For most of the past 150 years, the world has known the poetry of Emily Dickinson almost entirely through the genre of the individual lyric poem. Even during her lifetime, the few instances when her work appeared in print (in every case, apparently, without her foreknowledge), it was through the medium of the single, stand-alone poem.
For example, when “The Snake” (Fr1096) was published anonymously, on February 14, 1866, in the Springfield Daily Republican (probably sent to the newspaper by Emily’s sister-in-law Susan Dickinson), it was as an autonomous work of art, a “verbal icon,” as literary theorist W. K. Wimsatt would one day call it: an independent, self-contained, symbolic artifact, accompanied by nothing except a title, its meaning and value retrievable, apparently, entirely from within its own bounds.
Since her death, of course, Emily Dickinson’s work has also often appeared in collections of her poetry, multiple poems printed together – as in the three volumes edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson in the 1890s, the later collections of Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham in the 1910s, ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, and the scholarly editions of Thomas H. Johnson and R. W. Franklin in 1955 and 1998, which included every known poem with all variants.
Oddly, the latter “complete” editions, with their nearly 2,000 poems, the entire oeuvre of the poet, have the ironic effect of throwing attention back on the individual lyric, since the poems appear in simple chronological order, each one treated as a stand-alone work of art, independent not only of their original contexts of production and reception but of one another as well. Although I tried in part one of this post to tell a story, through her poetry, of Dickinson’s “fighting years,” it was nonetheless via individual poems that I approached her.
In part two of this post, I want to turn to the way Emily Dickinson herself apparently collected, stored, and accessed her poetry. That is, I want to go back to that day in May, 1886 – before Franklin’s and Johnson’s “complete” editions of 1998 and 1955, before Millicent Todd Bingham’s and Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s dueling editions of the 1940s, ‘30s, ‘20s, and ‘10s, before Mabel Loomis Todd’s and Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s thematically-arranged volumes of the 1890s – when Lavinia Dickinson, still “utterly bereft” (Habegger 627) from her sister’s death the week before, unlocked that box in the second-floor bedroom and found those little manuscript books.
The details of that discovery are still sketchy. In the “Introduction” to his variorum edition of 1998 (Vol. I, p. 7), R. W. Franklin quotes from a letter Lavinia wrote to a friend in 1891: “I found, (the week after [Emily’s] death) a box (locked) containing 7 hundred wonderful poems, carefully copied” (first quoted in the “Introduction” to Thomas H. Johnson’s 1955 variorum edition of Dickinson’s work, Vol. I., p. xxxix). In 1983, however, Franklin had written that Lavinia found the poems “in her sister’s bureau” (p. 2, n. 5). The discrepancy can be solved by assuming that the “locked box” was inside the bureau, which is exactly where Peggy McIntosh and Ellen Louise Hart locate it in their introduction to the poet in the Heath Anthology of American Literature (1990): according to them, Lavinia found her sister’s poems in a “cherry-wood box” in the bottom drawer of her bedroom bureau (p. 2843).
Unfortunately, in her 2003 book Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson, Eleanor Elson Heginbotham calls the container a “rosewood or mahogany chest” (x); and Paul Crumbley, in the 1995 Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, calls it a cherry-wood “cabinet.” To make matters even more confusing, a web-page at the Dickinson Electronic Archives (not to be confused with the new online Emily Dickinson Archive), concerning the Dickinson’s Irish servants Maggie Maher and Tom Kelley, claims that “Emily Dickinson stored her fascicles in Maher’s trunk and may have asked her maid to burn these upon the poet’s death.”
The best I can surmise is that, at her death, Emily Dickinson left her mass of original manuscript poems in a wooden box or chest inside a drawer of her bedroom bureau.
That bureau, and the poet’s writing desk, can be seen today in the Dickinson Collection at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Faithful reproductions of both pieces of furniture can also be seen at the Homestead, part of Amherst College’s Emily Dickinson Museum.
If you click on the caption of the photograph below, you will find an interactive, 360 degree photograph of the poet’s bedroom, including reproductions of her bureau and desk (the bed is Dickinson’s own):
But where now is the cherry-wood box? More to the point, what exactly did Lavinia find in it? She certainly found more than the “7 hundred” poems referred to in the letter quoted above; that number corresponds roughly to the number of poems the poet left collected into sewn booklets or “fascicles” (actually, there were 814 poems so bound); but the box also contained 333 poems copied onto folded sheets of stationary, like the fascicle poems, but left unbound (these were later grouped by R. W. Franklin into 15 “sets”). In addition to these 1,147 poems, carefully copied, arranged, and collected by the poet herself, there were several hundred “loose” poems in the box, some fair copies written on pieces of stationary, some rough drafts, many written on “scraps” of house-hold paper, to use Mabel Loomis Todd’s word for them.
A portion of these latter “scraps,” rough drafts of 52 poems written (mostly in the 1870s and ’80s) on the backs of used envelopes and edited by Marta Werner and Jan Bervin, has recently been published in a stunning new facsimile edition by Christine Burgin and New Direction Books, titled Gorgeous Nothings.
Of course, some of the poems found by Lavinia that day in 1886 – in the 40 bound volumes with 814 poems, the 15 unbound sets with 333 poems, and the mass of several hundred additional “loose” poems – had been seen by others before Dickinson’s death. About a dozen poems, such as “The Snake,” reproduced above, appeared in print in the poet’s own lifetime, most likely without her permission. There is also some evidence that, in her youth, she shared her poetry with close friends and “tutors,” older males from Amherst College and her father’s law office. And, importantly, Dickinson herself, as an adult, shared more than 500 of her poems in letters and notes to family, friends, and acquaintances. The largest number by far were sent next door to sister-in-law Sue, but many were also sent to such correspondents as her Boston cousins Lou and Fanny Norcross and her friend Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.
