Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds 
by Lyndall Gordon.
Virago, 491 pp., £9.99, April 2011, 978 1 84408 453 1
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Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries 
by Helen Vendler.
Harvard, 535 pp., £25.95, September 2010, 978 0 674 04867 6
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One need not be a Chamber – to be Haunted –
One need not be a House –
The Brain has Corridors – surpassing
Material Place –

‘All men say “What” to me,’ Emily Dickinson wrote in a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson. She certainly mystified Higginson. He never entirely overcame his uneasiness about her odd, disjunctive words and bewildering epistolary tones and seven years into their correspondence still complained of being unable to get beyond the ‘fiery mist’ in which he said she ‘enshrouded’ herself. She puzzled her brother, Austin. He complained he could not ‘comprehend’ her letters to him and demanded ‘a simpler style’. He thought she ‘posed’. And he was right. She could manage plainness well enough when it suited her. But sometimes plainness did not suit her, and she was mysterious on purpose:

Nature forgot – The Circus reminded her –
Thanks for the Ethiopian Face.
The Orient is in the West.
‘You knew, Oh Egypt’ said the entangled Antony –

This, her response to the gift of a painted jug from Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin’s mistress, and later the unchosen posthumous first of her editors, is plain only about its deliberate obscurity. It is the equivalent of shutting a door in its reader’s face.

As Richard Sewall, her biographer, noted, ‘She enjoyed riddles, apparently enjoyed being one.’ But was she a riddle that wanted to be solved? Did she want readerly guests? Helen Vendler’s Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries and Lyndall Gordon’s Lives like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds take different positions on this question.

In the more ambitious and freewheeling of the two studies, Gordon treats not only Dickinson’s life and writing but also their bizarre posthumous transformations in gossip, lawsuits, editions and biographies. The main outlines of many of the stories she tells are common knowledge. Most Dickinson scholars remark at some point on the halting emergence of Dickinson’s writings from lost or unsuspected caches into a series of partial and more or less unreliable editions by Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Martha Dickinson Bianchi and Millicent Todd Bingham in the last years of the 19th century and the opening decades of the 20th. Thomas H. Johnson’s solid scholarly edition of the poetry was published in 1955; Richard Sewall’s massive scholarly biography of the poet and her family in 1974; and Ralph Franklin’s variorum and reading editions of the poems in 1998 and 1999. The problems posed by the translation into print of manuscript poems never prepared for publication have been the subject of much recent discussion by scholars to whose work Gordon understands her own to be allied.

But her project is distinct from theirs. Keen to examine how we have come to think as we do about Dickinson and why we might doubt the traditional academic position, Gordon challenges what she describes as the standard line, epitomised for her in Sewall’s work, and gives us its back history. She traces the often unhappy, even criminal passage of Dickinson’s poems and letters through the hands of their recipients, editors, owners and would-be owners in the century that followed her death, producing a story of passionate and devious personalities, skulduggery and counter-skulduggery. Long stretches of her book feel almost like beach reading – a steamy thriller with unobtrusive source notes. So:

Before Mattie died Cousin Gilbert had let her know that he was reading her books on Emily. As his thin lips stretched to a self-satisfied smile, the long slits of his eyes narrowed.

The effect was not altogether pleasant; his smile held an element of menace.

And, right there, precisely when the reader might be tempted to roll her eyes, is a photograph of Cousin Gilbert, the long slits of his eyes narrowed indeed, looking as little pleasant as Gordon said he would and, if one squints, somewhat menacing. In such a fashion Gordon revives her reader’s momentarily faltering confidence.

