A Dash of Poetic License

My name is Emily, but please call me Em

One of the goals of Fiction+ has been to encourage writers and editors to leave the stylebook behind whenever it gets in the way of creative expression. This can mean something as simple as embracing idiosyncratic or even nonstandard punctuation.

In a history journal or academic monograph, yes: a copyeditor can impose Chicago or house style (serial commas!). But for a more creative work, the line blurs. Editors can and should suggest changes and fix problems—and try to anticipate what might work for readers—but the author has the final say.

Dickinson’s Dashes

When I was in school (many years ago) I didn’t read poetry unless a teacher or professor assigned it. But I do remember liking Emily Dickinson.

I had this image of the poet sitting upright and alone in a window-lit attic writing precisely punctuated midcentury Victorian poetry as a countermeasure against the uncertainties and disappointments of life beyond the page and outside her room.

But the real Emily Dickinson didn’t quite work that way.

Her poems were first published in full only after she died. And her publishers, who were worried about public reception, made a lot of small but significant changes to conform the poet’s unconventional work to contemporary expectations.

So, for example, when Dickinson’s poem about a fateful carriage ride was first published in 1890, as “The Chariot,” it featured a suitably nineteenth-century semicolon at the end of the second line of the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.*

That’s exactly how many of us would still use a semicolon today—and how every edition of The Chicago Manual of Style since 1906 would recommend using one.

But Dickinson herself ended that line—as well as the first and third lines—with a dash.† (Another difference: “carriage” and “ourselves,” like “Death,” were capitalized in the original.)

Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death” (ink, ca. 1862), last stanza. The final dash—Dickinson’s dashes look more like hyphens—follows the cross for the second “t” in “Eternity.” Emily Dickinson Archive. Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0.

Dickinson also used dashes in place of periods—often at the ends of lines. Here’s the final stanza of the same poem, transcribed here from Dickinson’s handwritten manuscript:

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—

In the first published edition that final dash—which almost seems to challenge the idea that a poem has an ending or that time could contain it even if it did—was replaced by a period.

Dashes and Dashes

Editors and publishers have a lot of responsibility, but one of the main ones is to ensure that nothing gets in the way of the author’s voice. That means that Emily Dickinson can have her dashes if she wants them. In her work, they suggest the rush of composition and a freedom from constraints.

Not that an editor’s job will ever be easy: a rose is a rose (or the name of a person—and Gertrude Stein, like Dickinson, broke with the conventions of her day), but a dash is never just a dash. It might be a dash (-) or a dash (–) or a dash (—). So when I transcribed Dickinson’s stanza, I imposed Chicago style—an em dash with no space on either end.

Dickinson’s handwritten dashes were more like spaced hyphens. Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson rendered them as spaced en dashes, a common convention for the dash (and one that’s become the norm in the UK). But in two editions of Dickinson’s work published by Harvard since Johnson’s, spaced hyphens were used.‡

My version makes a different assumption. In Dickinson’s time, an em dash with no spaces on either side was the convention for works published in English (on both sides of the Atlantic), so I’m guessing that Dickinson herself might have accepted those. She almost certainly wouldn’t have chosen a typeface that mimics handwriting.

Whatever you decide, the line between manuscript and published work must be drawn somewhere.**

Looking Ahead

If it was an act of editorial overkill to conform Emily Dickinson to the published standards of her day, we might use her as a cautionary tale.

As the typographical and linguistic innovations of texting and social media make their way into published works, editors will want to resist the urge to apply conventional rules for their own sake. The classics of the future may depend on the decisions that we make today.

* Poems, edited by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1890), 138.

† Thanks to Thomas H. Johnson (and Dickinson scholars who followed), we’ve known about these dashes for a long time now; see Johnson, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955). In school, I probably encountered one of the many anthologized versions that reproduced an earlier published version.

‡ See R. W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1999), and Helen Vendler, Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries (2010), both from the Belknap Press.

** Franklin, editor of the definitive variorum edition (3 vols.; Belknap/Harvard 1998), treated the poems more like correspondence—the publishing conventions for which are more likely to favor the manuscript—preserving not only the spaced hyphens but idiosyncratic spellings and contractions and the like.

Top Image: Emily Dickinson, daguerreotype (ca. 1847); adapted for post.

Fiction+ posts at Shop Talk reflect the opinions of its authors and not necessarily those of The Chicago Manual of Style or the University of Chicago Press.

Russell Harper~ ~ ~

Russell Harper (@cpyeditor) is editor of The Chicago Manual of Style Online Q&A and was the principal reviser of the last two editions of The Chicago Manual of Style. He also contributed to the revisions of the last two editions of Kate L. Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.


The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition

Order the book
Subscribe online

Please see our commenting policy.

2 thoughts on “A Dash of Poetic License

  1. There has also long been the convention in script of making a period clearly visible by the dash rather than the dot.

    • Johnson: “Dickinson used dashes as a musical device, and though some may be elongated end stops, any ‘correction’ would be gratuitous”—from the introduction to the one-volume paperback Complete Poems (Back Bay Books / Little, Brown, 1961), p. x. And from the 1955 three-volume Belknap/Harvard edition: “Her use of the dash is especially capricious. Often it substitutes for a period and may in fact have been a hasty, lengthened dot intended for one. On occasion her dashes and commas are indistinguishable” (Johnson, “Notes on the Present Text,” p. lxiii). Your observation raises an intriguing additional consideration.

Comments are closed.