I Had Told You I Did Not Print

From Emily Dickinson’s Singular Scrap Poetry, by Dan Chiasson:

“It has been argued that Dickinson refused publication exactly because it was synonymous with print, whose standardizing tendencies she knew would miscarry her precision effects. When, in 1866, Dickinson’s “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” appeared in the Springfield Daily Republican (under a title likely chosen by its editors, “The Snake”), Dickinson complained to Higginson that, among other problems, she was “defeated . . . of the third line by punctuation.” Her manuscript had read, “You may have met Him—did you not / His notice sudden is—.” But, when the poem appeared, the editors had supplied a question mark: “You may have met him—did you not? / His notice instant is.””

“The question mark makes the second half of line three auxiliary to the first: “You may have met him—did you not [meet him] ? / His notice instant is.” But Dickinson’s preferred punctuation, while it leaves the possibility of the auxiliary clause intact, allows for other syntactical relations: “You may have met him—[if you haven’t, you should know that] / His notice instant is.” The words “notice” and “not” reflect each other more vividly without the hard stop of the intervening question mark. Dickinson seems to have preferred “instant” over “sudden” in later drafts of the poem, but when it appeared in the second edition of her work, edited by Todd and Higginson, a comma materialized in the spot where the question mark had gone. “I had told you I did not print,” Dickinson once wrote to Higginson, suggesting that it wasn’t shyness or modesty that kept her from publishing; it was a fierce constancy to her vision of the page.”


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