Emily Dickinson proved that brevity can be beautiful. Only now is her complete oeuvre--all 1,775 poems--available in its original form, uncorrupted by editorial revision, in one volume. Thomas H. Johnson, a longtime Dickinson scholar, arranged the poems in chronological order as far as could be ascertained (the dates for more than 100 are unknown). This organization allows a wide-angle view of Dickinson's poetic development, from the sometimes-clunky rhyme schemes of her juvenilia, including valentines she wrote in the early 1850s, to the gloomy, hell-obsessed writings from her last years. Quite a difference from requisite Dickinson entries in literary anthologies: "There's a certain Slant of light," "Wild Nights--Wild Nights!" and "I taste a liquor never brewed."
The book was compiled from Thomas H. Johnson's hard-to-find variorum from 1955. While some explanatory notes would have been helpful, it's a prodigious collection, showcasing Dickinson's intractable obsession with nature, including death. Poem 1732, which alludes to the deaths of her father and a onetime suitor, illustrates her talent:
My life closed twice before its close;
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.
The musicality of her punctuation and the outright elegance of her style--akin to Christina Rosetti's hymns, although not nearly so religious--rescue the poems from their occasional abstruseness. The Complete Poems is especially refreshing because Dickinson didn't write for publication; only 11 of her verses appeared in magazines during her lifetime, and she had long-resigned herself to anonymity, or a "Barefoot-Rank," as she phrased it. This is the perfect volume for readers wishing to explore the works of one of America's first poets.