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I have been remiss in talking about one of the foremost poets of the 19th century, and one of the best American poets of all time: Miss Emily Dickinson. Thank heavens, slatts has made up for my negligence with all his lovely images, many of which are for sale as notecards and art prints, and some of which are still in progress.

As I confessed in a prior post, I sometimes have a hard time parsing Emily. Or in not "singing" her poems to the tune of either Amazing Grace or the Theme Song from Gilligan's Island. But lately, I've been taking another look at the lovely Miss Dickinson's poems. And truly, I find her lovely -- not just because Slatts has made me look at her in such a way, but also because there is something marvelous about her use of language. Also, my realization that the ONLY way to read Dickinson is aloud has made her poetry so much more accessible to me. All those dashes that visually clutter her poems make perfect sense if you read them as a brief pause in the spoken line. I suspect that she was such a control freak that she didn't want to use commas, which might only be proper punctuation, when what she was seeking to control was pausing and line stops.

In today's poems, she actually uses the comma in the penultimate line, but I don't believe she means for the reader to pause there. I think she put it in to set off the word "never", so that the reader would land on it a wee bit harder (or in mild isolation), without actually stopping mid-line. And, again, if one reads Miss Dickinson aloud and only pauses where she has her em-dashes, then the hymn-tune construction doesn't quite hold, and the last two lines of the second and the third stanzas merge to be one, long, sentence (save for the last dash in the last line of the poem).

"Hope" Is the Thing with Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

"Hope" is the thing with feathers——
That perches in my 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.

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( 39 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 24th, 2007 01:04 pm (UTC)
Different Tune
I'm partial to "The Yellow Rose of Texas".

I'm glad that her poems are more often being printed today the way she intended, with the dashes in tact.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:19 pm (UTC)
Re: Different Tune
Yeah -- her "editors" did her no favors by pulling them out. While most poems are best when spoken, Emily Dickinson's poems truly cry out for that; what appears on the written page to be "clutter" really adds to the understanding not just of the words, but of the actual meaning of her poems, because the inflections are sometimes skewed by the pauses, which one might gloss over if reading inside one's own head instead of aloud.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:07 pm (UTC)
I am no Emily scholar, but the double dashes always read like interruptions of thought for me, which of course make bigger pauses than a mere lowly comma. ;)

And the absence of them here:

That could abash the little bird/That kept so many warm

give those lines so much more weight when reading them aloud.

Thank you for the poem, Kelly. I am needing that little bird (unbashed) today.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:25 pm (UTC)
I always read them as interrupted thought too, but I've become less convinced that's what she intended -- I truly believe they are there to dictate elocution in most cases. The link to the prior poem is for "I Started Early -- Took My Dog" and really, the dashes in these lines make sense for pauses, but not to set apart a different thought (as parentheses might):

And Frigates——in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands——
Presuming Me to be a Mouse——
Aground——upon the Sands——

Particularly the first two lines would read as "breathless" (a la Barbara Cartland with all her ellipses in dialogue), rather than as interrupted thought. I really think it's a guide to where to pause when speaking, nothing more. But I've been wrong many a time before!
(no subject) - carriejones - Aug. 24th, 2007 02:05 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Aug. 24th, 2007 02:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carriejones - Aug. 24th, 2007 02:27 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - sruble - Aug. 24th, 2007 03:29 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:09 pm (UTC)
emily dickinson
Ok, ok ... I already knew Amazing Grace and Gilligan's Island were interchangeable, but Emily?? I hope I can continue to love her after this.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:27 pm (UTC)
Re: emily dickinson
But the point was that she's only singable if you disregard her dashes and the way that she meant for the lines to be read. In many cases, the absence of a dash calls for ellision of two lines (without a pause between them), and the presence of multiple dashes within lines requires additional pauses mid-phrase, which would make singing them preposterous because you'd have to skew the timing of the song.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)
LOVE Emily.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:27 pm (UTC)
Happy smile.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:19 pm (UTC)
I love Emily Dickinson. One of my favorite poets, dashes and all. :)
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:33 pm (UTC)
A side note -- due to your phrasing, I'm now hearing part of Clement C. Moore's A Visit From St. Nicholas in my head ("Now dash away, dash away, dash away all!")

