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Emily Dickinson’s Banquet of Abstemiousness

Forbidden knowledge—for example the closed door boldly lettered “keep out”—usually arouses our curiosity. Other forms of forbidden knowledge may provoke self-restraint and withdrawal. In the latter context, eight lines of a single poem by Emily Dickinson, because they describe the rewards of renunciation, bear comparison with Madame de Lafayette’s 200-page novel, La Princesse de Clèves, about which I wrote in the last issue.1 We must approach Dickinson’s poem unhurriedly and without disturbance, as we would approach a brook trout lurking in a pool.

In 1862 at age thirty-two Dickinson learned that the celebrated Philadelphia pastor Charles Wadsworth had been called to a new church in San Francisco. There is strong evidence that seven years earlier, when she had heard him preach and had met him in Philadelphia, Dickinson fell deeply in love with the eloquent clergyman. They corresponded. She may have addressed and even sent to Wadsworth the three astonishing “master” letters of which drafts were found among her papers. He called on her in Amherst in 1860 while visiting another friend in the vicinity. Apparently the happily married clergyman sixteen years her senior did not reciprocate her intense feelings.

After his departure by sea for California via Cape Horn, Dickinson assumed the life of a recluse in a white gown, entered the most productive period of her poetic career (a poem a day for over a year), and took the uncharacteristic step of sending out a few of her poems to a stranger. She chose as her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a young Unitarian clergyman and abolitionist agitator who had just contributed to The Atlantic Monthly an article of encouragement to young American writers.

Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?” So ran her opening sentence to Higginson. This first letter in tiny birdlike writing with four poems enclosed carried no signature. She had printed her name faintly in pencil on a card sealed inside a separate envelope also enclosed. Higginson, who had the force of character to take command of the first Negro regiment in the Union army a few months later, accepted the mysterious woman’s challenge and ventured to make a few criticisms along with some inquiries of his own. Dickinson’s second letter to him blends coquettishness, literary unorthodoxy, wicked wit, and sheer hallucination into a document so subtle and so blunt that it must be read complete. Every sentence is drawn up out of a deep cistern of accumulated experience.

Mr. Higginson,—Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude, but I was ill, and write to-day from my pillow.

Thank you for the surgery; it was not so painful as I supposed.2 I bring you others, as you ask, though they might not differ. While my thought is undressed, I can make the distinction; but when I put them in the gown, they look alike and numb.3

You asked how old I was? I made no verse, but one or two, until this winter, sir.4

I had a terror since September, I could tell to none;5 and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid.

You inquire my books. For poets, I have Keats, and Mr. and Mrs. Browning. For prose, Mr. Ruskin, Sir Thomas Browne, and the Revelations.6 I went to school, but in your manner of the phrase had no education.7 When a little girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality; but venturing too near, himself, he never returned. Soon after my tutor died, and for several years my lexicon was my only companion.8 Then I found one more, but he was not contented I be his scholar, so he left the land.

You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself, that my father bought me. They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell; and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.9

I have a brother and a sister; my mother does not care for thought, and father, too busy with his briefs to notice what we do. He buys me many books, but begs me not to read them, because he fears they joggle the mind. They are religious, except me, and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their “Father.”10

But I fear my story fatigues you. I would like to learn. Could you tell me how to grow, or is it unconveyed, like melody or witchcraft?

You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that was disgraceful.

I read Miss Prescott’s “Circumstance,” but it followed me in the dark, so I avoided her.11

Two editors of journals came to my father’s house this winter, and asked me for my mind, and when I asked them “why” they said I was penurious, and they would use it for the world.

I could not weigh myself, myself. My size felt small to me.12 I read your chapters in the “Atlantic,” and experienced honor for you. I was sure you would not reject a confiding question.

Is this, sir, what you asked me to tell you? Your friend,

E. Dickinson

Though he admired her poetry and responded to her letters, Higginson’s comments had little effect on her work. Nevertheless Dickinson later wrote him “you saved my life” and urged him to visit her. One of the poems she sent to him with her third letter contains the lines “Renunciation—is the Choosing/Against itself—.” She never sent him a later poem on the same theme that simultaneously opens and closes the cur-tain on her inner life. It is these eight lines of poem number 421 in the Johnson edition that place Dickinson’s poetic persona alongside the fictional seventeenth-century Princesse de Clèves. The poem should, Isuggest, be read several times, preferably aloud.

A Charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld
The Lady dare not lift her Veil
For fear it be dispelled
But peers beyond her mesh
And wishesand denies
Lest Interviewannul a want
That Imagesatisfies

One of Dickinson’s simpler poems, “A Charm” displays glints and recesses that will enlighten us about the nature of poetry while conveying an intricately constructed meaning and an implied narrative. Dickinson uses here a pattern familiar to her from church services she attended weekly during her formative years. In order to facilitate their musical setting, hymn verses were classified into a limited number of standard schemes according to syllable count. “Long meter” has four lines of eight syllables each, as in Tallis’s Canon:

All praise to thee, my God, this night,
For all the blessings of the light.
Keep me, O keep me, King of Kings,
Beneath thine own Almighty wings.

Stress and feet concern us far less in these stanzas than what Milton and Pope called “numbers”—strict syllable counting. Working still in a developed form related to the jingle, Dickinson chose “short meter” as her model for “A Charm”: 6-6-8-6. A corresponding hymn she might well have known runs:

The ancient law departs,
And all its terrors cease.
For Jesus makes with faithful hearts
A covenant of peace.

Such a stanza draws a deep breath in the third line and then settles back to the basic beat. The pattern can go on and on, as in a ballad.

Compared to the hide-and-seek syntax used in many of Dickinson’s poems, the four clearly articulated clauses in “A Charm” present little difficulty. The sense of a riddle needing solution hovers over the poem as a whole. Almost every word, as we shall soon see, is a real or incipient pun. The only moment of syntactical uncertainty comes in the fourth line with the unremarkable it. Normal parsing connects it to Veil; then the reader must revise the rules and look all the way back to Charm for an adequate antecedent. The essential mystery of the poem circulates through half-declared queries like: Whose face? What is the situation? What tone of voice? How marked a shift between the two stanzas? I believe word-by-word commentary will address these questions more effectively and concretely than overall interpretation at the outset.

Charm, for example, refers to a range of forces from physical attractiveness to magic and witchcraft. Dickinson’s letter to Higginson suggests how deeply she responds to all those forces. Charm inspires want (line seven) and thus projects its presence forward through the whole poem. Capitalization helps to reveal the word that our ear and eye tell us lurks behind Charm: harm. In that embedded opposition, charm/harm, the whole poem lies latent. Later oppositions recapitulate this one, which implies a presence both attractive and forbidden.

No paraphrase of a poem will suffice. On the other hand, every attentive paraphrase contributes to our understanding.

Looking through her veil, a woman feels deeply drawn by the almost magical beauty of another person, for whom she, thus concealed, may herself exert a powerful charm. She decides to place her faith in the picture she can represent in her mind rather than to seek fuller or more intimate knowledge of the other person.

Only three words in “A Charm” exceed two syllables. Dickinson condenses a potentially fulsome story by squeezing it between two pairs of opposite terms, which are also her rhymes: beheld / dispelled and denies / satisfies. Thus her versification does not merely decorate; it expresses in sounds the dynamics of the implied action. And she reinforces her impeccable rhymes by the capitalized contrast in the last lines: Interview / Image. Exploiting the ambiguities of the key word, Veil, Dickinson has given to a traditional subject a form so concise as to look like an epitaph. An aphoristic version of the theme might read: The imagined surpasses the real. The historic anti-Enlightenment outburst of feeling in the nineteenth century known as Romanticism clutched to itself this deep—and sometimes desperate—faith in the products of the imagination. For a century and a half any bright student of English literature has been able to recite the locus classicus of the theme:

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard Are sweeter.

