) rejects fondness: we would have the look of agony, then.

The phrase the members of the resurrection (First Series, Time and Eternity, Safe in their alabaster chambers) localizes an event, and all the people supposed to be resurrected, according to the Christian creed, could not be stated to have been already born, today as well as in Emily Dickinson's times.

Ex libris

Where some readers would suspect emotional imbalance or neurosis, others could bring to mind an ex libris and book ownership.

First Series, Love, Mine!

Mine by the right of the white election!
Mine by the royal seal!
Mine by the sign in the scarlet prison
Bars cannot conceal!

Mine, here in vision and in veto!
Mine, by the grave’s repeal
Titled, confirmed,-— delirious charter!
Mine, while the ages steal!

The white vote was that of approval in ancient Greece, which in matters of the state had to be affirmed by the prytaneis. To Emily Dickinson, the pleasure of reading was yet not so political: the stamp also gets compared to a royal seal.

Webster 1828

Webster 1828 to have the entry God in its content would be a natural association, where some readers would accuse the poet of some unprecedented conceit that assumed pleasing God and alleged insensitivity about an earthly lover.

However, there certainly never have been people as poor as to make gifts of dust. Rather, the context was work in the home library, and surrendering to household chores: there are no "dim people" in Emily Dickinson's poetry altogether, and print happens to go pale, with time.

First Series, Love, Surrender

Doubt me, my dim companion!
Why, God would be content
With but a fraction of the love
Poured thee without a stint.
The whole of me, forever,
What more the woman can, —
Say quick, that I may dower thee
With last delight I own!

It cannot be my spirit,
For that was thine before;
I ceded all of dust I knew, —
What opulence the more
Had I, a humble maiden,
Whose farthest of degree
Was that she might,
Some distant heaven,
Dwell timidly with thee!

"Unconventional capitalization"

Did Emily Dickinson really write about special Bees, special Birds, or special Ears? Let us have a look at the spelling conventions she certainly was aware of: those in the Declaration of Independence as in Dunlap layout, and as in the Constitution, John Carter print.

"WHEN in the Course of human Events, it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the Earth, the separate and equal Station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that they should declare the Causes which impel them to the Separation."

The Declaration spelling capitalizes nouns, nominal phrases, and forms to derive from nouns, or nominals generally. The print style was widely known to the public.

Let us compare the Constitution. It has a clear pattern for proper nouns.

"WE, the PEOPLE of the UNITED STATES, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."

Safe in their alabaster chambers, Wikisource

In the light, the spelling as we can see it today for finished forms of Emily Dickinson's poetry might be purposed grotesque, or... a misrepresentation.

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers —
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon —
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection —
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them —
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence —
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

The “spelling idiosyncrasies” first appeared with the Johnson print of 1955, based on a collection that came to Harvard in 1950, as a gift from Gilbert H. Montague. Amherst College received a collection from Millicent Todd Bingham, in 1956.

Houghton archive for Emily Dickinson
Houghton archive for Emily Dickinson | Source

A true written piece

In the Houghton collection, there is a document that looks Emily Dickinson's hand really. And this document lets doubt, if the marked spaces are hyphens. They look a graphemic emphasis on rhythm, if we consider the entire sheet.


The markings belong well with the habit of the hand. We can see them around the name of the addressee, Suε. This habit has an open ε that closes for sibilant clusters, for example. We can compare diadεms, Dogεs, and soundless.

Evidently, spoken language mattered in Emily Dickinson’s notation.

Safe in their alabaster chambers, autograph.
Safe in their alabaster chambers, autograph. | Source

The morphophonemics

Generally, morpho-phonemics is about speech sound qualities and syllables: what happens when speech sounds come into vicinity one with another, or how syllabic roles may change with function as speech parts, if we compare the noun a record and the verb to record, for example.

Language morphology does not require words of another tongue, though inspiration as we have seen above probably encouraged notation.

The big letters in preliminary, draft shapes of Emily Dickinson's verse look a marking on morphophonemics. I do not believe they were intended for capital letters literally, for finished poetry shapes.