As Alexandra Socarides shows in a recent analysis of poems sent by Dickinson to the author Thomas Wentworth Higginson, sometimes these “letter poems” were written on separate pieces of paper and enclosed in the envelope with the letter; sometimes they were embedded in the letter itself but set off, e.g., by indentation. Some scholars have even claimed that there are poem-like entities in the prose of the letters, as if Emily couldn’t write without being poetic.
In any case, most (but not all) of the poems Dickinson sent in/as letters are also represented in the fascicles, sets, and loose manuscripts found in the locked box by Lavinia after the poet’s death. The letters, however, show the reclusive poet circulating her work within a kind of public; she must have known that poems sent this way would often be read aloud to and/or copied for audiences beyond the addressee, part of the vibrant epistolary and parlor culture of nineteenth century America. In other words, Dickinson may have declined to publish her work in print, where it would appear void of context, available to complete strangers, and susceptible to editorial mangling; but she was clearly willing to share her poetry. It was part of who she was and how she communicated with the world.
But if Emily Dickinson freely circulated nearly one-third of her poems among family and friends, the 40 hand-made books or fascicles found by Lavinia after her death were apparently seen by no one except the poet herself. And it’s the fascicles I want to focus on here. There are at least three reasons I find these small, hand-made books so intriguing. First, they suggest, to my mind at least, that Emily Dickinson wanted more from her work than circulation of single poems among intimates; she clearly saw herself as a poet who had a body of work that could be published as such. The fascicles, in other words, constitute a potentially public arrangement of Dickinson’s poetry, one that is available to us in no other version of her work. We may never know the principles behind that arrangement; but we know that the effort required to effect it was intense.
In fact, for seven years, from 1858 to 1864, from the age of 27 to 34, Emily Dickinson carefully, methodically, and painstakingly copied and collected her work into small, hand-made booklets. And then she stopped. For the remaining two decades of her life, she sewed no more books of poetry, even as she kept writing poems. Even more intriguing, the production of fascicles coincided with the most productive years of her poetic “workshop,” when she was writing on the order of one poem a day, the very years when she seems to have suffered and then survived some sort of intense emotional trauma – the very years, coincidentally, of the American Civil War.
Second, and perhaps more poignantly, the fascicles no longer exist. As we’ll see below, at some point soon after Emily’s death, in the months and years after Lavinia found the cache of poems in the poet’s bedroom and sought help getting them into print, the string or twine binding the fascicles was cut, probably by Mabel Loomis Todd herself, and the sheets of poetry scattered, which is how they remain to this day. Dickinson’s early editors were, at first, only interested in finding enough suitable poems by this unknown and strange poet to make up a small volume they could sell to the public; when they thought about arranging the poems in some order, they settled on themes they saw in the poems, such as “Life,” “Love,” and “Nature.” The integrity of the fascicles was not important to them; as Franklin put it in 1983, they were “only a source for poems” (1). Later editors, meanwhile, including both Johnson and Franklin, adopted an exclusively chronological criterion for arranging Dickinson’s work. For them too, the fascicles were largely irrelevant. In this way, for almost a century, Emily Dickinson’s own principle of collecting and arranging her work, at least for poems in the 40 hand-made booklets she left behind, was abandoned and forgotten.
Only one attempt has ever been made to reconstruct the fascicles: R. W. Franklin’s 1981 two-volume facsimile edition of The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, still to this day one of the most extraordinary artifacts in the Dickinson corpus. But, curiously, in his later variorum edition of 1998, Franklin abandoned arrangement by fascicle/set in favor of strict chronology, the 1,789 poems printed one by one in the presumed order of their composition. Even the new online Emily Dickinson Archive, launched in October, 2013, provides as yet no easy way to search Dickinson’s manuscripts by fascicle, though poems searched in other ways (by first line, for example) do include information about fascicles and sets if relevant (and it may be that a fascicle index will one day be added to the archive’s search tool). In other words, Dickinson’s fascicles remain dismantled, the twine cut and sheets scattered; and yet, thanks to Franklin, we can put them back together again, in a sense, and read the poems as Dickinson herself left them.
A third reason the fascicles are of interest to me is that they model a kind of writerly activity that I want to encourage in my students (and myself): collecting, selecting, and reflecting on one’s writing as a body of work. That is, Emily’s fascicles suggest to me a nineteenth century form of portfolio making, an idea I’ll take up in more detail below. Here, let me just say that, using these booklets as a model, we can imagine writers not only producing individual “texts” – essays, poems, stories, etc. – but arranging and circulating collections of those texts, in the way that this post is part of a blog that provides a context for it, changing (however subtly) its meaning when read in that context. Emily’s books of poems are a model for this kind of “serial” self-publication.
Now, even scholars who acknowledge and attend to Dickinson’s fascicles caution us about seeing too much in them. Franklin himself sometimes treats them as simply the way Dickinson kept order in her workshop – that is, as a kind of filing system. And, as Alexandra Socarides shows in her recent book Dickinson Unbound, collecting one’s writing on sheets of paper and sewing those sheets together into book-like entities was not an unusual literate activity in the nineteenth century. Ministers often “printed” their sermons this way, diarists sometimes bound the pages of their journal into little books, and ordinary people, like Dickinson’s own father, often organized texts, such as their college compositions, by stacking folded sheets of writing on top of one another and sewing them together. Perhaps, in other words, we shouldn’t so quickly privilege the 814 poems Dickinson left in “book” form from all the others she left not in that form. The recent publication of Gorgeous Nothings reminds us that there was a lot of interesting poetry in that locked box besides the 40 hand-sewn books.That said, the fascicles fascinate me, and I want to understand them better. But to do so, I should first try to answer the question, what is a “fascicle”? The word (pronounced fas’- ickle) was first used in the context of Emily Dickinson’s poetry by the poet’s earliest editor, Mabel Loomis Todd, who not only gave a name to the little manuscript books given her by Lavinia Dickinson but also dismantled them in the process of preparing the first published volumes of Dickinson’s poetry. The word she used for the books, “fascicle,” means, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a bundle, cluster, or bunch; it’s often used in anatomical and botanical contexts – for example, to denote a bundle of ligaments or stems. But it does have at least one literary meaning, referring to one number of a work published in installments. If this meaning doesn’t quite fit Emily Dickinson’s books, the word nonetheless stuck.
