Emily Dickinson Writing a Poem

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( Production, Circulation, Reception )

Among the ten lyrics known to have been printed during the poet's lifetime, "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" offers the only example of Emily Dickinson responding directly to another reader's advice. At the behest of Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson, her most beloved friend and sister-in-law, correspondent of nearly forty years and next door neighbor for three decades, Emily Dickinson revised this poem several times. As readers will see, Dickinson labored over "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers," searching for an appropriate second stanza, and in the process wrote four different verses for possible coupling with the striking first. This is especially important since Dickinson is perhaps perhaps most well-known for her isolation, for purportedly writing all alone, completely separated from the world. An example frequently (and accurately) remarked to support this commonly held biography of the nineteenth-century New England poet is that even critiques by professional men of letters such as Thomas W. Higginson (widely published essayist, well known agitator for women's rights, abolitionist with whom Dickinson corresponded for nearly twenty-five years) had little effect on her writing.

Emily and Susan Dickinson's exchange over the writing of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" indicates that Sue critiqued the text while Dickinson was in the process of writing, that the effects of Sue's responses to reading the poem are evident in its various incarnations. In other words, Sue was a vital participant in the composition and transmission of the poem. Because of that fact and because their exchange features audience response written and received by Emily Dickinson, these writings by and to her, concerning the shape and purview of the poem, are displayed and examined in this demonstration of how part of a Hypermedia Archive of Emily Dickinson's Creative Project might work. Marta Werner's Radical Scatters: Emily Dickinson's Fragments and Related Texts, 1870-1886, a website published by University of Michigan Press, is another such example. Werner's website is the first major installation of an increasingly collaborative endeavor which aims to reproduce electronically all of Dickinson's writings outside the fascicles. The presentation of manuscripts, transcriptions, early printings, and notes in the archive allows users to examine more closely various stages of her compositional practices. Thus this first example, from her most prolific correspondence, focuses on writings central to Dickinson's creative process when she was in her early thirties and on circulation of her artistic work, both "privately" by Emily herself in letters and "publicly" in the "Original Poetry" column of the Springfield Republican newspaper. Connect to a fully accessible 2010 version of the archive, published by University of Nebraska-Lincoln, here.

Emily Dickinson not only took her beloved's advice, but sent more poems, letters, and letter-poems to Susan than to any other correspondent, and the record shows that the two participated in a literary dialogue that lasted for decades, and the better part of Dickinson's life. A vital part of their relationship was writing, and here readers can see them workshopping one of Dickinson's most famous poems. In fact, their relationship appears to have been a key component of the writer Emily Dickinson's Poetry Workshop. A close examination of this particular exchange challenges not only widely held notions about the individual author Emily Dickinson, but also literary traditions that have drawn sharp distinctions between "poetic" and "domestic" subjects. Comments about routine household and family matters in Dickinson's writings have been received as household detritus, interesting for biography but apart or separate from her writing poetry. Yet the record presented here suggests that Emily and Susan Dickinson integrated the "high" poetic and the "low" domestic--contextualizing descriptions of the poem's effects with descriptions of motherhood's routine demands--and thus agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson: the Poet is one who shall "not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble" as a poetic subject.