the problem

Instead of expressing her gratitude for the assistance, Emily Dickinson wrote a letter to the editor to complain that one of her verses had appeared in the paper with a comma added to it that altered the meaning of the entire poem :

“Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me—defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one.”

In case you fail to see her point, you are in good company. Even for Literature Studies it seems to be a complete mystery what difference a little improvement makes. An expert like Dickinson-biographer Judith Farr, for instance, regards the additional replacement of the fourth line’s dash by a full stop as a part of the same problem, and only notices some minor effects on texture. That, at least, follows from the way she is quoted by Wikipedia : “snakes instantly notice you” ; Dickinson’s version captures the “breathless immediacy” of the encounter ; and The Republican’s punctuation renders “her lines more commonplace”.

Apart from their specific value as scientific observations, Judith Farr’s comments make a perfect statement in general on the failure of Literature Studies to explain even the simplest of poems aptly. Perfect because of JF’s exemplary demonstration of its blindness for vital clues on a silver plate.

Because of this unfortunate eye condition, Literature Studies is apparently still looking for researchers who read, independently from each other, exactly the same in a work of literature. This, even more unfortunate, is in science the obligate condition to regard any observation as reliable. Which implies that Literature Studies has failed to develop a scientifically sound method of text interpretation. The survey on developments in methods and research traditions that is at this point supposed to follow, can therefore restrict itself to the conclusion that the whole lot is best dropped into the nearest paper bin.

A rather extreme step. And for good measure Literature Studies has converted want into virtue. And its literary criticism (text interpretation) into a comparison of notes. It is in any case common practice to analyze a given work of literature by comparing the various interpretations from earlier research, and to combine their most trustworthy looking elements into a new framework. In order to understand, as interested lays, the effect of the punctuation on Dickinson’s poem, we therefore better make the attempt to find things out for ourselves.

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