Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries
Harvard UP, 2010
Anyone who writes seriously about poetry has had to contend, at one point or another, with Helen Vendler. The A. Kingsley Porter University Professor at Harvard has become an authority on Keats, Wallace Stevens, and Yeats, and though she may not be the authority on Shakespeare’s sonnets, is nonetheless an assured presence in the critical canon. Her ability to find the thread that connects, say, Milton, Keats, Eliot, and Plath (in Coming of Age as a Poet), or the aesthetic overlap in the work of Herbert, Whitman, and Ashbery (Invisible Listeners), indicates not only her command of literary history, but a rare bravery in the face of “difficult” poetry. Vendler’s 40-plus years of reading and writing about poetry has (perhaps inevitably) suffused her own diction with an elegant lyricism that in turn accentuates her subjects’ linguistic rhythms and observational intensity.
With her new book on Emily Dickinson, Vendler once again balances a broad view of a poet’s life and personal concerns with technical and philosophical depth. Vendler is not interested in “solving” the mysteries of Dickinson’s work; in fact she, like critic and revisionary editor Ralph Franklin, scolds Dickinson’s first editors for such crimes as assigning facile titles to deceptively simple poems, yoking together brief and “insubstantial” verses, and “correcting” her idiosyncratic punctuation. Though such changes were at the time well-intentioned and seemingly minor, they effectively rip the heart out of these most delicate poems, poems whose lifeblood is ambivalence. Alternatively, even contemporary critics who attempt to use the few available details of Dickinson’s personal life to explain the emotional core of her work miss the syntactical subtleties with which she manipulates her influences (Shakespeare, Wordsworth, the Bible) within a consistent meter. Avoiding both traps, Vendler positions her readings between the work and the life, reminding us that “a poem, no matter how personal its origin, always requires a selection from, and a linguistic attitude toward, that personal source.” Using Dickinson’s own metaphor in “Ashes denote that Fire was—”, Vendler writes that “Dickinson calls on us, as the forensic Chemists of verse, to reconstruct from a small heap of Ashes—her poem—the self originally nourished and then consumed by the light of insight and the Fire of emotion.” Vendler reconstructs each “heap of Ashes” with the attention and rigorousness of a mathematician—much of Dickinson’s linguistic puzzles resemble what Vendler calls “algebra” —and the empathy and intuition of an artist.
Striking a balance between “decoding” Dickinson’s “algebra” and attending to the emotional and philosophical richness of the whole requires as comprehensive a view of her work as is possible when faced with over 1,800 poems. While Dickinson’s critics and biographers have woven their arguments around such poems as the oft-anthologized “Wild Nights—Wild Nights!” and “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—”, Vendler, while equally engaged with these heavy hitters, aims to “make space, too, for daring poems” of “varying achievement…the lesser ones included to show the conventional or occasional Dickinson, the greater ones to sustain her right to fame.” The idea that critical attention “sustains” a poet lies at the heart of the best criticism, and requires that the critic apply his or her faculties not only to the best work (which would in effect deify— and so misread—the poet), but to the full range of human effort. What results is a fresh perspective on “Dickinson the writer, the inventive reconceiver and linguistic shaper of her perennial themes: nature, death, religion, love, and the workings of the mind and of thought.” The majority of the book is comprised of brief, close readings, often no more than two or three pages. This is a book to dip into to refresh one’s vision, to heighten our own experiences to the level not of artifice, but the art inherent in creation.
Like other members of the mid-19th-century literary milieu, Dickinson inherited a set of forms and subjects that she would strive to make her own, to “see—New Englandly—.” Although Vendler categorizes Dickinson’s poems, as other critics do, under the well-worn rubrics of “nature, death, religion, [and] love”, she is always attuned to Dickinson’s uncompromising view of the paradoxes within these subjects, as well as her unconventional conflations of the spiritual and the sensual. Again, the simplicity of her poems—bolstered by their sing-song, hymn-inspired rhythms—belies how linguistically surprising (and wonderfully blasphemous) they often are. Vendler locates Dickinson’s originality in such surprises, noting that in the list-poem “‘Nature’ is what we see—” Dickinson follows “Squirrel” with “Eclipse”, a falling of darkness upon an ordinary “Afternoon”.
These surprises arise from the interaction between what Vendler calls a set of “templates” on which Dickinson “mapped” her poems. Though famously isolated in her family’s Amherst home, Dickinson’s poetic imagination spans the nuances of time, temperature, space, “a scale of population, from a single person to a mob”, and “a spectrum of foreignness by way of Europe, Asia, Africa, and India.” The layering of these templates, as in “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”, produces a metaphysical instability:
The Feet, mechanical, go round —
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Quartz contentment, like a stone —
Never one to take a poet at his or her word, Vendler asks how a “way of ‘Ground’” can be “Wooden” and “what sort of “contentment” lies in an immobile crystal lattice?” in order to uncover the laws governing Dickinson’s poetic cosmos. Although all poems require a simultaneous consideration of the global and the local, the brevity of Dickinson’s poems intensifies this consideration: one must not only put pressure on each word, but at the same time consider the dynamic relationship between that word’s “preceding and following companions” and the reverberation of each individual phrase’s system upon the whole; Dickinson herself hints at the “internal difference— / Where the Meanings, are—.” The reward for puzzling out each poem’s syntactical system is, as in all good poetry, a further emotional mystery that can best be understood by being felt. One of Vendler’s strengths as a critic is her capacity to imaginatively embody the “feeling-state” generated by these characteristic twists of metaphor and telescoping of scale, which brings her closer to reconstructing the poet’s original “Fire”. This book not only provides a clear analysis of Dickinson’s work, but teaches the reader to see with this kind of “Compound Vision”, to discern, as Dickinson did, “The Finite—furnished / With the Infinite—.”
Rachel Abramowitz  is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.