First Full Edition of Dickinson’s Poems Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The publication of Thomas H. Johnson’s edition of Emily Dickinson’s poems finally gave readers a complete and accurate text and led to an even greater reputation in American literature for this unique and popular poet.

Summary of Event

Of the many poems Emily Dickinson wrote between the 1850’s and the time of her death in 1886, only a handful were published in her lifetime, and even those were published locally and anonymously. Even her sister Lavinia, who lived with her, was amazed at the bulk of Emily’s poetry when she examined it after Emily’s death. Mabel Loomis Todd Todd, Mabel Loomis , the wife of an Amherst College professor, and Thomas Wentworth Higginson Higginson, Thomas Wentworth , a man of letters to whom the poet had sent selected poems as far back as 1862, were enlisted to prepare some of them for publication. [kw]First Full Edition of Dickinson’s Poems (Sept., 1955) [kw]Dickinson’s Poems, First Full Edition of (Sept., 1955)[Dickinsons Poems, First Full Edition of] [kw]Poems, First Full Edition of Dickinson’s (Sept., 1955) Poems of Emily Dickinson, The (Dickinson) Poetry Poems of Emily Dickinson, The (Dickinson) Poetry [g]North America;Sept., 1955: First Full Edition of Dickinson’s Poems[04940] [g]United States;Sept., 1955: First Full Edition of Dickinson’s Poems[04940] [c]Literature;Sept., 1955: First Full Edition of Dickinson’s Poems[04940] Dickinson, Emily Johnson, Thomas Herbert Ward, Theodora Franklin, R. W.

Emily Dickinson.

Todd and Higginson selected 115 from the sixty bundles of poems that the poet had sewn together, including two of the earliest Higginson had seen, “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” "Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers" (Dickinson)[Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers] a wry poem about the faithful dead, and one beginning

I’ll tell you how the Sun rose— A Ribbon at a time— The Steeples swam in Amethyst— The news, like Squirrels, ran—

Higginson, however, was apparently apprehensive about the poems’ readability, and he attempted to improve various aspects of the poems: capitalization and punctuation, meter, rhyme, even the vocabulary itself.

Despite its editorial imperfections, the popularity of the book, when issued in 1890, encouraged a second volume in 1891. Todd, working alone, included more poetry in an edition of Dickinson’s letters in 1894 and a further batch of poems in 1896, but even at that point, more than two-thirds of these short but striking poems remained unpublished at century’s end.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Martha Dickinson Bianchi Bianchi, Martha Dickinson , the poet’s niece, transcribed—not always accurately—and published more poems, and in 1945 Bolts of Melody, Bolts of Melody (Dickinson) the result of further labors by Todd and by her daughter Millicent Todd Bingham Bingham, Millicent Todd , essentially completed the task of bringing Dickinson’s poems to the public. Clearly, however, a complete and freshly edited compilation was called for, and after the Dickinson manuscripts passed to Harvard University’s Houghton Library Houghton Library in 1950, Thomas Herbert Johnson undertook the task.

Johnson, a secondary school teacher in New Jersey, was a well-qualified scholar. He held a Harvard University doctorate and had discovered and edited the long-forgotten poetry of Edward Taylor, who, as a result of Johnson’s work, became generally recognized as America’s foremost colonial poet. Johnson also considered the fact of his own Connecticut Valley origins as an important qualification; to his way of thinking, the valley had shaped Dickinson, who had lived her whole life in Amherst, Massachusetts, even more than it had Taylor, who came there as an adult. Johnson found a valuable assistant in Theodora Ward, who was then completing an edition of Dickinson’s letters to her grandparents, Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland.

Because Dickinson had left alternative versions of words, lines, and sometimes whole poems, often making determination of her final intention impossible, Johnson decided upon a variorum edition. Because Dickinson most often employed dashes rather than commas and periods, Johnson restored them where previous editors had substituted conventional punctuation. Because he thought that the edition should reflect Dickinson’s poetic development, he endeavored to organize the poems chronologically as nearly as possible, relying on internal evidence, handwriting, and any other available means to determine their dates of composition. Previous editors had typically chosen thematic organizational schemes.

