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Teresa Pelka

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Why I doubt the handwritten Emily Dickinson
by Teresa Pelka   
Rated "G" by the Author.
Last edited: Tuesday, February 10, 2015
Posted: Tuesday, February 10, 2015

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Emily Dickinson's poetry is not about special Bees, special Brids, or special Ears.

Mostly everybody is concerned if what he or she reads is an original piece by the author. If we care to read poems by Emily Dickinson, we want them to be verse by the Ms. Dickinson, not by some Who-Knows. For my translations, I decided to stay by the Higginson-Todd print.

Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, writes Wikipedia to add: A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson.

The Johnson inspired comments on an "idiosyncratic" nature of Emily Dickinson's writing. That owing to the dashes and big letters found in handwritten copies of her verse. Let us have a look. This is the material the Johnsonian approach based on.

Draft 1The dashes are not hyphens. They look graphemic markings for rhythm.

The graphemic dash

Photos 1 and 1a: Houghton F124C; a draft of Safe in their alabaster chambers.

The markings belong well with the habit of the hand. We can see them around the name of the addressee, Suz. This habit has an open e that closes for sibilant clusters, for example. We can compare diadems, Doges, and soundless. I do not mean Emily Dickinson wanted to be a phonetician. Spoken language mattered in her notation; the habit of the hand needed to be strong. The strength is not in calligraphy. It is in grasping language. The more extensive the grasp, the stronger the habit. Emily Dickinson definitely was a person of a vast linguistic prowess.


A comparison of a handwritten copy gives a strange result, in the light. The copy is the Houghton F124B. The verse continues to be Safe in their alabaster chambers.


Photo 2: Houghton F124B, Safe in their alabaster chambers, re-written clean.

The habit of the hand does not have the characteristic T, and the copy is closer to a fair copy. If we humans happen to go careless, it is with drafts, not fair copies. We can focus on the draft T in photo 1.


The character T belonged well with presentable material to Ms. Todd and Mr. Higginson.

Graphemics of T__3

Mr. Higginson and Ms. Todd knew the ways Emily Dickinson communicated, her writing manner. Mr. Johnson's approach to a sample as in photo 2 would try to send us looking for not only special Alabaster, Firmaments, or Arcs, but also for special Bees, Birds, or even Ears. Was the first print a "heavy edit"? Mr. Higginson and Ms. Todd did not "correct" the articles, for example. They ignored the draft handwritten features. Emily Dickinson's poetry is morphophonemically aware. I write about it in my book afterword. The capitalization looks a phonemic marking. The Johnson edit would be actually heavier, in its mistaking graphemic and phonemic notation for punctuation and capitalization.

The inconsistency in the letter shape T is probably the most conspicuous, and it puts the veracity of the handwritten material to doubt. Emily Dickinson's writings became popular very fast. There was no silver casket with a big lock and a guard to mind the manuscripts. Let us look to a very strange thing with two more samples.


Photos 4 and 5. Houghton F67A and F67B; Too late.

The copies show the text re-written, F67A having the words joy and remaining, and F67B only the word joy inconsistent with the Higginson-Todd print. The word joy might have occurred in some preliminary form for the poem. Looking to the rhyme and rhythm, it was bound to go, anyway.


Importantly, joy and glee are closely synonymous. Finding the synonym could not have been difficult to the author. Why re-write the whole lot with one word only from some draft? The real question obviously is: can we believe Emily Dickinson did it? The final and most obvious questions: have the manuscripts been analyzed with C14? It can be used on written works, not only objects of archeology. The analysis does not take the whole lot, and the paper looks good, for the time span: was it a special low ph paper Emily Dickinson had?

My decision is to stay by the Higginson-Todd print. To a philologist, translating a fake is a kind of professionally suicide. I am not interested in committing any suicide. On the other hand, you cannot exclude poetry from translation, because there is doubt on the manuscript. I may agree with the opinion that the first print division into stanzas looks arbitrary, sometimes. Only the author would have the right to revise on it, however. I do not slice the text at all. To me, it reads even better, flowing free. Emily Dickinson's phonemics extends beyond the traditional stanza, and I suspect she might have written part her verse in the free-flow, but it was too much against the conventions of the times and could not get printed that way. Free-flow is absolutely consistent with the standards of the present. The reader, if he or she pleases so, may divide the verse into stanzas on his or her own: I do not feel entitled (and why should I do anything the reader would not do?) To me, Emily Dickinson's poetry is not possibly about special Bees, Birds, or Ears, when we look to word sense, anyway.

Teresa Pelka, After Years Not a Hundred.





Web Site: Poetry by Emily Dickinson

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Reviewed by Ronald Hull 2/11/2015
A very detailed analysis for those interested in linguistics, handwriting, Emily Dickinson, and poetry.


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