Still, other words have been and are still used to refer to them: Todd herself also referred to them as “packets” (the word Thomas H. Johnson used in his 1955 three-volume variorum edition of the poet’s work); and Todd also used the phrase “little volumes,” which may have been the way Lavinia referred to them. In 1981, R. W. Franklin famously called them “manuscript books.” One might also refer to them as notebooks, collections, or gatherings. I sometimes call them here “booklets” because, when I recently tried to reconstruct one of them, I found that that is what Microsoft Word calls it when you “create [a] booklet” in the “print” menu, reproducing, in landscape orientation, two normal pages of writing side by side (or four pages if you have a duplex printer) on one sheet of paper, multiple such sheets then folded and bound together into a single, handy entity.
Finally, as I suggested above, we can also see the fascicles in the “portfolio” tradition of American popular culture – that is, as a form of private book-making or self-publication. According to Socarides, it was Thomas Wentworth Higginson in 1890 who first connected Dickinson’s poems to “the sort of manuscript expressions defined by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1840 essay ‘New Poetry.’ There, Emerson had written: ‘Only one man in the thousand may print a book, but one in ten or one in five may inscribe his thoughts, or at least with short commentary his favorite readings in a private journal’” (21). Emerson apparently believed that a “revolution in literature” would soon favor the portfolio of the ordinary writer over the printed book of the author. As Sharon Cameron put it in 1993, “In making her lyrics into manuscript books – in effect constituting manuscripts as if they were books – Dickinson may have been responding to a revolution like the one predicted by Emerson” (8).Regardless of what we call them – fascicles, packets, volumes, books, booklets, collections, gatherings, portfolios – about half of the poems in Emily Dickinson’s possession when she died were neatly copied onto sheets of stationary and bound into little volumes. Each volume consisted of 4-6 sheets of paper: folded, stacked, stab-bound, and sewn together. Each sheet was pre-folded by the manufacturer and thus contained two leaves or four pages of paper, each page about 5 x 8 inches in size. The final booklet of 4-6 sheets comprised, therefore, 8-12 leaves, or 16-24 pages, with something like one poem or so per page. The sheets were then stacked on top of one another (not nested inside one another); two holes were punched through them along the folded edge; and they were then sewn together with string, twine, thread, or ribbon – traditionally described as red. Lavinia found 40 such booklets in her sister’s bureau, all together containing 814 poems, about 20 poems, on average, per booklet.
Emily Dickinson created these “fascicles” between 1858 and 1864. But the poet was known to have made books before. Using a store-bought album, she created a stunning herbarium, or collection of pressed plants and flowers, in the 1840s, when she was a girl. There are also cryptic references in some of her early letters to small hand-made “volumes” of poetry, perhaps just a few poems written on folded sheets of paper, sewn together, and given to friends to read. And the large number of additional poems collected onto folded sheets of stationary but left unbound at her death suggests that only with reluctance did she abandon the practice of sewing sheets together. From 1864 to 1875 or so, she kept copying poems together onto sheets, but she left these “sets” unbound. Then, for the last decade of her life, from 1876 to 1886, she seems to have simply amassed new individual poems, like the “scraps” we saw above, with no attempt to arrange them in book-like form.
The fascicles aren’t quite like the kind of booklet we might make or read today. In the University Writing Program at UMass Amherst, we have long been committed to helping each class of students produce together a magazine or booklet, collecting their writing as a way to celebrate their work, foster community, and give each student some experience of “publication.” Before we adopted electronic genres of publication, such as blogs, e-zines, and podcasts, we often used our campus printing office to produce, for each class, neat-bound booklets of student writing, 5.5 x 8.5 inches in size, 75 or more pages in length, with a glossy cover. In such bookmaking, sheets of paper are usually nested inside one another (creating “signatures”) rather than stacked on top of one another. For a 16-page booklet using 4 sheets (8 leaves) of 8.5 x 11 inch paper, for example, you would print pages 1 and 16 on one side, and pages 2 and 15 on the other, of the first sheet of paper; you’d then print pages 3 and 14, 4 and 13, on the second sheet; pages 5 and 12, 6 and 11, on the third; and, pages 7 and 10, 8 and 9, on the last, the four sheets then nested inside one another, folded, and stapled along the center fold to make a readable 16-page booklet.
But Dickinson didn’t do this, even though she too was creating 16-page (or, more typically, 24-page) booklets out of 4 (or 6) sheets of paper. Instead, she wrote, in pen, on all four sides of each pre-folded sheet of stationary, starting with the first page and filling up the second, third, and fourth pages in order. She rarely continued an unfinished poem on a new sheet – if she needed to, she would insert a half-sheet of stationary and finish the poem there, often leaving the rest of that sheet blank, or she would pin a slip of paper with the poem’s continuation on the bottom of the relevant sheet. Having filled 4-6 sheets of paper this way, she then stacked them on top of one another, sewing them together along one edge. Stacking meant, as Franklin, Socarides, and others remind us, that the four-page, folded sheet of stationary, and not the four- or six-sheet fascicle, may have been the key unit of private “publication” for Dickinson, since individual sheets could be separated out from the bound book, the poems on them read in their entirety, no other sheets (usually) needed to complete the sense. This practice also explains why it was so easy for Mabel Loomis Todd to dismantle the fascicles, cutting the thread and scattering the sheets, since individual sheets didn’t contain widely dispersed pages, as they do in traditional book-making.
