I have been musing again on the poet Emily Dickinson and the titling – or rather non-titling – of her poems.
It’s rather sad, I know. And at the moment I don’t even have a pandemic Lockdown to blame. Nor this time do I have the excuse of a challenging throwaway comment on untitled poems by my wife to set me on this trail. And I suspect she is unconcerned at this renewed dalliance with the enchanting Dickinson – until, I suppose, more books come flooding through the door, get piled up and cause irritating clutter that glares at her in every room.
It’s a few years now since I first dwelt on this conundrum and, although lots of folk write about the issue, I still have a key reference point in John Mulvihill’s splendidly succinct article “Why Dickinson Didn’t Title”, where he highlights the initially (for me at any rate) rather gnomic “linguistic scepticism” as a way to reaching an answer to the riddle.
Notoriously, Dickinson not only did not title her poems, but also did not publish. Okay, there were a few scattered poems published in her lifetime in serial publications – a round ten in all, it seems. (One of these ten also appeared separately in a collection.) The Emily Dickinson Museum website usefully enumerates them. All of these, bar one, when published, were given titles, but not, it seems, of course, by Dickinson. It was largely the rule of editorial convention which applied the rather anodyne titles. So whatever rather conventional titles were chosen, they were chosen, it seems, by the editors of the publications – a matter of course at the time and now, for us, a matter of fact.
The same happens when, after Dickinson’s untimely death in 1886 at the age of 55, her poems are finally gathered and published in the now famous series of three volumes by the inimitable Thomas Wentworth Higginson and the indomitable Mabel Loomis Todd
As well as butchering the poems (perhaps that’s a little harsh) – altering words, “improving” the rhymes, amending Dickinson’s idiosyncratic punctuation – the editors also “regularised” many poems by adding titles. The sensitive Higginson certainly had serious reservations about the intrusive and barbarous editorial assault and at times fought back against the tampering Todd. But the intrusions were evident across all the three “series” of poems. As Brenda Wineapple notes in her marvellous book on the relationship between Higginson and Dickinson, White Heat (p. 292):
‘Regardless, the editors snipped this, sorted that, with Mabel perpetually inclined to alter Dickinson’s subjunctives. And they also “corrected” grammar… spoiling the internal rhyme… and tampering with the meaning…‘
And as part of the regularisation of Dickinson’s poetry, they added – Wineapple tells us – their “awful” “reductive titles”. We can likely see an example of this titling in the Todd transcription of Dickinson’s poem “A sepal, petal and a thorn…’ (Though to be fair it is worth noting that not all poems were given these “reductive titles” in the early editions. At least in the first London edition of the poems many are still completely untitled.)
The image of the Todd manuscript is made publicly available here and the Dickinson manuscript – held by Amherst College – available here. (There is a fascinating whole host of Dickinson manuscripts and transcriptions digitised and – usually – available on line via various resources.)
The first editions of Dickinson’s poetry sold like hot cakes. Perhaps the editorial interventions assisted in smoothing Dickinson’s rough and vibrant edges for the unsuspecting and ill-prepared late nineteenth century public, but the resulting editorial chaos has been taking years to sort out. And now, of course, we know: the titles are a fabrication. Dickinson’s marvellous poetry was consciously untitled by the reclusive poet. She didn’t do titles. And that’s more or less that. Or is it? Because if we look a little closer, it’s not quite the full story.
Indeed, as many commentators acknowledge, there are occasions where Dickinson does consciously give her poems… well what? A name? An identity? A title? Well, it can be a practical matter. If she’s referring to them, when sending them to folk, she has to call them something. And sending them to folk was something she did frequently. Sometimes when writing letters she includes poems which get referenced, sometimes the poems just form part of the general flow of the text she’s writing. Sometimes, it seems, the poem is a letter or the letter is a poem. Her letters, of course, can be as poetic as her poetry, and indeed, are almost just as much an integral part of her artistic output as the poems themselves. This is something which was recognised right at the outset with the publication in 1894 by Todd of a two-volume edition of the Letters of Emily Dickinson. A precursor to this was Higginson’s illuminating publication in The Atlantic in October 1891 where he reflected on his relationship with Dickinson and published some of her correspondence with him. Then later, in 1915, we have more unpublished letters printed in The Atlantic in the endearing portrait of Dickinson by her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi.
