Positive as Sound

Emily Dickinson's Rhyme

Title Details

Pages: 280

Trim size: 5.500in x 8.500in



Pub Date: 05/15/2010

ISBN: 9-780-8203-3464-6

List Price: $34.95

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Positive as Sound

Emily Dickinson's Rhyme

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The strange rhymes of Emily Dickinson's verse have offended some readers, attracted others, and proved a stumbling block for critics. In the first thorough analysis of the poet's rhyming practices, Judy Jo Small goes beyond simple classification and enumeration to reveal the aesthetic and semantic value of Dickinson's rhymes and show how they help shape the meaning of her lyrics.

Considering Dickinson's rhyming technique in light of its historical context, Small argues that the poet's radical innovations were both an outgrowth of nineteenth-century aesthetics ideas about the music of poetry and a reaction against conventional constraints—not the least of which was the image of the female poet as a songbird pouring forth her soul's joys and sorrows in lyrical melody. Unlike other scholars, Small attaches special importance to Dickinson's own musical background. Revealing Dickinson's auditory imagination as a primary source of her poetic power, Small shows that sound is an important subject in the verse and that the phonetic texture contributes to the meaning.

By looking closely at individual poems, Small demonstrates that Dickinson's deviations from "normal" rhyme schemes play a significant part in her artistic design: her modulations and dislocations of rhyme serve to structure the poems and contribute to their dynamic shifts of mood and meaning. Analyzing Dickinson's more daring experiments, Small shows how the poet achieved uncanny effects with fluctuating partial rhymes in some poems and with homonymic puns in others. It is in the interplay between the musical and the written aspects of Dickinson's language, Small contends, that her poetry comes alive. Small takes particular note of the use of rhyme at the ends of poems, illustrating Dickinson's brilliant effects in closing some poems decisively and in leaving others tantalizingly open-ended.

Teaching us how to listen to Dickinson's poems and not simply to scrutinize them on paper, Positive as Sound is an innovative, lucidly written book that contributes not only to Dickinson scholarship but also to the general study of poetics.

Scholarship of the first order that accounts in greater measure for the enigmatic effectiveness of Dickinson poetry.

American Literature

As a mixture of criticism and poetics, Small’s study is remarkable for its lucid demonstrations and for its analytic method in approaching rhyme as an intersection point in poetics, as well as for the broader questions it raises.

Poetics Today


Outstanding Academic Title, Choice magazine

About the Author/Editor

JUDY JO SMALL is a professor of English emeritus at North Carolina State University. She is also the author of A Reader’s Guide to the Short Stories of Sherwood Anderson.