There are other ways Dickinson’s fascicles don’t quite fit what we would call a “book” or “booklet” today. Here’s R. W. Franklin, in 1983:
The poet did not provide her manuscript books with title pages, or even titles, did not put her name on them, and did not label, number, or otherwise identify them. They are without pagination or signature markings for binding. The poems are not alphabetical, and there are no contents lists, indexes, or other means of finding a specific one. It would appear that she did not maintain them in an order and that browsing was the chief means of dealing with them. There is, in addition, no indication that they were intended, as the name fascicle implies, to be installments of a larger book, issued, as it were, in parts. . . . Given the variation among the fascicles, there is no physical indication, even in the recurrence of papers, that they were so intended. The fascicles are, simply, poems copied onto sheets of stationery and, without elaboration, bound together: individual manuscript books of simple construction. (4)
Why then did Emily make them? And what are we to do with them, especially as they are no longer physically available to us? Unsurprisingly, since 1981, there has been considerable scholarly controversy about the “meaning” of the fascicles. Were they, as Franklin claims, simply a way for Dickinson to preserve order in her workshop – little more than a filing system for a highly prolific poet? Or were they meant to be read as integrated, aesthetic entities, each fascicle possessing a unity and readable as a kind of self-contained narrative? Or were they something in between? both a way the poet collected and stored her poems and something more meaningful than that, the juxtaposition of poems onto sheets and into booklets giving each poem a meaning different than it would have if it appeared alone. From this point of view, a Dickinson fascicle poem is, at once, 1) an individual work of art, 2) part of a sheet containing multiple such works arranged by the poet in close proximity to one another, and 3) part of a booklet, in which multiple sheets with multiple poems were bound together by the poet into a single, self-contained entity. To really understand a Dickinson fascicle poem, from this point of view, we need to read it in all these ways at once.
For some time now I have wanted to re-create one of Emily Dickinson’s fascicles. The desire came, at least partly, from simple curiosity: in recent Dickinson scholarship, there’s so much talk of the fascicles but so few visual representations of one. But it also came from my wish to better understand Emily and her work. As I discussed in part one of this post, she wrote nearly 2,000 poems, each infinitely puzzling in its own way. I thought if I took a small group of her poems, gathered as she herself gathered them, and studied them closely, I might gain a deeper appreciation for the poet and her work, maybe even for poetry itself. I would live with the poems, carrying them around with me, reading them again and again, perhaps even learning some by heart. I didn’t anticipate that the experience would be life-changing – Dorothy Huff Oberhaus called the years she spent “decoding” Emily’s fascicle 40 “quite simply the most thrilling in my life” – but I did think it might be a way to learn something useful, to grow somehow.
There’s another reason I wanted to reconstruct one of Emily’s little books. In both my teaching and my own writing, I have become inordinately interested lately in self-authorship and self-publication. That partly comes, I think, from my experiences over the past half-year blogging, a form of self-publication available now to practically everyone. But it also comes, I think, from recent educational theories that highlight the importance of students’ active involvement and engagement in their own learning, pedagogies that ask students to take greater responsibility for, and ownership of, their work. Recent research on portfolio-making, for example, confirms the immense educational value of such self-authorship and self-publication. And Dickinson’s fascicles, I believe, are a model for the kinds of collecting, selecting, and reflecting that portfolio-making affords.
Finally, my interest in reconstructing a Dickinson fascicle comes from my desire, as a teacher, scholar, and writer, to always situate literacy in local, material contexts – in place. Just as Alexandra Socarides focuses on paper in her analysis of Dickinson’s poetry, honing in on the sheet of stationary, the letter to a friend, the sewn booklet, the household scrap – and how those material contexts can help us understand the poet and her work – I approach Emily’s fascicles, in part, as a tribute to the physical life – the situated, embodied life – of the writer, the inextricable embedding of his or her work in locality, context, and material environment.
When we talk about Emily’s fascicle poems, in other words, we should always remember that, at bottom, they were the hand-written, physical creations of an actual human being, who copied them onto paper, then sewed them together into little books, in the middle of the nineteenth century, in the second floor bedroom of a house on Main Street in Amherst, Massachusetts. Even in our increasingly online world, where we seem now to live, think, and work virtually, the materiality of such linguistic objects still impresses us. To hold a book in your hands remains, for many of us, a thrill; to hold in your hands a book that you yourself made – that’s a real thrill.
I chose fascicle 28 to recreate. It’s a relatively unstudied, late volume from Dickinson’s workshop, with a relatively uncomplicated manuscript history. Numbered packet 25 by Mabel Loomis Todd in the 1890s (the same number used by Thomas H. Johnson in his 1955 variorum edition), it was re-numbered fascicle 28 by R. W. Franklin in his 1981 edition of the poet’s “manuscript books,” where it appears, for the first time, in black and white facsimile, on pages 639-666. There are 23 poems in the fascicle, numbered in Franklin’s 1998 variorum, 525 to 541, 288, and 542 to 546 (Fr288, “My first well Day – since many ill –,” was given a slightly earlier date than the others). The fascicle begins with “My period had come for Prayer –“ (Fr525) and ends with “I prayed, at first, a little Girl” (Fr546).
Franklin believes all 23 poems in the fascicle were copied there by Dickinson in the spring of 1863, her most productive year as a poet, when she recorded some 300 original poems onto paper. (This is a revision of Franklin’s 1981 study, in which he dated the fascicle, as Johnson had, to “around 1862.”) Although now unattached, the seven sheets of stationary that originally made up fascicle 28 have apparently always stayed together, even after Todd cut the string that bound them. They’re now at Harvard’s Houghton Library, numbered H 134 – H 140 in the Dickinson Collection: six sheets are from the same paper stock (which also appears in fascicles 24-27); the seventh, a half-sheet (H 136) from a different paper stock, was used, as we’ll see, for the overflow from the second sheet (H 135).
Six of the 23 poems in the fascicle were also copied by the poet on other, separate pieces of paper, or embedded in letters, and sent to friends and family members (three to Emily’s Norcross cousins in Boston, two to Sue next door, and one to Samuel Bowles in Springfield), all in the early 1860s. The rest were apparently seen by no one until Lavinia found the fascicle in 1886. Five of the 23 poems appeared in print for the first time in the 1890s, two in the poet’s “second series” of poems, published in 1891 by Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, two in the 1894 collection of Letters, edited by Todd, and one in the 1896 “third series” of poems, also edited by Todd.