The situation regarding titles is summed up by Thomas H. Johnson who edited the first famous variorum edition of Dickinson’s poems back in the 1950s and is quoted by Mulvilhill in his article. Effectively, it seems, Dickinson herself gave “titles” to 24 poems, the overwhelming majority of these (21 it is said) were for poems which she sent to friends, and of these only two of the “titles” were actually included in the poems themselves. The rest were simply references in the letters which accompanied the poems. The three remaining titles did actually occur in the famous packets or fascicles in which Dickinson recorded her work.
My own paperback copy of The Complete Poems of Dickinson has almost 1800 poems in it. A cursory glance through the pages of this book makes it self-evident that titles are a rare thing indeed.
So I set to and search the 700 plus pages of this volume to try to find that rare species of a Dickinson poem which bears a “title” attached to it apparently sufficiently by her own hand for it be included in her Complete Poems. Needles and haystacks come to mind. After some foraging, I find two in the whole Complete Poems. One called Snow flakes. Another called Purple. Expecting to find three, I look again but draw a blank. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
But let’s first note how wonderfully ironic – or rather symptomatic – it is that there is no index in the book which will give me the two “titled” poems without searching for them page by page. There is, of course, an Index of First Lines and – crucially – also a Subject Index which helps the reader find poems where Dickinson writes about any number of topics – Death and the Dead, Love and the Loved, the Sun, the Moon, Birds, Bees, the Night (but curiously not the famous “Wild” ones) and so on. A sort of concordance, though not quite. But there is no index for the rare two “titled” poems. Well, fair enough, I suppose since Dickinson didn’t do titles and indeed, as the preamble to the Subject Index in the volume declares outright – “there are no titles”. Well yes… of course, but not quite… Since two of the poems in the volume do seem to have “titles”. Or perhaps this is just an illusion. Seriously.
As a brief aside – and again ironically or symptomatically, this – almost – universal absence of titles has led to that most useful convention of titling which we are more accustomed to finding in the opus numbers of composers (or perhaps in writerly terms Shakespeare’s sonnets, though that is probably another story). Namely (that must be the wrong word here…) – give the darn things numbers so that we can find them. And for Emily Dickinson this is precisely what Thomas H. Johnson did and after him the next editor to tackle the conundrum – R. W. Franklin, who (naturally) changed Johnson’s enumeration, thus happily confusing matters further, meaning that we now have J (Johnson) numbers and F (Franklin) numbers. But, let’s get back to the two poems which in my Johnson edition do – apparently – have “titles”: Snow flakes and Purple. Or as we would need to know them in order to find them in the Johnson volume – I counted till they danced so (aka J36) and The Color of a Queen is this (aka J776).
So what then are we to make of these “titled” anomalies – Snow flakes and Purple? Well, the first thing is actually to set out the “titles” as Dickinson actually presented them and as the Complete Poems has tried faithfully to reproduce them. This means providing the punctuation which the Dickinson manuscripts use. Oh dear! Punctuation… And Emily Dickinson… We are already embarking on a slippery slope. What we have here is Snow flakes. and Purple – So Snow flakes (as well as having the small case f in flakes and being two words) also has after it a full stop (or period as it is known transatlanticly). And Purple has after it the wonderful Dickinsonian dash. Here are the images of the manuscripts of these poems in Dickinson’s hand, publicly available courtesy of Amherst College and the previously noted Emily Dickinson Archive at edickinson.org here and here.
Well, goodness! This is Dickinson’s own hand and they look like titles don’t they, centred as they are by Dickinson above the poems – despite the period and the dash. I haven’t done a straw poll, but I think the immediate response of most folk, if asked, would be to say that these were the poems’ titles. But it is, of course, by no means that straight forward and more learned folk are quite right still to debate the issue.
