Song and Compression in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Last semester I wrote a craft annotation on the subject of poetic structure and nonlinear time. Now I can see that this is very much an element of lyric poetry. Where narrative poetry moves like a road, lyric poetry unfolds like a flower, spiraling out from a single image or moment into a flurry of associations and other moments.

In The Flexible Lyric, Ellen Bryant Voigt calls out compression and song as two characteristics of lyric poetry. Emily Dickinson’s poems feature both of these qualities prominently. Her poems have a basic pattern: quatrains with alternating iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter lines. But the thing that set her apart from the dominant aesthetic of her time was the way she broke from the pattern. What her contemporaries might have called spasmodic, imperfectly rhymed, and lacking in form, we today consider a masterful interplay of meaning and music. Some of her poems adhered more closely to convention than others. Consider “Because I could not stop for Death” (poem 712):

Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The Carriage held but just Ourselves—
And Immortality.

The bulk of the poem continues with this regular meter, although the abcb rhyme scheme diverges into off-rhymes: “me/immortality,” “away/Civility,” “Ring/Sun,” “chill/Tulle.” The meter breaks at the line “Or rather – He passed Us—” dropping the final syllable. The break coincides with a departure from the more familiar world (a school, fields of grain) into darkness (the setting sun has passed them). Meter breaks on the following line, “The Dews drew quivering and chill,” with the second iamb reversed into a trochee, drawing out the moment when cold and damp descends on the speaker, a precursor to her arrival at the tomb (“a House that seemed/A swelling of the Ground”). Repetition of the word “Ground” in this stanza also slows down the motion of the poem, emphasizing the speaker’s final resting place.

None of these metric departures, however, are outside the norm. Poets throughout the ages deviate from regular meter to add emphasis, and to keep from lulling the reader to sleep. Paul Fussell cites similar examples in Poetic Meter & Poetic Form.

Dickinson departs much more dramatically from standard meter with “The World – feels Dusty” (poem 715). In just three short stanzas, Dickinson uses compressed language and an innovative metrical approach to explore a complex theme: what happens when we die? What matters most to us in our final moments? What will ease our passage?

Not only do the lines of the poem break with the usual tetrameter/trimeter pattern, it’s difficult to recognize any pattern whatsoever. There’s nothing discernable in syllabic meter. Accentual meter yields more promising results, but still nothing definite:

                                        Syllabic           Accentual

The World – feels Dusty                    5                      3
When we stop to Die –                       5                      3
We want the Dew – then –                 5                      3
Honors – taste dry –                              4                      3

Flags – vex a Dying face –                 6                      4
But the least Fan                                 4                      3
Stirred by a friend’s Hand –               5                      4
Cools – like the Rain –                       4                      3

Mine be the Ministry                          6                      4
When thy Thirst comes –                    4                      3
And Hybla balms –                             4                      2
Dews of Thessaly, to fetch –              7                      4

And yet the poem clearly has its music. The final lines of the first two stanzas stop one syllable short of the approximate metrical pattern set up in the previous three lines, arresting forward movement and creating a kind of dissonance that makes you sit up and listen. Meaning links these two lines. “Honors – taste dry –” says the speaker, but a friend’s intervention “Cools – like the Rain.” The implication here is that personal relationships rather than public honors will soothe the dying. But the irregular rhythm of the poem itself undercuts its message, creating a sense of unease and uncertainty. “Mine be the Ministry / When thy Thirst comes – ” says the speaker in the final stanza, in a personal address missing from the first two stanzas. “Ministry” and the capitalized “Thirst” both make clear that this is a spiritual thirst, but the music of the last two lines also indicate the speaker’s uncertainty about how to slake it. The first two lines of the final stanza mirror the approximate meter of those previous, but then the pattern completely breaks down. Again, meaning informs meter. Hybla is a town in Sicily known for its honey, which fits with both the “Dews of Thessaly” and the dew mentioned earlier in the poem. They certainly seem appropriate items to bring to the dying. But the complete departure from even an approximated pattern heightens the sense of unease and uncertainty, as though the speaker doesn’t entirely know what to bring the “you” of the poem. The final line of the poem ends with a dash, an interruption that leaves us in a state of suspension – one that is never resolved.

Dickinson uses meter and music as a counterpoint that can undercut a poem’s literal meaning. I feel as though my own grasp of meter and free verse line is still in its infancy. Being more cognizant of the metrical patterns my lines create—and how syncopation can undercut or emphasize their meaning—should help give me greater control over my own writing.


Works Cited

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. The Flexible Lyric. University of Georgia Press, 2011. E-book.

Dickinson, Emily. (Johnson, Thomas, ed.) The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Back Bay Books, 1961.

Fussell, Paul. “Metrical Variations.” Poetic Meter & Poetic Form. McGraw-Hill, 1979. Print.