April 15, 2012

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

Thomas Wentworth Higginson published an article titled "Letter to a Young Contributor" in the Atlantic Monthly. In it, he talked to a hypothetical up-and-coming writer in the form of a letter addressed "my dear young gentleman or young lady." The conversational article discusses the relationship between editors and wannabe writers, noting that there is no antagonism between the two. Their goals, he writes, are one and the same: "No editor can ever afford the rejection of a good thing, and no author the publication of a bad one." The editor is challenged to find the line between good and bad manuscripts for publication — or, more accurately, judging the levels of mediocrity. Higginson does not want to discourage writers, however, and instead offers hints and suggestions: "Be neither too lax nor too precise in your use of language," for example, "the one fault ends in stiffness, the other in slang."

Higginson also says that a writer need not defend himself or herself. "If your work does not vindicate itself, you cannot vindicate it," he says. Perhaps it was that notion that inspired Emily Dickinson to respond. Her letter is dated April 15, 1862:

Mr Higginson,
Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?
The Mind is so near itself — it cannot see, distinctly — and I have none to ask —
Should you think it breathed — and had you the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude... I enclose my name — asking you, if you please — Sir — to tell me what is true?
That you will not betray me — it is needless to ask — since Honor is it's own pawn — 

With her letter, she included a card with her name and four poems. Higginson did respond; he encouraged her and later assisted in the editing of a posthumous collection of her works, become Dickinson's most important advocate. Among the poems Dickinson sent him in that initial correspondence was "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers":

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone. Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,—
Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

*I am indebted to Michael Ryan's A Difficult Grace: On Poets, Poetry, and Writing (2000) for the text of this letter, transcribed faithfully using Dickinson's unusual punctuation style.


  1. As a writer in awe of her, I have always felt that Higginson was in way over his head where her work is concerned.

    But I'm glad he helped as much as he did.

  2. I disagree. Higginson was a genius when it came to writing, both poetry and prose, not to mention promoting women writers (and knowing the marketplace).
    This usually goes back to the same misconception: that Higginson altered Dickinson's works. He did not; he merely added titles and changed a couple dashes. The significant alterations were done by Mabel Loomis Todd; she was the one who was in way over her head. Somehow, Higginson has gotten the reputation of a conservative among modern readers. This is definitely not the case. Higginson was one of the most radical men of his time.

  3. Higginson's work in preserving "Negro spirtituals" that he gatnered listening to the men he commanded in South Carolina and Florida is probably even more important than whatever he did for Emily Dickinson.

  4. That may be your opinion but encouraging Emily Dickinson to continue writing poetry is a fairly important achievement on its own. Fans of Emily would happily thank him.