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The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Hardcover) by Emily Dickinson

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Summary Review

Emily Dickinson proved that brevity can be beautiful. Only now is her complete oeuvre--all 1,775 poems--available in its original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision, in one volume. Thomas H. Johnson, a longtime Dickinson scholar, arranged the poems in chronological order as far as could be ascertained (the dates for more than 100 are unknown). This organization allows a wide-angle view of Dickinson's poetic development, from the sometimes-clunky rhyme schemes of her juvenilia, including valentines she wrote in the early 1850s, to the gloomy, hell-obsessed writings from her last years. Quite a difference from requisite Dickinson entries in literary anthologies: "There's a certain Slant of light," "Wild Nights--Wild Nights!" and "I taste a liquor never brewed."

The book was compiled from Thomas H. Johnson's hard-to-find variorum from 1955. While some explanatory notes would have been helpful, it's a prodigious collection, showcasing Dickinson's intractable obsession with nature, including death. Poem 1732, which alludes to the deaths of her father and a onetime suitor, illustrates her talent:

My life closed twice before its close;

It yet remains to see

If Immortality unveil

A third event to me,

So huge, so hopeless to conceive

As these that twice befell.

Parting is all we know of heaven,

And all we need of hell.

The musicality of her punctuation and the outright elegance of her style--akin to Christina Rossetti's hymns, although not nearly so religious--rescue the poems from their occasional abstruseness. The Complete Poems is especially refreshing because Dickinson didn't write for publication; only 11 of her verses appeared in magazines during her lifetime, and she had long-resigned herself to anonymity, or a "Barefoot-Rank," as she phrased it. This is the perfect volume for readers wishing to explore the works of one of America's first poets. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Contemporary Reviews

An appropriately poetic review of Dickinson's poetry from the November 1891 issue of The New England Magazine

Other Reviews

5 out of 5 stars Zero at the Bone, November 4, 2001

By Dennis Littrell (SoCal) (TOP 50 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME) (COMMUNITY FORUM 04)       

This review is from: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Paperback)

Nearly everyone who's had a brush with American lit knows the story of Emily Dickinson - her poetry unpublished in her lifetime, and then even after her death, her verses seeing the light of day only after having been "improved" on by an editor who found her rhymes imperfect and her meter "spasmodic." He even went so far as to make her metaphors "sensible." The fact is, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to whom Dickinson had sent her poems, was a representative of the poetic establishment, and as with all artistic establishments then and now, was too rigid in his thinking and too impoverished in his imagination to comprehend a new voice of genius. As Editor Thomas H. Johnson writes in his terse but very instructive Introduction, "He was trying to measure a cube by the rules of plane geometry."

Of course other women of literature suffered something similar during the nineteenth century. What I wonder is, who is being misread, ignored or denied today?

Anyway, suffice it to say that this IS the definitive one-volume collection of the poetry of Emily Dickinson. It includes all the 1,775 poems that she wrote in her lifetime, and they are presented here just as she wrote them with only some minor corrections of obvious misspellings or misplaced apostrophes. Johnson has retained the sometimes "capricious" capitalization, and preserved the famous dashes.

There is a subject index, which I found useful, and an index of first lines, which is invaluable.

Dickinson can be playful...

I'm Nobody! Who are you?

Are you - Nobody - too?

Then there's a pair of us!

Don't tell! they'd advertise - you know!

...she can be sarcastic...

"Faith" is a fine invention

When Gentlemen can see -

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency.

[Alas, the editor does not support italics. The words "see" and "Microscopes" are italicized above, and it really does make a difference!]

...and grave...

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air -

Between the Heaves of Storm -

...and observant...

I like a look of Agony,

Because I know it's true -

Men do not sham Convulsion,

Nor simulate, a Throe -

...and profound...

Love reckons by itself - alone -

"As large as I" - relate the Sun

to One who never felt it blaze -

Itself is all the like it has -

..and desperate...