Keats sings to persuade himself and us that the “marble men and maidens overwrought” on the Grecian urn have overcome mortality and contingency. “Cold Pastoral!” must be read half ironically. Since the bold lover will never finally kiss the painted maiden, “ever wilt thou love and she be fair.” Among Keats’s painted figures ecstasy and beauty will never be dispelled. Likewise Dickinson’s protagonist, reminding us of the Princesse de Clèves, chooses the ideal over the real. Her lines offer far more than an autobiographical situation tempting us to identify the actors. Dickinson has transcended the personal without having to renounce the vividness of a specific scene. Nor would we do justice to “A Charm” by insisting that it primarily records or celebrates poetic creation, the act of composing this poem. The central movement concerns not verbal creation or expression but the dynamics of the Veil—taking it, taking advantage of it, (not) lifting it, being both caught and freed by it.

Many years after “A Charm,” Dickinson found the sumptuous phrase “The Banquet of Abstemiousness” for her theme. We should enjoy that banquet “lest the Actual/Should disenthrall thy soul—“ (1430). Both poems counsel not against desire but against yielding to desire without fully consulting the soul’s scruples. A reasonable asceticism contributes to the aesthetic delectation of life.

And now, if I have done my work right, it should be possible to quote without commentary two stanzas from an early poem and the whole of a late poem, “Forbidden Fruit,” without commentary.

Heaven”is what I cannot reach!
The Apple on the Tree—
Provided it do hopelesshang
That“Heaven” isto Me!

The Color, on the Cruising Cloud
The interdicted Land—
Behind the Hillthe House behind
ThereParadiseis Found!

Forbidden Fruit a flavor has
That lawful Orchards mocks
How luscious lies within the Pod
The Pea that Duty locks

2.

In her letter soliciting help from Higginson as well as in her Veil poem, Dickinson gently yet firmly resists full revelation, full knowledge. Don’t hope to learn my exact age, my entire appearance, my inner soul. Let your imagination serve you. We all live behind scrims, looking through scrims; they both impede us and protect us. The true dance of the veils leads not to utter nakedness but to an ultimate coyness we do well to honor.

Dickinson’s “A Charm” miniaturizes the extended action of La Princesse de Clèves into a brief encounter imagined and declined. Madame de Clèves lifts her veil only high enough and long enough to admit her love for the Duc de Nemours, not to act on it, even though no further social obstacle separates them. Then, for the remainder of her life, she seems to regret having made even that chaste revelation. The eight short lines of “A Charm” rely on allegorical players (the Lady) and capitalized abstractions (Image) and offer no dialogue, no movement more overt than peers. Nevertheless two softly rhyming and punning hymn stanzas draw us into a situation and an action as persuasively human as the classically staged dramatics of the novel. Totally opposed in form and length, La Princesse de Clèves and “A Charm” complement each other so vividly as to appear to contain each other, to generate each other reciprocally. We have few such literary pairs.

How could these two women authors, fully attuned to the world around them, come to believe that fulfillment lies in renunciation, that “It was the Distance—/Was Savory—“ (439)? There are several answers. Both were familiar with the troubadour poets and with the stories of what we now call courtly love, particularly the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. From these sources came the tradition that love in its purest form entails abnegation and suffering, which ennoble all parties far more than promiscuity and pleasure. And both women confronted some form of love fright—wariness of experience, a tendency to withdraw into one’s shell in order to protect a personal fantasy and enshrine a higher truth of the imagination.

Fifteen years after the rush of events and feelings that led to “A Charm,” Dickinson confronted a situation curiously similar to that of La Princesse de Clèves. One of her father’s closest friends, a prominent Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice named Otis Lord, lost his wife in 1877. He had known Emily all her life; he was sixty-five, she forty-seven. They soon acknowledged to each other a deep attachment that had evidently grown over a fairly long period. Fifteen surviving letters from Dickinson to Lord reveal a wide range of feelings, including sexual passion for the man she could call “Sweet One” and “Naughty One.” Judge Lord proposed marriage. Dickinson, who at twenty had sent coy valentine verses to her father’s law students, who had declared “My business is to love,” now had to deal with a resolute widower who did not plan to move to California. He wanted her to move in with him. The Amherst princess retreated to the nunnery of her upstairs bedroom and wrote to her lover letters that record the encounter of ardent emotion and stern constraint. She becomes both Pan and Syrinx.13

Oh, my too beloved, save me from the idolatry which would crush us both—

Don’t you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer—don’t you know that “No” is the widest word we consign to Language?

