Despite Dickinson's prolific writing, fewer than a dozen of her poems were published during her lifetime. After her younger sister Lavinia discovered the collection of nearly 1800 poems, Dickinson's first volume was published four years after her death. Until Thomas H. Johnson published Dickinson's Complete Poems in 1955, Dickinson's poems were considerably edited and altered from their manuscript versions. Since 1890 Dickinson has remained continuously in print.
A few of Dickinson's poems appeared in Samuel Bowles' Springfield Republican between 1858 and 1868. They were published anonymously and heavily edited, with conventionalized punctuation and formal titles. The first poem, "Nobody knows this little rose", may have been published without Dickinson's permission. The Republican also published "A narrow Fellow in the Grass" as "The Snake", "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers –" as "The Sleeping", and "Blazing in the Gold and quenching in Purple" as "Sunset". The poem "I taste a liquor never brewed –" is an example of the edited versions; the last two lines in the first stanza were completely rewritten.
Original wording I taste a liquor never brewed – From Tankards scooped in Pearl – Not all the Frankfort Berries Yield such an Alcohol!
Republican version I taste a liquor never brewed – From Tankards scooped in Pearl – Not Frankfort Berries yield the sense Such a delirious whirl!
In 1864, several poems were altered and published in Drum Beat, to raise funds for medical care for Union soldiers in the war. Another appeared in April 1864 in the Brooklyn Daily Union.
In the 1870s, Higginson showed Dickinson's poems to Helen Hunt Jackson, who had coincidentally been at the Academy with Dickinson when they were girls. Jackson was deeply involved in the publishing world, and managed to convince Dickinson to publish her poem "Success is counted sweetest" anonymously in a volume called A Masque of Poets. The poem, however, was altered to agree with contemporary taste. It was the last poem published during Dickinson's lifetime.
After Dickinson's death, Lavinia Dickinson kept her promise and burned most of the poet's correspondence. Significantly though, Dickinson had left no instructions about the 40 notebooks and loose sheets gathered in a locked chest. Lavinia recognized the poems' worth and became obsessed with seeing them published. She turned first to her brother's wife and then to Mabel Loomis Todd, her brother's mistress, for assistance. A feud ensued, with the manuscripts divided between the Todd and Dickinson houses, preventing complete publication of Dickinson's poetry for more than half a century.
The first volume of Dickinson's Poems, edited jointly by Mabel Loomis Todd and T. W. Higginson, appeared in November 1890. Although Todd claimed that only essential changes were made, the poems were extensively edited to match punctuation and capitalization to late 19th-century standards, with occasional rewordings to reduce Dickinson's obliquity. The first 115-poem volume was a critical and financial success, going through eleven printings in two years. Poems: Second Series followed in 1891, running to five editions by 1893; a third series appeared in 1896. One reviewer, in 1892, wrote: "The world will not rest satisfied till every scrap of her writings, letters as well as literature, has been published".
Nearly a dozen new editions of Dickinson's poetry, whether containing previously unpublished or newly edited poems, were published between 1914 and 1945. Martha Dickinson Bianchi, the daughter of Susan and Austin Dickinson, published collections of her aunt's poetry based on the manuscripts held by her family, whereas Mabel Loomis Todd's daughter, Millicent Todd Bingham, published collections based on the manuscripts held by her mother. These competing editions of Dickinson's poetry, often differing in order and structure, ensured that the poet's work was in the public's eye.
The first scholarly publication came in 1955 with a complete new three-volume set edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Forming the basis of later Dickinson scholarship, Johnson's variorum brought all of Dickinson's known poems together for the first time. Johnson's goal was to present the poems very nearly as Dickinson had left them in her manuscripts. They were untitled, only numbered in an approximate chronological sequence, strewn with dashes and irregularly capitalized, and often extremely elliptical in their language. Three years later, Johnson edited and published, along with Theodora Ward, a complete collection of Dickinson's letters, also presented in three volumes.
In 1981, The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson was published. Using the physical evidence of the original papers, the poems were intended to be published in their original order for the first time. Editor Ralph W. Franklin relied on smudge marks, needle punctures and other clues to reassemble the poet's packets. Since then, many critics have argued for thematic unity in these small collections, believing the ordering of the poems to be more than chronological or convenient.
Dickinson biographer Alfred Habegger wrote in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2001) that "The consequences of the poet's failure to disseminate her work in a faithful and orderly manner are still very much with us".