The inventions of Emily Dickinson
Sometimes when looking up an author’s name in the Oxford English Dictionary you will find a handful of rare and unusual treasures, or a disparate collection of shining moments from the span of a literary career. But other times you will find something else: a portrait in miniature of the writer; a story, told in only a very few words, about an individual’s approach to literature and to life. Such is the case with Emily Dickinson.
Dickinson, who was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, on 10 December 1830, was an exceptionally prolific writer of short, tightly-wrought verse. However, she was also an intensely private and reclusive individual, and she published very few poems in her lifetime — instead, a cache of over 1,700 poems was discovered by her sister Lavinia after her death in 1886. Accordingly, her reputation as one of America’s greatest poets only became established well after her life was over.
The overfamiliarity of death
In fact, death, mortality, and life after death are dominant themes in Dickinson’s posthumously published poems — she wrote, in a letter of 1852, ‘I think of the grave very often’. Poems like ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, or the extraordinary ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, show that death was all but literally on her mind. Her poems frequently meditate on time, and the time that we have left before death comes calling, as in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’:
Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –
As someone who witnessed the deaths of loved ones, including close friends and her father, in the last decade of her life, as well as the horrors of the Civil War in the 1860s, Dickinson had good reason to be preoccupied by the question of what comes after life. But her writings on death are not in line with mainstream Victorian culture, which wanted to make death palatable and familiar. Dickinson makes death uncomfortable through its very overfamiliarity: ‘Death is the supple Suitor / That wins at last’.
More of less
It is here, on the recurrent theme of death, that Dickinson’s contributions to the Oxford English Dictionary cast their curious light. The words for which her poems currently provide first evidence are remarkable, for being almost all adjectives formed with the suffix -less: goalless, reduceless, postponeless, repealless, reportless. There are, in fact, hundreds of unusual -less words littered across her works. The suffix -less, the OED tells us, signifies absence or lack, or, when added to verbs, the failure or incompletion of an action. It therefore seems fitting that a writer as concerned with death as was Dickinson should so frequently invoke a sense of absence through her unusual words.
The curious word postponeless is a good example of how this works:
It’s coming — the postponeless Creature —
It gains the Block — and now — it gains the Door —
Chooses its latch, from all the other fastenings —
Enters — with a “You know me — Sir”?
In a stuttering style typical of her poetry, realized through the heavy use of hyphens, Dickinson presents the inescapability of fate and death as a ‘postponeless Creature’ — thus one that, as the OED tells us, ‘cannot be put off or averted’. This poem, about becoming absent from life, characterizes death itself as an absence of postponement. Time and again Dickinson uses this technique in her poems, as in the lines:
No Man can compass a Despair —
As round a Goalless Road
No faster than a Mile at once
The Traveller proceed
A fate that cannot be postponed, a road that has no goal. These are indeed images of despair in Dickinson’s work, and we begin to sense how her frequent use of these negating terms serves the imagery of death in her poetry.
In part, Dickinson’s penchant for these -less words can be explained with reference to her metrical art. Though the metres she uses in her poetry are not always regular, there is usually some discernible pattern of iambic trimeter (‘ba-dom, ba-dom, ba-dom’) or tetrameter (‘ba-dom, ba-dom, ba-dom, ba-dom’). Because she so strictly adheres to these patterns, Dickinson sometimes seems to find it convenient to invent a new word that will fit the pattern:
Reportless Subjects, to the Quick
But foreign as the Dialect
Of Danes, unto the rest.
The subjects spoken about here are ‘reportless’ in the sense that they are unworthy of being spoken about. We have more conventional words for this — for instance, unremarkable — but try inserting it in the first line and see what happens to Dickinson’s otherwise pacy rhythm. The same can be said of the uncommon word reduceless:
As an Estate perpetual
Or a reduceless Mine.
The poetry of these lines, which describe an inexhaustible source of value like a mine that can never be emptied, would fall apart if we replaced ‘a reduceless’ with ‘an irreducible’. In these examples such negations help Dickinson negotiate her carefully measured metres, and establish the sound of her poetry.
However, the sight, as well as the sound, of many of these words can add to the startling effects achieved in her poetry. Where Dickinson rolls together words that end with ‘L’ and the suffix -less — goalless, repealless — she creates eye-catching words that call attention to their own novelty and strangeness. If there’s any doubt that she was doing this consciously, consult the following short poem:
Still own thee—still thou art
What surgeons call alive—
Though slipping—slipping I perceive
To thy reportless Grave—
Which question shall I clutch—
What answer wrest from thee
Before thou dost exude away
In the recallless sea?
Recallless has not made its way into any dictionary, but what a wonderful way of saying something is beyond recollection, or is forgettable. And its triple ‘L’ formulation ensures that the word recallless itself is a memorable one. It makes us think about the letters on the page a little too much, and they seem, for a second, to be nothing but a meaningless sea of symbols. The poem itself asks ‘Which question shall I clutch [?]’ — the narrator wonders what words to demand of a dying person before the finality of death. There is a desperate sense that words themselves might offer some tiny glimpse of immortality, of commemoration after death, if only we can ‘wrest’ the right ones free in time. No wonder Dickinson’s chosen words are here so distinctive and memorable — they’re built to last.
The limits of words
There are other interesting mentions of Dickinson in the OED. For instance, she provides first evidence of the word shrewd in noun form — ‘could a shrewd advise me’. She currently also provides first evidence for the verb resituate, now in relatively common usage. But it is her beguiling use of the -less words, to create a sense of absence through the presence of language itself, that is most enduring. Perhaps there is no better example of this than the short poem ‘To tell the Beauty would decrease’:
To tell the Beauty would decrease
To state the Spell demean —
There is a syllable-less Sea
Of which it is the sign —
My will endeavours for its word
And fails, but entertains
A Rapture as of Legacies —
Of introspective Mines —
That is the full poem. Dickinson wants us to understand the power of words, but also their limits. There are some forms of beauty that would disappear if we spoke about them. Nearly every line ends with a lingering hyphen — as if the narrator is on the cusp of saying something but cannot find words. The final ‘introspective Mines’, like the ‘reduceless Mine’ we saw above, turns the gaze inwards. She cannot find the word for the ‘syllable-less Sea’ she senses — it falls below the bare minimum for words or for a poem. Is this the ‘recallless’ sea of death, or some other state of being in flux? We are not told. Dickinson’s poems are about leaving things unsaid as often as they are about telling. Collecting together these various irregular words Dickinson situates (and resituates) in her verse, we find the full force of a writer who would gaze fixedly at death itself, in the attempt to find ways to convey its reportless truth.