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Rojcewicz, Stephen: "The Night Became Emily"

The Night Became Emily

Stephen Rojcewicz, University of Maryland

Emily Dickinson wrote “The Crickets sang” as a letter-poem to Susan Huntington Gilbert Dickinson in the 1860s. Almost all printings, including the Manuscript Books and the Variorum edition, end with the line: “And so the Night became.” Manuscripts in the electronic Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences, however, indicate that versions of the poem do not end with a period after the words “the Night became,” but with a dash and then the word “Emily.” This clause can thus be construed as “And so the Night became Emily.”
Most readings of this poem tend to narrow the work to a description of nature’s ceasing its murmuring with the coming of night, with little attention to multidimensionality, and ignoring the presence of Emily. Based on the manuscripts, Emily is identifying herself with the singing of the crickets, with Night, and with the activities of the night, including the erotic raptures of the “Wild Nights - Wild Nights!” Not only is Dickinson alluding to the nineteenth-century metaphor of night as a nourishing wellspring for female vigor and to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s being nurtured by the dark, but she now becomes the nourishing night for other poets. By representing herself as the crickets who sang, Emily alludes to Shakespeare’s use of “The crickets sing” in Cymbeline, where Iachimo says these words while secretly hidden as a spy in Imogen’s (Innogen’s) chamber, giving rise to a narrative that involves sexuality, danger and female-to-male gender disguise. Matthew Lewis used these identical lines as the epigraph to a chapter of the 1794 novel The Monk, again dealing with sexuality, violence and female-to-male gender disguise. Dickinson’s comparing herself to the coming of the night suggests that her poems will also reflect sexuality, danger and gender flexibility.
Emily’s poems, however, are as multi-dimensional as the night. Associating twilight and evening with the crickets’ gentleness, she hopes to influence the poetry of others with her own gentleness, “vastness,” “wisdom,” and “peace.”
Beyond any particular nuance or suggested interpretation, however, is the imperative for scholars to use the multiple manuscript versions in any comprehensive review of this poem. Most of all, studying the manuscripts gives us back Emily as a person, both as she understood herself and as she hoped to influence and to be understood by the recipients and readers of the poem.