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Did Emily Dickinson Have A Boston Accent? An Investigation

Emily Dickinson in a Dunkin Donuts.
Image by Dan McQuade/Defector

In college, I had a very difficult time understanding the idea of poetic meter. I understood that theoretically you could hold a hand under your chin and feel the drop of your jaw for each syllable, but it didn't feel that simple to me. In the world that I had grown up in (a house in Texas with two parents from Alabama), a word like "what" could have one syllable, but it could also have two. A whole sentence like "do you want to go?" (five syllables) could be said "yannago?" (two syllables).

I found this almost as frustrating as trying to understand slant rhymes. In my brain, the words "pin" and "pen" sound the exact same. I cannot hear the difference because I didn't grow up with one. So to me, a word like tin rhymes with both "pin" and "pen." When we studied Emily Dickinson in my freshman year literature class, I remember asking if the same could be true for her. Could some of the rhymes that are considered slant rhymes or near rhymes by scholars have been regular rhymes inside her own head?

Here's an example. In Dickinson's poem "#340," the first stanza reads:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading - treading - till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through -

Emily Dickinson #340

If you read this poem in a kind of neutral American accent "fro" and "through" do not rhyme. But if you read it in a Boston accent, they rhyme perfectly. Emily Dickinson was from Western Massachusetts. Did she have an accent that affected her word choice?

I still think this is a valid question, but I did not do a very good job of articulating what I was trying to say to my college class, so my question was ignored. However, now I am an adult who owns a blog and has the guts to email a bunch of Emily Dickinson scholars and ask them the question no one but me is dying to know the answer to: Did Emily Dickinson have a Boston accent? I emailed five of these scholars across the country, and three of them got back to me, willing to entertain my silly little exercise.

Dr. Martha Ackmann is a journalist and author who writes about women who changed America and teaches a popular seminar on Emily Dickinson through the Gender Studies Department at Mount Holyoke College. "The subject of Dickinson’s accent has intrigued me over the years. To answer your question: I don’t know. Today’s residents of Western Massachusetts do not have a Boston accent. I’m not sure if that was the case in the poet’s time, tho I suspect it was," Dr. Ackmann wrote to me. So she's saying there's a chance.

Dr. Ackmann did also clarify for me that Dickinson did declaim (read aloud) her poems, and would have done so in school as well. There are not any recordings of Dickinson reading her poetry, but I will not let that stop me. This, to me, is evidence for my theory mainly because I personally write by my ear. Writing in this way does lend itself to near rhymes and a lot of homonym errors.

Dr. Christanne Miller, an English professor at the University of Buffalo and the author of three books about Emily Dickinson, was also quick to point out that Boston and Western Massachusetts are kind of far apart.

"As you surmise, there is no way to know what kind of accent Dickinson would have had. I suspect it was not a 'Boston' accent (and also couldn’t say what a Boston accent in, say, 1860, would have sounded like compared to one in 2022). There is no evidence I am aware of that people now living in Western MA have the same accent as those living in Boston." Dr. Miller said.

This seemed bad for my theory, though still did not rule it out. But Dr. Miller also gave me a little evidence I could cherry-pick for my own theory. "Maybe her occasional trips to Boston in her younger years led her to realize that people there pronounced words differently than she would have, but I can’t think of any reason she would have wanted to construct a rhyme based on Boston pronunciation."

Ignore the second part of that sentence, and we are getting closer. Emily Dickinson may have had a Western Massachusetts accent instead of a Boston accent, but she could have been aware of the Boston accent. And spending a lot of time alone in your room can lead you to strange forms of amusement! Plus, my core question remained possible: It may not have been a Boston accent, but she certainly could have had an accent that influenced her perception of rhyme.

Next I emailed Dr. Timothy Morris at the University of Texas at Arlington. Immediately, I could tell that Dr. Morris and I were operating on the same wavelength. "Your question does not sound deranged to me," Dr. Morris wrote. Thank you! Finally.

Dr. Morris was drawn to this question because while many commentators and Dickinson scholars had noticed that her rhyming was odd, there were very few hypotheses as to why. He also gave me some more rhyming options to consider:

I spent some time wondering about it when I was writing my dissertation, 40 years ago. What I wanted to know in particular was whether Dickinson would have pronounced an /r/ sound at the end of words like "here" and "fair" or before the final consonant in words like "earth" and "pearl."

Dr. Morris also introduced me to something called a dialect map, where I immediately lost hours of my life. In the dialect map, you can see that Amherst, Massachusetts is right on the line between the Boston accent and the New York accent, or more specifically, right between pronouncing the /r/ and not pronouncing it.

I truly hope that saying the words "earth" and "pearl" without the /r/ brings you as much joy as it brings me. That's a Boston accent, baby! I'm hearing that Kelsey McKinney is an Emily Dickinson scholar???

Dr. Morris did reach a conclusion:

I finally guessed that she probably did not have that "r" — that indeed in that respect she did speak with a Boston accent, as you also guess. But really that was just from internal evidence of poems where she "rhymes" "Earth" and "Death" ("The Bustle in a House") or "Heel" and "Pearl" ("I started early, took my Dog"), still inexactly but as if the "r" probably wasn't there.

Wow. You heard it here first. Emily Dickinson is wicked smaht. Emily Dickinson is pahking the cah in Havahd Yahd. OK, maybe not that. Cars were invented the year she died! But Emily Dickinson did have a Boston accent (maybe).

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