A Fatal “Expertise”

The Letters of Emily Dickinson Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, Dover Publications, Mineola, New York, 2003

Have you read any T.W. Higginson poems lately? Didn’t think so. Don’t feel bad. I’ve never met anyone who has. There’s a very profound and compelling reason for that: he didn’t write any poems worth reading.

Not that I should disparage him for that; he had his share of redeeming qualities: a faithful soldier for the Northern cause; a passionate abolitionist; manned a few ‘stations’ of the Underground Railway: all of that much to his credit. He was also an author and a publisher. He styled himself a “literary expert”.

But…poet? Nah!

Need a sample? How about these lines from what he surely considered one of his ‘best’:

Over the field where the brown quails whistle,
Over the ferns where the rabbits lie, 
Floats the tremulous down of a thistle
Is it the soul of a butterfly?

The rest of his repertoire goes downhill from there.

So someone–please!–tell me how Thomas Wentworth Higginson became Emily Dickinson’s “literary mentor”–her “expert” adviser on all things poetic! For 24 years, he enjoyed that role–uncontested–and never gave her the slightest encouragement; never helped her publish even one of her many masterpieces! As a matter of fact, all her life, he repeatedly discouraged her from doing so.

Emily Dickinson was 31 years old when she read an article by Higginson in the Atantic Monthly, advising young writers on how to break into publishing. Well, she had already written 300 poems by then. She tucked four of her favorites into an envelope and sent them off to the Master. “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” she timidly asked. And that was the beginning of a long correspondence.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson: Emily
Dickinson’s lifelong literary ‘advisor’.

Of course, his answer was ‘no’ on both counts: no, he was not too deeply occupied; and no her verse was not “alive”. Isn’t that what literary “experts” and agents are for? I’m paraphrasing actually; we don’t have his letter of reply; but from her subsequent correspondence with him, it is not at all hard to glean what he had written to her. She thanks him, for example, for “the painful surgery” of his initial rejection (Letter 261). She quotes his complaint that she is “uncontrolled”, that she is afflicted with a “spasmodic gait” (meter). And when he urges her “not to publish” (Letter 265) she sadly dismisses the idea as being “as foreign to my thought as Firmament to fin.” (There she goes! Don’t you love it? We would have written: “as far from my thoughts as heaven is from the deep blue sea”, but when would she ever be so mundane?)

Sometimes “experts” aren’t what they’re hyped up to be; have you noticed? And it has always been that way. Thomas Edison had Mr. Engle. Rachmaninoff had Cesar Cui. The Wright Brothers had Samuel Langley who, with all the powers that be, belittled them and their humble contraption…until the humble contraption flew! Then all of a sudden, people were asking: “what precisely do ‘experts’ do?”

And Emily Dickinson had Thomas Higginson. Her correspondence with him went on for many years, but after just a few of them, Emily gave up all thought of being a “published” poet. Sadly, she rarely mentioned it again.

But she didn’t give up writing! Oh, no! This ‘contraption’ was going to fly too! (And here’s a lesson dear aspiring writer!) Within just a year of that first rejection, she finished her 600th poem, and that was just the beginning.

After her death in 1886, Emily’s sister, Lavinia found an old box in the back of her closet upstairs. The box contained dozens of packets, neatly tied with twine and safely tucked away. The packets contained almost all of her writings–1775 poems–a great majority of which were exquisite masterpieces.

Need an example? Oh, where to begin? Let’s try this profound thing (#318), which was among the very first to be rejected by our “expert”, Mr. Higginson:

I'll tell you how the Sun rose--
A Ribbon at a time--
The Steeples swam in Amethyst--
The news like squirrels ran--
The Hills untied their bonnets--
The Bobolinks--begun--
Then I said softly to myself--
"That must have been the Sun"!

But how he set--I know not--
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while--
Till when they reached the other side, 
A Dominie in Gray--
Put gently up the evening Bars--
And led the flock away.

Sharilyn and I had a fun conversation about this one once. I had shared it with her as one of my favorites; but she didn’t seem too impressed with it. “Sorry, I don’t really get it,” she handed it back to me. “Well, that’s probably because you’ve never seen a sunrise.” Don’t worry, it brought a laugh, and I knew it would. In all the years I’ve known her, she’s never been the slightest bit ashamed of that fact. “If the sun wants to come up at 8:00 some time, I’ll be perfectly happy to watch it,” she replied. “Now just explain the poem.”

“Well, I’ve seen the sun do this in the morning in the Sierras: illuminate the ground, piece-by-piece, a ribbon at a time, as the light advances over the peak. And I’ve seen the light ‘run’ too, across the canyon floor, starting and stopping as it goes: exactly the way “squirrels run”. And I think it’s brilliant what she does! And as for “the hills untied their bonnets“? Suddenly flashing brilliant blonde, as soon as the sunlight hits.

“But now, the last half, about the sunset: well if you don’t quite get that part yet, it’s because it isn’t talking about a sunset anymore, but something much more profound.”

How about this marvelous piece (#67): which surely was a product of her sad longing to succeed at publishing her work:

Success is counted sweetest 
By those who ne'er succeed. 
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need. 

Not one of all the purple Host 
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition 
So clear of victory 

As he defeated--dying--
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

When her sister Lavinia found those ‘packets’, she knew she’d uncovered a treasure! And she knew they had to be published! She brought them to her best friend, Mabel Loomis Todd, a professor’s wife at Amherst College. “Oh yes,” Mrs. Todd agreed, “these must be published.” And she knew the perfect man for the job, too. Why, the literary “expert” Mr. Higginson, of course. Together Todd and Higgison worked through the packets, picking out 115 of the very best, and…

…and then Thomas Wentworth Higginson went to work; changing every poem; re-writing almost every one; smoothing out the “awkward” rhymes; correcting the “spasmodic” rhythms and–oh!–those obnoxious odd metaphors of hers! Surely they had to go. Oh, it was hard work, refining and perfecting this poor girl’s primitive stuff!

Today, Higginson’s “expertise” is the laughingstock of the literary world. No one wants his versions any more. Subsequent publishers threw them away and dove back into those packets as if they were mining for gold. They dug out the priceless originals that we all enjoy today.

And doesn’t that all speak volumes about the “experts” in our world today, which seem to be multiplying year after year?

Categories: Books and Literature, poetry

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3 replies

  1. Best as I can figure from reading some of Higginson is that poetry may have been a youthful avocation. I even found a sonnet of his interesting enough to perform with music:


    You are a bit hard on Higginson, though I too would have joined the “but he (and Mable Loomis Todd) ‘regularized the poems” chorus when I first read of this back in the 20th century–how crass and conventional they were I thought then!

    But but but. The Dickinson poem collections as they edited were successes! I now suspect that without their framing and editing (yes, we may say it was too conventional, but we weren’t making that call in 1890) Dickinson’s poems may never have survived in a way that would have come to your attention or mine — or to the larger context in which we are but two tiny points. Consider also both Higginson’s stature and Todd’s ambition and promotional bent as value that was brought to the cause. In an alternative timeline, it might even be possible that Dickinson’s 1890 poems collection never happened all all. What did happen took a lot of work and know how. However much we might think we’d do it better, we weren’t there, Higginson was.

    We also don’t know what Higginson said to Dickinson in his half of the correspondence. In that void, one can consider trusting Dickinson’s judgement that it had value of some kind to her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved this Dear. You watch the sunrise for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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