The “Stile” is God’s—My Sweet One—for your great sake—not mine—I will not let you cross—but it is all yours, and when it is right I will lift the Bars, and lay you in the Moss—You showed me the word.

I hope it has no different guise when my fingers make it. It is Anguish I long conceal from you to let you leave me, hungry, but you ask the divine Crust and that would doom the Bread.

In the third, almost steamy passage, “Stile” refers to the place in a fence where steps or rungs (or sometimes a “turnstile”) allow passage to a person and not to cattle or sheep. “You showed me the word,” she writes, implying that Judge Lord first used this image of privileged access. Her response: “I will not let you cross.” Yet it sounds as if they have met intimately and passionately at least over the stile afforded by searching letters such as these. What imagery could be more explicitly sensual than “I will lift the Bars, and lay you in the Moss”? Then “the divine Crust” returns to a chaste abstemiousness. The confinements Emily Dickinson imposed on herself led more to intensity and variety of feeling than to monotony.14 They never married. Lord died seven years later in 1884.

For all her white gowns and hair pulled back in a bun, it should be evident now that Dickinson had nothing of the prude in her. From farm animals, from her sexually active sister Vinnie, from her brother’s complex marriage, and from her own daring imagination, she “knew” all about the nature of erotic rapture. There was no aspect of life that she shunned, that could not arouse her gift of gossip and her sense of mirth. To the end of her life her favorite adjective was “funny.” She lived for jokes and stories and told them in her letters and—transformed—in her poems.

Free of prudishness, Dickinson’s exultant abnegation contained a strong component of aestheticism. The pleasures she sought tended not toward paroxysm that overwhelms the mind but toward a heightened awareness that mediates between intensity and moderation. Like the Princesse de Clèves she strove to conserve the whole loaf of happiness rather than to consume the crusts that life usually throws our way. Both women’s moods lie as close to epicureanism, the Banquet of Abstemiousness, as to fear of living. I find greater strength of character and more true feeling in the roles of Syrinx and of the Princesse de Clèves and of Emily Dickinson (both in her poems and in her life) than in the roles of Don Juan and Faust. Those two hit-and-run drivers leave numerous victims strewn in their wake; Madame de Clèves and Dickinson seek full partners, seek lasting union, and turn away from anything that falls short.

In spite of the evidence here assembled, I do not believe that this contrast is the result of a difference in temperament between men and women. Women can be predators; men can show restraint. We have to take into account, particularly in earlier periods, a difference in experience permitted by society to the two sexes. And I cannot cite a novel, poem, or play (Villiers de l’Isle Adam’s Axel excepted) that casts a man in the role of exultant abnegation. All these stories, literary and parabolic, tell us that neither promiscuity nor abnegation can escape selfishness. Most of us do not propose to live lives of such high relief. Most of us will seek, and find, a middle way. But we would do well to ponder the results for other people of promiscuity and abnegation. Carpe diem may not always lead to the greatest happiness for anyone.15

To support her choice of renunciation, Dickinson makes a very ambitious claim in “A Charm” about the life of the mind.

Lest Interview annul a want
That Image—satisfies—

Can imagination alone truly sustain us if reality fails? Dickinson proposes, I believe, a strategic retreat to a position that both eludes and contemplates sheer experience. From there we can acknowledge that some precise states of body and mind are characterized by fragility; they may be shattered by too close, too rough, or too prolonged an encounter with the desired object or person. Our proverbs can be merciless on the subject. Familiarity breeds contempt. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Dickinson looks out intensely from her special need not to approach too close to other people, to experience itself. She expresses an uncertainty principle of the heart, an indeterminacy principle of the human psyche. For her the soul is a domain as resistant to observation and exact measurement as an electron hidden in the atom.

Some thinking people bridle at the thought that any such barrier faces us anywhere, but we must not disdain the lucid resoluteness of Emily Dickinson and the Princesse de Clèves as well as of Syrinx and of Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. They do not shrink from the implied paradox that to acknowledge a limit on experience may extend our freedom to be ourselves. Not many forms of forbidden knowledge approach so close to our own lives as the prospect of abstinence.

This is the second of two essays.

  1. 1

    See “The Pleasures of Abstinence,” The New York Review, June 6, 1996.

