An Introduction to the Poems
edited by Laura Lauth with Martha Nell Smith

'Her wagon was hitched to a star,'-- and who else could ride or write with such a voyager? A Damascus blade gleaming and glancing in the sun was her wit. Her swift poetic rapture was like the long glistening note of a bird one hears in the June woods at high noon, but can never see.
- Susan Dickinson, Obituary for Emily Dickinson

And let the sweet notes fall
- Susan Dickinson, "Amor"


Over a century after the Springfield Republican printed Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson's eloquent and loving homage to Emily, there still exists no finer synopsis of the poet's life and genius, or greater testament to the intense and intimate bond between these women. In the days, weeks, and years following Dickinson's death, Susan performed many duties in honor of Dickinson's memory: she oversaw Emily's funeral arrangements and prepared her body for burial, she commenced, at the request of the family, to edit the premier volume of Dickinson's poems. She wrote to and answered correspondence from publishers, carefully correcting misguided printings and encouraging editors to include poems that would better illustrate Dickinson's poetic range and vision. And in the end, frustrated by the public's resistance to Dickinson's work, Susan set aside her own plans for an inclusive and insightful representation of Emily's poetic genius and its contexts (see "Notes for Volume of Emily Dickinson's Writings"), confident that her daughter, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, would follow through on them. And she did (see The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime, 1914).

Despite the obvious literary importance of her relationship with Emily, we continue to maintain and perpetuate a critical amnesia about Susan Dickinson, one of the only and best informed witnesses to Emily's poetic genius and person. As Martha Nell Smith has suggested, our forgetting is an act of suppression, one due in part to personal and cultural forces at work in the poet's own historical moment (Rowing in Eden 130). Emily's first editors had limited knowledge of the poet and biases which prevented them from telling the whole story, biases that motivated them to rewrite and write out certain chapters in that story, what Smith calls the "books of Susan" (156-57). As all editors since have done to some extent, these first authors of "Emily Dickinson" constructed a volume suited to the tastes of their audience. So too must we acknowledge twentieth-century cultural biases that afford us only a "limited range of storylines for scripting poetic influence and erotic devotions" between these women (Smith, "Suppressing the Books of Susan in Emily Dickinson" 1).

Numerous scholars have acknowledged gaps in the critical understanding of Emily Dickinson's substantial poetic corpus, while an even greater number have written generally on the importance of the cultural, personal, social and psychological contexts of literary production (McGann 192). In response to this recent critical awareness, the number of biographies, collected correspondences, memoirs and other important literary testimonies have multiplied, filling libraries with contextual, biographical histories relevant to the Western literary canon's most celebrated authors. And still, despite our critical acknowledgment of these same gaps in Dickinson scholarship, Emily's "most literarily generative" relationship (there are at least 500+ writings to Susan) has been minimized and Susan's role within it trivialized (Smith, "Suppressing the Books of Susan in Emily Dickinson" 1).

Counter to our amnesia about Susan's important influence, Emily's words affirm over and over the central role Susan plays. "With the exception of Shakespeare," Emily writes to Susan, "you have told me of more knowledge than any one living" (OMC 229). Numerous witnesses to their personal and literary liaison exist, not least among them Susan's collaboration on the famous "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers" and an "extensive body of correspondence" from Emily filled with passion, devotion and respect for Susan (Hart & Smith, Open Me Carefully xi).

Because of their exchange of writings and the mutual influence that followed, Susan's verse provides, within her socio-historical environment, a particularly important and rare record of the influence of Emily's genius and her unorthodox poetics. It is hoped that the following manuscripts, typescripts, textual transcriptions and notes will facilitate reading Susan's verse -- where she mirrors nineteenth-century convention, where she echoes Emily, by whom she is influenced -- and, in the process, will clarify the particular innovation of Emily's poetry.

Susan's poems, the surface of her manuscripts and typescripts, her revisionary and compositional practices, suggest a fascinating scene of production, sometimes illuminating the sophisticated mechanisms of Emily's "marvellous" poems, as she called them (Smith, Rowing in Eden 216). The accompanying notes will stand as possible readings for the verse, supported as they are by a number of available histories, texts, correspondences, criticisms and anthologies. At their best they are only points of inquiry within much larger constellations of culture and subculture, contexts of production that we are only beginning to understand.

Editing Methodologies, Collected Observations


Except in the few cases where Susan has dated a manuscript or typescript, dates are approximate and subject to revision. Whenever possible, holographic comparisons have been made with dated writings. Further research will help establish chronological contexts and developments in Susan's poetics.


Notes are available for each poem, though in some cases difficulty in deciphering Susan's handwriting has hindered fuller readings. A critical gloss generally highlights or interprets aspects of physical description, form, theme, recoverable resonance with Emily's corpus, nineteenth-century poets and other relevant influences, as well as transmission history and certain conditions of production whenever possible or relevant.