"Hope" is the thing with feathers -

That perches in the soul -

And sings the tune without the words -

And never stops - at all -

...and self aware...

I meant to have but modest needs -

Such as Content - and Heaven -

Within my income - these could lie

And Life and I - keep even -

...and even radical...

Much Madness is divinest Sense -

To a discerning Eye -

Much Sense - the starkest Madness -

'Tis the Majority

In this, as All, prevail -

Assent - and you are sane -

Demur - you're straightway dangerous -

And handled with a Chain -

...and much more.

She is a poet of strikingly apt and totally original phrases imbued with a deep resonance of thought and observation, especially on her favorite subjects, life, death and love. She can be cryptic and her references and allusions are sometimes too private for us to catch. She can also be amazingly terse. But the intensity of her experience and the "Zero at the Bone" emotion displayed in this, her "letter to the World/That never wrote to me -" are second to none in the world of letters. Unlike Shakespeare, who mastered the psychology of people in places high and low, Dickinson mastered only her own psychology, and yet through that we can see, as in a mirror, ourselves.

5 out of 5 stars Blasphemous! Erotic! Brilliant!, December 9, 2000

By Michael J. Mazza (Pittsburgh, PA USA) (TOP 100 REVIEWER) (REAL NAME) (COMMUNITY FORUM 04)    

This review is from: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Paperback)

I can't think of "The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson" as simply a volume of poetry. Rather, it seems to me to be the uninhibited testament of a latter-day prophetess; it reads like the visions of a rare mind who pierced through the prisons of convention, and who dared to record what she perceived.

Forget any preconceptions you may have had about Dickinson, and start reading the book. As a whole, this collection is a stunning exploration of many themes and images: the world of nature, metaphysics, human emotion, and more. And throughout, these short verses radiate with psychological insight.

And if you read with the attentiveness that these poems deserve, you will discover many treasures. I have been a particular fan of Dickinson's "blasphemous" verses, in which she deconstructs the conventions of mainstream religiosity, and of her erotic poems, which celebrate the sensuous delights of the human and nonhuman worlds. Check out such gems as #324 ("Some keep the Sabbath going to Church-- / I keep it, staying at Home") or #339 ("My Cactus--splits her Beard / To show her throat"). Dickinson is full of surprises, all written in a style that is stunning and subtly seductive.

Dickinson writes, "Exhilaration--is within-- / There can no Outer Wine / So royally intoxicate / As that diviner Brand" (#383). But if you must rely on an "Outer Wine," dip into the "Complete Poems" and get high on Emily. It's an addiction that's good for you.

5 out of 5 stars One of the few poets who ever perfected a method., April 25, 1999

By Michael (Missouri, USA)

This review is from: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Paperback)

I have 1000 words to tell what Dickinson means to me, an impossible task I gladly take up. I'd like to respond to others on this page. I once called Dickinson the "patron saint of lonely people everywhere," so I can identify with what one person said about teenage shut-ins. And I don't blame the person who snubbed her for not leaving a name--I'd be embarrassed to as well. Emily egotistical? The poet who wrote, "I'm nobody"? Wow. I love Dickinson's work so much because her vision of life is so fully her own, so at odds with the views of those around her. Can you imagine knowing you are the most brilliant lyric poet of your time (Whitman was more an epic or narrative poet), and knowing no one understood you? It's like trying to communicate in a foreign language that only you know. In fact, that is exactly what she did--she explodes the syntax, vocabulary, and syllabication of English and transforms it into her own private means of communication. She demands that we meet her on her ground. True, reading her work is not "fun"--there's too much pain and burning beauty in it to be an easy ride. She is not for everyone--only for those who see that life's disappointments both destroy and liberate us at the same time: comparing human hurts to trees destroyed by nature's forces, she says (in poem 314), "We--who have the Souls-- / Die oftener--Not so vitally--." Those may be the finest lines any poet ever wrote in fEnglish.

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