Dickinsons Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading

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The poem is printed, with its comparative manuscript note, as follows:. ED made no line division, and the text does not appear as verse.

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The line arrangement and capitalization of first letters in the lines are here arbitrarily established. Once arbitrarily established as a lyric in , these lines attracted a number of close readings—the response a lyric often invited after the middle of the twentieth century. By , the lines had circulated for a quarter of a century as a love poem with a female speaker, which is to say that they were read according to a theory of their genre that included the idea of a fictive lyric persona.

In , Harvard issued a new edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in both variorum and reading versions, now more authoritative and more diplomatic, thanks to the detailed textual scholarship of R. As the manuscript of the letter attests fig. Interestingly, Franklin prints the text as a series of such lines, thus printing what has been read rather than what was written, what may be interpreted rather than what may be described—though he also marks the difference between interpretation and description by making a section in his book for poems that he does not include as poems.

Was it never such a poem, since it was never written as verse? Was it always such a poem, because it could always have been read as verse?

Dickinson's Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading

Or was it only such a poem after it was printed as verse? Once read as a poem, can its generic reception be unprinted? Or is that interpretation so persistent that it survives even when the passage is not described as a poem? Figure 2. Emily Dickinson to Austin Dickinson, 17 October The poem appears at the bottom of the page. The many answers to these questions could be posed as statements about edition the many ways in which Dickinson has been or could be published or statements about composition the many ways in which Dickinson wrote.

Did it only become a poem once it left his hands as a letter? Can a text not intended as a lyric become one? Can a text once read as a lyric be unread?


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If so, then what is—or was—a lyric? To put briefly what I will unfold at length in the pages that follow: from the mid-nineteenth through the beginning of the twenty-first century, to be lyric is to be read as lyric—and to be read as a lyric is to be printed and framed as a lyric.

Whereas other poetic genres epic, poems on affairs of state, georgic, pastoral, verse epistle, epitaph, elegy, satire may remain embedded in specific historical occasions or narratives, and thus depend upon some description of those occasions and narratives for their interpretation it is hard to understand The Dunciad, for example, if one does not know the characters involved or have access to lots of handy footnotes , the poetry that comes to be understood as lyric after the eighteenth century is thought to require as its context only the occasion of its reading.

It is simply to propose that the riddles, papyrae, epigrams, songs, sonnets, blasons , Lieder , elegies, dialogues, conceits, ballads, hymns and odes considered lyrical in the Western tradition before the early nineteenth century were lyric in a very different sense than was or will be the poetry that the mediating hands of editors, reviewers, critics, teachers, and poets have rendered as lyric in the last century and a half.

As my syntax indicates, that shift in genre definition is primarily a shift in temporality; as variously mimetic poetic subgenres collapsed into the expressive romantic lyric of the nineteenth century, the various modes of poetic circulation—scrolls, manuscript books, song cycles, miscellanies, broadsides, hornbooks, libretti, quartos, chapbooks, recitation manuals, annuals, gift books, newspapers, anthologies—tended to disappear behind an idealized scene of reading progressively identified with an idealized moment of expression. While other modes—dramatic genres, the essay, the novel—may have been seen to be historically contingent, the lyric emerged as the one genre indisputably literary and independent of social contingency, perhaps not intended for public reading at all.


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  5. By the early nineteenth century, poetry had never before been so dependent on the mediating hands of the editors and reviewers who managed the print public sphere, yet in this period an idea of the lyric as ideally unmediated by those hands or those readers began to emerge and is still very much with us.

    Yet even if the lyric especially in its broadly defined difference from narrative and drama is a larger version of the new antique, a retro-projection of modernity, a new concept artificially treated to appear old, the fact that it is a figment of modern poetics does not prevent it from becoming a creature of modern poetry. The interesting part of the story lies in the twists and turns of the plot through which the lyric imaginary takes historical form. But what plot is that? My argument here is that the lyric takes form through the development of reading practices in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that become the practice of literary criticism.

    As Mark Jeffreys eloquently describes the process I am calling lyricization, lyric did not conquer poetry: poetry was reduced to lyric. Thus by the early twenty-first century it became possible for Mary Poovey to describe the lyricization of literary criticism as the dependence of all postromantic professional literary reading on the genre of the romantic lyric. What makes Biblio different?

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