The slightly more conventional half of Gordon’s book is given over to the significant prehistory of this and other villainies. She rehearses the central and peripheral facts of Dickinson’s life, considered in the context of her family and her social and medical circumstances: life at The Homestead, the solid, dignified family house in Amherst, Massachusetts; Dickinson’s education amid waves of religious revivalism; her closeness to Austin, and, to a lesser extent, her sister, Lavinia; her love of the Book of Revelation, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the Brontës, George Eliot and a sentimental writer who went by the name of Ik Marvel; her passionate friendship with Susan Gilbert Dickinson, whom Austin married after a difficult courtship and who thereafter lived next door to Dickinson in The Evergreens, reading and commenting on the poems Dickinson sent her by the hundred; the poet’s famous reclusiveness; her relationships with her chosen male mentors, Higginson most prominent among them; her late, happy romance with Judge Lord; Austin’s prolonged adultery with Mabel Loomis Todd, the young wife of an Amherst College astronomy professor; and the unexpected discovery after the poet’s death of nearly 1800 short poems. The stories of heartbreak and mental breakdown that colour so many earlier tellings of Dickinson’s life Gordon examines in order to dismiss. Even the unnerving ‘Master’ letters, those three documents in the form of three abject unsent love letters, Gordon regards as no more than literary exercises.* Her Dickinson is made of gratifyingly tougher stuff.

Dickinson was tough but also greedy for affection. All three siblings were. They felt themselves (in Austin’s words) ‘fainting for tenderness’ or struck others as indecently voluptuous. Dickinson herself wore out her childhood friends with incessant expressions of love and incessant demands to have that love reciprocated; one by one they stopped answering her letters. Much later, after he had finally managed to meet her, Higginson told his wife: ‘I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much … I am glad not to live near her.’ Not even Sue could love her enough to keep her from feeling betrayed. And along with the neediness there was something stranger and darker. Austin was dominated by it during his affair with Mabel, and we see it in Dickinson too. Gordon discusses two incidents in which Dickinson seems to have menaced people, once in sending a fantasy of punishment and murder to an uncle who had broken a promise to her (an episode that Dickinson at least regarded as a joke), and again (more disturbingly) in sending obscurely sinister, bullying letters to Mrs Bowles, wife of the editor of the Springfield Republican on whom Dickinson had turned an uncomfortable warmth.

The problems that most interest Gordon, however, are Dickinson’s reclusiveness and her brother’s adultery. The reason for the first seems to Gordon to explain Dickinson’s life; the consequences of the second explain her afterlife in publication. The outward facts of the reclusiveness have long been known; the daughter of a prominent family cannot lock herself away without people knowing. It began while she was in her twenties; we have a letter to an old schoolfriend saying she does not leave home ‘unless emergency leads me by the hand, and then I do it obstinately, and draw back if I can.’ She made excuses, and those excuses were sometimes decidedly odd. To her Norcross cousins she explained her inability to make a promised visit by saying she had frightened herself in the dark:

The nights turned hot, when Vinnie had gone, and I must keep no window raised for fear of prowling ‘booger’, and I must shut my door for fear front door slide open on me at the ‘dead of night’, and I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it – these gave me a snarl in the brain which don’t unravel yet, and that old nail in my breast pricked me; these, dear, were my cause. Truth is so best of all I wanted you to know.

To Higginson she described what sounds like a policy of social isolation: ‘I do not cross my Father’s ground to any House or town,’ sounding as if she were a ghost. It was not just a matter of not leaving the property, however. She ran away from guests who came to the door, which caused her brother on at least one occasion to scold her for rudeness, so that she felt ‘quite chagrined and wretched’. Increasingly she hid from friends who came to visit, not pretending to be absent but carrying on conversations from behind a door or from the top of the stairs, audible but not visible. Neither doctors nor dressmakers could approach her, nor (after her early daguerreotype) photographers. Even her handwriting had to be protected from being seen: others had to address the envelopes she used for her letters. (Mabel remembered Lavinia behaving the same way about her signature, and called it a ‘primitive flareback’, a belief that ‘in writing her name she was permitting some unknown hostile force to obtain ascendancy over her.’) At 43 years of age, Dickinson remained in her room upstairs during her father’s funeral, her door cracked open, listening to the prayers and eulogies in the library below.