For example, Linda Sue Grimes on the Owlcation web page sets out quite cogently her views on why Snow flakes. is not a “true title”, but rather a “seeming title”. First, as we know, and self evidently, Dickinson didn’t do titles, so why suddenly should she here? Second, the word snowflake – even, I might add, at the time that Dickinson was writing – is normally one word not two. (I checked the OED – there’s etymology for this in the 19th century including Shelley, though oddly “snow-flake” or even “snowflake” don’t make an appearance at all in the copy of the Webster’s dictionary that was in the Dickinson household – available here courtesy of the Harvard Library. Webster here regards “flake” sufficient to denote a flake of snow.) But to get back to the point, the implication in the Dickinson usage is that we might have here not a title, but a two-word line of verse – “Snow flakes”; “flakes” thus being an independent word – a verb probably describing what the snow is doing. Snow flakes. is thus – Grimes argues – the first line of the poem. (“It is wise to think of it as a sentence or first line of the poem, and not a title.”)
I confess I am not sufficiently well versed in the syntax of Dickinson’s poetry to see this as a credible or incredible option – but I suppose one couldn’t rule it out. Contemporaneous editor Loomis Todd seems, however, to have seen this as a title – her typed reproduction of the poem being annotated – “named by herself” i.e. Dickinson. Clearly a sufficiently unusual phenomenon for it to be noted.
In her thoughts on this “seeming title” Grimes sees the two words as a sentence and also notes the full stop – or period – that follows flakes, concluding that “that form of the so-called title itself demonstrates that the title is indeed merely the first line of the poem, ‘Snow flakes.’ ” Grimes bolsters this argument with the notion that titles don’t conclude with punctuation. “The period at the end—along with the fact that there are two words—indicates a sentence. Emily Dickinson was a voracious reader, and she was well aware that titles contain no end punctuation.“
But surely, and for 19th century America in particular, this is not quite the case. Typically the titled headers in magazines and newspapers would actually commonly end with a full stop (for example The New York Times.). Even headlines would commonly conclude with a full stop. And Dickinson, as a voracious reader, would have frequently seen this convention at the time the poem was written – even in the title page of The Atlantic Monthly. – in which Higginson’s writings appeared.
There’s another point to consider with regard to the “titling” of this poem, which Linda Sue Grimes also rightly points to (without conceding any ground on her views). “Snow flakes.” is one of Dickinson’s many riddle poems. So “snow flakes”, one might conclude, is not only a title or “seeming title” to a poem, it is also the answer to the riddle in the poem and thus, surely, a fine contender to be not only a true title but also more than a title – a key in fact to the poem’s potentially enigmatic subject matter.
Oh dear! How one can idle one’s time on just two words. And I haven’t even covered the question of the space between the words “snow flakes” and the rest of the poem – in manuscript and in publication…
Okay. So all that’s a bit of puzzle, then, but what about Purple – (aka The Color of a Queen is this & also aka Johnson 776)? Linda Sue Grimes – whose commentaries on Dickinson’s poems are well worth consulting – sees this as a “faux title” – in other words false or fake. Like Snow flakes, it seems like a title, but it ain’t – is the view here. And though the useful commentary on Dickinson’s poems at
declares that “this is one of only three poems in the packets of the poems to which Emily herself gave a title, the others being poem 36 and poem 161”, there is certainly a case for seeing this single word on the first line as more of an integral part of the poem than as a word which is set apart to describe what follows. Look how it partners the “Amber -” and the “Beryl -“. True, the word is centred on the manuscript at the outset, but the dash and the clear integration of this word and punctuation with the rest of the poem make me lean here towards the view that Dickinson is by no means providing us here with a title. And I am not sure that typographically setting it out in the Complete Poems to look like one, is quite the right thing.
And so to the third poem which Dickinson apparently titled in her own hand, but which doesn’t seem to make it at all as a titled poem into my edition of The Complete Poems. This is poem 161 in my Johnson edited volume and is published untitled as follows:
A feather from the Whippoorwill That everlasting - sings! Whose galleries - are Sunrise - Whose Opera - the Springs - Whose Emerald Nest the Ages spin Of mellow - murmuring thread - Whose Beryl Egg, what School-Boys hunt - In "Recess" - Overhead!
This is a marvellous piece of verse and, like some other folk, I think that the bird in question here – the Whippoorwill – or Whippowil as Dickinson has it – is indeed the poet herself and the underlying subject is her own writing of the very poem. (And one even wonders if the last lines might not be a nod to Emily herself lowering her basket of goodies from “overhead” to children in the yard.) But let’s not distract ourselves by the important stuff. I must get back to the matter at hand – the darn titles. Editor Johnson’s note reproduced on the emilydickinson.org archive gives us a useful summary of what we are dealing with here:
MANUSCRIPTS: There are two, both written about 1860. [One]…was sent to Samuel Bowles, and is signed “Emily.” It is a variant (in lines 4 and 6) of the copy in packet 14 (H 72b), where it is titled by ED “Pine Bough.”
