Not long ago I read The Portable Walt Whitman, an edited but complete collection of Whitman’s poetry, fiction, and accounts of his time in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War. What a contrast between him and his contemporary, Dickinson! Where Whitman is voluble, open (perhaps to extremes), and accessible, Dickinson is brief (a few poems are only two lines long), often cryptic, and many times difficult to parse.
Reading the entire collection of all 1775 poems, plus variations, cover to cover is a task only for the determined. Or the patient. Even at a pace of 25 poems a day, it still took me over two months to get through them all, and “get through” is the right term. At that pace, there’s no real opportunity to try to get far under the surface of many of these poems, but frankly there was only so much of that brain work I was willing to do.
Reading the entire collection does, however, offer some insights or perceptions a more selective reading would miss. The first is the perception all she wrote about was death is incorrect. Certainly, death, the afterlife, and immortality make up one general category of her work, and a substantial one, but there are at least three others: love, especially lost love; nature and the natural world; and faith and religion.
Dickinson’s nature poems are her most accessible, at least for this reader. She evidently spent a lot of time in the fields and farms around her home and at the sea shore, in all seasons and all times of the day. Sunrises and sunsets, birds and insects, especially bees, and the characteristics of the seasons and the transitions between them all earn her attention. Like Whitman, she often celebrates these topics.
While most of her religious poems stay within the canon of Christianity, her faith was sometimes subject to doubt, and those doubts also found expression in her work. For some reason I found this surprising, although I suspect most Christians would not.
I need to tie her love poems and death poems together. As I read the full body of her work, I got the strong impression there might have been a death of someone close to her, either a female relative, dear friend, or possibly lover that deeply affected her, leaving her to muse about love and loss. I’m not familiar with Dickinson’s biography, so maybe there’s something known about this I’m not aware of. If, however, she had a female lover (or more than one over time), unlike Whitman, any references to them are quite oblique.
Dickinson’s penchant for using long dashes in place of other punctuation is notorious among students who are required to read her work. It took me some time to train myself to ignore the dashes and let the words and line breaks tell me how to read each poem. Over time, this habit faded and she began using more standard punctuation.
Editor Thomas H. Johnson assembled this collection into an approximately chronological order based on the year when each poem was thought to have first been written, but every one of these dates is marked “circa.” From poem number 1649 on, a question mark indicates the date couldn’t even be approximately determined.
For the poetry reader who loves to dig under the surface of a poem to unearth its “true meaning,” a collection like this offers a lifetime of opportunities. For the more casual reader, a smaller collection would certainly be easier to manage. And for the reader who claims they don’t understand poetry, this two inch thick tome is one to stay away from.