Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading
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How do we know that Emily Dickinson wrote poems? How do we recognize a poem when we see one? In Dickinson's Misery, Virginia Jackson poses fundamental questions about reading habits we have come to take for granted. Because Dickinson's writing remained largely unpublished when she died in 1886, decisions about what it was that Dickinson wrote have been left to the editors, publishers, and critics who have brought Dickinson's work into public view. The familiar letters, notes on advertising fliers, verses on split-open envelopes, and collections of verses on personal stationery tied together with string have become the Dickinson poems celebrated since her death as exemplary lyrics.
Jackson makes the larger argument that the century and a half spanning the circulation of Dickinson's work tells the story of a shift in the publication, consumption, and interpretation of lyric poetry. This shift took the form of what this book calls the "lyricization of poetry," a set of print and pedagogical practices that collapsed the variety of poetic genres into lyric as a synonym for poetry.
Featuring many new illustrations from Dickinson's manuscripts, this book makes a major contribution to the study of Dickinson and of nineteenth-century American poetry. It maps out the future for new work in historical poetics and lyric theory.
figures like Tate and Winters (poet-critics who did), was more recently a schism caused by literary theory, Stewart explicitly opposes her project to de Man’s. In a long footnote, Stewart counters de Man’s argument that “the linguistic basis of … anthropomorphization is always a kind of defacement, inadequate to its object,” by writing that she “would argue that this approach constantly reinscribes the very allegory it seeks to discover” (341–42, n. 107). CHAPTER THREE: DICKINSON’S FIGURE OF
concerns parallel my own, he ends by emphasizing, rather than qualifying, the self-enclosure of the poems: what Dickinson “requires above all,” Benfey writes, “is that something about her, or in her, remain hidden from the view of others. It is the terrible exposure of existence that appalls her” (62). 20. Percy Lubbock, “Determined Little Anchoress,” 114. Lubbock’s review is of both Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Conrad Aiken (London: Jonathan Cape, 1924), and The Life and Letters of
the Attic (620). In her consideration of Dickinson against the background of nineteenth-century women writers, Joanne Dobson has suggested a closer or less ironic relation between Dickinson and her sentimental contemporaries, yet her stress remains on Dickinson’s eccentric departure from those contemporaries’ conventions: “her intensely idiosyncratic reconstruction of received feminine images constitutes at once an attraction to and a critique of those modes of being, suggesting a deeply rooted
its addressee precisely because its literal referent was enclosed in the envelope: They have a little odor That to me is metre, nay ’tis poesy And spiciest at fading celebrate A habit of a laureate. (F 505)9 If Vanderbilt understood the wit of the lines in relation to an enclosed bouquet from Dickinson’s garden or conservatory, then how do we understand the lines without the enclosure? Dickinson herself opened the question when she copied the lines into a fascicle (fig. 13), though of
reader of that writing but the readers deferred, future critics of Emily Dickinson would do well to notice that there are more than two pairs of hands complicit in this startling figure of address. Reading Emily Dickinson here and now, ours are the unseen hands most deeply “committed”: they are doing the cutting. Whether a literary text always reaches its destination or whether it has always already gone astray, whether Dickinson wrote letters or Dickinson wrote poems, it is worth returning to