  2. 2

    Higginson’s comments took issue mostly with her unconventional orthography and word usage.

  3. 3

    Dickinson frequently used “thought” and “mind” as synonyms for “my poems.” The coy metaphor of attire used here probably compares the sketchy, endlessly amended, rough sheets on which she composed her poems with the fair copies made for Higginson.

  4. 4

    A double evasion of Higginson’s question. Dickinson had been writing poems for at least three years and had produced over 200 of them, including several now celebrated, e.g. “I never lost as much but twice” and “I taste a liquor never brewed.”

  5. 5

    Probably refers to Wadsworth’s move to California. Dickinson had no reason to hide her fears about her eyesight, fears which afflicted her at about the same period.

  6. 6

    Principal omissions: Shakespeare, Emerson, Thoreau.

  7. 7

    Dickinson attended Amherst Academy for six years and Mount Holyoke Female Seminary for one. She was particularly known for her wit and funny stories.

  8. 8

    Friend” and “tutor” may refer to two young men who encouraged her literary interests and died young: Leonard Humphrey, principal of Amherst Academy, and Benjamin Newton, a law student in her father’s office. Samuel Bowles and Charles Wadsworth cannot be excluded from these oblique allusions, especially “one more” in the following sentence.

  9. 9

    The surprising words appended after the semicolon—testifying to both literal and hallucinated perceptions—bear comparison with images in the “Alchimie du Verbe” section of Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell and with “le dérèglement de tous les sens” in his 1871 “Lettre du Voyant.”

  10. 10

    One could extrapolate from this paragraph the essence of Dickinson’s family relations, her courageous intellectual life, and the complex evolution of her religious beliefs. In her sometimes mocking skepticism she never gave up faith in immortality.

  11. 11

    Harriet Prescott Spofford contributed “Circumstance” to The Atlantic Monthly for May 1860.

  12. 12

    These two sentences of eight and six syllables respectively have all the earmarks of the opening of a formal poem in pure Dickinsonian diction.

  13. 13

    Chased by the goat-god Pan to the bank of a river, the wood nymph Syrinx is metamorphosed in the nick of time into a clump of reeds. According to Ovid, Pan transforms his frustration into music by cutting and binding the hollow reeds into Pan’s pipes—or syrinx.

  14. 14

    In a paragraph that deals with this correspondence, Camille Paglia allows her frequently tonic reading of Emily Dickinson to lapse into tendentiousness.

    Her letters to Lord are contrived and artificial. The voice belongs to her twittering feminine personae, whom she tucks in becoming postures of devotion.

    This dismissive interpretation is required by Paglia’s thesis that “the homosexual-tending Emily Dickinson” writes essentially in the persona of a sadomasochistic male, “a hierarch requiring the sexual subordination of her petitioners.” (Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, Yale University Press, 1991, p. 670) What a pity that Paglia’s misreading and overestimation of the Marquis de Sade and her insistent vision of Dickinson as a Sadean temperament lead her to exaggerate genuine insights into Dickinson’s violent imagery and motifs of domination.

  15. 15

    Marcel Proust understood and described this higher epicureanism that values imagination over satisfaction. Ultimately, he appealed to a doubling of experience in cumulative time, but his point of departure lies close to that of the Princesse de Clèves and of Emily Dickinson.

    Nothing is more alien to me than to seek happiness in any immediate sensation, and even less in any material realization. A sensation, however disinterested it may be, a perfume, a shaft of light, if they are physically present, are too much in my power to make me happy. (Letter to Princesse Bibesco)

    Near the end of In Search of Lost Time, Proust goes one step further to illuminate the psychology of elective abstinence. He refers to “the inexorable law that one can imagine only what is absent” (III 872).

    In comparison to Proust’s analyses, I find Beckett’s stark words on the subject unjust both to himself and to Proust: “the wisdom that consists not in the satisfaction but in the ablation of desire.” (Proust, Grove Press, 1931) None of the parties here discussed, least of all Madame de Lafayette and Emily Dickinson, propose “ablation” by some psychological equivalent of surgical removal. They envision a transposition of desire to another level of experience—memory, contemplation, fantasy, reenactment, sublimation.

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