Poe, Dickinson and the Dash

Emily Dickinson, they say, is the Queen of the Dash — the em dash, that is — because it pops up in her poetry way too much. I have always thought, if that’s the case, Edgar Allan Poe has got to be the King of the Dash, and I always thought he used it for dramatic effect. But, according to the author of “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee” himself, that’s not so. He devoted a whole paragraph — a rather long one at that — to the use and importance of the dash in his “Marginalia” that makes me feel a whole better. He says I’m not alone in my misinterpretation of his use of the dash — very few people understand the importance of this particular punctuation mark:

The Dash

“That punctuation is important all agree; but how few comprehend the extent of its importance! The writer who neglects punctuation, or mis-punctuates, is liable to be misunderstood — this, according to the popular idea, is the sum of the evils arising from heedlessness or ignorance. It does not seem to be known that, even where the sense is perfectly clear, a sentence may be deprived of half its force — its spirit — its point — by improper punctuations. For the want of merely a comma, it often occurs that an axiom appears a paradox, or that a sarcasm is converted into a sermonoid. There is no treatise on the topic; and there is no topic on which a treatise is more needed. There seems to exist a vulgar notion that the subject is one of pure conventionality, and cannot be brought within the limits of intelligible and consistent rule. And yet, if fairly looked in the face, the whole matter is so plain that its rationale may be read as we run. If not anticipated, I shall hereafter make an attempt at a magazine paper on “The Philosophy of Point.” In the mean time let me say a word or two of the dash. Every writer for the press, who has any sense of the accurate, must have been frequently mortified and vexed at the distortion of his sentences by the printer’s now general substitution of a semicolon, or comma, for the dash of the manuscript. The total, or nearly total, disuse of the latter point has been brought about by the revulsion consequent upon its excessive employment about twenty years ago. The Byronic poets were all dash. John Neal, in his earlier novels, exaggerated its use into the grossest abuse; although his very error arose from the philosophical and self-dependent spirit which has always distinguished him, and which will even yet lead him, if I am not greatly mistaken in the man, to do something for the literature of the country which the country “will not willingly,” and cannot possibly, “let die.” Without entering now into the why, let me observe that the printer may always ascertain when the dash of the manuscript is properly and when improperly employed, by bearing in mind that this point represents a second thought — an emendation. In using it just above I have exemplified its use. The words “an emendation” are, speaking with reference to grammatical construction, put in apposition with the words “a second thought.” Having written these latter words, I reflected whether it would not be possible to render their meaning more distinct by certain other words. Now, instead of erasing the phrase “a second thought,” which is of some use — which partially conveys the idea intended —which advances me a step toward my full purpose— I suffer it to remain, and merely put a dash between it and the phrase “an emendation.” The dash gives the reader a choice between two, or among three or more expressions, one of which may be more forcible than another, but all of which help out the idea. It stands, in general, for these words — “or, to make my meaning more distinct.” This force it has — and this force no other point can have; since all other points have well-understood uses quite different from this. Therefore, the dash cannot be dispensed with. It has its phases — its variation of the force described; but the one principle — that of second thought or emendation — will be found at the bottom of all.”

After digesting this information, I decided to investigate. I picked a Dickinson poem and a Poe poem of approximately the same length: “A Bird Came Down” (20 lines ) and “Alone.” (22 lines). I was astonished to see that I had versions where the dashes were, in many instances, replaced with semi-colons, and I searched through Google Books to find the versions with all the dashes in all their glory, because, as Poe says, each poet had a reason for using the dash and not the semi-colon. I diligently edited both pages, then counted the dashes in each one. The winner? Emily Dickinson with 8 dashes in her 20 lines. Poe used 6 dashes in “Alone”.

There’s kind of a pattern in “A Bird Came Down” with 2 dashes each in the first 3 stanzas and Miss Emily could have gotten 10 dashes in if she stuck with it, but she changed to one dash in each of the last two. Her use of dashes in this poem certainly does not fit the “emendatory” principle that Poe expounds upon. You can appreciate that better in “Alone,” although, at least in my case, not entirely.

I don’t have any idea why Emily Dickinson used the dashes, and I still think Poe liked the dramatic effect.

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