Emily Dickinson & George Herbert–Fresh Poetry or Old Copy?

There are so many questions surrounding the woman in white, Emily Dickinson, and some make it their life’s work to answer them. After her death, her sister, Lavinia, went into her room and found the treasure trove that is now the Dickinson canon–40 hand-stitched, personally arranged volumes of poetry we call her fascicles. So much of what we know about her now comes from those poems and her surviving letters, but many questions remain unanswered. What did she believe about God? She stopped attending church at the age of 30, but was she practicing quietly at home? Was there a theme or an overall thought to the way she ordered her poems?

A book I’m reading now, Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method & Meaning, by Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, seeks to answer some of the questions and concentrates on the 40th fascicle.

She brought up a very interesting little fact that I hadn’t known, but found absolutely fascinating–when the poems were first published, they published two which were not Emily’s at all, but rather, George Herbert’s from his work The Temple: Mattens in 1633.

She had basically copied his work, but added her trademark dashes and capitals. Which makes me wonder–if you change the form of a poem, have you changed the meaning sufficiently enough to make it your own? I know they, and everyone else, felt it was an error to publish another person’s work as Emily’s, but I had to wonder if we should think of it that way. Seeing the differences–her choice in which stanzas to copy and which to leave out, and her own personality inserted–I felt like it was original enough to say it’s Emily’s. If nothing else, it gives us a look into her mind.

I’m going to show you the originals and then Emily’s copies and see what you think.

George Herbert’s work:

I Cannot ope mine eyes,
But thou art ready there to catch
My morning-soul and sacrifice:
Then we must needs for that day make a match.

My God, what is a heart?
Silver, or gold, or precious stone,
Or starre, or rainbow, or a part
Of all these things, or all of them in one?

My God, what is a heart?
That thou shouldst it so eye, and wooe,
Powring upon it all thy art,
As if that thou hadst nothing els to do?

Indeed mans whole estate
Amounts (and richly) to serve thee:
He did not heav’n and earth create,
Yet studies them, not him by whom they be.

Teach me thy love to know;
That this new light, which now I see,
May both the work and workman show:
Then by a sunne-beam I will climbe to thee.

And now Emily’s copy and changes:

My God – what is a Heart.
Silver – or Gold – or precious stone.
Or Star – or Rainbow – or a part
Of all these things – or all of them in one?

My God – what is a Heart –
That Thou shoud’st it so eye and woo
Pouring upon it all Thy art
As if that Thou had’st nothing else to do –

It’s difficult to tell periods from dashes in some places, like after “Heart,” but I added them as they look to me from her handwriting. The first definitely looks like a period, but could be a comma–the second looks like a low dash.

The New Yorker caught the error and reported about it in its June 16, 1945 edition in “The Talk of the Town”:

“One of the poems in the new Emily Dickinson volume not only contains as clumsy a line as ever was penned but was not even written by Emily. It is the one beginning “My God, what is a heart?” The author is George Herbert, he of the seventeenth century. The clumsy line is “That thou shouldst it so eye and woo.” (My God, what is a mouthful?) Emily presumably liked this poem, jotted it down, and tucked it away in that famous camphorwood chest, where it lay until Mrs. Bingham pulled it out with a glad cry and presented it to Harper & Brothers. We have no comment to make on this funny coincidence, except to point out to poets that it is dangerous to jot down any thought but your own, and sometimes inadvisable even to do that.”

But what it brings up to me is a question–is it really inadvisable to rework a thought, a poem, a verse, in your own style? –to see what music you can bring, what meaning can be changed by a subtle shift or omission? George Herbert was long dead and there was no copyright on his work. To take a couple of verses, acknowledge the source and remake them, seems to me a very wonderful use of a poet’s time and gives us little hints about how she thought.

Why those two stanzas? She left out the other three about climbing to God and serving him–the ones that show a longing to be with him. She chose the two that question his purpose in valuing a human “Heart” so highly. Why do you want it, she asks. What is so wonderful about it that you would take time out of your busy schedule to “woo” it? Is it equal to the Stars? To Gold? To Rainbows? I assume Emily did not have answers for those questions–only questions.

Why those particular words being capitalized? Is the Heart, Star, Rainbow and Gold equal to God and worthy of formal address? Maybe, to Emily, they were. The book includes a photocopy of Herbert’s original as well (in his own handwriting) and those words were not capitalized. Seems to me, Emily placed a very high, even sacred, meaning to them in doing so. These poems are not included in Johnson’s collection. I’ve ordered Franklin’s and will report back whether they’re included–I doubt it.

I think her reworking of the poems is consistent with much of her other poetry. To me, it reveals a woman who loves the Sacred and sees its imprint in nature. She has many questions about the Sacred or Spiritual world–sometimes she’s a little more sure of its purpose–other times, like after a death–not so sure, and in those moments of uncertainty clings passionately to what she can touch, feel, smell, nurture and take inspiration from.

How is that any different than any of us today? Her honesty and her sincere enjoyment of the Divine draw me to her work over a hundred years after her death–as does her confusion and questioning–also in her life’s work.

* * *

My pictures today are from a trip to Pike’s Market in Seattle. Some of the hallmarks of the Market are their fresh flower bouquets. The Tulips on display were absolutely remarkable! Definitely deserving of a capital letter!

And guess what? Dale Chihuly has designed and made an entire garden of glass in downtown Seattle–trees, flowers, grass–everything! It’s being assembled as I write and will be open May 21st 2012. I got a few pictures from the outside perimeter. Can you imagine seeing this from the sky as you fly into Seattle?

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