Helen Vendler's new commentary on Emily Dickinson, reviewed by Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 9, 2010


Selected Poems and Commentaries

By Helen Vendler

Harvard Univ. 535 pp. $35

Any good bookstore is likely to offer a half-dozen different editions of Emily Dickinson's poetry. But the reason to consider buying "Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries" lies, of course, in the commentator, Helen Vendler.

Vendler -- A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard -- is widely regarded as our finest living critic and champion of contemporary poetry. Many would say of poetry, period, since she has produced important studies of half the Western canon, from Shakespeare's sonnets and George Herbert's metaphysical verse to the work of Keats, Whitman, Yeats, Stevens, Plath, Heaney and Ashbery. Vendler's sheer appetite for poetry and her explicatory power are phenomenal.

She is, however, a thoroughly serious, academic critic. Now, some professors are fun to read: Think of the cool Olympian clarity of Northrop Frye, the astonishing encyclopedism of Hugh Kenner, the delicious precisions of Guy Davenport, the Empsonian dash and brilliance of Christopher Ricks. Vendler's strength, meanwhile, lies in clearly, patiently explaining what's happening in a poem. But -- and it's a big but -- you really do need to pay attention. As Vendler writes in her introduction to "Dickinson," hers isn't so much a book to read through as "a book to be browsed in, as the reader becomes interested in one or another of the poems commented on here."

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) left nearly 1,800 poems. "In some passionate years," notes Vendler, "she wrote almost a poem a day." Dickinson never married -- "Myself the only Kangaroo among the Beauty" -- and to all appearances seemed just a shy, reclusive spinster, a good Christian woman residing quietly in Amherst, Mass. But her inner life was quite different, hardly Christian and not at all conventional. In the view of eminent critic Harold Bloom, Dickinson's was simply "the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries."

Yet, aside from the handful of poems that appeared anonymously in local newspapers, she never published her work. Most of it survives either in manuscripts or from transcriptions in letters, mainly to her family. When first brought out in book form, her generally short, gnomic verses were often regularized. Words were altered when their meaning was deemed puzzling or sacrilegious, and Dickinson's beloved dashes, her preferred form of punctuation, were frequently changed to commas or periods. Only in 1955 did Thomas Johnson produce a scholarly edition that printed the earliest fair copy of what Dickinson actually wrote. His were the standard texts until Ralph Franklin's 1998 "Variorum Edition," which chose Dickinson's last revised versions as its copy-texts but also included the manuscript variants.

Such bibliographic details matter because, like Marianne Moore and W.H. Auden, Dickinson frequently fiddled with and reworked her seemingly finished poems. Vendler relies on Franklin for her texts, but notes that sometimes the poet's rejected first versions, found in Johnson, display a raw power all their own. For instance, the line "And this brief Tragedy of Flesh" was slightly altered in meaning and distinctly weakened to "this brief Drama in the flesh." The first sounds grandly Shakespearean, the second merely descriptive.

Dickinson's poetry, summarizes Vendler, is "epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic, funny." As many readers know, her opening lines are especially startling:

"One need not be a Chamber -- to be Haunted -- "

"Wild Nights -- Wild Nights!"

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes -- "

"Because I could not stop for Death--/He kindly stopped for me"

"My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun -- "

"Crumbling is not an instant's Act"

"Tell all the truth but tell it slant -- "

Dickinson famously called one of her poems "my letter to the World/That never wrote to Me," and occasionally she sounds as personal as a diary, but more often she pares her lines until they are as ambiguous and richly compacted as a Zen koan. Take this blasphemous little poem, as Vendler calls it: "In name of the Bee --/And of the Butterfly --/And of the Breeze -- Amen!" While this invocation naturalizes the Trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, it doesn't wholly abandon it. Dickinson is careful that her nouns are "symbolic as well as 'real'; the Bee (for Being), the Butterfly (Psyche, the resurrected Soul) and the Breeze (the Spirit) all fit that criterion."

While Vendler's readings are generally clear and persuasive, some are not. In discussing "A Clock Stopped," she spends a confusing paragraph on the movement of a clock's hour hand, positing a "circle" of 120 "Degrees" and a clock face marked out in increments of 10 spaces. This isn't any kind of timepiece I have ever seen. In another poem she explains Dickinson's use of the noun "Ought" as her "customary spelling of 'Aught,' meaning 'Anything.' " Okay. But in a poem that begins "The Zeros taught," it does seem possible that "Ought" might actually mean zero, as in the phrase "nineteen ought two."

Vendler also has a tendency to connect Dickinson's language to that of earlier (and later) poets or to the Bible, sometimes without adequate evidence and purpose. Take the poem "It's easy to invent a Life": Here the word "thrifty" leads her to cite Hamlet's phrase "Thrift, thrift, Horatio" -- for no reason I can discern -- while the poem's reference to "Perished Patterns" somehow calls up the phrase "so various, so beautiful, so new" from Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." This, in its turn, is followed by a nod to Gerard Manley Hopkins's use of the word "haecceitas," referring to an entity's individual "thisness," which, Vendler reminds us, he borrowed from the medieval philosopher Duns Scotus. All this quote-mongering seems to be little more than the kind of free association that all great readers -- and many classroom teachers -- are prone to.

For Vendler really is a great reader and teacher. Consider her superb analysis -- too long to reproduce -- of "Essential Oils -- are wrung." Or look at her discussion of the famous poem about heaven "I never saw a Moor": She points out that its last lines ("Yet certain am I of the spot/As if the Checks were given -- ") refer to train tickets, thus making Paradise nearby, just a few stops down the line from Amherst. Older editors had emended "checks" to "chart," thus losing the homely simile. Again, in her glossing of "To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee," Vendler neatly picks apart Dickinson's verbal games with the article "a" and the number "one."

Emily Dickinson is certainly never going to be an easy poet to understand, but her dense, poignant lyrics are now a lot more accessible to ordinary readers thanks to Vendler's unravelings. If you're going to read Dickinson, this "selected poems and commentary" is the place to start.

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