Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading

Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading

by Virginia Jackson

ISBN: 9780691119915

Publisher Princeton University Press

Published in Nonfiction/Women's Studies, Literature & Fiction/Poetry, Literature & Fiction/Historical

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Sample Chapter

Chapter One


SUPPOSE YOU ARE sorting through the effects of a woman who has just died and you find in her bedroom a locked wooden box. You open the box and discover hundreds of folded sheets of stationery stitched together with string. Other papers in the bureau drawer are loose, or torn into small pieces, occasionally pinned together; there is writing on a guarantee issued by the German Student Lamp Co., on memo paper advertising THE HOME INSURANCE CO. NEW YORK ("Cash Assets, over SIX MILLION DOLLARS"), on many split-open envelopes, on a single strip three-quarters of an inch wide by twenty-one inches long, on thin bits of butcher paper, on a page inscribed "Specimen of Penmanship" (which is then crossed out) (fig. 1). There is writing clustered around a three-cent postage stamp of a steam engine turned on its side, which secures two magazine clippings bearing the names "GEORGE SAND" and "Mauprat." Suppose that you recognize the twined pages as sets of poems; you decide that the other pages may contain poems as well. Now you wish you had kept the bundles of letters you burned upon the poet's (for it was a poet's) death. What remains, you decide, must be published.

Let this exercise in supposing stand as some indication of what now, more than a century after the scene in which you have just been asked to place yourself, can and cannot be imagined about reading Emily Dickinson. What we cannot do is to return to a moment before Dickinson's work became literature, to discover within the everyday remnants of a literate life the destiny of print. Yet we are still faced with discerning, within the mass of print that has issued from that moment, what it was that Dickinson wrote. As many readers have noticed (or complained), the hermeneutic legacy of Dickinson's posthumous publication is also first of all a "sorting out": so J. V. Cunningham remarked after what he diplomatically called "an authoritative diplomatic text" of Dickinson's extant corpus appeared for the first time in 1955, that "it is easier to hold in mind and sort out the plays of Shakespeare or the novels of George Eliot, for they have scope and structure." In the pages that follow, Cunningham's response will come to seem symptomatic of the century's ongoing attempt to construct the scope of Dickinson's work, to make out of the heterogeneous materials of her practice a literature "to hold in mind" and to hand down-to sort her various pages into various poems, those various poems into a book.

But what sort of book? The frustration of readers like Cunningham is also their invitation, for the syntax perceived as missing from the "almost 1,800 items in the collected poems" is theirs to supply. We might say of the range of Dickinson's texts considered together what Norman Bryson says of the objects in trompe l'oeil painting, that they may "present themselves as outside the orbit of human awareness, as unorganised by human attention, or as abandoned by human attention, or as endlessly awaiting it." Yet of course what this comparison to painting suggests is that such an effect is just that: Dickinson's "items" have been successively and carefully framed to give the impression that something, or someone, is missing. While the recovery of Dickinson's manuscripts may be supposed to have depended on the death of the subject, on the person who had, by accident or design, composed the scene, the repeated belated "discovery" that her work is yet in need of sorting (and of reading) may also depend upon the absence of the objects that composed it. These objects themselves mark not only the absence of the person who touched them but the presence of what touched that person: of the stationer that made the paper, of the manufacturer and printer and corporation that issued guarantees and advertisements and of the money that changed hands, of the butcher who wrapped the parcel, of the manuals and primers and copybooks that composed individual literacy, of the expanding postal service, of the modern railroad, of modern journalism, of the nineteenth-century taste for continental literary imports. All of these things are the sorts of things left out of a book, since the stories to be told about them open out away from the narrative of individual creation or individual reception supposed by my first paragraph. This is to say that what is so often said of the grammatical and rhetorical structure of Dickinson's poems-that, as critics have variously put it, the poetry is "sceneless," is "a set of riddles" revolving around an "omitted center," is a poetry of "revoked ... referentiality"-can more aptly be said of the representation of the poems as such. Once gathered as the previously ungathered, reclaimed as the abandoned, given the recognition they so long awaited, the poems in bound volumes appear both redeemed and revoked from their scenes or referents, from the history that the book, as book, omits.