And here are the manuscripts, courtesy again of the edickinson.org archive:
Well, Crumbs! You can’t get much more of a title than this. Surely? It’s centred at the head of the poem. It has the full stop after it, which – I argue – was traditional normal punctuation for titles at the time. (Even in the manuscript of a recipe of Dickinson’s she puts a full stop after the title.) Moreover, this titling of the poem itself is in the very packets which Dickinson carefully prepared, as opposed to the frequent naming or referencing in the letters (usually away from the poems themselves). This seems to single this example out even more. And, heck, the title isn’t there in the note sent to Bowles. So it has been consciously and deliberately introduced at the head of the poem and can’t surely be regarded as an editorial amendment integral to the wording of the poem itself.
I check my copy of the first edition published Letters. And sure enough, no title. But we do have the interesting editorial comment from the Letters editor, the indefatigable Mabel Loomis Todd: “A spray of white pine was enclosed with this note”.
And so it all gets even more interesting. The wonderful Dickinson didn’t need to title the poem she sent to Samuel Bowles, because she sent him the thing itself, a real piece of pine – a real “pine bough” – as opposed to naming the thing in words. This “Pine Bough”, then, is not so much a title, as the mother of all titles. It is beyond titles. The very thing and not the naming of it. And, of course, the spray of pine is not a bird feather at all. It is almost a riddle in itself. The wonderful Dickinson is playing with us. Here we have an answer to a riddle that we didn’t even know had been asked. This is titling Emily Dickinson style.
Okay. I am getting over exuberant here, but there were other occasions where Dickinson pursued the notion of a using a real object to designate – or should that be to title – a poem. A notable example is the poem His little Hearse like figure (aka Johnson 1522) which runs as follows in my Complete Poems
His little Hearse like Figure Unto itself a Dirge To a delusive Lilac The vanity divulge Of Industry and Morals And every righteous thing For the Divine Perdition Of Idleness and Spring -
In its presentation here – and in a manuscript version of the poem held at Amherst College – we can see that this poem is another of Dickinson’s untitled riddles where we struggle to understand what on earth it is about.
But if we consult the Emily Dickinson archive further and alight on another version of the poem, the subject of the verse becomes abundantly clear because the poem is here set out in a note by Dickinson for her kindergarten-age – and much loved – nephew Gilbert where it is prefaced not only by a dedication and instruction – “For Gilbert to carry to his Teacher”, but is also titled or named “The Bumble Bee’s Religion”. (Unless, of course, one argues that this dedication and the apparent title are all part of the poem…)
The manuscript of the note to Gilbert is held by Houghton Library, Harvard University
So we can conclude immediately that the “little Hearse like Figure” is in fact a dead bee. Moreover Gilbert’s sister, Martha, tells us in her Atlantic article that Dickinson’s note containing the poem was “accompanied by a dead bumble-bee”. This is a marvellous example of the explosive complexity of Dickinsonian art and artifice. The poem is an unsolved riddle; it is a solved riddle; it is an “occasional” poem; it has a dedication; it is deeply personal; it is more than a poem – it is a profound philosophical statement; it is woven into a note or a letter, into a proposed act; it doesn’t have a title; it does have a title; it doesn’t even need a title; the words can disappear, we have instead the thing itself. The poem – or is it by now a note – gets even more complex when Dickinson rounds off with two quotes:
“All Liars shall have their part” –
Jonathan Edwards –
“And let him that is athirst come” –
Crikey! One could write a whole academic thesis about this one individual poem. And again, I haven’t even got to what the poem actually might tell us about the bumble-bee or its religion and where this bee sits with the rest of Dickinson’s bumble bees, including the ones she drinks with (“We – Bee and I – live by the quaffing”). But it seems to me we have yet again another example of titling Emily Dickinson style. “It’s titling, Jim, but not as we know it…”
And certainly not as we know it from my version of The Complete Poems where it is unmentioned – or unmentionable.