Lavinia denied there was anything wrong: ‘she had the choisest friendships among the rarest men and women all her life.’ Austin too insisted that all this was perfectly ordinary. Dickinson did, after all, emerge from her room for some people: Higginson and Judge Lord, for instance, and Sue, probably until almost the end – but then Sue understood that ‘she hated her peculiarities and shrank from any notice of them as a nerve from the knife.’ (Mattie Bianchi, Sue’s daughter, later remembered her father remarking on Sue’s ‘sixth sense for Emily’s real meaning’.) Perhaps she simply preferred to write undistracted; perhaps she was busy nursing her mother, who suffered a stroke a year after her father died. The habit of reclusiveness may even have begun, Gordon hypothesises, with a wish to imitate the young Elizabeth Barrett Browning. Whatever its origin, Dickinson’s eccentric conduct made her – or the idea of her – conspicuous. As Richard Chase put it in his 1951 study, ‘She receded exactly far enough to define her position as a recluse, to adopt a set of mannerisms which would both adorn and demarcate her chosen status.’ ‘It became something of a boast to have seen her,’ her niece reported.

Gordon argues that Dickinson’s reclusiveness was an attempt to hide epileptic seizures. The illness was in the family; Dickinson’s nephew, Ned, had grand mal seizures for which Austin unreasonably blamed Sue. Dickinson too suffered from illnesses, Gordon notes. She believes that the cough generally supposed to account for Dickinson’s temporary withdrawal from Mount Holyoke Female Seminary was no cough; that the mysterious eye problem Dickinson travelled to Boston to have treated was no mere eye problem; that whatever vague excuse her family gave for allowing her to avoid going to church covered something freakish. According to Gordon, the professional histories of the Boston doctors Dickinson travelled to consult and the pattern of prescriptions they issued point to epilepsy.

They point to other possibilities as well, as Gordon concedes, but none that makes sense of so many things. In an era that understood epilepsy as shameful, it would be a reason to hide; in an era when doctors counselled epileptic patients to maintain high standards of cleanliness and to keep a guardian close by, it would explain the habitual white dress and her sister’s conscientious protection. It would explain why she never married, even when she found a man whose love for her was as great as hers was for him. It would explain why this woman who never wore glasses sought ophthalmological care: epileptics are sensitive to light.

No single piece of evidence is in itself essential; it’s rather the way in which individually inconclusive facts cluster that Gordon finds suggestive: so many things could pertain to epilepsy. (All men are Socrates, too.) The prescription of which she makes so much, for instance, which at one point she names as glycerine, was written for a variety of complaints (including irritated skin) and was prescribed for epilepsy when mixed with the sedative chloral. The glycerine prescribed for Dickinson was not mixed with chloral, however, and the quantity was far smaller than would have been regarded as a therapeutic dose. Gordon explains this by suggesting that Dickinson’s doctor, who did not prescribe medication for epilepsy, believing it to be ineffective, must have prescribed it as a placebo. This is not impossible, but neither is it convincing. It is because epilepsy would explain so many things that, as an explanation, it is suspicious. Its utility gives Gordon a powerful motive for wanting it to be true.

The literary part of Gordon’s argument for epilepsy isn’t convincing either. To her way of thinking epilepsy would explain the striking recurrence of images of eruption, explosion, splitting, dread, devastation and deadness. ‘I felt a Cleaving in my Mind’, ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ – these poems and others suggest a terrible intimacy with disintegration:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space – began to toll,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

The writing of such a poem might indeed be an expression of neurological problems; or it could be a symptom of having read Coleridge, or maybe De Quincey, or the Brontës. But to me it looks like something else entirely. The uncanniness we feel here is not a matter of mere mystery: not, that is, a reminder that we are missing information that, if it could only be recovered, would illuminate what is obscure. Nor is it a confession of pathology or a plea for response. It gives no sign of believing it will be answered. Such a poem speaks (impossibly) out of emptiness or unconsciousness but not (apparently) towards anyone or for anything other than the disavowed imagination of that most extreme form of privacy, the posthumous state.

‘Viewers of Dickinson’s manuscripts occupy an ambivalent [sic] or uncertain position,’ Domhnall Mitchell writes in his 2005 study of them. ‘We are at once privileged witnesses and uninvited guests.’ That we can now read nearly 1800 of Dickinson’s poems and many of her letters is due – for better or for worse – to the uninvited guest who was Mabel Loomis Todd. What Dickinson would have thought about this we cannot know with certainty, but that she would have been happy about the way it came about is unlikely. Todd, who together with Higginson published the first volumes of the poems and worked with Lavinia to begin publishing the letters, wanted to be known as Dickinson’s friend and wanted her editorship to be acknowledged as an office the poet had asked her to assume. Neither of these was the case. Unlike Higginson, who carried on a prolonged correspondence with Dickinson and met her face to face (‘She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said “These are my introduction” in a soft frightened breathless childlike voice’ and proceeded to talk his ear off), Mabel was an intruder in the house, tolerated because Dickinson could not tell Austin, whom she loved, who paid the bills, that his mistress, the enemy of her closest friend, was to be kept out. The first and last time Mabel actually saw her she was in her coffin. Mabel, all decked out, carried on (as she would at Austin’s funeral) as if she were the chief mourner.