I'm growing ever fonder of Ms. Dickinson, now that I've worked out my reading theory. I used her poem "A route of evanescence" in a post about riddle poems, and because of one of the words in it, I'm now reading a book called A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire by Amy Butler Greenfield about the major intrigues surrounding cochineal, at the time (16th century) the reddest of reds.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:28 pm (UTC)
I must admit that poetry isn't my forte and I don't always give it as much thought as I should. It's amazing with this form of writing though that it is almost begging to be read aloud and in the company of others.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:36 pm (UTC)
As far as Emily Dickinson is concerned, that's certainly the case -- poems in her day and age were meant to be recited in company. But it's equally true of poems by some modern poets -- take a look at Kelly Herrold's post today at Big A little a, where she talks about Billy Collins's poems, "The Lanyard" (and links to an NPR recording). The poem is fine when read in silence, but hilarious when read aloud in a dry tone.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:35 pm (UTC)
Wow, Kelly. Very interesting about the dashes. Very, very interesting and something to think about.
Aug. 24th, 2007 01:37 pm (UTC)
If you get a chance, go back and look at the earlier poem, "I Started Early——Took My Dog". To my thinking, it bears out the dash theory well. But I could be crazy (likely) or wrong (possible).
Aug. 24th, 2007 02:13 pm (UTC)
Ohhhhhh I LOVE that one.
I think that's my favorite Emily.
Aug. 24th, 2007 02:24 pm (UTC)
Aug. 24th, 2007 03:20 pm (UTC)
Lovely poem, lovely post. I read Jacqueline Woodson's FEATHERS recently and admit to being intrigued by the one line on the cover:

"Hope is the thing with feathers ..."

You may like it because of the connection to this poem..

Aug. 24th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
I keep hearing good things about it all 'round, and will have to take a look at it. (If only I had more time for pleasure reading these days -- I'm quite taken up with reading biographies and papers and whatnot about Jane Austen!)
Aug. 24th, 2007 03:26 pm (UTC)
How could you not like a poem with a first line that says, "Hope" is the thing with feathers?

Inspiring. Thanks for sharing - I need some feathers today.
Aug. 24th, 2007 04:05 pm (UTC)
I hope you find some. :)
Aug. 24th, 2007 03:51 pm (UTC)
I use this poem in Winnie. I find it very moving.

Something strange, tho -- I added it to my book several months ago. Since then, I've seen numerous references to it. This makes me happy. I do wonder if I was seeing numerous references to it before and just didn't realize it.
Aug. 24th, 2007 04:04 pm (UTC)
I don't really know -- it's in quite a few poetry anthologies for children, as well as Emily Dickinson anthologies and anthologies for adults. It's also referenced in Feathers, I'm told.
(no subject) - boreal_owl - Aug. 24th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - kellyrfineman - Aug. 24th, 2007 07:14 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 24th, 2007 04:45 pm (UTC)
Lovely! (Time Warp is stuck in my head too!)
Have you seen the Jane Austin movie?
Aug. 24th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
I've not seen "Becoming Jane" yet. But it's on the list. :)
Aug. 24th, 2007 06:24 pm (UTC)
Poetry Friday
Hi Kelly,
My college roommate was an English major. I love Dickinson, but she ruined it for me by stating that all her poems could be sung to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas. Sadly, it works. I hear this darn song in my head every time I read her poems.
Even when I don't sing it, this one is a beauty.
Tricia (Miss Rumphius)
Aug. 24th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
Re: Poetry Friday
Thanks, Tricia -- and yes, that tune works as well. But if you adhere to reading them alound and pausing at the dashes, she "dashes" your ability to sing her particularly well!
Aug. 24th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
TadMack says:
How could I -- as an English major -- never have heard that Yellow Rose thing!!?!

It's stuck in my head!

Oh well -- I love this poem anyway, because it's the first of hers I memorized.
Aug. 25th, 2007 04:27 pm (UTC)
Re: TadMack says:
It's a great poem to have committed to memory!
Aug. 25th, 2007 02:58 am (UTC)
Re: Gilligan
A three hour tour...a three hour tour.
Aug. 25th, 2007 04:26 pm (UTC)
Re: Gilligan
Disturbingly, one can sing the words of Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan's Island (and vice versa).
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