January 27, 2012

Dickinson and the modern consciousness

Because only a few of her poems were published during her lifetime, Emily Dickinson was not a major figure in American literature in the 19th century. Her first book of poems was published four years after her death in 1890, though they were heavily edited. The public (and critics) were suddenly interested, partly because of the poet's reputation as a recluse and partly because of how she played with standard syntax and punctuation. New editions were put out in rapid succession.

In fact, this turn-of-the-century curiosity was not restricted merely to the United States. The January 27, 1905 issue of the Manchester Guardian noted:

The place of Emily Dickinson among poets is not yet definitely fixed, but the fact that a seventeenth edition of her Poems has appeared shows that in spite of her disregard of form her thoughts appeal to the modern consciousness... This quality may secure remembrance, for some of her work will pass into the common inheritance.

The Guardian disagreed with Dickinson's posthumous promoter Thomas Wentworth Higginson that her work was similar to that of William Blake ("beyond originality they have little in common"). In fact, the Guardian was right in noting the appeal to "modern" consciousness; Dickinson's unique style of poetry was a turning point for poetry and today she is considered among the first "modern" poets — in part due to her willingness to play with standard rules of the language. Still, the newspaper's hesitation in predicting her longevity did allow that some day she would be anthologized alongside Blake's "The Lamb," particularly singling out this poem (as it appeared at the time):

If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain:
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.

*Some of the information for this post comes from Emily Dickinson's Reception in the 1890s: A Documentary History (1989) by Willis J. Buckingham.

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