On a Poem by (or Not by) Emily Dickinson

I was reading the Dover Thrift Edition of Emily Dickinson’s Selected Poems (1990) the other day when I came across this beautiful miniature:

Safe in their alabaster chambers,

Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,

Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,

Rafter of satin, and roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;

Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;

Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,–

Ah, what sagacity perished here!

Grand go the years in the crescent above them;

Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,

Diadems drop and Doges surrender,

Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.

The problem is that she didn’t write it–at least, not in this form. All the words are hers, but this text appears to be a composite.

The website of the Academy of American Poets gives two different versions of the poem, one from 1859 (including the first and second stanzas of what is above, though with different line breaks and punctuation and a variant text) and the other from 1861 (including the first and third stanzas, again with different line breaks and punctuation).


Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon—
Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of satin,
And Roof of stone.

Light laughs the breeze
In her Castle above them—
Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear,
Pipe the Sweet Birds in ignorant cadence—
Ah, what sagacity perished here!


Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—
Untouched by Morning
And untouched by Noon—
Lie the meek members of the Resurrection—
Rafter of Satin—and Roof of Stone!

Grand go the Years—in the Crescent—above them—
Worlds scoop their Arcs—
And Firmaments—row—
Diadems—drop—and Doges—surrender—
Soundless as dots—on a Disc of Snow—

The latter is the version of the text in the Variorum Edition of Ralph W. Franklin.

It appears, then, that Dickinson didn’t write the poem in this form (though I’m happy to be corrected by someone more knowledgeable than myself). So where did the Dover edition get the text?

The front matter tells us that the text is reproduced “exactly” from an edition from the 1890s (except for one emendation that has nothing to do with the poem in question). The Dover editor(s) used the 1897 edition; a quick search didn’t turn that one up, but you can see it in the edition of 1908 (copyright, 1890) here.

Dickinson died in 1886–so, before this edition was published. It is nearly contemporary with her, but she wouldn’t have been able to exercise any editorial control over it, even if she had been the sort of writer who would have wanted to do so.

It seems to me that this raises some interesting and complicated questions of authorship and authority. What does “authorship” mean here, and what sort of “authority” does the first version of the text above have? What is the relationship between authorship, editing, and authority?

In this instance, all the words are Dickinson’s, and yet she doesn’t seem to have written them in just this way. Nevertheless, readers have been reading the poem in this form as Dickinson’s since at least 1890, and so this version has been “Dickinson’s poem” in the minds of many readers since shortly after her death. Thus we can add another category in play in the determination of textual authority to authorship and editing, viz., reception. What role does the reception of a text play in constituting said text?

Other examples come to mind, e.g., the plays of Shakespeare. What is the “authoritative” version of Hamlet? Of King Lear? How do we know, and what difference does it make? How do we link up ideas of single authorship with the textual decisions and receptions of a multiplicity of people? This short poem of Dickinson can provide a good instance for thinking through some of these issues.


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