The other 18 poems were all published for the first time in the twentieth century: one in Martha Dickinson Bianchi’s 1914 collection, The Single Hound, seven in Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson’s 1929 Further Poems of Emily Dickinson, one in Bianchi’s 1932 Face to Face with Emily Dickinson, six in Bianchi and Hampson’s 1935 Unpublished Poems, and three in Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham’s 1945 collection Bolts of Melody.
Fourteen of the 23 poems from fascicle 28 were later included in Thomas H. Johnson’s influential 1961 collection of Dickinson poems, Final Harvest, which contains 576 poems from the 1,775 in Johnson’s three-volume variorum, published half a decade earlier. It was the only collection of the poet’s work that I owned for more than two decades; and the only one of the 14 poems from fascicle 28 that I dog-eared during my years browsing that collection (of about a hundred so marked) was #335 (Fr528):
‘Tis not that Dying hurts us so –
‘Tis Living – hurts us more –
But Dying – is a different way –
A kind behind the Door –
The Southern Custom – of the Bird –
That ere the Frosts are due –
Accepts a better Latitude –
We – are the Birds – that stay.
The Shiverers round Farmer’s doors –
For whose reluctant Crumb –
We stipulate – till pitying Snows
Persuade our Feathers Home
Dickinson sent the poem to her Norcross cousins, Lou and Fanny, in January, 1863, soon after their father died. She wrote, “Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray.” It has long been one of my favorite Dickinson poems – I have often found myself at the beginning of class, on one of those bitterly cold and dark New England winter days, quoting its eighth line to my students: “We – are the Birds – that stay.” It’s the only Dickinson poem from fascicle 28 that I really knew before beginning this project – one reason, in fact, that I settled on this fascicle, because its poems were generally unfamiliar to me.
At one point, I thought I would hand-write the poems in pen as Emily did. But that started to feel like I was copying fascicle 28 – which wasn’t really my goal. I wanted to re-create fascicle 28, to make my own version of it, one I could live with, study, and inhabit, so to speak. The point was not to replicate it – though I did very much want to know what a Dickinson fascicle felt and looked like – but to re-create it for me: using my tools, for my purposes. So I decided to create a digital version of fascicle 28, stored as electronic files on my computer, that I could also physically assemble somewhat as Emily did. That way I’d have the benefits of both worlds: the permanence and manipulability of the computer files, the hand-held sensibility of the printed booklet.
So I typed all the poems from fascicle 28 into files on my computer. After several false starts, I decided to create a different file for each sheet in the fascicle, partly in honor of the Franklin/Socarides theory that the sheet of stationary was the key unit of book-making in Dickinson’s workshop, partly because the MS Word printing option for creating a booklet assumed “nested” rather than “stacked” sheets, which was not Dickinson’s method. If I created a separate file for each four-page sheet, however, the printing would turn out perfect – I would then simply stack, fold, and bind the sheets at the end. This meant creating seven Word files, six “normal” ones with four pages of poetry each and one “half-sheet” for the overflow of the second sheet.
I experimented with several different fonts and font sizes, trying to find something that resembled Emily’s handwriting, to some degree, but wasn’t overly precious. I decided I wouldn’t purchase or download a new font – I would use what came with my copy of MS Word. I settled on Gabriola italic, size 28, which when reproduced at two pages to a sheet (or four pages, front and back) turned out to be size 14 (that is, half of 28). I reproduced exactly Emily’s spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and stanza breaks, even the slight indentation at the start of the first poem on each new sheet, using Franklin’s 1981 facsimile edition for visual details but referring to his 1998 variorum when I couldn’t decipher Emily’s handwriting, or I had some question about whether a word was capitalized or not. For Dickinson’s famous dash, or at least Franklin’s editorial interpretation of it, I used the em dash (two hyphens, or option+hyphen in MS Word).
I did not follow Emily’s often-random line breaks, but I did follow exactly her page breaks because I wanted the number of sheets to come out right. I included the horizontal line she often used to separate poems. And I reproduced exactly the lone half-sheet (H 136) Emily included between the second and third full sheets of poetry (H 135 and H 137) for the overflow of ”The Winters are so short –.“ I also included the alternative words and phrases, about 50 total, that Emily wrote at the end of several poems in the fascicle, keyed to “+” signs in the poem itself, the poet thus providing variations for these seemingly finished poems.
To print the booklet, I downloaded a macro for my 2011 version of MS Word (for Mac) that allowed me, by clicking on the “print” option in the “file” menu, and then clicking on the small “PDF” button at the bottom of the page, to use a command called “create booklet.” I then printed all seven files onto off-white 8.5 by 11 inch paper, six files requiring two sheets of paper each (since I don’t have duplex printing), one requiring only one sheet of paper. I then simply photocopied the two sheets for each file using the two-sided function on my office photocopier. In this way, I ended up with one sheet of paper containing four pages of poetry (each page half-size), printed front and back, for each file, the six regular sheets containing therefore 24 pages of poetry. The seventh sheet, as I indicated above, was the half sheet (one sided) containing the overflow of “The Winters are so short” from the second sheet. I folded each of the regular sheets once to make two leaves (12 total), each 5.5 x 8.5 inches in size.
I then stacked each folded, four-page sheet on top of one another, inserting the one half sheet in its proper place, and, with the help of a friend, sewed them together by stabbing two holes on the left side and tying them in front with red thread. I then trimmed the booklet on two sides to make it more like the 5 x 8 inch size of Emily’s fascicles. It took multiple attempts to get all this the way I wanted, but I finally ended up with two good copies, one of which I bound using a hole punch and thread rather than stabbing with a needle. That copy, which I knew wasn’t exactly what I wanted, I used as my “walking-around” copy of fascicle 28, taking notes on it and allowing it to get a bit worn during the weeks I lived with it.
Here is a photographic collage of my “fair” copy of Emily Dickinson’s fascicle 28, a version both digital and hand-made, a re-creation faithful, in many respects, to the original and yet fashioned in my own way for my own purposes.
