Book Review: The Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson

The Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson, by Emily Dickinson with introduction and notes by Rachel Wetzsteon

In high school I had to interpret a poem by Emily Dickinson (not included in this volume) as part of my IB education, and since then I have had a fondness for her works but not a great deal of familiarity with her larger body of works aside from those I read at the time.  As is often the case, the sight of seeing an inexpensive collection of her works in a bookstore is generally enough for me to explore my interest in her works.  As a poet myself, I certainly have an interest in reading excellent works of poetry by other writers [1], and this book certainly fits the bill.  This is not to say that I share the author’s perspective but rather that her influence on my own writing is something to acknowledge and her perspective is one that I certainly understand even if it is one that I find it necessary to critique.  It is certainly worthwhile and intriguing to note that Emily Dickinson is someone whose writing was not highly regarded at the time because of its unsettling and slanted nature but that her poems are, I think justly, better regarded by contemporary poets and readers who find her poetry matches our own slanted and unsettling times.

This particular book is a bit more than 300 pages long and includes somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter to a third of the poet’s entire work.  Even so, this is a sizable body of work that ought to please those who are fans of Emily Dickinson’s writings in a form that restores her works to their manuscript originals rather than the edits that her work suffered towards the beginning of its published history.  The poetess was a recluse during her life and her work was not particularly supported by her family, and one can see in these poems a mind that is alert and a heart that is passionate but also somewhat timid and gentle with its desire and longing turned in on themselves with a deep distaste for candor and judgment.  The collection is divided into five parts:  life, nature, love, time and eternity, and The Single Hound, a division which seeks to disguise how much Dickinson is interested in questions of death as well as a somewhat self-absorbed approach to natural theology.  Nonetheless, although the author shows a defective religious worldview that denies biblical authority in exchange for her own subjective personal perspective, the poems themselves are still beautiful enough and occasionally very thoughtful and inspiring.

When dealing with Emily Dickinson there are at least a couple of issues that one must deal with.  The less serious one is a question of style.  Dickinson writes with a pleasant conversational tone but one whose slant rhymes and uncanny aspects make them unsettling to someone who wants clear and obvious rhyme in the style of the poetry of the time which has not aged well in our own time.  I find the end stops and odd aspects of the writer’s work quite appealing personally.  Likewise, the author regularly adopts a somewhat odd language that reflects her keen observation of the natural aspects of her local environment as well as her vivid imagination and her preoccupation with death and eternity, none of which I find particularly problematic either.  What I do find problematic is the poet’s rejection of the authority of scripture as well as the aspect of God as a judge.  To be sure, this puts her in firm agreement with some of the more blameworthy aspects of our own contemporary culture, and likely accounts for at least part of her popularity as a poet, but it does put a considerable distance between her own worldview and my own.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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6 Responses to Book Review: The Collected Poems Of Emily Dickinson

  1. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

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