Sewall describes the doubly adulterous affair between Austin and Mabel in exalted terms that sound (for good reason) very like Mabel’s. His lovers are innocent, idealistic, devoted. Sewall’s Austin is driven into Mabel’s arms by his wife’s fiendish and unnatural coldness and cruelty. Sewall’s Mabel is generous, naive and true; her gentle intellectual husband, David Todd, reveres his wife’s lover and is himself so devoted to her that he cannot bear to stand in the way of her happiness with this other man.

Gordon sees these three quite differently. Her David is a philanderer who specialises in ‘what Mabel would later call “low” women – but he took care to preserve his respectability.’ His marriage to Mabel served in part as camouflage, and he regarded her love affair as a convenient way to distract her from his own affairs. Unable as he got older to maintain even the semblance of sexual restraint, he ended his days in confinement, where Peter Gay reminds us he once tried to molest his visiting daughter.

Gordon’s Austin ought to have anticipated the problems of his marriage. Sue Dickinson had such a terror of childbearing (her sister having died of puerperal fever) that before their marriage he had promised her he would not touch her until she chose otherwise: ‘I will ask nothing of you, take nothing from you – you are not the happier in giving me.’ When, pregnant at last, she did attempt abortion, Austin could not forgive her. (When Mabel did precisely the same thing, that was different; and she too held Sue’s attempted abortion against her.) Once he began his affair with Mabel his self-righteousness grew, and his rage against anyone who opposed them. When his youngest son died and Sue went into mourning, he and Mabel mocked her as ‘the great black Moghul’. Annoyed by Mabel’s parents’ distress over what they saw as their daughter’s corruption, he told Mabel that her father was ‘vulgar’. ‘Conventionalism,’ he wrote, ‘is for those not strong enough to be laws for themselves, or to conform themselves to the great higher law where all harmonies meet.’ Accordingly, when Sue and his two eldest children (who sided with her) failed to receive Mabel with the courtesy he demanded they show her, he was infuriated. He wrote to Mabel: ‘I suffer for every wound you have received from my family, but for the time have seemed powerless to prevent them … What strength I have however will be pitted against any more of them. I will straighten the matter out before the summer is over, or smash the machine.’

Gordon’s Mabel is the most interesting of the three figures; it’s hard not to suspect that she finds Mabel a more stimulating subject than Dickinson herself. She was 24 when she arrived in Amherst, less than half Austin’s age, younger than Austin’s marriage with Sue. Her background was less brilliant than she pretended, but her father, a clerk, was an intelligent and curious man, and her mother, ambitious for gentility, had educated her for social success. Mabel was a talented pianist and singer and a woman of unusual competence and charisma. After an initial dalliance with Austin’s son Ned, very painful for Ned (and for Sue, once Ned told her), very gratifying until very annoying for Mabel, she set her sights on Ned’s father.

She adored Austin; her letters make that clear. (Their relationship lasted 13 years and ended only when Austin died.) Paradoxically, she adored even the respectability he represented. His self-righteousness appealed to her. But she was even more in love with her idea of herself. She expected great things of herself, though she was not sure just what they might turn out to be. And she had no intention of sacrificing anything for love. She came to an understanding with both her husband and her lover, with both of whom she continued happily to go to bed, often both in the same joyful day (as she delightedly chronicled), and at least once as part of a foursome. She found women for her husband to amuse himself with and encouraged Austin to use his power to see to it that Amherst College rewarded him amply. She believed, as Austin did, that the two of them were superior beings to whom ordinary rules of moral behaviour did not apply and that their affair was one of the greatest romances of all time. She regarded Sue, despite her intelligence and cultivation, as the mere daughter of a tavern keeper and therefore undeserving of the status and wealth her marriage had brought her.

