Are there limits to our curiosity about Emily Dickinson’s private life? If so, there is little indication that we have come anywhere near them. During the past few years, an outpouring of books has addressed various aspects of Dickinson’s domestic and erotic existence. Biographers have wondered whether she was really as solitary as has been thought. The men in her life—the respectable ministers and editors who, she reported, greeted her clever remarks with an uncomprehending “What”—have been subjected to renewed scrutiny, by scholars and novelists intrigued by what she might have meant when she wrote ecstatically of her “Wild Nights”:
Rowing in Eden—
Might I but moor—tonight—
A book has appeared on the Dickinson servants, often overlooked in accounts of the poet’s exile on Main Street. Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland, Carlo, has been accorded a chapter in a book entitled Shaggy Muses. Meanwhile, records from the Amherst pharmacy have been scrutinized for evidence of possible (and potentially isolating) illness. Did she perhaps suffer from epilepsy, as has recently been suggested? Did she avoid men and women because she was neurotically shy or because, as she told her literary adviser Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “they talk of Hallowed things, aloud—and embarrass my Dog”?1
But are we equally curious about Dickinson’s poems, those eighteen hundred short volleys of brilliance, boldness, and blasphemy? Has “Dickinson the Writer,” as the distinguished Harvard scholar Helen Vendler pointedly refers to her in the introduction to her superb and invigorating new selection of 150 poems and probing commentaries, been accorded as much attention as her reclusive life in Amherst?
For Vendler, the essential biographical facts are quickly dispensed with. “Dickinson chose a secluded life,” she writes; “she never married, and lived till her death with her parents and her sister Lavinia in the family house in Amherst, Massachusetts.” She adds that Dickinson’s “intellectual honesty forbade her taking Jesus as her savior (as all her fellow students in her college did).” She warns us, as Dickinson warned Higginson, that the confiding first-person speaker in her poems—who has love affairs with men and women, suffers near-death experiences, and claims proudly to be both “Nobody” and the long-suffering “Empress of Calvary”—should be understood as “a supposed person” and not as a reliable self-portrait of her own day-to-day life in Amherst.
One might quibble with some of this. Did Dickinson really “choose” seclusion, or was it inflicted upon her—by illness, mental or physical, or perhaps by an overbearing father unhappy with her choice of suitors? (“Thin dry & speechless” was how Higginson described Edward Dickinson. “I saw what her life had been.”) Dickinson was not, in fact, the only student at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary—which she attended for one year, from 1847 to 1848—unable to find salvation in Christ.2 And when Vendler, in her very first sentence, repeats one of the cherished myths of Dickinson hagiography, that “in some passionate years she wrote almost a poem a day,” we can see, in a footnote on the next page, how potentially misleading such an assertion can be. Dickinson made clean copies of hundreds of her poems during the early 1860s, patiently stitched them together, and “discarded prior drafts,” so we can’t really say with confidence how many of these poems were written during those passionate (and punctilious) years or, perhaps, much earlier.
But Vendler’s larger point is tonic: if we want to find the real Dickinson, she insists, we must read her poems. The format she has adopted is simple and unvarying: a poem is quoted in full, generally though not always in the version (where alternatives survive) preferred by the editor Ralph Franklin in his “reading edition” of the complete poems for Harvard University Press. Then Vendler provides a commentary, often quite short, and rarely exceeding four or five pages. As in her previous commentary on Shakespeare’s sonnets, she tries to say—not always an easy task in Dickinson’s case—what each poem is about, where its main structural divisions are, how the form of the poem is adapted to its message, and what technical choices (in rhyme, meter, rhythm, lineation, and so on) enhance or impede understanding. She stipulates that the book is intended “to be browsed in,” not read straight through. The sheer modesty of this quasi-instructional format, more familiar in schoolbook editions of Catullus or Horace than of nineteenth-century poets writing in English, has an analogy with Dickinson’s own deceptively simple forms, the heavily accented meter of ballad and hymn that is her favored, though by no means exclusive, vehicle for her short poems.
