Two Of Emily Dickinson's First Drafts, Scrawled on Old Envelopes   

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Oct. 18 2013 2:18 PM

Two Of Emily Dickinson's First Drafts, Scrawled on Old Envelopes   

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Emily Dickinson, as I’ve written in this space in the past, drafted many of her poems on bits and pieces of miscellaneous paper, many of which came from broken-down, recycled envelopes: strips, torn-off corners, full-flattened sheets. All of Dickinson’s 52 surviving "envelope poems" are now collected in a full-color facsimile edition, with the Dickinson-derived title The Gorgeous Nothings.  Here are two of the larger envelopes, along with visual transcriptions, as they appear in the book.

The smaller fragments I visited in my previous post offered scant space for Dickinson to develop ideas. Their charm is in their fleeting tininess, which mirrors Dickinson’s sparse economy of language and adds to her mystique; one can imagine the poet scrawling a thought, then losing it as it flutters away.

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The larger envelopes, on the other hand, offer more real estate for Dickinson to play with. The first envelope poem below, which became the poem “Oh Sumptuous Moment,” includes suggestions of alternate words, one strikeout, and a few insertions between the lines.

The second, which eventually became “We Talked With Each Other About Each Other,” gives even more of a sense of Dickinson’s choices. In the draft of this poem about the anxiety of time’s passage, the poet describes “Time” as “Pausing in Front of our --- Faces.” In this draft, she plays with several adjectives to modify “Faces”: “Sentenced,” and, in the margin, “Foundering.” In the final version, she’s taken an entirely different tack, and selected “Palsied”—a word that does a much better job of expressing a sense of active, yet paralyzed human dread.  

Envelope1Final

The Gorgeous Nothings.

Transcript1Final

A visual transcript, as it appears in The Gorgeous Nothings.

Envelope2Final

The Gorgeous Nothings.

Transcript2Final

A visual transcript, as it appears in The Gorgeous Nothings.

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