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This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

Letter from Domhnall Mitchell
Reading Emily Dickinson


I enjoyed Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Personal Readings’ of two poems by Emily Dickinson on the same theme, which appeared in PNR 221. But he might be interested to know that since its publication in the 1955 three-volume variorum edited by Thomas H. Johnson, one of these poems (then numbered 472 and beginning ‘I am ashamed – I hide’) has been editorially restored to a version which more closely approximates its original structure. First in his 1981 The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson (II, p. 789, pp. 793–94), and later in The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1998), Ralph W. Franklin showed that ‘I am ashamed – I hide’ is a four-stanza poem which is textually equivalent to the first three stanzas of 472 and then the stanza identified (wrongly) by Johnson as a separate poem and numbered 473. The fourth and fifth stanzas of the text as printed by Johnson (and reproduced as lines 20–27 in PNR 221) are in fact an integral poem, and presented as such in Franklin’s edition.

Department of Language and Literature
The Norwegian University of Science and Technology
N-7491 Trondheim
(by email)

Thomas Kinsella replies:

I was using the Faber edition; and can see how the Faber poem no. 472, with poem no. 473, could be taken together and divided differently: the first a sensuous fantasy of the bridal preparations, in terms aware that it is merely fantasy, while holding on to her proper meekness and keeping unworthy pride at bay. The fourth and fifth stanzas of no. 472, taken by themselves, now seem incomplete. They are clear about the double loss but give no idea of the lost ‘Heaven’. I would still feel able to take the bridal fantasy in no. 473 as the Heaven in no. 472.

It might be best not to be absolutely definite about the manuscript texts: Johnson talks in the Faber edition about the possibility of alternative readings; and to take the poems together. There are many other related poems throughout Dickinson’s career. Love unfulfilled was a lifelong theme, and accounts for a great deal of her poetry. As numbered in the Faber edition: no. 230 (‘I – never wed’); no. 570 gives a clear picture of the outside world but ends with ‘His foot […] passing – / Possibly, this moment – / While I – dream – Here’; no. 1076 (‘Just Once…’; with the theme at its most intense; I attach a suggested reading). There are many others: nos. 1262, 1368, 1640…

Just Once! Oh least Request!
Could Adamant refuse
So small a Grace
So scanty put,
Such agonizing terms?
Would not a God of Flint
Be conscious of a sigh
As down His Heaven dropt remote
‘Just Once’ Sweet Deity?

l. 1: A passionate prayer for the satisfaction of a desire repeatedly denied, the tone hopeless.
ll. 2–3: Rhetoric: denial would be unthinkable. An instance offered: Earth’s hardest matter rejecting so slight a mercy…
l. 4: … so humbly asked…
l. 5: … out of such painful need.
ll. 6–7: A second instance offered – but with rejection accepted in the image: a god of absolute hardness, hearing – and not answering – the faintest, most resigned of prayers.
ll. 8–9: A dramatic visual image of the rejection: the prayer – a thing of substance, embodied in the two opening words of the poem – falling away from an unanswering god and dropping through his remoteness back to the pleading voice.
l. 9: Sweet Deity: not the god of lines 6 and 8 – the deity introduced as an instance in the prayer’s hopelessness – but the being to whom the prayer is addressed.

An intense statement of an abject and hopeless request for the slightest satisfaction of an emotional need repeatedly denied – a need, in the tone of the poem, satisfied ordinarily for others. The nature of the need not given. The negative evidence – not taking the identity of the poet into account – narrows the possibilities to a need for some kind of revelation or understanding, or of human love. Taking the identity of the poet into account – with vision and understanding not lacking – the suggestion is the lack of love.

This item is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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