Is there a story within fascicle 28? A narrative or dramatic thread weaving through those 23 poems on these 26 bound pages? Do its part cohere, first to last, into some thematic or aesthetic unity? We’ve seen that this is a controversial question for Dickinson scholars. Franklin argues against any claim that the fascicles were constructed on the basis of aesthetic principles. They were rather “gatherings of convenience” (17), a way Dickinson tried to forestall disorder in her workshop. Any unity we find, according to this theory, is a coincidence, what happens when any two dozen poems by the same author, written at roughly the same time, are collected together. Franklin even implies that claims of coherence in the fascicles are a product of the imagination: “the capacity of the human mind to find order is large” (19).
But Sharon Cameron wonders why, then, in so many different publications, across so many years, Franklin has been so concerned to put the fascicles back together again, to uncover their internal sequences and reassert their individual integrities? And clearly, for many scholars, since Franklin’s facsimile edition was published in 1981, the temptation to discern some aesthetic principle or other underlying fascicle production has been irresistible. Dickinson herself bound the works together for some reason – even Franklin admits that selection was involved – if we read them closely enough, aren’t we “bound” to find the principle of that selection?
But perhaps we should go about the question in a different way: If it’s not entirely clear that the fascicles can be read as aesthetic gatherings organized by authorial intent, it is clear, to many of us at least, that Dickinson’s poems lose something when read as isolated lyrics, devoid of the original contexts of their production and reception, and separated even from one another. When critics have looked, for example, at the “same” Dickinson poem as it appeared in different contexts in the author’s own lifetime – a poem sent one year to one person in one letter, then sent another year to another person in another letter – or when the “same” poem appears in different fascicles or sets, often with minute variations (this is true of 17 poems) – they see, in fact, “different” poems – meaning changes with situation. And when different poems are read in proximity to one another, that is, when they appear on the same sheet of paper or in the same fascicle or set, they too begin to change before our eyes because of that juxtaposition.I can attest first hand that something happens when you read the 23 poems of fascicle 28 in sequence: the meaning of at least some of the poems becomes tied, at least in part, to their place in that whole; at the same time, something about that whole emerges that is more, or at least other, than the sum of its parts.
Dickinson herself must have known that the mass of her poetry was a problem. By creating the fascicles, even if her intent was merely “practical” (Franklin 1983, 17), she was implicitly saying that her life’s work couldn’t – shouldn’t – be reduced to singleness. Multiplicity, diversity, articulation, change, growth – these were clearly key to her. Grouping her poems into fascicles must have emphasized for her, as it emphasizes for us, the relation of her poems to one another, as well as to the contexts of their creation. We may not be able to say with much confidence what a particular Dickinson fascicle “means”; but we can say that the activity of making fascicles says something about how Dickinson thought about her poetry, and therefore how we might read it.
But what can we say in particular about fascicle 28? In a 1997 presentation, scholar Daneen Leigh Wardrop claimed to have found gestational imagery prominent in this volume – notable since we often associate Dickinson more strongly with themes of death than of life. And yet, according to Wardrop, there is an unusual recurrence of birth images in this fascicle – four instances of the strange word “pod,” for example, although there are only six others in the whole Dickinson canon.
If true, that analysis would support what I think I see in fascicle 28, which is a kind of gradual progression across the volume away from anguish, ignorance, helplessness, suffering, and death, and toward something . . . less anguished, more confident, even complexly affirmative. The fascicle certainly doesn’t end in sunshine and hope – this is Emily Dickinson after all – but there is something vaguely positive, I believe, about its trajectory. The final image of the last poem in the booklet, in fact, is of momentary poise – a hard-won balance, before one tips over again, that is clearly appreciated by the speaker, despite its impermanence. If, as Franklin claims, the fascicle was recorded in spring 1863, toward the end of Dickinson’s “fighting years,” it would support my argument in part one of this post that the poet, wracked by some kind of emotional trauma in the late 1850s and/or early 1860s, had by the end of her fascicle-binding years (1863-1864) made peace with the loss and pain to which she was so prone.
This narrative of balance and growth can be seen most dramatically in a comparison of the first and last poems of the fascicle, which, strikingly, are both about prayer, about their speakers’ relationships with God, and how they cope with problems that seem beyond their ability to solve. The first, “My period had come for Prayer” (Fr525), is ostensively about a speaker who, facing a crisis and having tried all other tactics, turns to God for help. But when she goes to look for him “above,” ascending “Horizons,” she finds only “Vast Prairies of Air/Unbroken by a Settler –.” At last “Silence” condescends, and “Creation” stops for her. But by this point she’s so awed by the faceless “Infinitude” that she can’t complete her errand. So, she “Worshipped – did not ‘pray’ –.” It’s a poem about the intimidation one feels when petitioning God, a poem suffused with helplessness – that condition, so common in Dickinson’s poetry, of the small, outsized speaker trying to find some power in a highly resource-less environment.
In the last poem of the fascicle, “I prayed at first, a little Girl” (Fr546), by contrast, we see the speaker having now grown up, still aware of her impotence in the face of life’s manifest difficulties, but now more experienced at making her own way, on her own terms, however imperfectly, without divine help.
I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to –
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel – to me –
If I believed God looked around,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty –
And told him what I’d like today,
And parts of his far plan
That baffled me –
The mingled side
Of his Divinity –
And often since, in Danger,
I count the force ‘twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me
Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent, now,
It takes me all the while to poise –
And then – it does’nt stay –
In the final line, the speaker, having achieved a hard-won balance, tips over again, falls, loses control of her life after momentarily being in possession of it – and yet there’s an awareness here that she is no longer a child, that her life is, after all, her own, and that a self-made poise is possible, with great effort, even if it doesn’t last.