Condition and Medium

Manuscript and typescript condition can reveal important histories of composition. In Susan's case, it cannot be stressed enough that the documents, in their various states of composition, point to more poems, and importantly, more complete drafts or copies now lost. Thus, criticism of Susan's efforts and poetics must always be seen as impoverished, lacking as it does a more extensive knowledge of her poetics. In the most accurate terms, what we have before us is a partial view of Susan's workshop.

Documents fall into one of four compositional states: there is only one fragment, "The robins choose to-day," which is classified as "unfinished" by comparison with other practices established in the corpus. Other document states include rough draft, fair draft, and copy. Rough draft manuscripts exhibit a number of marks -- cancellations, revisions, substitutions and notes; from these we can infer that the poem was not, in that state, intended for publication of any kind. Fair draft manuscripts show signs of revision but significantly fewer than a rough version. The possibilities for transmission are numerous in this case, but the manuscript is most likely at least a second draft, maybe even a copy with revisions. Copy manuscripts bear no marks of revision and appear to function as a record of a poem published through correspondence or conventionally in printed form.

The medium of transmission and its anticipated audience play a crucial role in the analysis of both Emily and Susan's poetics. In some of the most revealing versions of Susan's corpus, typescript versions of manuscript evince a self-conscious translation from conventions of the scripted page to that of typescript and its print conventions. For specific discussion see "Crushed Before the Moth" and "Irony," "Valentine's Day," "The robins choose to-day," "What offering...," and the private, epistolary-like experiments "Minstrel of the Passing Days" and "When Death...."

Critical Highlights

Overall, the corpus testifies to a revealing tension in Susan's influences. Her attempt to reconcile Emily's poetics with nineteenth-century convention and other hero-poets, such as Alfred Lord Tennyson, may account for many of her successes as well as failures. For example, gaps in logic are often due to the lyrical urgency of a poem, one that overwhelms her poem's theme (e.g., "Hyssop," "One asked when...," and "Further than dawn...").

In general, Susan exhibits a conventional formalist poetics, though her poems usually depart in some way from the established codes of printed poetry. In some such cases, she echoes Emily's practices, as in her overall use of shorter forms and sometimes radically abbreviated verse, (e.g., "Minstrel of the passing days," and "When death with his white fingers"). Other formal departures include unconventional rhythmic patterns, as in her experiment with monotone trimeter ("Hyssop," "Irony") and tetrameter ("Valentine's Day"), and unconventional line length, as illustrated by the poems "Further than dawn..." and the playful "Of June and her belongings."

Like Emily, Susan's poetics are deeply rooted in the lyric tradition, though Susan is more conventional in her musical manipulations. The corpus exhibits little enjambment with the exception of a few pieces (most notably "When Death...") and she is far more invested in the realization of full rhymes. The majority of poems are written in quatrains of alternating rhyme, and, not unlike Emily's use of the hymn stanza, modified for metrical departures (see "Hyssop," "Crushed..." "Irony," "Valentine's Day" and others).

In conceit, Susan is usually far less sophisticated in her renderings and certainly less invested in symbolic transformations than Emily. The extension of her metaphors is frequently troubled, though in the best of her corpus, she creates a mystical atmosphere suggestive of transformation, echoing Emily's corpus. Susan's "Irony", "Hyssop," "The days when smile over tears..." and "Minstrel..." are all good examples. Both poets exhibit ties to Romantic poetry and its more fanciful, liberal imagination as well as its strong lyrical qualities, though Susan draws more frequently on the analogs of popular and religious poetry than does Emily.

In general theme and subject, Emily and Susan share a love for the natural world with their contemporaries. Both poets tend to juxtapose mystical, Romantic depiction with more austere images (see Susan's "Valentine's Day" and "Irony"). Their common themes of season, love, death and grief demonstrate a topical resonance with other nineteenth-century poets; however, what often distinguishes Emily Dickinson's work is the rare imaginative conceits through which she juxtaposes object and experience, a language realized and illuminated by her usual formal practices. Beyond the general themes, Susan's corpus is distinguished by its record of loss. In fact, the simplicity and honesty of several of her elegiac poems even anticipate modern verse and put the lie to a superficial critical judgment that would simply label her work conventional (see "The robins choose to-day"). And perhaps it should not surprise us that these graceful, unembellished poems should remain within the tradition of epistolary exchange or private composition, a medium that afforded both Emily and Susan poetic opportunities that the "Auction" of print could not.

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Transcription and commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith,
Laura Elyn Lauth, and Lara Vetter, all rights reserved
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Last updated on January 10, 2008

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