Dickinson and Diction

Emily Dickinson House

Last weekend, I presented at a digital storytelling conference in the Northampton/Amherst area, so I took the opportunity to visit Emily Dickinson’s house, now a museum.

Photographs are not allowed inside the house, so I can’t give you a tour, but I would really encourage you to visit if you find yourself in western Massachusetts. I took a docent-led tour of Dickinson’s house, but you can also take a longer tour that includes her brother’s home next door as well. My favorite part of the tour was upstairs. On the stairs’ landing is a replica of Emily Dickinson’s dress. The light shines through the window just right, and it looks almost ethereal. In Dickinson’s bedroom, the docent told us that the room had recently been renovated to include several items that were not previously there and new wallpaper that is a reproduction of the actual paper Dickinson had in the room. Her own sleigh bed is there. I was fascinated to learn Dickinson had pictures of George Eliot and Elizabeth Barrett Browning hanging in her room. Whether those pictures currently hanging in the room are the same ones or not, I don’t know, but Dickinson’s niece attested to the fact that she had pictures of these two women writers hanging in her room.

Across from Dickinson’s bedroom is an empty room with two poetry installations. One examines many ways in which Dickinson’s poetry stands apart from other poetry—slant rhyme, ballad meter, and diction. The other examines a poem with alternative word choices. The poem is Fr 1469 “A Chilly Peace infests the Grass.” (Fr is the R. W. Franklin number for the poem, and along with Johnson’s edition, is considered a restored, authoritative edition.) In the installation, there are sliders installed so that you can examine the alternative word choices Dickinson was thinking of for some of the words. For “Chilly,” she also considered “lonesome—” and “warning—.” I kind of like the effect of “warning—” myself. There is no final copy of this poem, and it wasn’t published (as many were not), so we don’t know what Dickinson ultimately decided for the poem. Of course, it gave me a great idea for a lesson. I was extremely sad not to be able to take pictures in the museum at that moment, but in speaking with the docent, and taking notes, I did walk away with a good lesson plan, and I was later able to find enough information online to create a good lesson plan.

Caveat: The Franklin edition poems are copyrighted, as are the Johnson editions, so I can’t post what I created, but the limited preview edition of the three-volume Variorum Edition edited by Franklin does include this poem. Be mindful of the copyright. It is probably fair use to use it in your classroom, but it wouldn’t be fair use to distribute the poem online, I don’t think.

Anyway, I re-created the diction variations for this poem using Smart Notebook software so students can interact with the different word choices like I could when I visited the museum. Later, I found this lesson by Cynthia Storrs on the museum website that is extremely similar to my own idea (only much more fleshed out in that Storrs considers other poems as well). After reading Storrs’s lesson, I added the poem Fr 124 “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers—,” which Dickinson appears to have edited extensively. It’s been suggested that she was never really quite happy with it. You can read two substantially different versions on Poets.org’s site. Incidentally, this poem is one of the few published in Dickinson’s lifetime, and she still continued to edit it after publication, so even publication cannot be considered the final word on word choice. I also added Fr 598 “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” as an introductory piece in the lesson, as it had only two alternative word choices. I had forgotten how much I loved that poem. I hadn’t read it in many years.

I don’t believe I’ll execute my lesson in exactly the same way as Storrs has written it. I plan to begin by asking students to journal about the question “How much does word choice really matter?” I did rather like Storrs’s essential questions, so I will borrow those. After a review of what “diction” is, I plan to display Fr 598 and allow students to examine the effect of the two alternate word choices. What is the effect? Which do they like better and why? Next will be the interactive version of Fr 1469. Students will be able to manipulate the word choices. I emailed our math chair to help me with the math, and he walked me through the reasoning (it’s been a long time since I did this). Considering all the word choices Emily Dickinson considered for this poem, there are potentially 120 different versions of that poem. Finally, I will have students examine Fr 124 in some detail, and perhaps with a partner or small group, much as Storrs describes in her lesson.

Prior to this lesson, I will ask students to write poetry of their own (this part is not fully formed in my head yet). They will think about alternative word choices in their own poems and workshop the poems with these alternate word choices.

I wish I’d been able to be in Amherst this weekend, as it was a Poetry Festival. I was definitely inspired by my visit. I’m lucky to live in what is essentially the cradle of American literature, and visiting Dickinson’s house made me realize there are probably similar lesson ideas an opportunities waiting out there for every other New England writer I could think of. I have some work to do. I ran right out and bought the R. W. Franklin edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson and White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson by Brenda Wineapple.

A few more pictures before I go.

"Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus)

This gorgeous flower was in Dickinson’s garden. The label says, “Love Lies Bleeding” (Amaranthus caudatus). I immediately thought of Shug saying that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it.

Emily Dickinson's Grave

Emily Dickinson’s grave is only a short walk from her house, so of course, I had to stop by and pay my respects. I placed one of those stones there. I had to wonder how often the caretakers remove these items.

Dickinson Graves

The Dickinson family plot is surrounded by a wrought iron fence. This plaque is on the gate. There is a tree growing in the plot. I am no botanist for sure, but I suspect it’s a yew tree. Can anyone confirm?

Dickinson family plot

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2 thoughts on “Dickinson and Diction”

  1. I really love how you took inspiration from a “vacation spot.” I hosted a Civil War poetry reading inspired by a trip I took to Gettysburg last year, and it was one of the best days of the year. Thanks for the inspiration!

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