And what of the other poems that Dickinson “titled”, named or referred to? I’ve already gone on far too much, but I’ll note the two that, according to Johnson, were enclosed in letters where the title is actually included in the poems themselves. The poems were “The Guest is Gold and Crimson” (aka J15) and “Teach Him – When He makes the names -” (aka J227). Here are the manuscripts of “The Guest is Gold and Crimson” (aka J15). Apologies for the fuzzy screenshots and clipped image, but you should be able to get a better view from the links below.
Well, darn it again, but who would say that “Navy” Sunset! is not some sort of title for the verse that follows? Surely, scarce though such titling is, the only question is what manner of titling is this? There are some obvious points. The poem was sent to Sue Dickinson (Emily’s sister-in-law) and is signed by Emily. The rendition of the poem is sent specifically to Sue at a specific time perhaps relating to some specific occasion. The title therefore might be construed as being “occasional”. It is a “letter poem” with Dickinson obviously sending it off with some specific purpose in mind. (I should research it more, but I haven’t.) The title is also absent in the fascicles or packets carefully prepared by Dickinson which lends even more strength to its “occasional” nature. It is, of course, also another riddle poem, and we might reasonably conclude that the title is a key or answer to the riddle.
I suppose one might ask, what on earth, is a “Navy” Sunset? The most obvious explanation is that the image derives from the darkening blue sky around the sun as it sets, for even in Dickinson’s time, I think, the term navy had the meaning of blue. But this is also, self evidently, one of the many examples of naval or nautical images that Dickinson uses in her work and perhaps she has in mind here the naval “sunset” ceremony also known as the “Evening Colours” when the flag is taken down at the end of the day. (However, my cursory research of historical U.S. navy uniforms – despite the cockades – reveals no ermine doublets or Capuchins.)
And, apparently, no physical representation or object enclosed by Dickinson to represent the poem. After all, you may be able to pick up a bee, or a twig, but you can’t get hold of a sunset. Though one wonders, if, perhaps, the Dickinson household had a flag – an ensign or jack, that she could have folded and popped in the letter… And this is not such a fanciful notion, since if we delve further on this matter of poems being referenced by accompanying physical objects, we only have to turn, for example, to poem J222: “When Katie walks, this simple pair accompany her side,/ When Katie runs unwearied they follow on the road,/When Katie kneels, their loving hands still clasp her pious knee -/ Ah! Katie! Smile at Fortune with two so knit to thee!
Another riddle poem we think? Certainly. But not a riddle to its recipient. For indeed (as well as a poem) it is a note to a friend, accompanied by… a pair of garters. As the eponymous Kate later told us: “Emily knitted a pair of garters for me, and sent them over with these lines”. A bee, a pine twig, a pair of garters… Why not a flag?
Of course, the marvellous Dickinson did “send” stuff to her correspondents that she couldn’t possibly enclose, as she once wrote in one of her many teasing letters to Mrs Bowles: “Since I have no sweet flower to send to you, I enclose my heart. A little one, sunburnt, half broken sometimes, yet close as the spaniel to its friends. Your flowers come from heaven, to which, if I should ever go, I will pluck you palms. My words are far away when I attempt to thank you so take the silver tear instead from my full eye.” (It makes me want to feel the manuscript and see if there is the stain of a tear.)
But let me, finally get to the other poem which seems to have some sort of accompanying title… “Teach Him – When He makes the names -” (aka J227). Here’s the poem as published in my (Johnson) Complete Poems. Of course (?), no title in my edition.
The poem, we learn elsewhere, was sent to Samuel Bowles and his wife shortly after the birth of their son Charles in 1861.
Here is the poem as published for the first time (I think) in Todd’s Letters of Emily Dickinson in 1894 where we are told on the preceding page that it was “one of the very few of Emily Dickinson’s verses named by herself”, seemingly sent to Mrs Bowles absent any accompanying letter. So the letter is the poem: the poem is the letter.
So what about the manuscript? Well here we have it made publicly available courtesy Amherst College Digital Collections.
