Emily Dickinson’s ‘fasicules’

January 24, 2013 § Leave a comment

fascicle   1. a separately published instalment of a book, usu. not complete in itself.  2. a bunch or bundle.  3. Anat. a bundle of fibres                                    —Oxford English Dictionary

Emily Dickinson never used the word ‘fascicle’ to describe the bundles of poems she made in the years 1858 through 1864. It was her friend Mabel Loomis Todd who referred to them as “little fascicules” when she was attempting to sort through the poems for publication. Dickinson makes oblique reference to these booklets (perhaps) in poem 675 (No. 772 in Franklin’s Reader’s Edition of 1999):

Essential Oils — are wrung —
The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone —
It is the gift of Screws —

The General Rose — decay —
But this — in Lady’s Drawer
Make Summer — When the Lady lie
In Ceaseless Rosemary —

I love the word ‘Attar’ here, and the sudden shock of ‘Screws’ — as if torture methods are applied to the rose petal flesh to produce the essential oil. There may also be an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 5:

Then were not summers distillation left
A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glasse,
Beauties effect with beauty were bereft,
Nor it nor noe remembrance what it was.

I haven’t checked if Dickinson was familiar with Shakespeare’s sonnets, but whether or not she was, the connection is strong between these two poems. The fair youth is being encouraged to reproduce in order to preserve his beauty in (and for) the next generation—a distillation or preservation of his essence. But in Shakespeare’s sonnets the flesh is soon abandoned for the poems themselves, which can offer a different kind of preservation in words.

Similarly, the fascicles—the poems—in the poet’s drawer—will ‘Make Summer’ when the poet is dead (‘In Ceaseless Rosemary’—when she lies only in memory, when only the words remember her—Rosemary for remembrance). There’s the same kind of allusion as well to the treatment of prisoners—screws, pent in walls of glass. The words of a poem imprison but also preserve.

This is how Dickinson made her fascicles.[1] She copied her poems onto sheets of stationery, which came prefolded from the manufacturer, to form two leaves. Once a fair copy of a poem was made, she destroyed earlier drafts. To make a fascicle, she took anywhere up to 6 or 7 folded sheets with their copied out poems (12 or 14 leaves) and placed them one on top of the other—that is, she didn’t insert one into another, which is the more common way today to make a chapbook. She then stabbed two holes from front to back through the pages along the folded edge, and then threaded a string through the holes, tying the pages together at the front. She gave individual poems no titles; the fascicles had no labels or page numbers; her name didn’t appear anywhere either. Franklin notes that her unit of poetry was the sheet—she would begin a new poem on a new sheet, often leaving the end leaf blank, rather than begin a new poem; if the poem was long and she ran out of room on the sheet she would pin another leaf to it (does this suggest that she wrote out these poems earlier, and then chose which ones to place in a given fascicle?). After 1864 she continued to make good copies of her poems onto sheets, but didn’t bind them—we don’t know why. There is endless speculation about both the artistic ordering of the poems within these forty fascicles, and the many textual variants she recorded for words and lines.

Shortly after Dickinson’s death the fascicles were discovered by her family, but then taken apart and disordered in order to prepare them for publication (another long complicated story). It wasn’t until the late 20th century that Franklin used material evidence to reconstruct the original order: stains, smudge patterns, paper type, soiling on the first and last sheets, pin marks, paper wrinkles, the “puncture patterns of the binding holes,” even stress effects visible on the paper as a result of the fascicles being browsed.

Why did she make these booklets, and why did she stop with less than half of her complete output of poems bound (there were 1789 known poems in total at her death)? Franklin thinks that she began to bind her poems in fascicles in order to organize the poems which had become unruly in their large number—with fascicles, she could flip through the booklets, browse, select; he argues they helped her to order (and constrain?) them. Once she stopped binding them into fascicles after 1864, there was unruliness again—poems copied out on all kinds of scraps: “When she did not copy such sheets and destroy the previous versions, her poems are found on hundreds of odds and ends—brown paper bags, magazine clippings, discarded envelopes and letters, the backs of recipes.”[2] He argues that she made no attempt to group the poems in particular orders according to aesthetic or thematic design.

Other scholars disagree with Franklin, and see these gatherings of her poems into booklets as conscious artistic choice—some fascicles containing narrative arcs, others thematically linked, one poem illuminating the next and revealing new meaning once placed side by side. Her lyrics are short, riddling, numerous. Wanting the lyrics to be bound into fascicles according to a higher aesthetic principle satisfies our own desire for order and pattern. And it is not unthinkable that a poet would be tempted to group her poems into particular patterns as she bound them—why not? But we can’t ever know if this was her intention.

Still others emphasize her indeterminacy: why choose only one word or one version of a poem when they can exist simultaneously on the page, like a palimpsest, just as every word carries a diachronic memory of its past? This is also appealing.

Yet I like Franklin’s idea that the fascicles (and the later, unbound fascicle sheets, known as ‘sets’) functioned as a workshop for Dickinson. When she wanted to send a poem to a friend, she would consult the relevant worksheet or fascicle, choose the word or line variants appropriate for the receiver of her poem, and copy out a fair copy for them. This makes sense to me. We might think of the fascicles as the equivalent of today’s computer folder or file. And as she chose never to seek publication beyond this kind of private self-publication, there may also have been pleasure in creating these distinct bundles, like jars of preserves or rose attar in glass vials.

I like Emily Dickinson. I like her riddling poems, and I like her choice not to publish, but to take refuge (if this is what it was) in a manuscript culture. Like the circulation of blood within our bodies, she let her poems exist for themselves in their own dark life.

(Wed. 27 June 2012)


[1] I take the details of her technique from an essay by R. W. Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” published in Studies in Bibliography 1983. You can also see images of her fascicles at the Emily Dickinson Museum.

[2] Franklin, “The Emily Dickinson Fascicles,” p.16.

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