In a review of a new book discussing Emily Dickinson’s 52 poems written on envelopes or parts thereof, Holland Cotter notices that some of these seem to match words to the shape of the paper. He speaks of one about “The way/Hope builds his/House” that is written “on the top half of an envelope that has its flap raised like a peaked roof.” Though Mr. Cotter doesn’t go to call such poems by their proper name–emblem poetry–this is clearly what Dickinson was writing. Scholars have a pretty good idea about what books she read from her father’s extensive library. She knew the work of early 17th century English writers who called themselves metaphysical poets because they broke with conventional ideas of what was acceptable subject matter and metaphor pools for poetry. Names usually best known for this group are John Donne and George Herbert, though a slighter younger pair of poets (Andrew Marvell and Henry Vaughan) also belongs in this school. Dickinson admitted in her private writings that she was most drawn to Herbert’s work, which means she would have been entirely familiar with his two most famous emblem poems, “The Altar” and “Easter Wings.” In each case, Herbert arranges his lines so that they look like their titles, just as Emily worked on her envelopes to shape them to their subject matter.
Not only did Dickinson get permission to write emblem poems from her English predecessor, but she also would have felt akin to Herbert as he struggled with his relationship to God, trying to balance his deep belief in God as the ultimate creator with his own artistic talents for “making” poems from scratch. To help him avoid what he would have seen as hubris, he used a different form for virtually every poem he ever wrote; that way, he never became polished at executing any one model. And, though Herbert ultimately found a way to remain inside formal religion and Dickinson remained on the circumferences if even that close, they both understood something about forces larger than themselves before which they stood in awe.
I’m very glad this book has been published so that people devoted to Emily Dickinson’s work can see how important these “gorgeous nothings,” as its authors name her envelope poems, can begin to take them seriously as more signs of the intentionality underlying her carefully sewn-together books of her poems. And I hope Mr. Cotter will perhaps look up George Herbert’s earlier emblematic poetry since Emily put such stock in it.