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.
DECORATIONWriting 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 oneThe second draft (Bingham 97-4), on a larger stationery scrap, is a redaction of the first:
Lay this Laurel on the oneIt 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.