Dept. of Word Lists

The Editor Who Esteemed (and Rejected) Emily Dickinson's Poetry

Once again we have asked writer and educator Bob Greenman to select some words to mull over from his latest guide to vocabulary enrichment, More Words That Make a Difference, co-authored with his wife Carol. The book illustrates word usage with passages from the Atlantic Monthly, and Bob takes a look here at words used by one of the Atlantic's most famous editors.

As my wife Carol and I read through the Atlantic Monthly's nineteenth-century issues, several writers became as alive to us as the columnists we read daily in the New York Times. Holding the old magazines in our hands day after day imbued us with a sense of immediacy, of the presentness of their times in our lives, that we'd never felt from a book written during that era. Among the writers we felt closest to was Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823-1911), patriot, poet, essayist and Atlantic editor. Prelude, raiment and tonic are the words featured in three passages that we'll be talking about here.  

prelude PRAY loo:d
an introduction to a larger work, as in music, drama or literature; preface

Few events in American literary history have been more curious than the sudden rise of Emily Dickinson into a posthumous fame only more accentuated by the utterly recluse character of her life and by her aversion to even a literary publicity. The lines which form a prelude to the published volume of her poems are the only ones that have come to light indicating even a temporary desire to come in contact with the great world of readers; she seems to have had no reference, in all the rest, to anything but her own thought and a few friends.

The "published volume" Higginson was referring to in his October 1891 article, "Emily Dickinson's Letters," was the book of Dickinson's poems that he and her friend, Mabel Todd Loomis, put together five years after Emily died. And the poem he chose as a prelude to the volume — because it was her only poem revealing a "desire to come in contact with the great world of readers" — was this:

This is my letter to the world, 
That never wrote to me, — 
The simple news that Nature told, 
With tender majesty. 

Her message is committed 
To hands I cannot see; 
For love of her, sweet countrymen, 
Judge tenderly of me! 

As Higginson wrote in his article, that verse was a perfect prelude to the rest of the book's 125 poems, in effect welcoming to her inner world a world she had never met.

Higginson was a fierce abolitionist. He freed an escaped slave in a raid on the Boston Courthouse, in 1854; he helped finance John Brown's raid at Harper's Ferry in 1859; and from 1862 to 1864 he commanded the first black regiment in the Union Army. What he is best known for, however, is the action he did not take as an Atlantic Monthly editor. After inviting young poets and writers to submit their work to the magazine because "every editor is always hungering and thirsting after novelties," he turned down, in 1862, the most original poetic voice America has ever produced.  

"Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?" Emily Dickinson asked him in a letter she sent along with four poems in response to his appeal in the Atlantic. Alive? He was bowled over. In the 1891 article, Higginson said he recognized in those poems "a wholly new and original poetic genius," so novel that her work was beyond criticism. Yet in word and form he considered it too unconventional for the Atlantic. And though he and Dickinson corresponded for 25 years, and he admired and marveled at her poems that she sent him regularly, he never offered to publish any. Should we blame Higginson, whose magazine published "Listen my children and you shall hear / Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere" in 1861, for shying away from this in 1862?

We play at paste
Till qualified for pearl;
Then drop the paste
And deem ourselves a fool.

The shapes, though, were similar
And our new hands
Learned gem-tactics,
Practicing sands.

(You can read the entire Higginson article here.)

But back to the word prelude. One meaning of prelude is a preface, an opening to a larger work of music, drama or literature, as Dickinson's poem became in Higginson and Todd's book. But a prelude can stand alone, too, as Rachmaninoff's "Prelude in C Sharp Minor" and George Gershwin's "Three Preludes" do. Howard Pollack, a music professor at the University of Houston and the author of a biography of Gershwin, told me in an e-mail message that while the musical prelude has often served as the first movement of larger works, as in Bach's preludes and fugues (in which each fugue is preceded by a prelude), over the years it also started to appear as an independent form — such as the preludes of Chopin and Debussy, which Gershwin had in mind when he wrote his own.

A glass of wine can be a prelude, as can a cutting remark, a discussion, a chance meeting, or an amuse-bouche. To illustrate the use of prelude, the Oxford English Dictionary cites a John Calvin sermon from 1583, in which he said, "It is well known that dancing can be no better but a prelude to whoredome, to open an entry purposely unto Satan." To which I say, amen. 

Higginson, who extolled the wonders of American nature in many Atlantic articles, wrote 15 pages just on snow in a February 1862 article titled — in the straightforward style of Atlantic titles — "Snow." From it came this passage, with our next featured word, raiment. You don't need the date of the article to know that this is not modern prose, yet it's vivid and lively. Can you see the birds, the trees and the snow here? 

raiment RAY muhnt 
decorative, ceremonial or fine clothing 

As we wander on through the wood, all the labyrinths of summer are buried beneath one white inviting pathway, and the pledge of perfect loneliness is given by the unbroken surface of the all-revealing snow. There appears nothing living except a downy woodpecker, whirling round and round upon a young beech-stem, and a few sparrows, plump with grass-seed and hurrying with jerking flight down the sunny glade. But the trees furnish society enough. What a congress of ermined kings is this circle of hemlocks, which stand, white in their soft raiment, around the dais of this woodland pond! Are they held here, like the sovereigns in the palace of the Sleeping Beauty, till some mortal breaks their spell?  

