Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Poet and the Dictionary

"Reading the dictionary" is usually regarded as a geeky, if not nerdy thing to do: when the activity is even mentioned, there is often a subtext that it is something meted out as a punishment, or is something resorted to by people who are bored, who don't really have a life, or who don't know what to do with the one they've got. Despite the popular view, we are all card-carrying dictionary readers in the Lounge and we find the activity both edifying and soothing.

Not long ago we had an email from our friend and colleague Cynthia Hallen of Brigham Young University, about her online Emily Dickinson Lexicon (EDL). This news sent a shiver of excitement through the Lounge, because we knew that Emily Dickinson, too, was an avid dictionary reader: she owned and frequently consulted Noah Webster's 1844 American Dictionary of the English Language -- the last dictionary that Noah Webster himself worked on. Dickinson's niece, Martha Dickinson Bianchi, reported that her aunt Emily read the dictionary "as a priest his breviary." We took some time recently to explore the EDL and try to get a sense of what role the dictionary played in Dickinson's poetry.

The Emily Dickinson Lexicon is a model of a perfect marriage between modern electronic technology and good old-fashioned poetry. Every poet's work could be beneficially studied, and made more interesting and accessible, by the searching and concordancing facilities that a project like the EDL offers: it gives us the ability to see at a glance the many contexts in which a particular word is used in a body of poetry, as well as a look at the definitions and illustrative examples of the words that were very likely consulted by the poet in the course of her work, and that had an influence on her composition. This is a particularly suitable system for studying Dickinson's poems, since she is known to have drawn a great deal from the dictionary.

Dickinson's studied use of the dictionary is even more compelling and intriguing when we consider of the particulars of her life. Dickinson died before she was 56, but left a body of work totaling almost 1800 poems, composed from the time she was a teenager until the year of her death. She did not seek renown during her lifetime, publishing little and sharing only a small number of her poems with family and friends; the majority of her work was not discovered until after her death. In the last years of her life, Dickinson lived in near isolation. She never married or had children; she rarely ventured beyond the yard of her house (the house she was also born in), and she had contact with very few people outside a familiar circle. This would hardly be guessed by anyone reading her poetry, which expresses a multidimensional life of great depth and breadth.

The picture that emerges is one of sharp contrast: a woman who, on the one hand, embraced the eccentricities of her vocation, which seemed to require her withdrawal from most of society and to demand nearly continuous intensive introspection. On the other hand, she devoted hours of study to a book - namely, the dictionary - that is the meeting place of all language users, a storehouse for the consensus of meanings of words.

Despite her shunning of publicity during her life, and her disinclination to participate in any way in the public intellectual life of her time, it's hard not to think that her basic motive was communication: concise, succinct, distilled communication using words. She counted the dictionary among the foremost tools of her trade and learned to use it expertly. Today, more than 120 years after her death, her communications are as fresh and jarring as when she wrote them. Her method of old-fashioned dictionary study is an inspiration to anyone today whose task is to create an enduring message using only words.

We have chosen three of Dickinson's short poems (and most of her poems are short) that we have found illuminating on subjects that we ponder. By using the Visual Thesaurus and the EDL, the poems provide the opportunity (as any of her poems do) of exploring the ways in which words and their definitions connect to each other throughout the vast body of her poetry. We have provided links to entries for some words; we recommend the study of these same words in the EDL (link provided below), where you can see the various meanings that Emily Dickinson employed (perhaps "deployed" is a better term) and the contexts in which she used them, as well as some of the dictionary definitions that influenced her.

  1. Each that we lose takes part of us;
    A crescent still abides,
    Which like the moon, some turbid night,
    Is summoned by the tides.
  2. The going from a world we know To one a wonder still
    Is like the child's adversity
    Whose vista is a hill,
    Behind the hill is sorcery
    And everything unknown,
    But will the secret compensate
    For climbing it alone?
  3. The Future never spoke,
    Nor will he, like the Dumb,
    Reveal by sign or syllable
    Of his profound To-come.
    But when the news be ripe,
    Presents it in the Act-
    Forestalling preparation
    Escape or substitute.
    Indifferent to him
    The Dower as the Doom,
    His office but to execute
    Fate's Telegram to him.

Many versions of Dickinson's poems are now regarded as public domain and these are the ones we have used above. They differ very slightly in some cases - for these three, not significantly -- from the versions of her poems now regarded as definitive, which are still copyrighted (see link below).

The Emily Dickinson Lexicon is online at http://edl.byu.edu/index.php

To get the full benefit of the site -- access to poetry concordances and advanced search features -- you need to register, but this is free and only takes a moment.

There are a number of starting places for reading Dickinson's poems online:
http://www.bartleby.com/113/
http://www.mith2.umd.edu/WomensStudies/ReadingRoom/Poetry/Dickinson/
http://www.online-literature.com/dickinson/

The versions of Dickinson's poems now regarded as most definitive were compiled in 1999 and published in various editions, of which the most practical and affordable is The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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