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The Art of Consolation

The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.

Vendler discerns a larger two-phase structure in many of Whitman’s poems, in which a scene is first presented as a “retinal” record of mere perception, and then revised, or reprised, as a more intellectual version of the same scene or event, turning “perceptions into perceptions-as-thoughts.” According to Vendler, who majored in chemistry as an undergraduate, reprise is “merely the enlargement, into a freestanding lyric lattice, of the basic molecule of Whitmanian chemistry, the semantic or syntactic parallel.”

Vendler chooses as an example Whitman’s short, two-stanza poem about a knife-grinder, titled “Sparkles from the Wheel.” The first stanza resembles the lines from “Song of Myself” quoted above, with a spectator reporting what he sees:

Where the city’s ceaseless crowd moves on the livelong day,
Withdrawn I join a group of children watching, I pause aside with them.
By the curb toward the edge of the flagging,
A knife-grinder works at his wheel sharpening a great knife,
Bending over he carefully holds it to the stone, by foot and knee,
With measur’d tread he turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,
Forth issue then in copious golden jets,
Sparkles from the wheel.

Vendler finds this stanza “solely transcriptive,” delivering what the eye sees with “retinal innocence,” and observes that “if the poem stopped here, Santayana’s description would be justified.” In the second stanza, however, “the intellect enters”:

The scene and all its belongings, how they seize and affect me,
The sad sharp-chinn’d old man with worn clothes and broad shoulder-band of leather,
Myself effusing and fluid, a phantom curiously floating, now here absorb’d and arrested,
The group, (an unminded point set in a vast surrounding,)
The attentive, quiet children, the loud, proud, restive base of the streets,
The low hoarse purr of the whirling stone, the light-press’d blade,
Diffusing, dropping, sideways-darting, in tiny showers of gold,
Sparkles from the wheel.

In this second stanza, according to Vendler, Whitman “adds human response to perceptual registration,” as he notes the knife-grinder’s sadness, his age, his clothes, his economic status, and so on. At the same time, Whitman as observer undergoes a curious change, becoming “effused” and “fluid” and “losing his personal identity” in the process of achieving “an aesthetic distance from his material.” “The second-order formation of an aesthetic and linguistic gestalt“—a coherent, overall sense of things—“from a first-order perception,” she concludes, “is an act to which one cannot refuse the name of thinking.”

I find Vendler’s analysis here persuasive if a bit ponderously stated. Her discovery of the distinctive structure of reprise—a sort of genetic DNA underlying a remarkable number of Whitman’s short poems—is a major contribution to our understanding of Whit- man. In finding an “impersonal” Whitman (“Far from being the monster of egotism he has sometimes been thought to be, Whitman was a master of self-effacement”), she accords him a high place denied him by the New Critics, for whom he was, as Harold Bloom has noted, a “nightmare.” And she is surely right that Whitman “is too subtle to be comprehended by such wide-grained leading ideas as nationalism, democracy, the body, and gender.” And yet, at the risk of reverting to Santayana’s version of Whitman the sensualist, there seems one fairly obvious way in which “Sparkles from the Wheel” relates to both body and gender. Isn’t there a rather loud suggestion of masturbation in the knife-grinder bending over the stone, who “with measur’d tread…turns rapidly, as he presses with light but firm hand,” and “Forth issue then in copious golden jets/ Sparkles from the wheel”? This can’t have been lost on Vendler, and perhaps she feels she has said enough in observing that the “diffusion” of the sparkles in the second stanza “is like the poet’s own dissemination of himself into the elements of the scene.”

Vendler’s remarkable essay on Emily Dickinson, a poet to whom she has given surprisingly little attention in the past, is also based on the discovery of a distinctive and repetitive structure underlying an extraordinary number of individual poems. As in her analysis of Pope, she tells us that evidence of Dickinson’s thought is not to be found in those themes—love’s grief, death’s certainty, nature’s appearances—that she shares with many other poets. She argues that Dickinson’s “natural” style of thinking is instead a narrative sequence in which there are “no gaps in event or perception.” In familiar poems such as her 1862 invocation of a locomotive as an “iron horse,” which Vendler takes to be a sort of ars poetica, Dickinson links each phase of the train’s journey with a sequence of “ands,” “thens,” and “and thens”:

I like to see it lap the Miles—
And lick the Valleys up—
And stop to feed itself at Tanks—
And then—prodigious step
Around a Pile of Mountains…

And so on, until the train, like the punctual poem, stops “docile and omnipotent/At its own stable door.” Such a “seriality without gaps remains forever,” Vendler believes, “the first resort of [Dickinson’s] mind when she begins to think.”

Vendler suggests that this serial structure was psychologically reassuring for Dickinson, giving predictability and order to events so that life seemed “essentially a seamless narrative with a beginning, an extended middle, and an end.” The great drama of Dickinson’s poetry, for Vendler, is the way in which a “catastrophic event” breaks through “the anxiety-allaying view of life as an evenly incremental series of events.”3 Death, which “makes sequence meaningless,” is the most formidable challenge to this incremental series. Some of Dickinson’s most peculiar and affecting poems arise from her efforts to conceive of life after death. “She is fertile,” Vendler remarks, “in thinking up ways to be posthumous.”

