Published online by Cambridge University Press: 01 September 2018
IN JULY 1862 Emily Dickinson wrote to her recently acquired ‘preceptor’, Thomas Wentworth Higginson: ‘Perhaps you smile at me. I could not stop for that. My business is circumference.’ The remark is typical of her correspondence and of her poetry in being at once candid, concise and elliptical, with an inclination towards what has been described as ‘symbolically freighted words’. In domestic terms, Dickinson's ‘circumference’ was her increasingly reclusive existence ‘at home’ in Amherst, New England, where she was born, lived and died. But in societal terms, Dickinson's devotion to serious writing necessarily entailed her breaking those bounds and the accepted ‘circumference’ of a woman's role. Moreover, by the time she approached Higginson for advice and critical engagement, aged 32, Dickinson had already written over three hundred poems and found an artistic voice that transcended certain poetic conventions. Her ‘business’ amounted to an ongoing exploration of metaphysics through poetry and letters which interrogated the very notion of ‘circumference’, refracted through the lens of everyday personal experience, and related ‘slant-wise’ through strikingly suggestive, emotionally frank imagery.
Dickinson initially sent four poems to her literary counsellor; one of these would prove posthumously to be amongst her most celebrated, and was selected by Simon Holt over 140 years later for the second of his 5 settings of E.D. (2005). After the poet's death in 1886, Higginson confessed to never having lost the feeling of being ‘somewhat bewildered’ by Dickinson's ‘wholly new and original poetic genius’. Not until 1960 did Thomas H. Johnson publish The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, rectifying crucial errors in, and omissions from, the earlier edition published by her niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, in 1924. These belated publications seem to underline Dickinson's greater affinity with modern art than with that of her own time. Given the progressiveness of her language and form it seems extraordinary that (if we compare music) Debussy was not born until the year when the poet first contacted Higginson. Schoenberg and Charles Ives were born in 1874; Aaron Copland, born in 1900, would set twelve of Dickinson's poems in a cycle for medium voice and piano.
Copland's settings are indicative of certain early- to mid-twentieth-century trends in their neoclassical, tonally-based sparseness of expression.