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Reading in Time

Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century

Cristanne Miller
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    Reading in Time
    Book Description:

    This book provides new information about Emily Dickinson as a writer and new ways of situating this poet in relation to nineteenthcentury literary culture, examining how we read her poetry and how she was reading the poetry of her own day. Cristanne Miller argues both that Dickinson’s poetry is formally far closer to the verse of her day than generally imagined and that Dickinson wrote, circulated, and retained poems differently before and after 1865. Many current conceptions of Dickinson are based on her late poetic practice. Such conceptions, Miller contends, are inaccurate for the time when she wrote the great majority of her poems. Before 1865, Dickinson at least ambivalently considered publication, circulated relatively few poems, and saved almost everything she wrote in organized booklets. After this date, she wrote far fewer poems, circulated many poems without retaining them, and took less interest in formally preserving her work. Yet, Miller argues, even when circulating relatively few poems, Dickinson was vitally engaged with the literary and political culture of her day and, in effect, wrote to her contemporaries. Unlike previous accounts placing Dickinson in her era, Reading in Time demonstrates the extent to which formal properties of her poems borrow from the shortlined verse she read in schoolbooks, periodicals, and singleauthored volumes. Miller presents Dickinson’s writing in relation to contemporary experiments with the lyric, the ballad, and free verse, explores her responses to American Orientalism, presents the dramatic lyric as one of her preferred modes for responding to the Civil War, and gives us new ways to understand the patterns of her composition and practice of poetry.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-203-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  6. 1 Reading in Dickinson’s Time
    (pp. 1-18)

    Emily Dickinson wrote the large majority of her poems during and in at least partial relation to antebellum culture and the Civil War, partaking in popular discourse, experimenting with form in ways congruent with her peers, and both accepting and experimenting with basic genre assumptions of her era. To the extent that Dickinson’s poetry responds to its cultural context, it is primarily to this period, not the postbellum decades, and indeed Dickinson’s poetry marks the culminating peak of experiment with stanzaic and metrical structures in short-lined verse popular during this period. As this study documents, Dickinson’s writing practices also change...

  7. 2 Lyric Strains
    (pp. 19-48)

    Genre criticism is dominated by transhistorical definitional distinctions, albeit distinctions determined by the critical assumptions of the period in which they are made. This makes sense; a genre must be inclusive in its defining characteristics. In contrast, while poets may set themselves a particular generic task (to write a sonnet, an ode, an epic), their engagement with form is distinctly embedded in a historical moment and their understanding of genre is historically and locally framed. To read a genre historically in relation to a particular poet’s work, therefore, requires knowing when we retroproject contemporary genre, or other, expectations for reading...

  8. 3 Hymn, the “Ballad Wild,” and Free Verse
    (pp. 49-81)

    As the previous chapter demonstrates, although a great variety of verse was considered lyric, from sea chanties to verse of highly irregular rhyming and stanzaic structure, the lyric poem as such was not a much discussed genre in the mid-nineteenth-century United States. In contrast, the ballad had been the topic of active public debate for decades by the time of Dickinson’s youth. Following the late eighteenth-century ballad revival in the British Isles, with its defining impact on Romantic poetry, the ballad had become a popular form for imitation and experiment—no doubt spurring the American enthusiasm for departures from set...

  9. 4 Spoken Poetry and the Written Poem
    (pp. 82-117)

    The two preceding chapters present evidence of Dickinson’s closeness to her antebellum peers in valuing forms of verse that reveal some strain of wildness and in playing out the innovative rhythmic possibilities of both hymn and ballad forms and the intersections between them. Both these forms have a strong association with orality or performance—the ballad through its roots in oral tradition and the hymn through its assumed direct address to God in praise or prayer and its leaning toward plain language. Many of the elements characterizing Dickinson’s verse also characterize speech: namely, its frequently paratactic structure; use of disjunction,...

  10. 5 Becoming a Poet in “turbaned seas”
    (pp. 118-146)

    Scholars writing on Dickinson’s borrowings from popular culture and popular literature have generally treated this phenomenon as an unchanging aspect of her poetry. This may be the case with her enthusiasm for some authors or types of work and for her general interest in popular culture; there are distinct patterns of difference, however, in Dickinson’s use of idioms of Orientalism and foreign travel between 1858 and 1886. Travel literature and stories and poems set in foreign lands encouraged Dickinson to measure assumptions and values of Christianity and New England in relation to those of cultures and people elsewhere, particularly the...

  11. 6 Reading and Writing the Civil War
    (pp. 147-175)

    Scholars have debated the extent to which Dickinson was affected by the Civil War and responded to it in her poems, from Thomas H. Johnson’s famous pronouncement that Dickinson “did not live in history and held no view of it” (xx) to Shira Wolosky’s groundbreakingEmily Dickinson: A Voice of Warand several recent essays on particular poems relating to the war. Without question, the war was the defining historical event of Dickinson’s lifetime.¹ Because the handful of poems Dickinson wrote in unambiguous response to the war are now well known, this chapter will move from those texts to others...

  12. Coda: Portrait of a Non-Publishing Poet
    (pp. 176-196)

    Like many others, I believe that during the early 1860s Dickinson entertained the idea of publication, albeit ambivalently—an ambivalence that seems to have reappeared briefly in the 1880s. Had T. W. Higginson responded to her work in 1862 with the same enthusiasm Helen Hunt Jackson did in the 1880s, the story of Dickinson’s life might have developed differently. This chapter provides no new thesis for why Dickinson did not publish, but it maps the evidence and conclusions of the earlier chapters of this study in relation to this choice. Not publishing was a choice. As Alfred Habegger states, “Nothing...

  13. APPENDIX A: Poems on the Orient
    (pp. 197-200)
  14. APPENDIX B: Poems Mentioning Travel, Escape, or Foreign Places or People (1860)
    (pp. 201-202)
  15. NOTES
    (pp. 203-258)
    (pp. 259-272)
    (pp. 273-276)
    (pp. 277-280)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-281)