Did Dickinson intend to begin and end this small volume of poems with twin meditations on the same topic, one from the point of view of a helpless, somewhat childish seeker, the other from a more knowing, more mature, more self-sufficient adult? And did she mean to trace between these two poems a kind of journey from one to the other? It’s hard to see such a pattern as mere coincidence, and it’s hard to imagine a poet of Dickinson’s artfulness, and intelligence, not seeing the possibilities of juxtaposition offered between the first and last pages of a little book.
That said, there are poems in fascicle 28 that don’t seem to fit any narrative whatsoever and moments in the fascicle when I felt I was simply reading a random collection of poetry, with no discernible link among the works and no traceable thread running through them. Some poems seem chosen, and placed, for no other reason than that they fit the physical space remaining on a sheet after other poems have been copied (e.g., Fr526, Fr534, Fr540, Fr542, Fr545). Franklin in 1983 used such design decisions by the poet as one of his key arguments against aesthetically-organized readings of the fascicles.
Still, I can’t help but see meaningful movement across the pages of this book, the unfolding of a story, however complex and irreducible. It begins, in the first several poems, with helplessness, anguish, suffering, and death. We’ve already seen how the first poem, “My period had come for Prayer –“ (Fr525), thematizes the plight of the immature seeker of God’s assistance, who, unsurprisingly, fails in her quest for aid. And the third through fifth poems, “One Anguish – in a Crowd –“ (Fr 527), “’Tis not that Dying hurts us so –“ (Fr528), and “A Dying Tiger – moaned for Drink” (Fr 529), lend a similarly bleak tone to this first section of the fascicle – continuing the theme of impotence begun in the first poem but adding to it stark images of death, despair, and suffering. I’ve already quoted the fourth poem above (Fr528), with its winter imagery of birds shivering “round Farmer’s doors.” The final word of that poem, “Home” (which refers, in that context, to the southern latitude of Heaven), can be linked to the final word of the next poem (Fr 529): “dead.” These are not happy verses; they’re cold, hopeless, and austere.
But the next four poems – “He gave away his Life –“ (Fr530), “We learned the Whole of Love –“ (Fr531), “The Winters are so short –“ (Fr532), and “I reckon – When I count at all –“ (Fr533) – begin a subtle movement away from suffering, anguish, and death towards something more inquisitive, light-filled, even gestational (to use Wardrop’s word). One of my favorite poems of the whole fascicle is the seventh, which continues the childish tone of the first poem but replaces its helplessness with a sense of wonder:
We learned the Whole of Love –
The Alphabet – the Words –
A Chapter – then the mighty Book –
Then – Revelation closed –
But in each Other’s eyes
An Ignorance beheld –
Diviner than the Childhood’s
And each to each, a Child –
Attempted to expound
What neither – understood –
Alas, that Wisdom is so large –
And Truth – so manifold!
Although the poem is ultimately about what we don’t understand, what we can’t know or fathom, I think there’s a hopeful quality here that is lacking in the first several poems of the fascicle.
I see something similar in the eighth poem of the fascicle, “The Winters are so short –“ (Fr532), the poem that ran over the second sheet of Dickinson’s stationary and had to be completed on the half-sheet that she inserted, for just this purpose, before the third full sheet of the fascicle. It’s a striking poem about a speaker annoyed with the way winter keeps intruding on her summers – but the interruptions seem increasingly unnecessary, as if we’re so accustomed to anticipating the bleakness of winter that we fail to notice how short and inconsequential that season really is, at least comparatively speaking. “Because there was a Winter – once –/And all the Cattle – starved –,“ our summers are forever “despoiled.”
And yet, this is not a superficial, happy poem, suffused with sunlight. In fact, it’s mostly about our tendency to focus on the negative. Here’s the final stanza, including perhaps one of the best examples of the poet’s use of off-rhyme to resist the regularizing tendencies of common meter:
And so there was a Deluge –
And swept the World away –
But Ararat’s a Legend – now –
And no one credits Noah –
For me, the next memorable poem in the booklet is the eleventh, “It might be lonelier” (Fr535). Here, too, as in the group of four poems we just considered, we’re far removed from the bleakness of the first several poems of the fascicle; and yet there is an undeniable melancholy here, a dwelling in the speaker’s loneliness, suffering, and failure:
It might be lonelier
Without the Loneliness –
I’m so accustomed to my Fate –
Perhaps the Other – Peace –
Would interrupt the Dark –
And crowd the little Room –
Too scant – by Cubits – to contain
The Sacrament – of Him –
I am not used to Hope –
It might intrude opon –
It’s sweet parade – blaspheme the place –
Ordained to Suffering –
It might be easier
To fail – with Land in Sight –
Than gain my Blue Peninsula –
To perish – of Delight –
If we’re tempted, though, to read this poem in the dark voice of the earlier ones, we should note the odd kind of settlement the speaker has made here with despair. There’s an ease, a comfort, a companionship that the speaker finds in loneliness and sadness that is almost a blessing. She’s now “accustomed” to her fate and comfortable in her seclusion. Rather than focused on impotence, helplessness, and death, she has made a kind of peace with failure, has found a way to live with it.
And yet, here at the fascicle’s mid-point, it’s not clear how we’re supposed to take the speaker’s pact with loneliness. Is it defiant? this is now my life, and I’m resigned to it, even cognizant of its virtues? Is it self-pitying? I’m so lonely that loneliness, paradoxically, has become a comforting presence in my life, in a sense, my vocation, my work, my solace? Or is it ironic – the speaker so accustomed to sadness and failure that she can’t even choose otherwise?
It’s hard to say – but, even with the melancholy, there’s something about that “Blue Peninsula” that bewitches, entrances, seduces in a way that would be hard to imagine in those first few bleak poems of the fascicle. It’s a destination we never arrive at, a promised land we never reach – and yet the acceptance of such shortcoming betokens, perhaps, a useful, if sad, kind of wisdom.
