The Making of The Oxford Canon: Emily Dickinson
Today David Lehman, editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City, examines the poetry of Emily Dickinson and her use of the verb, “to justify”. Lehman has been writing for the OUPblog all week, check out part one and two and three of this series.
Today I’d like to ask you, dear reader, for some help. I’ve been re-reading, with renewed appreciation, the poems of Emily Dickinson, and as usual I find myself turning over certain of her lines.
For example, her use of the verb “to justify” fascinates me. It is conceivable that she uses the word not only in its sense of “to recognize as true or genuine” or “to show or maintain the reasonableness of an action or a statement” but in a more specific theological sense, where “justification” is synonymous with salvation as the result of an act of divine grace.
Here are two instances of Dickinson’s use of infinitive “to justify.” In both cases, the word appears in the very last line of the poem. At the end of # 510 (“It was not Death, for I stood up”), Dickinson likens the speaker’s condition to being at sea. Here is the conclusion:
But, most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –/
Without a Chance, or Spar –/
Or even a Report of Land –/
To justify – Despair.
The reader may well wonder why the poet opts for “Despair” where precisely the word “Hope” was expected. This, unlike some Dickinsonian riddles, is not insoluble, and I will propose a solution in tomorrow’s blog. But I am interested in the surplus meaning that the word “justify” has in that line, and that is because of the end of # 569 (“I reckon – when I count at all –“).
The burden of this poem is that “Poets” in their power encompass “the Sun,” “Summer,” and even “the Heaven of God,” making them all in some ways supererogatory. The poets’ Summer “lasts a Solid Year,” Dickinson writes. The poets’ Sun is, by our daily standards, “extravagant.” As for heaven, this is how she concludes her poem:
And if the Further Heaven –/
Be Beautiful as they prepare/
For Those who worship Them –/
It is too difficult a Grace/
To justify the Dream –/
Now, if we identify “Poets” in this poem as emblematic of the Imagination, much of it becomes instantly more comprehensible. But the last five lines remain opaque. Part of the difficulty rests with those pronouns, lacking antecedents as they do: Who are “they” who “prepare? Who are “Those” who worship? In the same line, whom does “Them” stand for? What is the “It” that is “too difficult a Grace / To justify the Dream – “And does “justify” here mean what it does at the end of #510?
David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village