American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

If I can stop one Heart from breaking

with one comment

From “Page Six” in the New York Post, January 18, 2009

Emily Dickinson has been a test case for textual scholars for some time now, and arguments over the correctness of this or that text have become quite heated. Readers, meanwhile, persist in loving the so-called corrupt texts as deeply as the correct ones. The poem that Jaime King wants to have tattooed on her skin was first printed in 1890. There it appeared as a single stanza, with corrected punctuation and regularized capitalization. Since 1955, scholars have preferred a closer approximation to the manuscript. Thomas H. Johnson gave the text this way:

If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain.

And there are scholars who would follow the manuscript even more closely, respecting line divisions that were probably due to the size of the page. In this construction, the poem would run as follows:

If I can stop one
Heart from breaking
I shall not live
in vain
If I can ease one
Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain

Or help one fainting
Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live
in Vain.

The New York Post, however, ignores these scholarly improvements, going all the way back to 1890 for punctuation and capitalization (except for the first letters of each line, which are now lower case, which hardly matters anyway since the poem is no longer written as verse). This lack of deference for the “best text” actually pleases me, though I’m not sure why. It’s not surprising in any case. Now that the old books are out of copyright, they circulate more freely than the new ones. And for most readers, the differences are purely academic.

I wonder what text Jaime King prefers.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

January 18, 2009 at 8:52 pm

One Response

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  1. She used to go by the name James King, which on its own would be enough to turn anybody’s head.

    johnstearns

    January 19, 2009 at 2:35 pm


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