Does that writing sound as old fashioned to you as it does to me? But isn't it beautiful?  

While the OED labels raiment as "now chiefly archaic and literary," it is certainly a word for our times, although rarely used — only twice in the past year, for example, in the New York Times: in describing a French fashion show's "cadre of exotic creatures in all their raiment," and in a review of the documentary film "Valentino," in which the fashion designer's clothes are described as "exquisite works of art... timeless in the sense that Valentino's opulent, royal ideal of feminine raiment has always been largely untouched by trends." 

Use raiment to describe any garment that in your opinion is an adornment or serves a ceremonial purpose. It could be Glinda's golden, angelic-looking gown in The Wizard of Oz; Richard Gere's navy dress clothes in An Officer and a Gentleman; or any bridal clothes. And just as Higginson's snow can be raiment, so may a Christmas tree's ornaments, a male peacock's fanned tail, or children's trick-or-treat costume. (It's helpful to know that raiment is an aphetic, a shortened word for arrayment.) 

And picture this, from a 1928 New York Times story: A man breaks into freight cars containing shipments of men's clothing and passes out his loot to members of a hobo jungle near Elmira, N.Y. The police become suspicious of a possible theft when, as the Times described it, there's a "sudden trend toward modernism in the apparel of many members of the hobo camp." The New York Times headlined the story: "CAR THEFTS REVEALED BY STYLE OF HOBOES; Camp of Tramps Gets Raiment When One of Band Robs Erie Freight Train."  

In a December 1867 article, "Literature as an Art,"on the doggedness, thick skin, and idealism one must possess to pursue the writer's life, Higginson urged writers not to be discouraged or dispirited by harsh reviews.  

tonic TAH nik
an invigorating, refreshing or stimulating influence

I know of no tonic more useful for a young writer than to read carefully, in the English reviews of sixty or seventy years ago, the crushing criticisms on nearly every author of that epoch who has achieved lasting fame.

Among the "crushing criticisms" Higginson was referring to must have been the devastating reviews of John Keats's poetry. One critic said Keats, who had attended pharmacy school, would do better to resume his studies as "an apothecary" but "be a little more sparing of  soporifics in your practice than you have been in your poetry." Another wrote, "It is a better and easier thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; go back to the shop, Mr. John, back to 'plasters, pills and ointment boxes.'"   

Higginson might have referred young writers to a review of his own, another blot on his editorial escutcheon equal to his hidebound rejection of Emily Dickinson's work. Recognizing that Walt Whitman was amazingly talented, but that his unrhyming, free-flowing verse was over the top and his work was not yet ready for public view, Higginson wrote in an 1867 Atlantic review, "It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards." How's that for a tonic for a young poorly-reviewed poet in the year 2009! 

The OED describes tonic in its literal sense as a "non-alcoholic carbonated drink containing quinine or another bitter as a stimulant of appetite and digestion." In its figurative sense it's what Higginson was talking about: a refreshing, eye-opening moment. A brief mountain or seashore vacation in the midst of a harried year can be a tonic; so can sitting in a park, seeing a baby, a kiss, or iced tea on a sweltering day. And wouldn't a boom in home sales be a tonic for the housing market!

A recent tonic for Wayne Brasler, a high school newspaper adviser in Chicago, was an e-mail from a former student, now a famous author, saying she was counting on him to call in when she appeared on a radio talk show. For Ellen Austin, a high school teacher in Palo Alto, California, it's "a good bike ride to ease away my worries."  

What's your tonic?

Passages cited in this article are reprinted from More Words That Make a Difference, © Robert Greenman and Carol Greenman, published by Levenger Press.

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Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 9:58 AM
Comment by: David S. (Fife, WA)
I enjoyed the breath of life Robert gave to common words. Prelude, raiment, and tonic, words we hear often, but Robert Greenman infuses them with spirit. I am a new subscriber and I think it is the best investment I have made in a long time.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 2:07 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
Hmmm. I thought it was me, being unable to see the settings or and feel the emotions described in the last few works I have read. This column certainly has disabused me of that thought! Greenman's writing is wonderful and the passages he chose to illuminate the three words chosen were graceful, beautiful and made me both feel and see! Thank you for restoring my confidence in my reading and reminding me that not all writing can be considered equal.
Wednesday April 22nd 2009, 5:55 PM
Comment by: Jane C.
Thank you, Bob, for pointing out this poetic and beautiful article excerpt by Higgenson: ...white in their soft raiment, around the dais of this woodland pond...

Such an eloquent use of language! I will never see snow the same way again. Nor will I sip wine on future evenings without relishing in the prelude of what's to come.

Well done!

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