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The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) Paperback – October 12, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From Rachel Wetzsteon’s introduction to The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson

            Emily Dickinson, writing to the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson in July 1862, reported that she “had no portrait,” but offered the following description in place of one: “Small, like the Wren, and my Hair is bold, like the Chestnut Bur—and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves—Would this do just as well?” (Selected Letters, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, p. 175; see “For Further Reading”). Despite Dickinson’s claim, we do possess one photograph of her—a daguerreotype taken in 1847 or 1848, when she was in her late teens. The image certainly confirms her self-portrait: Her frame is tiny; her shiny hair does indeed sit boldly atop her head; and her dark eyes really do glisten like liquor at the bottom of a glass.

The photograph also suggests many of the rich puzzles and paradoxes that have informed our view of Dickinson since the last decade of the nineteenth century, when readers and critics began to read, study, and obsess over her poems. Dickinson’s body, with its delicate hands and slender torso, may resemble the fragile form of someone too weak to venture far from home; but her huge moist eyes stare at us with the wisdom, depth, and longing of a woman who has traveled around the world and come back with stories, not all of them fit for mixed company. She demurely clutches a bouquet of flowers, and a book rests primly at her side; but her full, sensuous lips reveal a person whose thoughts may not always tend toward such tidy subjects as flowers and books. We look away from the photograph intrigued and stirred: What’s going on in her mind? How could this slight figure be the author of some of the most passionate love poems, the most searing descriptions of loss, the most haunting religious lyrics ever written?

            Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on December 10, 1830, the middle child of Edward and Emily Norcross Dickinson; her brother, Austin, was born in 1829 and her sister, Lavinia, in 1833. Her father, a lawyer, served as treasurer of Amherst College (her grandfather was a co-founder of the college), and also occupied important positions on the General Court of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts State Senate, and the United States House of Representatives. “His Heart,” Dickinson wrote in a letter, “was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists” (Letters, p. 223). He was strictly religious (something she would later rebel against), leading the family prayers every day and often censoring her reading; but he also ensured that Dickinson grew up in a household surrounded by books and heated intellectual debates. Her mother was a more shadowy presence; Dickinson wrote that she “does not care for thought” (Letters, p. 173); more harshly, she claimed, “I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled” (Letters, vol. 2, p. 475). Even so, the Dickinsons remained an extremely close-knit family; after her brother, Austin, married, he and his wife settled right next door.

            Dickinson attended the coeducational Amherst Academy from the ages of ten to seventeen, and then went on to the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) in nearby South Hadley. She blossomed there into a social and spirited young woman. The most significant event of her stay occurred at a fundamentalist Calvinist revival meeting, when she was asked to stand and declare herself a Christian and refused. After one year at Mount Holyoke she returned in 1948 to Amherst, where she remained, apart from brief trips to Boston, Cambridge, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., for the rest of her life.

            At school and at home, Dickinson received an excellent education. At the Amherst Academy alone she studied the arts, English literature, rhetoric, philosophy, Latin, French, German, history, geography, classics, and the Bible; she also received a firm grounding in the sciences, mathematics, geology, botany, natural history, physiology, and astronomy. At home the Dickinsons’ large and varied library included books by Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, Longfellow, Shakespeare, Keats, the Brownings, the Brontës, and George Eliot, along with Noah Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language—which for Dickinson would prove one of the most important books of all—and a healthy dose of newspapers and romance novels.

            During her early twenties, Dickinson began to dress in white, to leave her house only on rare occasions, and to restrict the circle of her acquaintances until it numbered just a few people. Often speaking to visitors through a screen or from an adjoining room, she soon developed a reputation as a town eccentric. The young Mabel Loomis Todd, having recently moved to Amherst with her husband, David, remarked in a letter to her parents about a strange resident:

 

I must tell you about the character of Amherst. It is a lady whom all the people call the Myth. She is a sister of Mr. Dickinson, & seems to be the climax of all the family oddity. She has not been outside her house in fifteen years, except once to see a new church, when she crept out at night, & viewed it by moonlight. No one who calls upon her mother & sister ever sees her, but she allows little children once in a great while, & one at a time, to come in, when she gives them cake or candy, or some nicety, for she is very fond of little ones. But more often she lets down the sweetmeat by a string, out of a window, to them. She dresses wholly in white, & her mind is said to be perfectly wonderful. She writes finely, but no one ever sees her. Her sister . . . invited me to come & sing to her mother sometime. . . . People tell me the myth will hear every note—she will be near, but unseen. . . . Isn’t that like a book? So interesting (Farr, Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, p. 20).