Take for example the second number in the "authoritative diplomatic text" to which Cunningham referred, Thomas H. Johnson's The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Including variant readings critically compared with all known manuscripts. The poem is printed, with its comparative manuscript note, as follows:

2 There is another sky, Ever serene and fair, And there is another sunshine, Though it be darkness there; Never mind faded forests, Austin, Never mind silent fields- Here is a little forest, Whose leaf is ever green; Here is a brighter garden, Where not a frost has been; In its unfading flowers I hear the bright bee hum; Prithee, my brother, Into my garden come! MANUSCRIPT: These lines conclude a letter, written on 17 October 1851, to her brother Austin. ED made no line division, and the text does not appear as verse. The line arrangement and capitalization of first letters in the lines are here arbitrarily established.

Once "arbitrarily established" as a lyric in 1955, these lines attracted a number of close readings-the response a lyric often invited after the middle of the twentieth century. By 1980, the lines had circulated for a quarter of a century as "a love poem with a female speaker," which is to say that they were read according to a theory of their genre that included the idea of a fictive lyric persona. Feminist criticism took up the problem of metaphorical gender in the lines, and several critics placed them back into the context of the letter to Austin, but after its publication as a lyric, the lines were not again interpreted (at least in print) as anything else (though they had been published as prose in 1894, 1924, and 1931-and were again published as a poem "in prose form" in Johnson's own edition of Dickinson's letters in 1958).

In 1998, Harvard issued a new edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in both variorum and "reading" versions, now more authoritative and more diplomatic, thanks to the detailed textual scholarship of R. W. Franklin. Franklin's edition does not include the end of Dickinson's 1851 letter to her brother as one of the 1,789 poems in the reading edition, but he does list it in the variorum in an appendix of "some prose passages in Emily Dickinson's early letters [that] exhibit characteristics of verse without being so written" (F, 1578). As the manuscript of the letter attests (fig. 2), the lines were indeed not inscribed metrically, though they can certainly be read as a series of the three- and four-foot lines characteristic of Dickinson. Interestingly, Franklin prints the text as a series of such lines, thus printing what has been read rather than what was written, what may be interpreted rather than what may be described-though he also marks the difference between interpretation and description by making a section in his book for poems that he does not include as poems. Is the end of Dickinson's early letter, then, after 1998, no longer "a love poem with a female speaker"? Was it never such a poem, since it was never written as verse? Was it always such a poem, because it could always have been read as verse? Or was it only such a poem after it was printed as verse? Once read as a poem, can its generic reception be unprinted? Or is that interpretation so persistent that it survives even when the passage is not described as a poem?

The many answers to these questions could be posed as statements about edition (the many ways in which Dickinson has been or could be published) or statements about composition (the many ways in which Dickinson wrote). While the fascinating historical details of Dickinson's production and reception will be central to this book, I will be primarily interested in what such details tell us about the history of the interpretation of lyric poetry (primarily in the United States) between the years that Dickinson wrote (most of the 1840s through most of the 1880s) and the years during which what she wrote has been printed, circulated, and read (from the middle of the nineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century). In view of what definition of poetry would Dickinson's brother have understood the end of his sister's letter to him as a poem? Did it only become a poem once it left his hands as a letter? According to what definition of lyric poetry did Dickinson's editor understand the passage as a lyric in 1955? What did Dickinson's editor in 1998 understand a lyric poem to be if it was not the passage at the end of the 1851 letter? Can a text not intended as a lyric become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread? If so, then what is-or was-a lyric?