Johnson and Ward did not find their task an easy one. Dickinson wrote a legible hand, but the editors were faced with many variants, and even in a variorum edition, priority must be assigned to one reading. In the poem beginning “Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple,” "Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple" (Dickinson)[Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple] for example, the sun is described as “stooping as low as” a certain window, which is variously described as a “kitchen,” “oriel,” and “Otter’s.” Johnson favored “Otter’s,” doubtless on the grounds that having achieved it, a person as imaginative as Dickinson would certainly not have discarded it for “kitchen” and probably not for “oriel.” Any reader of this edition, however, would know that Dickinson had considered all three possibilities.

For each poem, a conjectural year of composition was supplied; sometimes, as in the case of the favorite anthology poem “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” Johnson could determine that Dickinson had composed different versions of the same poem in different years. Sometimes he had to decide whether two similar poems represented variations of the same poem or two distinct poems. He numbered the poems, for Dickinson had rarely supplied titles. He dated number 1 “1850,” when Dickinson had turned twenty, and number 1,648 “c. 1886,” the year of her death. There remained 127 more poems and fragments, mostly undated, which he placed at the end, bringing the total to 1,775 poems and substantial fragments. For five years, during which time Johnson chaired the English department in his preparatory school, he worked out solutions to these and numerous other problems, and in 1955 the edition, in three volumes, was ready for publication by the Harvard University Press Harvard University Press . It was published in September of that year.

Although the work over which he and Theodora Ward had labored would radically alter the relationship between Dickinson and her enthusiastic readers, Johnson knew that few people other than scholars and advanced students would consult these volumes with their scholarly apparatus, and three years later he issued a general readers’ edition of the complete poems in which only a few of the more interesting variants were given. Thus, sixty-eight years after Todd and Higginson’s first selection, and seventy-two years after the poet’s death, it was finally possible for lovers of Emily Dickinson to consult a complete, reliable, and convenient edition of her poetry.


Reviewers of the 1955 edition of Dickinson’s complete poems recognized it as a major publishing event. The work of Johnson and Ward now permitted a look at the development of Dickinson’s art over a period of thirty-five years in a text more visually suggestive of the Dickinson manuscripts. With her capitalization of important nouns and the characteristic dashes restored, the poems now looked different on the page. Other less immediately obvious differences, however, mattered much more. Dickinson’s imagination had so far outstripped that of her earlier editors that they had made totally unwarranted verbal “corrections.” For example, Todd and Higginson had printed the subsequent anthology favorite “I never saw a Moor,” with its final line expressing the poet’s sureness of the location of a heaven she had never seen, as “As if the chart were given” instead of “As if the Checks were given.” Having conventional minds, they did not see that Dickinson, always fascinated by railroads, had based her metaphor on the checks the conductor distributes to indicate passengers’ destinations.

The first editors had made more flagrant changes in “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?” "Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat?" (Dickinson)[Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat] Dickinson’s line “It quivers from the Forge” became “Its quivering substance plays” for the sake of a rhyme with “blaze,” although Dickinson, who loved slant rhymes, had deliberately rhymed “Blaze” and “Forge” not once but twice in the poem (the second time, Todd and Higginson let it stand, presumably because they could not think of an improvement). In the same poem, Dickinson’s “Anvil’s even ring” was altered to “anvil’s even din” for the sake of a rhyme with “within.” Yet these same editors altered the fifth line of the poem, “Has vanquished Flame’s conditions,” to “Has sated flame’s conditions,” thus demonstrating how very poor an ear they had for the sound effects that the poet had wrought. Dozens of similar editorial offenses might be cited.

The most important aspect of Johnson’s work, then, was restoration. Dickinson enthusiasts could read what she wrote in essentially the order of composition, not what amateur editors thought she wrote or thought she should have written. In addition, the new edition went a long way to dispel the long-prevalent notion that Dickinson’s poetry was haphazard, eccentric, and extravagant. Students could see the evidence of her precision and deliberation. For the first time, it became clear that Dickinson would reject adequate but facile rhymes in favor of more powerful diction, and that she would violate conventions of mechanics and sometimes even grammar for the sake of something that felt poetically right.

Of course, the close study that Johnson’s variorum and general readers’ editions encouraged and deserved led to further insights, some of them resulting in challenges. In one of the most important, R. W. Franklin argued in a series of books and articles that Johnson, like his predecessors, had downgraded the importance of Dickinson’s carefully arranged fascicles (pages of poems fastened together) in his concentration on a chronological ordering of the poems and thus had actually violated the integrity of her work. In addition, he also doubted the capacity of print to simulate visual features such as punctuation. In 1981, Franklin issued a two-volume facsimile edition of the fascicles. While valuable as a supplement to Johnson’s text, this edition was incomplete, for Dickinson had not gathered all of her poems into bundles, and some of them had actually been written on backs of envelopes and other scraps of paper.

