The Publication Question

“I had told you I did not print”
—Emily Dickinson to T. W. Higginson (L316)

"Flowers" in the Springfield Republican

Image: Amherst College Library

"Flowers - well, if anybody" (Fr95) as published in the Springfield Republican

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Did Emily Dickinson want to publish her poetry? No one knows for sure. Throughout her life, her work circulated among family and friends, some of whom had influence to shepherd a few poems toward publication. Between 1850 and 1866, ten Dickinson poems appeared in newspapers, all anonymously and probably without her knowledge.  (For a list, click here.)

Late in the poet’s life, public awareness of her work increased. Helen Hunt Jackson, the well-known author, successfully finagled Dickinson’s “Success is counted sweetest” into A Masque of Poets (1878), a collection of anonymous verse to which Jackson also contributed. Jackson scolded Dickinson for refusing to publish: “You are a great poet—and it is a wrong to the day you live in, that you will not sing aloud” (L444a).

Subsequently Thomas Niles, publisher of Masque, broached the subject of publishing a collection of her poetry. Dickinson avoided giving an answer. Around the same time, in 1880, an Amherst charity approached her for poems to “‘aid unfortunate Children.’” Uncharacteristically, she did not reject the possibility outright. Instead, she “hesitated” and then selected several poems for consideration. It remains unclear whether the poems were ever published.

Questions related to publishing Dickinson's work became much more complicated after her death, when her sister Lavinia discovered a large collection of manuscripts (now known as the fascicles) that Emily had never mentioned.   The dramatic story is fraught with emotional intensity, differing loyalties, and personal sacrifice.  To learn more, see The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson's Poems.

Publications in Dickinson's Lifetime

Publications in Dickinson's Lifetime (one letter and ten poems)

Below is a list of poems known to have been published during Dickinson's lifetime.  Scholars believe that Dickinson did not authorize any of these publications.  All poems were published without attribution.

1850
“Magnum bonum, harem scarum”
A valentine letter published in Amherst College Indicator, February (L34)
1852
“ ‘Sic transit gloria mundi,’ ”
Published in Springfield Daily Republican (February 20)
Titled “A Valentine”
1858
"Nobody knows this little rose - "
First published Springfield Daily Republican (August 2)
Titled “To Mrs -, with a Rose.”
1861
“I taste a liquor never brewed- ”
First published Springfield Daily Republican (May 4)
Titled “The May-Wine”
1862
"Safe in their Alabaster Chambers - ”
First published in Springfield Daily Republican (March 1)
Titled “The Sleeping”
1864
"Blazing in Gold, and quenching in Purple”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (February 29)
Titled “Sunset”
"Flowers-Well- if anybody”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (March 2)
Titled “Flowers”
"These are the days when Birds come back- ”
First published in Drum Beat, Brooklyn, NY (March 11)
Titled “October”
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church- ”
First published in Round Table, New York (March 12)
Titled “My Sabbath”
“Success is counted sweetest”
First published in Brooklyn Daily Union (April 27, untitled)
1866
"A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
First published in Springfield Daily Republican (February 14)
Titled “The Snake”
1878
"Success is counted sweetest” (only known publication in a book)
Published in A Masque of Poets (Boston: Roberts Bros.)

The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson's Poems

When Emily Dickinson died in 1886, she was unknown as a poet outside of a small circle of family and friends. Dickinson’s poetic legacy consisted of almost 1800 poems, and no instructions about what to do with them.

Books of Dickinson's poetry

"The Single Hound, Poems of a Lifetime" (left) by Emily Dickinson, edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi, and "Poems" (right) by Emily Dickinson edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson


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What was done with them, how Dickinson went from unknown to internationally-famous poet, is a story fraught with emotional intensity, differing loyalties, and personal sacrifice. None of the principal characters, all of whom had personal connections to the poet, ever expected to be involved in such an effort. Yet their sometimes competing contributions affirmed the vitality of Dickinson’s verse and ensured its immortality.

After discovering hundreds of Emily’s poems shortly after her death, the poet’s sister Lavinia resolved that the poetry must be published. She later wrote: “I have had a ‘Joan of Arc’ feeling about Emilies [sic] poems from the first” (Letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, December 23, 1890, as quoted in Bingham, p. 87). Lavinia approached two of the poet’s friends--sister-in-law Susan Dickinson and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson --for help.

Susan did not pursue publication quickly enough for Lavinia, and Higginson was otherwise occupied. To fulfill her vision, Lavinia turned to Mabel Loomis Todd, the vivacious young wife of an Amherst College professor. Todd was a momentous choice, for she was deeply involved in a love affair with Austin Dickinson, Susan’s husband and Emily's brother.

An accomplished artist and musician, Todd brought much-needed vitality and commitment to preparing Dickinson’s poetry for publication. After finally enlisting Thomas Wentworth Higginson as co-editor, Todd completed Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1890, just four years after the poet’s death. The two editors made changes to the poems, regularizing punctuation, adding occasional titles, and sometimes altering words to improve rhyme or sense.

