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Information about Dickinson's Poems

Only ten of Emily Dickinson's poems were published during her lifetime, most appearing first in newspapers although three were given to a paper that was raising funds for the Union army during the Civil War and one was published in a collection of poems. All were published anonymously. Dickinson knew about some of these publications in advance and perhaps even herself submitted the poems to the fundraising paper, but she made no attempt herself to publish her work generally and refused requests to publish a volume late in her life. There are many theories as to why she did not publish, including that she disdained the economics of the marketplace, that she found contemporary editors too conservative and feared her poems would be changed in print, and that she simply had no economic need to publish and did not want the disruption of her privacy or home responsibilities that publishing would bring. Her entire extended family knew she wrote poems because she sometimes read them aloud to her family and she mailed hundreds to family members and friends in letters. No one, however, knew how many she had written or thought of them as great works of literature.

After Dickinson's death, her sister discovered almost 2000 poems in her bureau drawer-some written out in fair copy and bound into small booklets (called "fascicles" by Dickinson scholars), some on folded or loose sheets of paper, and some on stray scraps, including one poem written on the back of a cooking chocolate wrapper. The poems were eventually edited in a number of selections, beginning in 1890. The first editions of Dickinson's poems were changed to suit what the editors assumed to be the conservative taste of the public: the editors regularized capitalization, punctuation, spelling, and modified rhymes and meter, in some cases even omitting whole stanzas of poems because they thought them too disturbing or difficult. These editions were very popular, and subsequent editions of the poems were less heavily edited. Because Dickinson left her poems in manuscript and many of the manuscripts contain more than one word choice for some lines or variant lineation, scholarly dispute continues about the best way to print Dickinson's poems.

Ralph W. Franklin's edition (the one we will use in the marathon reading) maintains Dickinson's irregular spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, including her frequent and unusual use of dashes. Dickinson did not date her poems, but Franklin has arranged them in chronological order to the best of his knowledge according to the date of letters in which Dickinson mailed poems and to her handwriting, which changed radically over the years of her life. Such dating, of course, can give us only the date when she copied a poem, not when she first wrote it, but Dickinson apparently made fair copies of most poems relatively soon after composing them, until her later years when she ceased to make fair copies. Franklin has also assigned numbers to the poems according to his chronology, beginning with Dickinson's first poem and concluding with the poems that cannot be dated because no extant copies in Dickinson's handwriting remain. Franklin's edition resembles the edition by Thomas H. Johnson (Harvard 1955) in many particulars, but Franklin has redated and hence renumbered many poems, and he discovered manuscript materials that clarify the construction of some poems leading him to separate stanzas Johnson had put together in a single poem and in one case to combine stanzas Johnson had separated. If you bought your edition of Dickinson before 1999, it is likely to be a Johnson edition. *Although most Johnson and Franklin printings of the poems are identical, the Johnson edition will not be useful at the marathon because the order of poems is different.*

Most of Dickinson's poems were written during the Civil War. Between 1861 and 1865, Dickinson writes poems Franklin numbers between 184 and 1120. During 1862 and 1863, she wrote well over 200 poems a year-an average of more than one poem every other day!