Guests in Eden


The poetry of Emily Dickinson has, for me, long been asso­ciated with foreign languages. In the shadow of Columbia University campus there was in the winter of 1923-‘24 a branch of the New York Public Library. Through the benevolence of some private donor, its shelves held the several small vol­umes of Emily Dickinson, with their quaint covers of the nine­ties; a more complete collection than the university library then afforded. The first one that I opened, POEMS-SERIES ONE, (edited by Mrs. Todd and Mr. Higginson) was well-thumbed. On the margin of Emily's poem, "Our share of night to bear," was pencilled a translation in Spanish by some anonymous borrower, perhaps a Porto Rican or Filipino from that vast human sea of the foreign-born who live beyond Morningside Heights.

At that time there seemed to be a lapse of general interest in the work of Emily Dickinson. Actually we were on the threshold of a revival of attention to her, with the publication that year Of THE LIFE AND LETTERS by Madame Bianchi, and THE COMPLETE POEMS. For the next two decades, which em­braced the Dickinson centenary, there were accumulative and richly varied tributes to the poet: Emily was the subject of two novels, three plays, and three new biographies. Many of the Dickinson poems were set to music. Other poets wrote poems to her. She was the inspiration of an original textile design by the gifted Ruth Reeves. And in the dance, one of the most dis­tinguished of all Dickinson tributes was Martha Graham's LETTER TO THE WORLD. Some of the poems were being read in the languages of at least six distant countries.

An English edition Of POEMS-SERIES ONE had been pub­lished in London in the summer of 1891. The Critic (American weekly) for July 18, 1891 stated: "Of the poems of Emily Dickinson ‘an Arabic translation made in Syria’ is said to have passed through several editions." This Arabic translation must have had considerable influence around the Mediterranean, and it veils a colorful story of Emily’s foreign debut.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 2000 by
Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved.
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Last updated on March 10, 2008

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