           

One can hardly blame Todd for being fascinated by such an unusual “character.” But unfortunately, the “myth” she takes such pleasure in describing influenced our later notions of Dickinson much too heavily. Despite her seclusion, a large number of prominent figures came and went through her house. She also developed deep, though largely epistolary, friendships with several people: the clergyman Charles Wadsworth, whom she met in Philadelphia and described as her “dearest earthly friend”; Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican; and Judge Otis Phillips Lord of Salem, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • Series: Barnes & Noble Classics
  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Barnes & Noble Classics; First Edition edition (October 12, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1593080506
  • ISBN-13: 978-1593080501
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #134,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

63 of 65 people found the following review helpful By maeksevhin on January 9, 2008
Format: Paperback
NOTE:This is basically a cut & paste of my review of the hardcover edition of this collection. This one suffers the same problem, and I hope that anyone who has any interest in Dickinson will please look elsewhere.

This Barnes & Noble released collection of the poems of Emily Dickinson is fine except for one very, very important fact: Whoever put it together took the liberty of "correcting" Ms. Dickinson's punctuation.

For anyone who has read and is familiar with Dickinson, you are well aware that she seemingly capitalized at random, often doing it to words in the middle of sentences,etc. that on the surface level have no meaning to the poem itself. But they off some insight into her mind and without them, these are not the poems that Dickinson created.

Imagine "correcting" poems by e.e. cummings, you just don't "fix" the work of poets. Often times, central themes and ideas are expressed not only through the words themselves, but through means and devices in which the poet has utilized those words, such as capitalization. This collection takes this very important element away from Dickinson's work.

For example, one of her more famous poems SHOULD look like this:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll --
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Oddsfish VINE VOICE on March 24, 2013
Format: Paperback
I will be honest--I had never just loved Emily Dickinson before I read this volume. I'd covered her in a quite a few classes I've taken, read all of the typical highlights, and I'd often found the rhyme and rhythms of her language repetitive and the images obvious and dull.

I thought she deserved another chance, though, seeing as she's Emily Dickinson, and so I've been slowly reading my way through this volume of verse, taking my time and rereading if something struck me.

A lot of things struck me, much more than I'll cover here. Mainly, the "repetitive" sound of the language became, paradoxically, much less repetitive and full of variant beauties to me. And it set off her poetry in this stark and heightened space for me. The more I read it, the more it allowed the images to speak.

And the images do speak, often quite surprisingly. And I found myself drawn into Dickinson's endless questioning, her search for joy, and her capacity for reverence.

XCVII

TO make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,--
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By K. McKenna on December 25, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is good for someone who just wants to read some good poetry. However, to truly get the experience of Dickinson's intention, one should buy an unaltered version. This is one with edited versions of her poems.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By BlackJack21 on May 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
Emily Dickinson's expressional language of yesteryear is still the je ne sais quoi of today. The genius that comes forth from her consciousness seems rather simplistic at first, but when you truly contemplate her writing style true enlightenment develops in what I'd refer to as the dimensions of humanity. These dimensions consist of the soul (psyche,) the spirit (nous,) and the body (soma).
I don't think there is anyone who could read Dickinson's poems and not have these dimensions of the self-affected.
A case in point: one of her poems goes like this.

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And Sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

This is one of her most recited poems to date. I sometimes wonder how most people would interpret it?
How I ascertain it is in this contexts. I believe it's about a bird that with a little help will be able to withstand the evening chill.
On it's own, it wants to persevere no matter what the odds, but the pangs of the world rest upon its shoulders.
The bottom line is that the bird needs support.
This bird is the mother of baby chicks who are in disparate need of nurturing, and protection simply because the dead of night is creating trepidations in their souls.
For you see, without trust there is no hope. That is why hope is a thing with feathers because the bird represents a better tomorrow. A tomorrow that will come someday. It will be a day when we can all freely trust one another.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Randi Olson Cline on October 15, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Emily Dickinson happens to be my favorite poet so I have several books versions of her poetry. I like this cover the best. The color green is prettier than what it appears to be in this picture.
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