Favorite Dickinson poem? Check the manuscript.

Question 1: Do you have a favorite Dickinson poem?

Question 2: Have you ever seen the manuscript version of it?

Case in point—

            I recently became reacquainted with a poem I’d somewhat forgotten after having buried it into a notebook (that’s the glory of studying Dickinson’s works—there are so many of them that you get the benefit of ‘rediscovery’ quite often; I call it ‘Emnesia’, ahem), and where I typically default to one of my tangible texts, I chose convenience and instead found the poem in the open-access manuscript archives online. (https://www.edickinson.org/)    

            You can search by first line, keyword, date, recipient, and so forth, and soon I found the poem I wanted here.

            I then set to reading the fancy, flourished script (think imposing wedding invite)—and soon came to the joy (and poetic relatability) of page 3:

The poem I’d read before was indeed only one version, and arguably, it wasn’t even the version she preferred. Observe—

(Screen capture of Dickinson’s poem taken here.)

The original flourished script gives the following final lines:

“…When Chivalry was done

Impassible to logic

But possibly the One” (F1279B)

For the first line listed above, the possible alternatives are:

“When tyranny was done”


“When Discipline was done”

            Whereas the original “chivalry” is crossed out, both of these selections are underlined once. Based on this, it’s hard to discern which of the two words Dickinson actually preferred— but perhaps she preferred them both, as they offer strikingly different interpretations (and connotation) for an already insightful poem.

            In the next line (probably my favorite), she begins with “Impassable”—moves to “impervious”—then appears to clearly settle upon “untenable.”

            These words aren’t necessarily simply interchangeable. Each offers a different view of the poem and provides—through the process of Dickinson’s elimination—additional insight into how the portrayal may have shifted and how her own understanding of the poem’s development or intention may have evolved.

            For years, one deterrent for reading the manuscripts was the brilliant poet’s somewhat difficult handwriting, as apparently ‘sublime poetic brilliance’ doth not necessarily equate ‘sublime legibility.’ She loops into things, she whirls upwards, she may span an entire word with the crossbar of her t, or add it midair 3 letters later, so that it arguably resembles ñ—

relurñs = returns

            However, the open access archive offers transcription on the right side of the screen. You can see the manuscript of the poem in the center (zoom all you like) and then read the transcription (text) on the side.   

            So, for those of you who write original poetry, the manuscripts offer a masterclass in nuanced word selection (among so much else), and for those of you who solely enjoy reading Dickinson’s works and have your favorites—check out the manuscripts and send me your thoughts. I would not only be curious as to which Dickinson poems are your favorites—but also, which alternatives (if any) fascinated most.

More information about the archives can be found here.

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