There we have it: Baby. Surely it’s a dead cert title: the name of the little poem that follows. And Todd sets it out as such in the letters – capitalised (where did that editorial intervention come from?), and full stop afterwards (which I would argue is normal for titles at the time). But wait a moment. If you look closely at the manuscript… is that a full stop after Baby? It certainly is after “Emily”. But after Baby? Well, no, it ain’t. Looks like a dash to me, compare it with the rest of the dashes in the poem. It’s a dash. Oh dear. Is this one of those seeming titles? Is it actually just part of the poem? The air is turning Purple – for me… Alas, my pocket hasn’t stretched as far yet as the Variorum edition of Franklin, so I can’t dig out his view, if any, on this. And probably just as well, because I’ve pretty much got the end of my tether on this titling thing.
So how on earth can I summarise these random musings?
Did Dickinson do titles? No not really. Well that is surely fair to say. But yet… There’s something going on here, some versioning, some referencing of her work, often associated with her distribution of it on occasion to her correspondents and to which Dickinson is consciously and playfully party. And sometimes the referencing moves beyond words to things themselves and we have indeed to think about “linguistic scepticism” and the inadequacy of words comfortably to encapsulate what she is trying to tell us in her “letter to the World / That never wrote to me”.
The matter is, of course, compounded and confounded by Dickinson’s reluctance to publish her verse in her lifetime. Because – yes – titles matter when it comes to the editorial hand. What are we going to call this? The poet would be asked. Dickinson didn’t have to answer the question. In a curious way, it is not so much that Dickinson didn’t do titles, as that she didn’t have to do them. But the issue is, of course, greater than that.
And what of this vexed issue of publication? Was it that she didn’t care whether her poems ever saw the light of day? Were these scraps of poems saved for the world by happenstance? Goodness – no. We should never think that Dickinson was unconcerned about her “letter to the World” ever being sent. Not at all. She carefully copied out her poems, made them into little booklets, stitched them together with bits of string into packets. She carefully preserved them for posterity. This was not a chaotic careless creative process. She had something to say to the world and she darn well wanted the world to hear it. It was not that she did not want her work published, so much as that she did not want to publish it herself.
Dickinson’s notion of publication in her lifetime was to circulate her writings to the correspondents she valued. So, in a certain way, she did publish. And this must have been massively important for her. She was not after all, as we know too well, a keenly social being. However inadequate, words, in a sense, were all she had, and by gosh, did she make use of them!
Letters, notes, poems, utterances, thoughts all flow one into the other through the medium of inadequate but wonderful words and yet it is often the “not naming”, the riddles, the absences, the silences, the inexpressible joy and terror of existence which lurk behind these shadows of words that take your breath away. You unpack a Dickinson poem and it explodes. It is, after all, difficult to put into words the whole thing that is a world, a life, a being. But Dickinson gets mightily close to this unnameable essence.
So I move from the trite matter of titling to the larger matter of life. What’s it about? You can’t put a title on it, can you? We puzzle over a Dickinson poem and think – goodness me! – well, what is this about? If only she had called it something to give me a clue! But when we look at the whole single book of her work, of her world, we are asking the wrong question. We need to ask the same question that Dickinson posed to Thomas Wentworth Higginson about her verse when she wrote to him in 1862. Is it “alive”? She asked. Does it “breathe”? “Should you think it breathed – and you had the leisure to tell me, I should feel quick gratitude -“
And so I wheel right round to where I ended up in my previous random musing on Dickinson and titling. This is a neat circumference which makes me ponder once again the wonderful quatrain:
When Bells stop ringing - Church - begins The Positive - of Bells - When Cogs - stop - that's Circumference - The Ultimate - of Wheels.
Let us hope that Dickinson did feel that “quick gratitude”; and even more that it endured during her short and solitary life.
A main source for the above is the splendid digital collection of manuscripts at edickinson.org. Other sources are: Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Faber and Faber, London - first published in paperback 1975. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, in two volumes, published in Boston by Roberts Brothers in 1894. White Heat - The Friendship of Emily Dickinson & Thomas Wentworth Higginson, by Brenda Wineapple, published by Alfred A. Knopf in New York 2008. Well worth dipping into also is The Landscape of Absence - Emily Dickinson's Poetry by Inda Nath Kher, published by Yale University Press in 1974. The first UK edition, Poems by Emily Dickinson - edited by Todd and Higginson and with a preface by Higginson - was published in London by James R. Osgood, McIlvaine, & Co. in 1891.
For my earlier musings on Emily Dickinson and the titling of poems see: