poems sent from dickinson to higginson

Thomas Johnson's Note on Poem 1393

MANUSCRIPT: The story that unfolds concerning this remarkable elegy is revealing. ED wrote a letter to T.W. Higginson about mid-June 1877, perhaps on the 16th, the third anniversary of her father's death. The entire tone of the letter is elegiac. In the middle of the letter she specifically recalls him: "Since my Father's dying - everything sacred enlarged so - it was dim to own -". Without directly naming him again, she continues to query how one should seek comfort for loss through death. Indeed in this letter, for the only time in their long correspondence, she addresses Higginson as the ordained minister she had always known him to be. In what manner, she asks, do we achieve immortality? "Would you explain it to me? I was told you were once a Clergyman. It comforts an instinct if another have felt it too." Then without break in the thought she has been building to, she concludes: "I was rereading your 'Decoration.' You may have forgotten it." And the quatrain above follows.

The poem she refers to is one which Higginson contributed to Scribner's Monthly in June 1874 - the month her father died. Her letter (BPL Higg 69) thus suggests why she had reread his poem. It goes:

"Manibus date lilia plenis."

Mid the flower-wreath'd tombs I stand
Bearing lilies in my hand
Comrades! in what soldier-grave
Sleeps the bravest of the brave?

Is it he who sank to rest
With his colors round his breast?
Friendship makes his tomb a shrine;
Garlands veitl it; ask not mine.
One low grave, yon tree beneath,
Bears no roses, wears no wreath;
Yet no heart more high and warm
Ever dared the battle-storm,

Never gleamed a prouder eye
In the front of victory,
Never foot had finer tread
On the field where hope lay dead,

Than are hid within this tomb,
Where the untended grasses bloom;
And no stone, with feign'd distress,
Mocks the sacred loneliness.

Youth and beauty, dauntless will,
Dreams that life could ne'er fulfill,
Here lie buried; here in peace
Wrongs and woes have found release.

Turning from my comrades' eyes,
Kneeling where a woman lies,
I strew lilies on the grave
Of the bravest of the brave.

Writing to Mrs. Todd in May, 1891, when they were beginning to select material for the second series of Poems, Higginson supplies a transcript of the elegiac quatrain ED had incorporated in the letter of June 1877. "One verse I copy for the pleasure of copying it, though you may have it," he says, and creditably adds: "She wrote it after re-reading my 'Decoration.' It is the condensed essence of that & so far finer." (AB, 128-130). Two earlier drafts of the lines survive; perhaps there were no others. Both are in pencial and presumably were written as trial drafts for the final copy sent to Higginson/ The first (Bingham 105-6), jotted on two small scraps of paper, reads thus:
   Lay this Laurel on the one
Lay - Triumphed- and remained unknown -
   Laurel - fell [strikethrough: thy]   futile Tree -
   Such a Victor cannot  be -
          could not

   Lay this Laurel on the one
   Too intrinsic for Renown -
   Laurel - vail [strikethrough: they] deathless Tree -
   Him thou chastenest -
   That is he -
   Him you chastened
   That was he

The second draft (Bingham 97-4), on a larger stationery scrap, is a redaction of the first:
Lay this Laurel on the one
Triumphed and remained and unknown -
Laurel - fell your futile Tree -
Such a Victor could not be -
Lay this Laurel on the one
Too intrinsic for Renown -
Laurel - vail your deathless Tree -
Him you chasten - that is he -

It is impossible to know whether ED intended the poem finally to be two stanzas or one. She often used but one stanza of a two-stanza poem when she incorporated verses in her letters. But there is a good reason to conjecture, in the light of the whole process by which the quatrain was chosen in the letter to Higginson, that she intended it to stand as the full realization of her intent.

PUBLICATION: The copy to Higginson is published in Poems (1891), 230. It is omitted from the 1894 edition of Letters but is included in the 1931 edition, page 293. The second draft of the eight-line version is in New England Quarterly, XX (1947), 15.

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Commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
Maintained by Lara Vetter <lv26@umail.umd.edu>
Last updated on September 22, 1998