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Second Debut of Emily Dickinson

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham. Harper and Brothers. $3.00. Ancestors’ Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. By Millicent Todd Bingham. Harper and Brothers. $3.75.

Six hundred and sixty-six new poems by one of the world’s authentic poets published nearly sixty years after the poet’s death and fifty-five years after the first posthumous volume had established her fame! In “Bolts of Melody” that is what Mrs. Millicent Todd Bingham, the daughter of Mabel Loomis Todd who first presented Emily Dickinson’s poetry to the world, has edited from the “neat little fascicles” that years ago had been entrusted to her mother. In the companion volume, “Ancestors’ Brocades,” Mrs. Bingham tells the story of the village feud that explains the belated publication of the remarkable collection of Emily Dickinson poems.

The first effect of reading these poems is almost to be stunned by the richness and the variety of the little stanzas. That phrase is used here deliberately because the title seems to me to set a false key for the expectant reader. These are no “bolts of melody,” wonderful as they are. Nor can I agree with those critics who find among these verses some of her best poems;—if they mean by that any quite equal in perfection to such well-known poems as “The Soul Selects Her Own Society,” “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed,” “Bring Me the Sunset in a Cup,” “Mysteries,” “The Heart Asks Pleasure First,” and half a dozen or more others. I hold it a test of Mrs. Mabel Todd’s devotion and taste that out of the hundreds of Dickinson poems that have been published since the first three volumes for which she chose the contents, there have been no better poems printed than those she selected. But except for the very best, those few poems in which thought and feeling, word and form are combined with the effect of the perfection of the inevitable, except for these, the new volume contains work equal to most of the poems by which we have known Emily Dickinson. They show better than any other volume “what liberty a loosened spirit brings,” to quote her own comment on the poet. The range of subjects and moods is astonishing; birds, flowers, animals, people, life, death, and the universe. In one poem—

Earth at the best Is but a scanty toy, Bought, carried home To immortality—
and in the next she is so happy that—
If all the griefs I am to have Would only come today, I am so happy I believe They’d laugh and run away!
But when her friend attacks her friend, she has a change of mood:
How martial is this place! Had I a mighty gun I think I’d shoot the human race And then to glory run!

The critic, as ever, must stand baffled before this unique creature of genius. There is a likeness (certainly not a sameness) about her verses that tends to mute the effect of their infinite variety as the reader first turns the pages of this entrancing book. Then the effort to find epithets brings the realization that in the next poem she escapes the label that we have just pinned upon her. The gnomic quality of her verse, the mystic beauty of some of her thoughts, the playful whimsy that makes some of her poems suggest a Keatsian version of Mother Goose, biting flashes of wit, clean strokes of uncommon realistic truth, and daring masculine sternness of judgment,—all these and other ranges of her genius render any one portrait, evoked to stand for her as the poet, mocking in its incompleteness. She wrote the lyric fresh as the bubble from a bobolink’s throat:

The bobolink is gone
The rowdy of the meadow,
And no one swaggers now but me;
The Presbyterian birds
Can now resume the meeting
He gaily interrupted
That overflowing day
When, opening the Sabbath
In their afflictive way,
He swung upon the decalogue
And shouted, “Let us prayl”

And she also wrote the stern judgment on the God of the Old Testament,—with a light touch also:

Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told;
Isaac was an urchin,
Abraham was old.

Not a hesitation,
Abraham complied;
Flattered by obeisance,
Tyranny demurred.

Isaac to his children
Lived to tell the tale.
Moral: with a mastiff
Manners may prevail.

Some of these poems are obviously trial drafts never perfected. Often the first stanza is regular in rhyme and clear in thought and the remainder of the poem cryptic or obscure and ineffective in rhyming. Her ear loved to play with, sounds as her mind did with conceits and ideas. But at her best her imperfect rhymes are not clumsy. Over sixty of the poems are in a section given to incomplete and occasional poems. Even among these there are lines lovely as unset jewels and sometimes single stanzas that are complete in themselves when printed alone; as this quatrain that Father Tabb might have been proud to own:

To earn it by disdaining it
Is fame’s consummate fee.
He seeks what shuns him—look behind,
He is pursuing thee!

It is quite as satisfying as the brief verse which she left as a completed poem:

We lose because we win.
Recollecting which,
Toss their dice again!

Everywhere throughout the volume one comes upon phrases that tease the memory into stealing them: “circumference, the ultimate of wheels,” “a bee I personally knew ” “a little bird as to a hospitality advanced and breakfasted” —on worms; of a beetle upon the ceiling, “Too dear the summer evening without discreet alarm”; of butterflies that “lost themselves and found themselves in eddies of the sun”; and of the feeling of loneliness, as the sleigh goes off in the snow, of “The bells a winter night, bearing the neighbor out of sound.”

She is mistress of her own universe, an Enchanted Universe like Miranda’s island. “How features are abroad, I’m skilless of,” said Shakespeare’s princess and she greeted the first strange men she saw,—”0 brave new world that has such people in’t.” She is the only woman that I know whose quaintness of speech and wonder at creation reminds me of Emily Dickinson. But this Miranda has inherited her father’s magic staff and she too has suffered with those she saw suffer, but she has seen more and suffered more. Her little world is cut off, at least by her own renunciation, from the world of men that she has renounced. And the story unfolded in “Ancestors’ Brocades” leaves us with a sense of spiritual Calibans around her that more than once must have tempted her to shoot the human race and then to glory run. She was queen of the dictionary and the grammar, she wore her rhymes with a difference, and subdued her prosody to her will, but she could not alter the nature of her own family.

The story of the feud that interrupted the series of publications that first introduced Emily Dickinson to a public has long been a dark mystery against which perhaps the brightness of her fame shone all the brighter for the foil. The chief actors in the story as told by Mrs. Bingham are Lavinia and Sue Dickinson, the sister of Emily and the wife of her brother Austin, Mrs. Bianchi, daughter of the Austin Dickinsons, and Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd. The poems in the new volume, “Bolts of Melody,” had been entrusted to Mrs. Todd to edit by Emily’s sister, Lavinia. After the first three volumes of poems and one volume of letters had been published under the editorship of Mrs. Todd, (with the collaboration of Thomas Wentworth Higginson on the first two volumes) Miss Lavinia Dickinson brought suit against Mrs. Todd for the recovery of a small piece of land which she had deeded to her, presumably as part payment for her years of work as an editor of four volumes from the sale of which Miss Dickinson had received substantial profits. The courts decided the case, strangely it seems in the light of the printed evidence, in Miss Dickinson’s favor. The publication of the poems stopped until Sue’s daughter, Mrs. Martha Bianchi, in 1914 began publishing the series of books that appeared under her editorship. “Emily Dickinson’s family is now extinct,” says Mrs. Bingham. “The story of the first editing of her poems and letters can be published for what it is—an episode in American literary history.” It is an interesting episode, as it is told in “Ancestors’ Brocades,”—if not a happy one. It is impossible to suppose that as the daughter of those two intense personalities, Mabel Loomis and David Todd, Millicent Todd Bingham has been able to keep her narrative absolutely un-colored by her closeness to the drama of “love and hatred.” It is evident that she has made every effort to tell the story objectively. The result is probably as near as anyone can ever get to the “truth [that] like ancestors’ brocades can stand alone.”


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