poems sent from dickinson to higginson

Thomas Johnson's Note on Poem 216

MANUSCRIPTS: It is unlikely that ED ever completed this poem in a version that entirely satisfied her. The earlier version she copied into packet 3 (H 11c) sometime in 1859. The later version she copied into packet 37 (H 203c) in early summer, 1861. The story of how she labored in 1861 to create a finished poem unfolds in an exchange of notes with Sue, who evidently had not approved the earlier version when ED had asked her opinion. The first note (H B 74a), in pencil, reads thus:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers,
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by Noon -
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection -
Rafter of Satin - and Roof of Stone -

Grand go the Years - in the Crescent - above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
And Firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop - and Doges - surrender -
Soundless as dots - on a Disc of Snow -

Perhaps this verse would please you better - Sue -
          Emily -

This new version at first must have seemed satisfactory to ED, since she copied it into packet 37 (identical in text and form with the above except that the first stanza is concluded with an exclamation point). One conjectures that the transcript she made for Sue was copied down at the same time and dispatched to the house next door. Sue replied (in part): (H B 74b):

I am not suited dear Emily with the second verse - It is remarkable as the chain lightening that blinds us hot nights in the Southern sky but it does not go with the ghostly shimmer of the first verse as well as the other one - It just occurs to me that the first verse is complete in itself it needs no other, and can't be coupled - Strange things always go alone - as there is only one Gabriel and one Sun - You never made a peer for that verse, and I guess you[r] kingdom does'nt hold one - I always go to the fire and get warm after thinking of it, but I never can again - . . .

     Sue -

          Pony Express

Evidently ED, having received Sue's "Pony Express," again attempted a second stanza, for immediately following the second version, in packet 37, are these variant trial substitutes:

Springs - shake the sills -
But - the Echoes - stiffen -
Hoar - is the window -
And numb the door -
Tribes - of Eclipse - in Tents - of Marble -
Staples - of Ages - have buckled - there -


Springs - shake the Seals -
But the silence - stiffens -
Frosts unhook - in the Northern Zones -
Icicles - crawl from Polar Caverns -
Midnight in Marble - Refutes - the Suns -

Having pondered her choice, she selected the first of the two and dispatched this note to Sue (H B 74c):

Is this frostier?

Springs - shake the Sills -
But - the Echoes - stiffen -
Hoar - is the Window - and numb - the Door -
Tribes of Eclipse - in Tents of Marble -
Staples of Ages - have buckled there -

Dear Sue -
  Your praise is good - to me - because I know
it knows - and suppose it means -
  Could I make you and Austin - proud -
sometime - a great way off - 'twould give me
taller feet -. . .

She "supposes" those from whom she seeks advice mean to help and she yearns to give them reason to respect her art. But here the matter ends.

One conjectures that ED had sought advice from Sue in an attempt to comply with a request from Samuel Bowles to publish the poem in his newspaper: it is very possible that she incorporated the original version in a recent letter to him. In any event, it is the original version (with "cadence" altered to "cadences") that appeared anonymously in the Springfield Daily Republican on Saturday, 1 March 1862:

     The Sleeping

Safe in their alabaster chambers,
Untouched by morning,
     And untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
     Rafter of Satin, and roof of Stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her castle above them,
     Babbles the bee in a stolid ear,
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadences:
     Ah! what sagacity perished here!

Pelham Hill, June, 1861.

ED had an especial fondness for the Pelham hills, and viewing them she may have remembered a visit to an old burying ground there. A clue to the puzzling dating of the lines perhaps lay in the letter to Bowles which presumably accompanied the copy she sent him.

When ED initiated her correspondence with T. W. Higginson on 15 April, six weeks after "The Sleeping" had appeared in the SDR, she enclosed four poems for his critical assessment. Among them was a copy of the second version of this poem (BPL Higg 4), given a new line arrangement:

Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -
Untouched by Morning -
And untouched by Noon -
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection,
Rafter of Satin - and Roof of Stone -

Grand go the Years,
In the Crescent above them -
Worlds scoop their Arcs -
And Firmaments - row -
Diadems - drop
And Doges - surrender -
Soundless as Dots,
On a Disc of Snow.

Higginson's reply does not survive, but from her next letter to him there is no reason to suppose that he singled the poem out for special comment. What ED's final thoughts about these versions may have been are not known. She seems never to have referred to the poem again, and there is no later copy in any version or arrangment.

PUBLICATION: The SDR publication is discussed above. The packet copy version of 1859 was one of fourteen poems selected for publication in an article contributed by T. W. Higginson to the Christian Union, XLII (25 September 1890), 393. The text is arranged as two quatrains but is not otherwise altered. Higginson comments on it:

This is the form in which she finally left these lines, but as she sent them to me, years ago, the following took the place of the second verse, and it seems to me that, with all its too daring condensation, it strikes a note too fine to be lost.

He then quotes the second stanza from the copy that ED had sent to him. The text issued in Poems (1890), 113, without title, is a reconstruction of the two versions arranged as three stanzas, and in this form has persisted in all editions. The version of 1859 furnished the text for stanzas 1 and 2; the second stanza of the version of 1861 becomes stanza 3, and the lines are arranged as three quatrains. One phrase is altered:

castle above them] castle of sunshine

Portions of the correspondence with Sue and of the unused stanza ("Springs shake. . .") are in LL (1924), 78,, and FF (1932), 164. A facsimile of the copy sent to Higginson is reproduced in T. W. Higginson and H. W. Boynton, A Reader's History of American Literature, Boston, 1903, pages 130-131.

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Last updated on February 21, 2000