By focusing attention on the fascicles, however, which Mabel Todd had disassembled (fortunately not without prudent notations permitting later reconstruction), Franklin made another important contribution. He established that although Dickinson—perhaps disappointed by the professional critic Higginson’s decidedly qualified approval of her work, perhaps intuiting that few or none of her contemporaries would be likely to appreciate it better—had left her poetry unpublished, she had, in grouping her poetry according to a plan, done the kind of work that poets do when readying their poems for publication. Franklin went as far as maintaining that the sixty sequences, each containing from eleven to twenty-five poems, constituted an organic structure somewhat like that of Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) or T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922).

Although Franklin’s conclusions have not won anything like universal agreement, he put to rout the argument that because Dickinson’s poems are short and discrete, she cannot be accorded the status of a major poet. Whether the nearly eighteen hundred poems constitute an “organic structure” or not, they form a body of work remarkable not only for its fertile images, astonishing diction, and flashes of insight but also for its coherence and integrity.

The legacy of Thomas H. Johnson is the virtually unanimous acceptance of Emily Dickinson alongside the erstwhile all-male American literary greats of the nineteenth century: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Henry James. As one of the chief editors of the influential Literary History of the United States (1948, with several later revisions), Johnson might have been expected to ensure Dickinson more attention than literary history had accorded her before, but it is interesting that the more recent Columbia Literary History of the United States (1988) devotes even more space to her. The greatness of Emily Dickinson had always been there, but full recognition waited upon an edition worthy of her and upon the ensuing editorial and critical work of those in Johnson’s debt. Johnson himself published a biography of Dickinson in the same year that his variorum edition appeared, and Theodora Ward became his associate in a later edition of the poet’s letters.

In or around Dickinson’s most prolific year, 1862, when she averaged nearly a poem a day, she wrote a poem beginning, “This is my letter to the World/ That never wrote to Me. . . .” Nearly a century later, the letter was delivered. Poems of Emily Dickinson, The (Dickinson) Poetry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. A convenient and authoritative one-volume edition with a subject index as well as an index of first lines. Follows the arrangement of the variorum edition. Gives variants in some of the more interesting instances. The best source of Dickinson’s poetry for the specialist.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Ralph W. Franklin. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1981. Carrying out the logic of his previous work, Franklin argues that Dickinson’s poetry so far resists reduction to printed form that the appropriate edition is a facsimile one, which he provides as a further step in acquainting the reader with the essential Emily Dickinson. Since she did not gather all her poems into fascicles, however, this edition necessarily omits some of the poems of the Johnson edition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955. Consulted directly mainly by scholars and advanced students, but directly or indirectly the medium through which most readers now encounter one of America’s greatest poets. Contains separate introductions on the creation and editing of the poems and on Dickinson’s handwriting as well as notes on the text. Indispensable for serious students of the poet.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Franklin, R. W. The Editing of Emily Dickinson: A Reconsideration. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1967. An examination of the work of previous editors of Dickinson leading to a reevaluation of Johnson’s work. Criticizes Johnson’s decision to organize the poems chronologically instead of retaining the poet’s fascicle structure. Contains reproductions of selected Dickinson manuscripts. Franklin’s sometimes supercilious tone toward his predecessors can be annoying.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004. A study of the life and work of the poet, with several useful appendixes detailing her family tree, the poems published in her lifetime, and the locations of her poetic manuscripts, among other subjects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Miller, Ruth. The Poetry of Emily Dickinson. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1968. A long, sometimes incoherent book marred by unnecessary sniping at other critics but containing a valuable eighty-five-page section on Dickinson’s fascicle groupings. One of the earliest critics to consider closely the manuscript evidence in interpreting Dickinson’s poetry, Miller argues for a symbolic narrative thread in each of the fascicles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollack, Vivian R., ed. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. Collection of essays devoted to explicating the distinctively nineteenth century features of Dickinson’s poetry and the effects of her culture upon her work.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1964. An inevitable outgrowth of Johnson’s work and one of the most valuable tools for the analysis of Dickinson’s poetry. While Johnson’s indexes facilitate considerable study of the poet’s vocabulary and patterns of imagery, the concordance is a handier and more thorough aid to such investigations.

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