The argument of Dickinson's Misery is that the century and a half that spans the circulation of Dickinson's work as poetry chronicles rather exactly the emergence of the lyric genre as a modern mode of literary interpretation. To put briefly what I will unfold at length in the pages that follow: from the mid-nineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century, to be lyric is to be read as lyric-and to be read as a lyric is to be printed and framed as a lyric. While it is beyond the scope of this book to trace the lyricization of poetry that began in the eighteenth century, the exemplary story of the composition, recovery, and publication of Dickinson's writing begins one chapter, at least, in what is so far a largely unwritten history. As we have already begun to see, Dickinson's enduring role in that history depends on the ephemeral quality of the texts she left behind. By a modern lyric logic that will become familiar in the pages that follow, the (only) apparently contextless or sceneless, even evanescent nature of Dickinson's writing attracted an increasingly professionalized attempt to secure and contextualize it as a certain kind (or genre) of literature-as what we might call, after Charles Taylor, a lyric social imaginary. Think of the modern imaginary construction of the lyric as what allows the term to move from adjectival to nominal status and back again. Whereas other poetic genres (epic, poems on affairs of state, georgic, pastoral, verse epistle, epitaph, elegy, satire) may remain embedded in specific historical occasions or narratives, and thus depend upon some description of those occasions and narratives for their interpretation (it is hard to understand "The Dunciad," for example, if one does not know the characters involved or have access to lots of handy footnotes), the poetry that comes to be understood as lyric after the eighteenth century is thought to require as its context only the occasion of its reading. This is not to say that there were not ancient Greek and Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval, Provencal, Renaissance, metaphysical, Colonial, Republican, Augustan-even romantic and modern!-lyrics. It is simply to propose that the riddles, papyrae, epigrams, songs, sonnets, blasons, Lieder, elegies, dialogues, conceits, ballads, hymns and odes considered lyrical in the Western tradition before the early nineteenth century were lyric in a very different sense than was or will be the poetry that the mediating hands of editors, reviewers, critics, teachers, and poets have rendered as lyric in the last century and a half.

As my syntax indicates, that shift in genre definition is primarily a shift in temporality; as variously mimetic poetic subgenres collapsed into the expressive romantic lyric of the nineteenth century, the various modes of poetic circulation-scrolls, manuscript books, song cycles, miscellanies, broadsides, hornbooks, libretti, quartos, chapbooks, recitation manuals, annuals, gift books, newspapers, anthologies-tended to disappear behind an idealized scene of reading progressively identified with an idealized moment of expression. While other modes-dramatic genres, the essay, the novel-may have been seen to be historically contingent, the lyric emerged as the one genre indisputably literary and independent of social contingency, perhaps not intended for public reading at all. By the early nineteenth century, poetry had never before been so dependent on the mediating hands of the editors and reviewers who managed the print public sphere, yet in this period an idea of the lyric as ideally unmediated by those hands or those readers began to emerge and is still very much with us.

Susan Stewart has dubbed the late eighteenth century's highly mediated manufacture of the illusion of unmediated genres a case of "distressed genres," or "new antiques." Her terms allude to modern print culture's attempts "to author a context as well as an artifact," and thus to imitate older forms-such as the epic, the fable, the proverb, the ballad-while creating the impression that our access to those forms is as immediate as it was in the imaginary modern versions of oral and collective culture to which those forms originally belonged. Stewart does not include the lyric as a "distressed genre," but her suggestion that old genres were made in new ways could be extended to include the idea that the lyric is-or was-a genre in the first place. As Gerard Genette has argued, "the relatively recent theory of the 'three major genres' not only lays claim to ancientness, and thus to an appearance or presumption of being eternal and therefore self-evident," but is itself the effect of "projecting onto the founding text of classical poetics a fundamental tenet of 'modern' poetics (which actually ... means romantic poetics)."

Yet even if the lyric (especially in its broadly defined difference from narrative and drama) is a larger version of the new antique, a retro-projection of modernity, a new concept artificially treated to appear old, the fact that it is a figment of modern poetics does not prevent it from becoming a creature of modern poetry. The interesting part of the story lies in the twists and turns of the plot through which the lyric imaginary takes historical form. But what plot is that? My argument here is that the lyric takes form through the development of reading practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that become the practice of literary criticism. As Mark Jeffreys eloquently describes the process I am calling lyricization, "lyric did not conquer poetry: poetry was reduced to lyric. Lyric became the dominant form of poetry only as poetry's authority was reduced to the cramped margins of culture." This is to say that the notion of lyric enlarged in direct proportion to the diminution of the varieties of poetry-or at least that became the ratio as the idea of the lyric was itself produced by a critical culture that imagined itself on the definitive margins of culture. Thus by the early twenty-first century it became possible for Mary Poovey to describe "the lyricization of literary criticism" as the dependence of all postromantic professional literary reading on "the genre of the romantic lyric." The conceptual problem is that if the lyric is the creation of print and critical mediation, and if that creation then produces the very versions of interpretive mediation that in turn produce it, any attempt to trace the historical situation of the lyric will end in tautology.


Excerpted from "Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading" by Virginia Jackson. Copyright © 2005 by Virginia Jackson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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