By the time Mabel and David arrived in Amherst, Dickinson was said not to have left the house in 15 years. To Mabel she represented a challenge to be overcome as she had overcome the challenge of Sue. (Before she learned of the affair, Sue so liked and admired Mabel that she kept a bed in The Evergreens perpetually ready for her.) On the eve of the love affair Mabel visited The Homestead with Austin for the first time. Dickinson did not appear, but Mabel played the piano knowing that she was listening and congratulated herself on the impression she knew she was making.

The Homestead became Mabel and Austin’s regular trysting spot. Sometimes Mabel would sing at the piano there, telling herself (as she would later tell her daughter, then a sad and inconvenient toddler) that she was giving Dickinson a treat by playing pieces by composers whose music she assumed (incorrectly) the poet had never heard before. Usually, however (‘usually’ meaning three or four afternoons a week for three or four hours at a time), she and Austin would go into the dining-room (where Gordon tells us Dickinson kept a favourite writing desk) or the library (which Dickinson had to cross in order to reach the conservatory where she loved to spend her days) and close the doors for an interlude of honeying and making love. Given her entry by Austin, Mabel had become what Gordon calls ‘an habituée of the house, in a position to claim one of its rooms for three or four hours at a time’. This meant that neither Dickinson nor her sister could move freely about the house most afternoons, ‘particularly Emily’, since as Gordon reminds us, she ‘was determined never to meet Mabel’. When Dickinson’s beloved Judge Lord died, she and Lavinia closed the house to all visitors, and Austin and Mabel had to rent a house to meet in. But soon they were back, occupying even more room, dumping furniture and pictures from the rented house because there wasn’t room for it all in Mabel’s lodgings.

In part because Lavinia was in cahoots with the lovers, serving as a go-between, addressing letters for them in order to disguise from jealous or nosy others the fact of their correspondence, and in part because Mabel claimed Dickinson as a dear friend and ally, Sewall assumes that Dickinson, though mostly oblivious to what was going on downstairs, sympathised with Austin and Mabel. Gordon argues that this was not the case. She points out the tones of irony and hostility in Dickinson’s notes to Mabel and the clear empathy of her notes to Mabel’s distressed parents. She points as well to evidence that Dickinson had not (as Mabel insisted and Sewall repeats) abandoned her friendship with Sue, who had not (as the standard line, derived from a jealous Lavinia, ran) shortened Dickinson’s life by her cruelty. The two friends were still dear to each other, Gordon tells us, and Dickinson would have been dismayed by Mabel’s aggressions against Sue.

Gordon presents Mabel not just as a woman finding herself in love in awkward circumstances but as something considerably more disturbing. She tells us of the envelope, containing a photograph of Mabel’s 14-year-old self, on which she wrote the name she wanted for her own: ‘Mabel Loomis Dickinson’. She tells us that Mabel imitated Sue’s dress, buying a costly black sealskin cape like one she had seen Sue wear (‘the great black Moghul’), ‘a token of the identity in which Mabel’s imagination dressed herself’. Mabel spread slanders against Sue, telling people she was a violent alcoholic who had compelled a terrified and despairing Austin to marry her. She spread tales of Sue’s many abortions, insinuated her indecency as a mother, whispered of her treachery to friends. She repeatedly urged Austin, who must have been the source for at least some of the slanders, to draw up a detailed document of complaint against Sue, just in case something should happen to him. She and Austin wrote to each other about their hope that Sue would die and Mabel came to expect that God or (although this is inexplicit) Austin himself would kill her. Finally she persuaded herself that she was in danger from Sue’s malevolence and that of her children. Travelling in Japan with David, she writes of

the terrible hatred of my three enemies. I can feel it pursuing me here on the other side of the world – the positive hatred & persecution, as well as the negative disgust. I feel it every moment, & it is killing me. Perhaps I am nervous, but I certainly do feel as if it would ultimately be my death. I do not know but that something is being done by them now, for my destruction – at all events, I have been most horribly conscious of their malignity for more than a week, so that some days I have hardly been able to speak for the crushing power of it.