Even in the remarkable thirteenth poem of the fascicle, “I could die – to know –“ (Fr 537), which, according to Habegger, is the one approximation of “realism” in all of Dickinson’s poetry (p. 477), there’s a similar mixture of melancholy and confidence, loneliness and assurance, as the speaker imagines a distant and gritty cityscape – carts joggling by, houses hunched “With their Brick shoulders,” coals rattling “from a Rolling Load” – whose most interesting feature is the presence of her beloved, his foot passing this “very Square . . . While I – dream – Here –.” It’s a heartbreaking little poem, and yet there’s a vitality to the speaker’s imagination, even in loss, a richness to her dream, even in separation, that belies the loneliness that the poem seems to describe. Seen in the context of these other remarkable poems from the middle of fascicle 28 (“We learned the Whole of Love –,” “The Winters are so short –,” “It might be lonelier”), is it possible that the narrative of this little volume is, in part, about the poet’s growing recognition of her own competence and craft as a poet? a skill that compensates in some small way for the helplessness, anguish, and suffering so prominent in the fascicle’s first few poems?
By the time we get to the end of the fascicle, that sense of growing confidence and power, even when humbly paired with a constant acknowledgement of life’s difficulties and failures, is even more pronounced. This is nowhere more evident that in the longest poem of the fascicle, the eighteenth poem, “My first well Day – since many ill –“ (Fr 288), a stanza of which Dickinson had sent to a sick Samuel Bowles in late 1862. Compared to the bleak, wintry poems above (e.g., Fr528, Fr532), this poem is all summer: sunshine in the speaker’s hands, red-cheeked flowers blossoming along her way, nuts and seeds everywhere. And compared to the loneliness, despair, and anguish of the early poems in the fascicles, this one is all about life, recuperation, fecundity. It also has a strong narrative quality, the speaker slowly re-emerging from sickness and seclusion, uncertainly testing the sunny landscape, slowly adjusting her vision to this bright new world. The final stanza is perhaps the most affirmative of the whole fascicle:
My loss, by sickness – Was it Loss?
Or that Etherial Gain
One earns by measuring the Grave –
Then – measuring the Sun –
That journey, from Grave to Sun, the very opposite of so many of the life stories we tell ourselves, is, I would argue, the central narrative of fascicle 28.
The twenty-first poem of the fascicle, “’Heaven’ has different Signs – to me –“ (Fr 544), continues the summer imagery of “My first well Day.” Note, for example, the lines “The Orchard when the Sun is on –/The Triumph of the Birds” – but note also that the poem ends with doubt and uncertainty: we know what “Paradise” will be like as a place; we can’t yet see what we will be like in it.
And that brings me to the final poem of the fascicle – “I prayed at first, a little Girl” (Fr 546) – which we looked at above, and which I read there as the culmination of this booklet’s narrative, in which the childish petitioner of the first poem has now, 22 poems later, outgrown any naïve search for external help. The speaker is still, of course, “in Danger,” as she clearly was in the first poem, and she still acknowledges the attraction of an Almighty who could “hold my life for me.” But she now realizes that she’s on her own and that she has the power, and competence, to see her life through – though she’s also aware that such a course will be very hard going. The “Balance” that an omnipotent God could help her achieve will of course elude her, but work (and candor and patience, as we saw in part one of this post) will go some distance to make up for that missing God. The final two lines, not just of this poem but of the whole fascicle, are, to me, both hopeful and terrifying at the same time:
It takes me all the while to poise –
And then – it does’nt stay –
With those lines, my own journey here, through Dickinson scholarship, biography, and controversy, comes to an end, just as the little booklet we have been so closely reading itself comes to a close, the red thread binding the fascicle now to my right rather than my left, the pages now flipped through for the last time . . .
And yet I’m not sure I can so quickly, so easily, give up fascicle 28! I have a mind to carry it around with me a few weeks more – and one day, perhaps on the bus or in a coffeeshop, to take it out and, once again, wend my way with its speaker through the travails of a thoughtful life, trying to be, as she is, attentive, candid, patient, and brave.
Perhaps I’ll remember more than anything that double sense of pain and hope, winter and summer, dark and light that infuses fascicle 28. After all, like Dickinson herself, we know so much and yet are, at the same time, so ignorant – always attempting to expound, as she says in one of the poems studied here (Fr531), what none of us really understands:
“Alas that Wisdom is so large –/And truth – so manifold!”
Thank you, Teresa, for helping me recreate fascicle 28 and for encouraging me to finish this post!
For the Emily Dickinson Archive, click here.
For the Emily Dickinson Collection at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, click here.
For the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amherst College’s Frost Library, click here.
For the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst, Massachusetts, click here.
For Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium (digital version), click here.
For the web page about Maggie Maher cited above, click here.
For Daneen Leigh Wardrop’s analysis of fascicle 28 (1997), click here.
For Paul Crumbley’s article on Emily Dickinson in the 1995 Oxford Companion to Women’s Writing in the United States, click here.
For Kamilla Denman’s article about Emily Dickinson’s use of the dash, click here.
For John Mulvihill’s article on why Dickinson didn’t title her poems, click here.
Other works consulted for this blog post include: Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinsons (Variorum Edition), 3 vols. (1955); Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest (1961); R. W. Franklin (ed.), The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. (1981); R. W. Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” from Studies in Bibliography (1983); Sharon Cameron, Choosing, Not Choosing (1992); Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles (1996); R. W. Franklin (ed.), The Poems of Emily Dickinson (Variorum Edition), 3 vols. (1998); Mary Loeffelholz, “What is a Fascicle?” Harvard Library Bulletin (1999); Alfred Habegger, My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (2001); Eleanor Elson Heginbotham, Reading the Fascicles of Emily Dickinson (2003); Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns (2010); Alexandra Socarides, Dickinson Unbound (2012); and Marta Werner and Jan Bervin (eds.), Gorgeous Nothings, 2013.
For my printed versions of the poems in fascicle 28, organized by sheet, click on any of the images below.
Fascicle 28, sheet 1:
Fascicle 28, sheets 2 & 3:
Fascicle 28, sheet 4:
Fascicle 28, sheet 5:
Fascicle 28, sheet 6:
Fascicle 28, sheet 7: