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.”
The casual reader might have thought (as I confess I had always assumed) that “Immortality” and “Eternity” were synonyms for Dickinson, but Vendler believes that her “single most striking invention in this poem is the substitution” of one for the other. She thinks the poem explicitly rejects, as illusory, the “glorious” Christian afterlife promised by “Immortality,” while asserting instead the unavoidable reality of the nightmarishly “chilling” and bleak finality of “Eternity,” with its accompanying “sepulchral sinking.”3 Even the seemingly anodyne “Gazing Grain” is sinister for Vendler, since “the grain knows of its coming slaughter by the scythe.”
Vendler insists that many of Dickinson’s poems are blasphemous, deliberately invoking God (to borrow the wording of the American Heritage Dictionary) “in an irreverent or impious manner.” Dickinson frequently expressed her skepticism about organized religion. She told Higginson that all of her family, except herself, were “religious” and worshiped “an Eclipse, every morning—whom they call their ‘Father.'” In a popular poem, she wrote (in the multidashed version Vendler prefers to Franklin’s more “regularized” text):
Some—keep the Sabbath—going to church
I—keep it—staying at Home
With a Bobolink—for a Chorister—
And an Orchard—for a Dome—
While Dickinson “announces” here, as Vendler remarks, a “natural religion to balance her private isolation,” it seems unlikely that such a poem, with its genial acceptance of God’s natural creation, would have disturbed her pious New England contemporaries.
Similarly, when Dickinson writes, delightfully, in the first poem Vendler comments on,
In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze—Amen!
do we really need to be told that the poem is “blasphemous” and “parodies the Trinitarian formula of baptism, initiated by Jesus’ commandment to his disciples that they should go forth baptizing all nations ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost”? One could easily imagine liberal New England preachers of the 1860s, in flight from the harsh Calvinism of their forefathers, beginning a sermon with such a mock and Emersonian invocation.4
It is true that Dickinson can be indignant, even shocking, about the withdrawal of God, as when she writes that God’s right hand, so reassuring to past believers, “is amputated now/And God cannot be found.” Vendler appears to find Dickinson’s blasphemous poems exhilarating in their intellectual honesty, but one wonders whether younger readers will find such gestures equally convincing. Philip Larkin, writing in 1967, compared the freedom of the sexual revolution to his own generation’s release from religious strictures forty years earlier: “That’ll be the life,” he imagines someone saying enviously; “No God any more, or sweating in the dark/About hell and that, or having to hide/What you think of the priest” (“High Windows”). It may be news to some readers that Dickinson could be shockingly anti-Christian, and no one has brought out this side of her more incisively than Vendler. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her, however, that in our increasingly secular age, contemporary readers may look to Dickinson as much for spiritual sustenance—what Larkin in another poem calls “a serious house on serious earth” (“Church Going”)—as for further jeering at a moribund Christianity.
Helen Vendler has come late to Emily Dickinson, and it is interesting to speculate why. During her long and distinguished career, she has been a specialist on the poetry of George Herbert, Keats, and Yeats, and has also given sustained attention to American poets such as Whitman, Stevens, and John Ashbery. Until now, however, her only major pronouncement on Dickinson has come in a chapter in Poets Thinking (2004), where she examined the pervasive “additive” structure of so many poems, including “Because I could not Stop for Death,” with their sequence of events loosely connected by phrases such as “and then” or “since then.”
I suspect that in giving Dickinson a more systematic reading (at the instigation, she acknowledges, of an editor at Harvard), Vendler discovered that Dickinson’s connection to poets she admires, especially Keats and Stevens, was much deeper than she had previously thought. Keats is everywhere in her new book, including the dedication. Every few pages one comes across a passage like this one, concerning Dickinson’s great poem “Further in Summer than the Birds,” about the transition from summer to autumn announced by the cricket’s “unobtrusive Mass”:
“Further in Summer” represents gradualness in many ways. It is still summer—the Birds are still singing—but a new (and Keatsian) sound has been added to the chorus: it is that of the crickets. Like Keats, who allowed, in “To Autumn,” the remaining “treble soft” of the redbreast to be heard along with the hedge-crickets’ song, Dickinson does not replace birdsong with cricket chant but rather allows the two musics to coexist; yet the Crickets…announce the great change from flourishing to decline.
Is Vendler implying that Dickinson was explicitly alluding to Keats or merely writing in a coincidentally similar way about common natural occurrences? Dickinson told Higginson that Keats, along with the Brownings, was one of her favorite poets, though she rarely mentioned him again in her letters. Still, it would hardly be surprising if Dickinson had Keats’s familiar ode in mind, freely “borrowing” from it, here and elsewhere, when she wrote her own poems about the onset of autumn.
The claim that Wallace Stevens owed a great deal to Dickinson is more surprising. Dickinson is barely mentioned in Vendler’s On Extended Wings: Wallace Stevens’ Longer Poems, and only appears in passing, in her later study of Stevens’s short poems, as another poet who specializes in “second-order” distillations (rather than confessional outpourings) of emotion. Stevens never mentions Dickinson in his letters, as far as I know, or in his major critical statements. And yet, Vendler now claims, after a moving analysis of another of Dickinson’s major poems on the gradual transition to autumn, “As imperceptibly as Grief/The Summer lapsed away”:
Only rarely has the imperceptible been so scrupulously described. And Dickinson’s acute sense of the seasonal cusps of the year, one of the great bequests of her work, created a subsequent cluster of such poems in Wallace Stevens, whose debt to Dickinson is profound.
This is an extraordinary claim. Dickinson’s poetry, Vendler is now prepared to argue, was the major impetus for such masterpieces of late-Romantic yearning as Stevens’s “Credences of Summer” and “Auroras of Autumn.” Even more surprising is what she has to say about Stevens’s first major long poem, “Sunday Morning,” which Dickinson is said to have “generated” with her poem about keeping the Sabbath at home with her bobolink and her apple trees:
Dickinson’s refusal to keep the Sabbath in a conventional way generated two poems in Wallace Stevens’s work: the boisterous “Ploughing on Sunday” (in which the speaker engages in the sort of “servile work” that was prohibited on the Sabbath) and “Sunday Morning,” Stevens’s sequence examining the consequences for humanity of a loss of belief in the Resurrection and an afterlife.”5
I hope that sometime soon, Vendler will elaborate on these suggestive ties, more outlined here than proven, between Stevens and Dickinson.
When she does so, she will undoubtedly have more to say about Dickinson’s coruscating wit, which sometimes resembles Stevens’s own outrageous humor (“Remus, blow your horn!/ I’m ploughing on Sunday,/Ploughing North America”) in its extravagance. Vendler has fun with Dickinson’s self-portrait as lonely leopard, for example, in a poem that begins “Civilization—spurns—the Leopard!”:
Pity—the Pard—that left her Asia!
Cannot be stifled—with Narcotic—
Nor suppressed—with Balm—
Vendler winningly observes that “Exotic felines—the Leopard, the Tiger—and their tropical homes strike Dickinson as just what is lacking in New England.” She adds that it would be “hard to imagine the ‘Asia’ where there would be a tribe of Dickinsons under the palms; yet every exceptional person dreams of better company than that offered by her local context.”
In the last lines of Dickinson’s wonderful letter-poem from the already settled Fly to the late-arriving Bee (“Bee! I’m expecting you!”), Vendler discerns what she calls the “secret” of the poem:
You’ll get my Letter by
The Seventeenth; Reply
Or better, be with me—
“Under the poem’s mischievous play,” she writes, “there lies the yearning of the unique Dickinson for a natural companion resembling herself.”
Our conviction that Dickinson was indeed “exceptional” and “unique” helps explain, of course, our continuing curiosity regarding her life. Even as she deliberately avoids biographical speculation, Vendler’s analysis invites it. If “Ashes denote that Fire was,” how can we not wonder about the nature of “the Departed Creature…That hovered there awhile”? Why did Dickinson write so witheringly about the company of women and so despairingly about the company of uncomprehending men? Why did she return so often to the same scenario of heartbreak and disappointment, where an intense relationship is aborted because the loved one is a believer while she is not? Why did she write so longingly of marriage and publication, and then spurn them both when they entered the realm of possibility? (“Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer,” she asked her late-in-life suitor, Judge Otis Lord. “Dont you know that ‘No’ is the wildest word we consign to Language?”)
Why, we ask helplessly, why? And then we return, as Helen Vendler tells us that we must return, to the difficult poems, the often inscrutable letters, for answers that elude us now, and probably will elude us forever. Apparently, the answers eluded Dickinson, too. Disappointed with a new biography of George Eliot that she had read, she observed tartly that “Biography first convinces us of the fleeing of the Biographied.”
November 25, 2010
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. ↩
In the introduction to her recently published Last Looks, Last Books: Stevens, Plath, Lowell, Bishop, Merrill (Princeton University Press, 2010), Vendler considers “Because I could not stop for Death” as an example of what she calls a “binocular view” of “the supervening of death on life.” She writes that “in many lyrics, poets have taken, if not a last look, a very late look at the interface at which death meets life, and my topic is the strange binocular style they must invent to render the reality contemplated in that last look.” How, she asks, “can the manner of a poem do justice to both the looming presence of death and the unabated vitality of spirit?” ↩
Emerson is mostly absent in Vendler’s commentaries. She examines the opening lines of “On a Columnar Self—/How ample to rely,” but neglects the obvious link to Emerson’s “Self- Reliance.” When Dickinson, in a famous poem, associates “The Truth’s superb surprise” with our need for truth to be explained “gradually,” Vendler notes that “gradually” comes from the Latin gradus meaning “stair-step.” It is odd that she doesn’t mention Emerson’s injunction to poets to follow a “stairway of surprise.” ↩
For Vendler, plowing on Sunday is a metaphor for writing blasphemous poetry: “There, while his docile neighbors troop off to church, the poet, violating the Sabbath, blasphemously harnesses his team to plough and takes to the fields, full of indiscriminate joy in the sun and wind alike.” See Vendler, Words Chosen Out of Desire (University of Tennessee Press, 1984), p. 13. ↩