But there the modesty ends. For the poet that Vendler finds in these poems is an ambitious and sometimes magisterial artist of extraordinary range and verbal control. Vendler’s comprehensive reassessment of Dickinson’s achievement seems to me the most challenging new reading of Dickinson since the poet Adrienne Rich’s remarkable essay “Vesuvius at Home” (1975), which sought to stamp out once and for all any lingering impression of Dickinson as a shy New England spinster who baked cookies for the local children and was quaintly and sentimentally preoccupied with inoffensive subjects such as birds, croaking frogs, and the first signs of spring. Calling attention to her pervasive imagery of lethal weaponry and volcanic power, Rich placed Dickinson’s explosive riddle-poem “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” at the epicenter of her work. Rich’s Dickinson was a self-conscious woman artist of prodigious power in a world more attuned to male achievement.
What Vendler, perhaps the most skilled and accomplished close reader of lyric poetry of her generation, adds to this picture is a renewed attention to Dickinson’s deliberate and consummate artistry, along with a fresh way to read cryptic poems that may seem, superficially, to have little to do with the “maelstrom” of human emotions. She takes particular delight in Dickinson’s process of composition, to the extent that this is available to us in her successive drafts and in the alternate words she habitually added to the manuscripts even of her relatively “clean” copies.
“Dickinson’s boldest revisions,” Vendler observes, “are those that assert exactly the opposite of what she has just written.” Dissatisfied with her first description of lightning as “the transport of the Children/The jeopardy of men,” Dickinson reversed it, so that lightning became, instead, “The terror of the Children/The merriment of men.” Wondering what kind of preacher might appeal to ordinary, fun-loving boys, she wrote down thirteen alternative adjectives—including “typic,” “hearty,” “bonnie,” “breathless,” “spacious,” “tropic,” “ardent,” “friendly,” “magic,” “pungent,” “winning,” and “mellow”—before settling on the unlikely (if perhaps appealingly woodsy) “warbling.” Such verbal “profusion,” Vendler observes, “awakens us to the incalculable number of unrecorded alternatives that passed through the poet’s mind as she invented her poems.”
But what exactly does she mean when she calls Dickinson the “inventor of a new form of poetry on the page” and a “master of revolutionary verse-language of immediacy and power”? While it is difficult to summarize the gist of so many diverging commentaries, on poems selected as much for their expressive range as for their quality, one might emphasize three recurrent themes in Vendler’s analysis: the extreme brevity of the poems; their often schematically abstract or, as she calls it, “algebraic” formulation; and their pervasive blasphemy. “Unless we become as Rogues,” Dickinson once wrote, “we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Vendler wonders why “Dickinson’s mature poems were all so brief,” and seeks a fuller understanding of her “tenacity in keeping to a miniature form,” which has “caused some readers, even in the twentieth century, to patronize her work.” She claims to have found the key in eight concentrated but hitherto little-noticed lines, dated 1865 in Franklin’s edition, which she considers both a “remarkable lyric” and Dickinson’s disguised ars poetica:
Ashes denote that Fire was—
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile—
Fire exists the first in light
And then consolidates
Only the Chemist can disclose
Into what Carbonates—
The casual reader might think that Dickinson is merely showing off her scientific knowledge, gleaned at Mount Holyoke, where the formidable head of school, Mary Lyon, taught the chemistry classes. According to Vendler, however, Dickinson was alluding, metaphorically, to the “gray pile of her poems,” which are “the cryptic residue of her incandescent emotional and intellectual fires.” The challenge for her readers and critics, as “forensic Chemists of verse,” is “to reconstruct from a small heap of Ashes”—her eighteen hundred short poems—“the self originally nourished and then consumed by the light of insight and the Fire of emotion.”
