Digital Poetics: Examining Electrionic Scholarship Through the Work of Emily Dickinson

The complex material from which Emily Dickinson's poetry emerged has long proved to be somewhat of a perpetual challenge to poetic scholars. Largely unpublished in her own lifetime, it is the various intimate allusions within Dickinson's work that have lent themselves to the heightened sense of ambiguity that surrounds her poetry. In much of her pieces, Dickinson offers an intimate address to an unknown entity, often referred to as “Master”. Scholars have reacted to this mystery through an examination of the poet's life, so much so, that many would now be considered biographers, rather than critics, of Dickinson. In his authoritative work on the Nineteenth-Century Amherst-born poet, entitled The Life of Emily Dickinson, Sewall acknowledges the aforementioned, commenting that “[a]lmost nothing to do with with Emily Dickinson is simple and clear-cut. The reasons why this should be so are many and basic, and it is the delicate business of the biographer to explore and assess them all” (3). For years, scholars have held debate over the identity of Dickinson's “Master”, the individual whom has since been branded as the poet's “lover for all eternity” (Farr 7-8). General disagreement exists amongst scholars in relation to the identity of this figure, with some individuals suggesting that the poems are addressed to a god-like muse, while others, including Dickinson's own family, contend that this particular body of work referred to an actual figure that the poet knew. Such theories have for a great many years been the exclusive offering of those scholars who had access to Dickinson's personal writings and correspondence. The emergence of electronic scholarship has changed the monopolization of those papers that may hold the key to her poetry's greatest secret. The situation with Emily Dickinson's correspondence is part of a wider problem in poetic scholarship that has only recently begun to be addressed. Over the course of this essay, I will examine these issues, and how it is that technology has facilitated their resolution.


Poetic scholarship is generally restricted by two barriers to interpretation: editorial versions and access to materials. The former of these two issues can prove the most problematic, as it is the issue that has given rise to a variety of conflicting interpretations amongst scholars. In any posthumous collection of poetry, the responsibility to select which “version” of a poem, as most accomplished pieces are crafted iteratively, lies with the editor of that particular edition. Restricted by the cost and physical limitations of traditional editions, editors are forced to select only one particular version of a poem for inclusion in a release. As a result, scholars are denied access to the evolution of the piece, which can often be more telling than the actual finished product. Furthermore, in the case of Dickinson, where editors are transcribing from handwritten documents never intended for publication, words can be deciphered less accurately than might be the case if a wide range of individuals were offering their opinion. An example of differing versions can be seen in Dickinson's “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”, one of the few poems that was published during her lifetime. The poem appeared in the Springfield Republican after Dickinson's sister-in-law, Susan, submitted the piece without the poet's consent. The original wording of the poem read:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not
His notice sudden is –

However, the published version had a minor change in syntax, which Dickinson later claimed had altered the entire meaning of the poem:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met Him – did you not,
His notice sudden is.

Before the advent of electronic scholarship, such occurrences were commonplace, with scholars able to offer analysis only in relation to those versions that they had available to them.

Coupled with this issue was the problem of access – while Dickinson's personal writings remained largely intact, access to her vast collection of personal poems and correspondences was restricted to those who had been granted access by their holding parties, and those who had the financial means to overcome the associated geographical restrictions. For example, the majority of scholars do not command the funds necessary to travel across the world for the purposes of viewing an original poetic manuscript, preventing them from offering fresh interpretations of a body of work. Fortunately, much of Dickinson's poems have been made available in electronic form through projects associated with the Dickinson Electronic Archive and NINES initiative. Because of the relatively low cost and ease of access that one is afforded within the digital space, scholars are no longer bound to editorial versions. Instead, they can easily access each and every version of a particular poem, and in the case of Dickinson, they can also view a selection of her original manuscripts. Furthermore, many of her personal letters and correspondence have also been made available in digital form. Considering the significantly broader base of scholars that can now view this material, the potential for fresh interpretation of her obscure handwriting, poetry and personal addresses has been greatly increased.

There are, of course, other ways in which technology and the emergence of Web 2.0 functionality has furthered the poetic discipline. For example, some commentators argue that “[s]martphones are arguably the best thing to hit poetry since the printing press, as even the most casual lovers of verse can read a poem whenever the spirit moves them, not just when they are in the vicinity of a book or computer” (Tedeschi).


Many authors find it remarkably difficult to have their poetry published, largely because publishers are faced with a rather minute audience when it comes to the sale of such collections. Only the most established of poets see their work in print. Because of this, there are many talented writers whose work never sees the light of day – Dickinson herself was an example of this, though her circumstance was largely of her own choosing. Through the use of blogging and other such technological facilities, such as, poets can now share their work with their peers, establishing a name for themselves within poetic circles, while simultaneously gathering feedback on the attitudes of readers toward their work.

There are those who would argue that digital publications are diluting the art through the high volume of “vanity publications” that one now encounters. In addition to the subjective nature of poetry, one must also consider that, if the digital space affords us the opportunity to uncover the next Emily Dickinson, having to wade through a couple of “vanity publications” is a price well worth paying.

We are now moving into a new technology-driven era of poetic scholarship and publication. As long as academics and authors continue to embrace the vast potential of the digital space, there is no end to the possibilities with which we might be presented.


Works Cited
Farr, Judith. Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice Hall, 1995. Print.
Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. London: Faber and Faber, 0. Print.
Tedeschi, Bob. “Poetry in the Age of Technology.” The New York Times 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Mar. 2011.