Let us stay with the handwritten graphite. We can try to perceive the vowels in the capitalized words, as well as the alternate letter shape ε. For punctuation, the draft has only one comma.

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,
Untouched by morning _
And untouched by noon _
Lie the meek members of
the Rεsurrεction _
Rafter of Satin _ and Roof of stone _

Phonetics was studied already in Antiquity. Of times contemporary to Emily Dickinson, Robert Willis and Ludimar Hermann remain of reknown. R as a speech sound has usually been of focus to poets. A conscious poet also would take vowel positions into account. Importantly, a simple vowel chart could do.

Grand go the years _ in the
Crεscent _ above them;
Worlds scoop their Arcs _
And Firmaments _ row _
Diadεms _ drop _ and Dogεs _
Soundless as dots _ on a
Disk of snow _

Phonemically, the piece begins with emphasizing the low [æ], elaborates on the mid [ε], accentuates the high [i:], rests on the high [u], and resolves on mid [o], leaving it maybe to some critics to wonder, why a human being might perceive the piece for some art of the tongue, also naturally and without special schooling.

I like the obvious consciousness on the part of Emily Dickinson. It can come only with work on skill. However, for jotting things down, she would use any scrap of paper. "It is impossible for any transcription of these fragments to capture the important details of how Dickinson originally laid out her poetry on the page," we can learn from Amherst College.

The graphemics of the T

The most visual reservation on the donated papers will probably always remain the letter T: it does not make the picture. There have been theories on Emily Dickinson's deteriorating eyesight, yet the handwriting does not become enlarged, or the letters separated. The contrary, the style of the hand in the donated material is more concise.

Graphemics of T, photo 1, graphite autograph


Graphemics of T, photo 2, donated ink copy


Graphemics of T, photo 3, first print autograph facsimile

Houghton archive for Emily Dickinson
Houghton archive for Emily Dickinson | Source

Emily Dickinson made spare copies?

Regarding the reported and documented lack of a firm sentiment for stationery on the part of Emily Dickinson, it is very difficult to believe she would have just copied her verse.

The Houghton archive has two copies of Too late, F67A and F67B. They both differ from the Higginson-Todd print in one word, JOY instead of GLEE.

Not even a student of no talent or skill would re-write a work entire keeping one-word differences only. Such behavior is known as graphomania.

Let us compare the Higginson-Todd, that is, the first print.

Delayed till she had ceased to KNOW,
Delayed till in its vest of SNOW
Her loving bosom lay.
An hour behind the fleeting BREATH,
Later by just an hour than DEATH,
Oh, lagging yesterday!

Could she have guessed that it WOULD BE;
Could but a crier of the GLEE
Have climbed the distant hill;
Had not the bliss so slow a PACE,—
Who knows but this surrendered FACE
Were undefeated still?

The Houghton copies have the word JOY in the place of GLEE. Looking to the vocalic contour, JOY was bound to go anyway. GLEE is a close synonym, easy to find. Even for cases of poetic indecision, I do not imagine that merely copying might help resolve on the language content.

Could she have guessed that it WOULD BE;
Could but a crier of the JOY (?)
Have climbed the distant hill;
Had not the bliss so slow a PACE,—
Who knows but this surrendered FACE
Were undefeated still?

Higginson-Todd was not a perfect print, but it is all we have for real

A philologist, I cannot have trust in the donated material. For the first print, Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis-Todd knew Emily Dickinson's notation. However we cannot stay by the Higginson-Todd stanza, as it looks schematic, it shows that the two did not intend to re-edit Emily Dickinson's verse.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis-Todd obviously were capable of telling stanzas, commas, semi-colons, and periods. Rather, they left out the draft features and let the form be, as far as it was fair to the author. I mean, it would not seem fair, to put out an old sketch book, on anyone. Emily Dickinson was unable to prepare her pieces for print, owing to a physical condition on her health.

We can think about a thematic stanza for Emily Dickinson's verse, regarding her poetry a stylistic entity.


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