Poetry – Emily Dickinson #2 (+ Stephen Crane)

Well, I decided to include two poets for this post, in part because of all that is happening right now with Afghanistan, and in part with the rise in Covid again. You might think that I pick out a lot of poems that seem to talk about sadness or grief, and that is probably true. I think poetry is one of the better ways to express emotions that are hard to discuss in regular conversation. Also, the best poetry has a way of getting to the heart of issues, which is one of the biggest reasons I like reading it. So for this post, I am going to highlight an Emily Dickinson poem about loss, and one by Stephen Crane on war.

Emily Dickinson wrote a lot of poems about grief and loss, and I think many of them are some of the best on those subjects. This poem is just 8 lines, but it conveys the first reality of loosing someone, no matter how strong a religious faith they may have. In many of her poems, Dickinson seems to have a very realistic and slightly sarcastic view of humanity (I like snark, and no matter what century a writer comes from, you can always identify those who recognize humanity’s foibles). When dealing with personal loss, she was much more likely to be straight-forward, and break it down to basic emotions. At least, that is how I have experienced her poetry. You may disagree! For me, it is hard to better express grief and loss than the last two lines of this poem –

My life closed twice before its close
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge - so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
            Emily Dickinson

Now that we have talked about death, let’s look at war (yes, I know, pretty grim stuff). Stephen Crane was often writing about war; his most famous book was about Civil War soldiers on the Union side, The Red Badge of Courage. Crane often wrote about starting out with the idea of glory in war, only to be disillusioned by its reality. This poem was part of a book of poems, though I have never read all of them as a group. Like with Dickinson’s poem above, I think this one captures the end of a war in very few words, especially the confusion around why the war had been fought. As I see so much just in the last week on various explanations, analysis, excuses and reasons for the Afghanistan war, I thought of this poem, and I think that Stephen Crane had a lot right about our reactions, no matter the time period.

Poem 14
There was crimson clash of war
Lands turned black and bare; 
Women wept;
Babes ran, wondering.
There came one who understood not these things
He said: 'Why is this?'
Whereupon a million strove to answer him.
There was such intricate clamor of tongues,
That still the reason was not.
                     Stephen Crane, The Black Riders & Other Lines, 1905

Poetry-Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is my favorite poet to read. In general, I like to read individual poems from poetry collections; while I often like a number of poems by the same author, I usually don’t read a book of one poet. Emily Dickinson is different for me. I have several books of her poems and I enjoy reading through them, though I do have my favorites! In my opinion, if you want a poet who knew how to take a few words to convey a lot of emotion and context it’s hard to beat Dickinson. If you read some of her poetry in school and liked it, I would suggest looking through several publications. The first publishers of her work in the late 19th century edited her original manuscripts after her death, changing some words to ‘fit’ better, taking out odd punctuation, etc. There are more modern publications that have removed those changes, and adhere better to the original format Dickinson used in her writing (if you are interested in different versions, check out this link to Harvard University Press that covers all of them) . Personally, I like the later published versions, though if you are used to the smoothed out publication, it might seem a little choppy to read the manuscript format. There is a lot more punctuation in the form of dashes to separate words, and seemingly random capitalization. While it looks a little strange at first, if you read through it, you begin to get a different rhythm to the verse with these changes, and it can make a big difference to the meaning. There is a website that shows a number of the original manuscripts of Dickinson’s writings if you are interested, called the Emily Dickinson Archive. An example of this change can be seen in poem number 441 (Dickinson never put titles on her poems). The original published version is first, and my transcription from the original written version (at the Emily Dickinson Archive, manuscript owned by Harvard University Press) is below. You can easily see some of the changes made, and even why a publisher would decide to smooth out the form. However, I like reading the second version, because it takes on a different cadence and I feel I understand the meaning better.

This is my letter to the world
   That never wrote to me, -
The simple news that Nature told,
   With tender majesty.

Her message is committed
   To hands I cannot see;
For love of her, sweet countrymen,
   Judge tenderly of me!
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News that Nature told -
With tender Majesty -

Her Message is Committed
To Hands I Cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - Countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me

Emily Dickinson Archives
Houghton Library, Harvard University

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