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Keats & Helen Keller

To the Editors:

Roger Shattuck [NYR, February 26], claiming that Helen Keller “carried her writing to the far edge of comprehensibility,” quotes her sentence, “I declare that for me branched thoughts, instead of pines, wave, sway, rustle, make musical the ridges of mountains rising summit upon summit.” Mr. Shattuck does not realize, when he comments, “I understand this curious sentence as an intuitive description of neurons and synapses in action at the seat of thought,” that Keller’s metaphor is not her own. She is paraphrasing the conclusion of Keats’s “Ode to Psyche”:

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane
  In some untrodden region of my mind,
Where branchèd thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,
  Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind:
Far, far around shall those dark-clustered trees
  Fledge the wild-ridgèd mountains steep by steep.

Although Keats had studied the anatomy of the brain (as it was then known), he was here vowing to continue his creative struggle away from the merely beautiful and toward the sublime of “wild-ridgèd mountains.” Perhaps Keller found her own struggle toward capaciousness of thought mirrored in Keats’s metaphor.

Helen Vendler
Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Roger Shattuck replies:

We are grateful to Professor Vendler for identifying the sources of Helen Keller’s unusual metaphor. To my mind, the Keats allusion will accommodate my reading of her lines.

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