Like many readers, Vendler is struck by Dickinson’s frequent resort to abstractions and scientific analogies, but we should not be misled, she argues, into thinking that abstract analysis and emotion are opposed. What Dickinson sought to achieve in poetry was, she believes, a mathematical accuracy applied to human “ardor and grief.” “All of Dickinson’s poetry,” she maintains, “is an attempt to fix precision…on a maelstrom of emotion.” Or, as Dickinson puts it: “Deal with the soul/As with Algebra!”
As she decodes Dickinson’s algebra, Vendler repeatedly discerns a darker poet than many previous readers have found, a poet fiercely resistant, in particular, to any of the consolations of Christianity, which Vendler dismisses as “the various antianxiety nostrums of religion.” For Vendler, this resistance is given powerful expression in the famous poem, long considered one of Dickinson’s supreme masterpieces, that begins:
Because I could not stop for Death—
He kindly stopped for me—
The carriage held but just Ourselves—
The poem follows a schematic journey through life, with successive views of children playing, an expanse of “Fields of Gazing Grain,” and finally the setting sun. At first, the carriage with its three occupants seems to pass the sun, but no, the speaker realizes, in an unsettling moment of disorientation, “He passed Us,” as “The Dews drew quivering and Chill,” until finally,
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground—
The Roof was scarcely visible—
The Cornice—in the Ground—
Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity—
Vendler is surprised that “this bleak poem,” as she describes it, “has seemed so harmless that it is regularly found in school anthologies.” The poem has suffered surgery during its hundred years of popularity. Dickinson’s first editors cut the stanza about the cold dews and the setting sun; for the identical rhyme of “Ground” and “Ground,” they substituted “Its cornice but a mound.” I suspect that both changes were made primarily for aesthetic reasons, to keep up the momentum of the narrative and to avoid a seemingly grating and inept rhyme. Vendler will have none of that, however, arguing instead that the pious editors deliberately eliminated “the realizations of bodily decay…marshaled all at once in Swelling Ground and sunk Cornice, confirming the earlier apprehension of ‘Chill’ at sunset.”
1 Among notable recent books or parts of books on Dickinson, see Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008); Maureen B. Adams, Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë (Ballantine, 2007); and Aífe Murray, Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson's Life and Language (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009). On Dickinson's possible epilepsy, see Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family's Feuds (Viking, 2010). See also Jerome Charyn's novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (Norton, 2010) and Joyce Carol Oates's story "EDickinsonRepliLuxe" in Wild Nights! (Ecco, 2008). For a reconsideration of Reverend George Gould as Dickinson's secret lover, see Carol Damon Andrews, "Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson," The New England Quarterly, June 2008. ↩
2 "Of the two hundred and thirty students enrolled during Emily's year, it would appear...that nearly half of them, at the beginning of the year, were not established Christians. That thirty finished the year without hope should be assurance enough against the notion of Emily's isolation." Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), Vol. 2, p. 361. ↩
Among notable recent books or parts of books on Dickinson, see Brenda Wineapple, White Heat: The Friendship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson (Knopf, 2008); Maureen B. Adams, Shaggy Muses: The Dogs Who Inspired Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edith Wharton, and Emily Brontë (Ballantine, 2007); and Aífe Murray, Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language (University of New Hampshire Press, 2009). On Dickinson’s possible epilepsy, see Lyndall Gordon, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds (Viking, 2010). See also Jerome Charyn’s novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson (Norton, 2010) and Joyce Carol Oates’s story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” in Wild Nights! (Ecco, 2008). For a reconsideration of Reverend George Gould as Dickinson’s secret lover, see Carol Damon Andrews, “Thinking Musically, Writing Expectantly: New Biographical Information about Emily Dickinson,” The New England Quarterly, June 2008. ↩
“Of the two hundred and thirty students enrolled during Emily’s year, it would appear…that nearly half of them, at the beginning of the year, were not established Christians. That thirty finished the year without hope should be assurance enough against the notion of Emily’s isolation.” Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974), Vol. 2, p. 361. ↩