Thursday, April 8, 1999

The Mystery of Emily Dickinson

by Christopher Benfey

New York Review of Books

April 8, 1999

To prepare a new edition of a poet’s work, a scholar may spend years in the archives, weeding out the “corruptions” planted by previous editors and scribes, only to see his own decisions denounced by the next generation of editors. In his poem “The Scholars,” W. B. Yeats saw a comic contrast between the passionate poet and the painstaking editor:
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair….
For a century now, however, the editing of Emily Dickinson’s poetry has been entangled with human passions, sex, and blindered partiality, as though the editors were (and sometimes they were) the despairing lovers tossing on their beds. Despite impressive scholarly attempts, by Thomas Johnson in 1955 and now by Ralph Franklin, to resolve disputes and provide a text based on widely shared principles, there are already indications that the squabbles initiated a hundred years ago will continue, and perhaps even intensify, in the wake of Franklin’s careful work. This unsettled situation arises from several factors, including Dickinson’s own fraught relations with publishers; the strange fate of her manuscripts after her death; current critical views of her work; and, finally, the very nature of her poetry.


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