Encouraged by the first collection's success, Todd and Higginson published a second volume, Poems of Emily Dickinson, Second Series (1891). Public curiosity about the previously unknown poet prompted both editors, but especially Todd, to promote the work through lectures and journal articles. Todd alone edited a collection of Dickinson’s letters (1894) and a third volume of poems Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series (1896).

In 1898 a painful lawsuit between the Dickinson and Todd families over a small piece of land brought Mabel Todd’s involvement with the Dickinson family to an abrupt end. For more than thirty years she refused to raise the lid of her camphorwood chest filled with the Dickinson poems in her possession.

When Mabel Loomis Todd ceased her work on Dickinson’s poems, a period of quiet ensued in the publication story. Lavinia Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Susan Dickinson all died, and Martha Dickinson Bianchi began to assume a larger role in shaping her aunt's legacy. Having inherited Dickinson’s manuscripts from both Lavinia and Susan, Martha edited at least six volumes of Dickinson’s poetry. With a lighter editorial hand than her predecessors, Bianchi did not title the poems and kept their rhyme schemes intact. Incensed by publications about her aunt that she judged inaccurate, Bianchi wrote several memoirs to assert her unique perspective as “the one person now living who saw [Emily Dickinson] face to face” (Bianchi, p. xxii).

Eventually, Mabel Loomis Todd returned to Dickinson's work, motivated to counter Bianchi's efforts with the publication of her aunt's poetry. With her daughter Millicent’s help, Todd began to edit the poems that remained in her possession, a project that she did not live to see finished. Her daughter completed the work on her mother's behalf, and in 1945 published Bolts of Melody.

At last, most of Emily Dickinson’s poems were in print, yet no single edition contained them all. That situation changed with The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by literary scholar Thomas H. Johnson and published in 1955. Returning to Dickinson’s original manuscripts rather than using other editors’ transcriptions, Johnson more accurately presented all the poems (albeit in print) as Dickinson had written them. Unlike his predecessors, Johnson arranged the poems chronologically, carefully studying changes in the poet's handwriting to do so, since she rarely dated her work. The Poems of Emily Dickinson allowed readers to study her development as a poet, initiating a tremendous surge in Dickinson research.

Later in the 20th century, Ralph W. Franklin focused attention on Dickinson’s manuscripts, raising provocative questions about the poet’s writing practices. Franklin reassembled Dickinson’s fascicles in a facsimile edition, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, in 1981, while his 1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson, a complete edition in print of Dickinson's poems, refined Johnson’s work.

Further Reading:

Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. Emily Dickinson Face to Face. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1932.

Bingham, Millicent Todd. Ancestors' Brocades: The Literary Debut of Emily Dickinson. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1945.

Franklin, R. W. "Introduction." In The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. 1-43.

Horan, Elizabeth. "To Market: The Dickinson Copyright Wars." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 5, No. 1 (Spring 1996), 88-120.

_____. "Technically Outside the Law: Who Permits, Who Profits, and Why." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 2001), 34-54.

Major Editions of Dickinson's Writings

For a list of Emily Dickinson's poems published during her lifetime, click here.

1890-1900

1890  Poems
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson. 
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1891  Poems Second Series
Edited by T. W. Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd.
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1894  Letters of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd.       
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1896  Poems  Third Series
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. 
Published by Roberts Brothers of Boston.

1900-1954

1914  The Single Hound: Poems of a Lifetime
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1924 The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson
By Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company of Boston and New York.

1924 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1929  Further Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi & Alfred Leete Hampson. 
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1930 The Poems of Emily Dickinson:  Centenary Edition
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Alfred Leete Hampson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1931  Letters of Emily Dickinson  New & enlarged edition. 
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd. 
Published by Harper & Brothers Publishers of New York. 

1934 Poems for Youth
Edited by Alfred Leete Hampson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1935  Unpublished Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Martha Dickinson Bianchi & Alfred Leete Hampson.  
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1945  Bolts of Melody: New Poems of Emily Dickinson 
Edited by Mabel Loomis Todd & Millicent Todd Bingham. 
Published by Harper and Brothers of New York.

1951  Emily Dickinson's Letters to Dr. and Mrs. Josiah Gilbert Holland
Edited by Theodora van Wagenen Ward. 
Published by Harvard University Press.

1955-

1955  The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1958  The Letters of Emily Dickinson 
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson with Theodora van Wagenen Ward 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1961 Final Harvest:  Emily Dickinson's Poems 
Edited by Thomas H. Johnson.
Published by Little, Brown and Company of Boston.

1981  The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson
Edited by R.W. Franklin. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1998 The Poems of Emily Dickinson
Edited by R.W. Franklin.
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

1999 The Poems of Emily Dickinson:  Reading Edition
Edited by R.W. Franklin. 
Published by The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

See Resources & Bibliography for more information about Emily Dickinson's manuscripts and related resources as well as a discussion of copyright issues.