Arts & Culture

Vendler on Dickinson

3 min read

Fresh insights on Amherst’s own

“In analyzing any poem,” says Helen Vendler, “you are like a conductor studying a score, seeing the whole and at the same time noticing the compelling detail, as the long arc of linked sounds displays individual ravishing moments.”

A renowned critic and A. Kingsley Porter University Professor, Vendler has written about many major poets, including John Keats, Wallace Stevens, and W.B. Yeats. Now she has turned to Amherst, Massachusetts’ own: the hermetic and prolific Emily Dickinson. In “Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries,” Vendler looks closely at 150 of Dickinson’s more than 1,700 poems, further illuminating the writer who has enthralled generations of devotees and scholars, including Vendler.

“The charm of Dickinson for me is that there are more poems than anyone not herself could hold in mind at once — and the permutations and combinations that arise in comparing one poem with another are infinite,” she says. “The possibilities for commentary offered by her work are very tempting.”

In “Dickinson,” Vendler’s kinship with the poet is evident, and her commentaries profound.

“I have been lingering on some of these poems since I was 13, when I memorized many of the famous ones,” Vendler recalls. “Dickinson’s greatest intellectual originality lies in her startling redefining of ‘known’ concepts.

“Hope, as one of the three theological virtues, has an ample conceptual history. But on her page, hope ‘is the thing with feathers —’. Renunciation is a longstanding religious concept. But on her page, it is ‘the putting out of Eyes / Just Sunrise —’.”

Vendler notes that the chief discoveries of Dickinson’s character have already been made: “Critics have pointed out Dickinson’s intelligence, her learning, her skepticism, her mockery, her self-irony, her humor, her genius for comparison. … Her originality lies in how she revises her inherited themes. Her greatest departures from earlier English lyrics appear in her cheerful and satiric blasphemies: ‘Abraham to kill him / Was distinctly told — / Isaac was an Urchin — Abraham was old —’.”

And Dickinson’s greatest descriptive originality lies in her angle of vision, says Vendler. “Instead of describing hills and valleys, she may describe the light: ‘A Light exists in Spring / Not present on the Year / At any other period —’,  or ‘There’s a certain Slant of light.’ She dwells on the ethereal, as when — in a poem that puzzled me at first — she defines an indefinable ‘it’ by a series of comparisons: ‘’Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe / ’Tis dimmer than a Lace —’, and so on. It took a while for me to realize that she was describing the soul. She never gives it a name at all, but concludes, ‘This limitless Hyperbole / Each one of us shall be — / ’Tis Drama — if Hypothesis / It be not Tragedy —’.

“I hope that readers will discover in my selection poems they hadn’t known before, less anthologized ones: the macabre, the defiant, the lethal. ‘It is playing — kill us, / And we are playing — shriek —’,” Vendler says.

“Existence in 10 words.”