“Emily Dickinson: Poetry as Gift”
Cadman, Deborah, “Material Things and Expressive Signs: The Language of Emily
Dickinson in her Social and Physical Context,” doctoral dissertation, Amherst, Univ. of
This is a valuable source. Cadman is the only one to have addressed Dickinson‟s
gifts of poems in an extended study. She says flowers made a physical
connection between poet and recipient, a connection that eliminated physical
distance. The poems likewise established a physical connection. The gift is
something that can “change human sentience.” She includes an appendix listing
all the poems that accompanied gifts. I do not believe this list is nearly
complete—I think she just went through the Variorum and the Collected Letters
to see which poems were in letters that included gifts. However, many poems say
Dean, Gabrielle, “Emily Dickinson‟s „Poetry of the Portfolio,‟” Text: An
Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies, #14, 2002, 241-276.
This is an article about the fascicles, but it takes an unusual approach. Higginson
took the fascicles to be a kind of poetry of the “portfolio” (RWE), not intended for
publication. He connected her poetry with her cultivation of flowers (posies, etc.)
for their freshness and naturalness. Dean argues that her fascicles show signs of
the “booklet” and of the “signature” publication—that is, a bound collection of
separate elements and a whole coherent work—and that the various threshold
markings indicate the difference. The first page of a fascicle serves as a cover, a
threshold, and each page contains elements that at once mark the poem as unitary
and as part of a collection: thus it is part authored book, part Dial-like collection.
It would be useful to look at these formulas in connection with Gift-books like
Dickinson, Cindy, “Creating a World of Books, Friends, and Flowers: Gift Books and
Inscriptions, 1825-60,” Winterthur Portfolio, v. 31 #1, Spring, 1996, 53-66.
A good, short essay describing 19th-century gift books, especially their
decorations and illustrations. She emphasizes how the books were framed,
presented, addressed—all as a means of converting the publishers‟ commercial
enterprise into something suitable to the “world of sentiment.” Inscriptions
connected the thoughts in the books to the giver and to the receiver. I might use
this essay in connection with Dean‟s article (q.v.).
Donawerth, Jane, “Women‟s Poetry and the Tudor-Stuart System of Gift Exchange,” in
Mary E. Burke, Jane Donawerth,, Linda L. Dove, and Karen Nelson, Women, Writing,
and the Reproduction of Culture in Tudor and Stuart Britain, Syracuse: Syracuse Univ.
250 years before my time, the subject here is still relevant because it addresses
ways in which gifts of food, jewels, animals, etc. helped to establish “the bonds of
community,” and that this circuit of exchange was especially potent among
women. The poem is a gift that conveys a portion of the giver herself.
Donawerth doesn‟t mention Hyde, but her reading is Hydean.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, “Gifts,” from Essays: Second Series, 1844.
This is a short, little-read essay that is absolutely seminal. Beyond all question
ED must have known it, yet one never sees it mentioned. He starts by addressing
the value of flowers as gifts, and then goes on to argue that “the only gift [must
be] a portion of thyself.” That‟s well and good, and to the point. But then he says
something really weird: “Thou must bleed for me.” Is there something Christlike
in the giving of gifts? Is the only true gift an act of Christian self-sacrifice? Did
Dickinson die to the world in order to give imaginative life to friends and future
readers? This opens up a whole huge range of possibilities—maybe a bottomless
Hughes, James, “Emily Dickinson‟s Gift of Power,” Dickinson Studies, v. 63, 1987, 33-
Hughes argues that the poem, like the flower, is “a sign of power,” a sign of the
power to confront life with the gift of metaphor. He has read Hyde too—as has
everyone who writes on art and gifts, I think. It‟s not a great article—worth
stuffing a footnote.
Hyde, Lewis, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (Vintage, Random
A book-length essay by this Emersonian essayist, The Gift draws on the classic
anthropological studies of gift-giving to argue that works of art exist within a pre-
modern gift economy, an economy centered in establishing bonds between
communities, and that the artist is the essence of this economic system: “Thought
belong to him that gave it / Then to him that bear / Its corporeal illustration.”
Creativity is a gift in itself, passed on to others—the artist a kind of intermediary
shuttle. He will be useful in providing language that theorizes the gift.
Kutcher, Matthew Lawrence, “Flowers of Friendship: Gift Books and Polite Culture in
Early Nineteenth-Century Britain,” U of Michigan dissertation, 1998.
He discusses the roots of the gift book and of Emerson‟s ideas in Romantic ideas
of friendship. The gift book comes out of the miscellany and the olio, and in the
early 19th-century contained poems by the most famous poets. He says the same
things as others do about the market and transcendence of it through the gift. I‟ll
need this if I do try to write about fascicles as gift-books. The problem is that she
doesn‟t seem to have given them to anybody.
Lambert, Robert Graham jr., A Critical Study of Emily Dickinson’s Letters: The Prose of
a Poet, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 1996; printing of dissertation, Univ. of Pittsburgh,
This book contains an extended discussion of her epistolary relationship to Sue.
He argues that the letters all show a need “to worship rather than be worshipped.”
That‟s a different notion of the gift than Hyde describes—makes the gift into a
form of supplication or homage or tribute. I have to decide whether Dickinson‟s
gifts are Hydean or something else closer to this notion.
Morris, Adalaide, “A Relay of Power and of Peace: H.D. and the Spirit of the Gift,”
Contemporary Literature, v. 27 #4, Winter 1986, 493-524.
Although this is about HD, it may be a good model of what I want to do. She
quotes Mauss and Hyde to theorize the gift (more and more I think I want to get
away from them and work in a Christian vein). She discusses HD‟s Tribute to
Freud as a kind of response to something called a “threshold gift, a gift that opens
a passage from one state to another.” Gifts center in transformation and
Mitchell, Domhnall, Emily Dickinson: Monarch of Perception, Amherst, Univ. of Mass.
Press, 2000, ch. 4, “‟A Little Taste, Time, and Means,‟ Dickinson and Flowers.”
He argues that there was a “shared culture of exchange in which flowers and texts
about flowers can be circulated as gifts” (big surprise). He argues that cultivation
of choice flowers established class status, and that including flowers with a poem
or letter was a way of excluding social content, and thus maintaining a status quo.
He contrasts her with more activist women poets, and says that her “publication”
was more elite and rarified than an anthology: a ham-handed thesis, exasperating
in spots, but containing lots of interesting points along the way. See esp. his
reading of J994.
Petrino, Elizabeth A., Emily Dickinson and Her Contemporaries: Women’s Verse in
America, 1820-1885, Hanover, Univ. Press of New England, 1998.
The whole book is relevant, but especially chapter 5 on Frances Osgood‟s language of
flowers. ED does not seem to have followed any such coded language, but her poems,
her anthologia (Greek for collection of flowers), were likewise capable of expressing
tacitly some things that would have been inexpressible in more explicit terms. She makes
useful remarks about gems, too.