Vendler shows how, in a familiar poem, Dickinson makes a “blasphemous change” in the accepted “step-by-step exhaustive narrative of Christian dying” by substituting, for the expected arrival of Christ, the coming of a housefly:

The Eyes around—had wrung them dry—
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—

Vendler concludes that the “serial unfolding of experience here yields to the constructing of experience according to momentousness; and the Fly, in his power to insist on his gross material finality…his ‘Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz—,’ is more momentous than the expected, but treacherously absent, King.” This is well said; and even if one has qualms about Vendler’s picture of an anxiety-ridden Dickinson nervously seeking regular patterns to allay her fears, Vendler shows us some new reasons why “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died” remains one of the great unnerving poems in English.

If Yeats (the subject of Vendler’s first book and of another that she is currently writing) seems, in Vendler’s treatment, the most intellectually and emotionally capacious of the poets considered here, as well as the most resistant to philosophical modes of assertion, the reason, Vendler implies, is his temperament, not his time. “The mistrust of propositional statement as the sole means of intellectual accuracy reaches its height in some late poems of Yeats,” she writes. While her readings of two of the best known of these poems, “Among School Children” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” are powerful and persuasive, the essay as a whole is both more personal and less analytically arresting than the previous three.

She finds in Yeats’s late poems, when he could no longer depend on the flood of vivid imagery distilled in his early poetry, an alternation between “thinking in images” and “thinking in assertions.” It is hardly news that poets often “think in images,” though her implicit claim that philosophers do not is belied by Plato’s cave and Descartes’s ball of wax, not to mention Wittgenstein’s stonemasons. “When he cannot find the image he needs,” Vendler writes of Yeats, “he must, frustratedly, resort to discursive statement until the previously unacknowledged emotional and imaginative impulses burst forth in images so violent as to be undeniable.”

The Freudian mechanisms suggested here, of repression and the return of the repressed, are made explicit in Vendler’s reading of “The Circus Animals’ Desertion.” In that great poem, one of Yeats’s last before his death at seventy-three in 1939, he portrays himself as an old “broken man” in a vain search for a theme. His vivid images drawn from Irish mythology, which he calls his circus animals, have deserted him, and now he can only “enumerate old themes.” But having done so, he traces the dreamlike tales of mythical heroes to their unheroic source:

Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Vendler offers a heavily metaphorical psychoanalytic interpretation:

Yeats shows us how his initial distress at sterility and his alienation from past works yield a falling from his ladder of sublimation through the trapdoor of long-maintained repression into the cellar of the “subliterary” heart—which turns out to possess a profusion of images just waiting to be explored.

But when she explores these new “Beckettian” images, her patience and passion suggest that the closing lines of the poem have a more than merely scholarly urgency for her. “As we find ourselves deserted in old age by the serviceable concepts of our middle years,” she writes, “we fear, with Yeats, that a permanent loneliness has set in.”

In her Jefferson Lecture, Helen Vendler, elaborating on a phrase of Wallace Stevens, wrote about the way poetry shows how “the experiences of life can be reconstituted and made available as beauty and solace, to help us live our lives.”4 If there is an underlying, though unstated, subject in Poets Thinking, it concerns the consolations of poetry in the face of human isolation. Vendler interprets Pope’s familiar lines about the proper study of mankind—

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great …
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest and riddle of the world!

—as an “idiosyncratic self-portrait” of the “deformed and unpartnered Pope,” in which, exiled on his isthmus, “he is looking at himself in his interior solitude.” Vendler discerns “magnificence and courage” in these lines, akin to Yeats’s searing self-portrait as a lonely old man in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” and to Emily Dickinson’s clear-eyed dissection of the bare and isolating facts of death.

Despite her closing plea for “expanding our idea of what thinking is,” Vendler is really trying to enlarge our idea of what poetry can be. Her book is best conceived not as an extension of some ongoing debate, stretching back to Santayana, about poetic thinking, but rather as a contribution to the phase of New Criticism that sought to stamp out the “heresy of paraphrase,” and restore our wonder at words laid out with utmost deliberation and consoling skill. In reminding us to look at and listen to the actual words on the page, and not to leap too soon to some hackneyed idea that they recall, Vendler invites us to expand our own response to experience, and to find in it—if we are both attentive and lucky—beauty and solace.

  1. 3

    Like other New Critics, Vendler has little recourse to biography, beyond accepting what she calls “the usual critical account” of “some unidentified rupture” in Dickinson’s emotional life circa 1862; but the “disrupting” of the “normal course of affairs” happens to be the organizing principle behind Roger Lundin’s “religious biography” of Dickinson, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief (Eerdmans, second edition, 2004). Lundin’s claim that in Dickinson’s “disenchanted” view of the world “there may be no deeper principle holding together the disparate elements of the world” fits well with Vendler’s working out of such intimations in the emerging organization of particular poems.

  2. 4

    For the text of Vendler’s Jefferson Lecture, “The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: How the Arts Help Us to Live,” see The New Republic, July 19, 2004. In his essay “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words,” Stevens wrote of the imagination that “the expression of it, the sound of its words, helps us to live our lives.”

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