Long after Sue was dead, Mabel continued to feel menaced by the woman she had savaged and attributed the stroke she suffered in 1913 to Sue’s undead malevolence.

Paranoid fears, of course, might seem to justify any violence. But Gordon sees in Mabel more than defensive hostility:

Closer to hunger than to love, there’s a possessiveness like that of a stalker or obsessive fan, potentially dangerous to its object. Mabel was fixed on the Dickinsons: on the kingly authority of Austin Dickinson, on the genius of the poet and more instinctively on Susan whose brain, enhanced by reading, had fitted her to join this family. The danger to Susan Dickinson was Mabel’s need to be her. It’s more than a simple wish on the part of a mistress to change her status; there’s a compulsion to take on the very being of the person she wants to eliminate.

If this is so – and Gordon makes a convincing case – then among Mabel’s objects was the destruction and replacement of Sue, not only as Austin’s wife but also as Dickinson’s closest friend and best reader, and perhaps of Dickinson herself as well.

Mabel had little difficulty seizing for herself the role of editor after Dickinson’s death. Lavinia favoured her, and Mabel painted Sue – the obvious choice – as a lazy obstructionist. As the poet’s principal early editor, she fluffed up Dickinson’s poetry for publication – adjusting diction, smoothing rhymes, inventing punctuation, distorting lineation, affixing anodyne titles, all for the purpose of making the poetry more acceptable to a general readership. Gordon acknowledges that without Mabel’s industry and willingness to charm unwilling publishers the poems might never have been published at all. On the other hand, had she left the poems and letters alone, they might now be intact, and we might understand (among other things) what role Sue’s responsiveness played in the development of Dickinson’s imagination. As recently as 20 years ago scholars believed the erasures and knife marks they found in the manuscripts – ‘hysterical mutilations’, Martha Nell Smith calls them in her study of Dickinson – might have been Austin’s doing, as Mabel told her daughter they were. In fact, they were Mabel’s work. She meant to obliterate all traces of her rival even if it required the gagging of the poet and the counterfeiting of her work.

Unlikely though it sounds, Dickinson and Mabel seem parallel figures in Gordon’s study. Both display an intermittent but disturbing sense of themselves as suffering martyrs, and both put others in mind of Miss Havisham. Hyperbolically and predatorily sexual, wilful, secretive, adulterous (at least in imagination), obsessive, prey to sinister fantasies, in love with a powerful authoritarian many years her elder, willing to menace anyone who obstructed her desires, Dickinson (particularly the Dickinson of the poetry and the ‘Master’ letters) is a subtler Mabel. Even the hypothetical epilepsy, a disease believed at the time to have a sexual origin, reads as the counterpart to Mabel’s eroticism. Mabel was or became the intruder in ‘I’m “wife”’; she became too the ‘Wife without the Sign’ of ‘Title divine, is mine’; and hers was the Vesuvian pleasure of ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’. Mabel took to herself what Dickinson wrote, her carnality a disturbing gloss on the self-withholding words of the poems that drew her.

Although the evidence is ambiguous, Gordon believes Dickinson wanted her poems to be published, and not merely, as some have argued, in the form of privately circulated manuscripts whose texts, like those of Blake’s illuminations, are inextricable from the materiality of their composition. She believes, that is, that Dickinson wanted her poems printed and sold. Vendler believes the same thing; she has no doubt; and her volume of brief commentaries on 150 of Dickinson’s poems proceeds on the assumption that the poems welcome the attention of as many people as choose to read them. Vendler’s tone is learned (though not threateningly so), cheery and encouraging, and at moments – in her introduction particularly – she rises into wise eloquence. But the volume is primarily directed towards beginners – uneasy beginners who may need to have pointed out to them words (like ‘girdle’, for instance) that might trip them up. To help them along, she supplies the most obvious clues, and often paraphrases too, but (again wisely) reminds her reader that there is more to reading than literal meaning, that ‘the decoding to which we are compelled remains necessarily a reduction of the whole, which is restored only by a return to the shaped words and sounds of the poem.’

There is a tone of admirable kindness in Vendler’s prose as she presents the poems (not all of them very good) in their famous difficulty and encourages the puzzled and the timid to do their best with them:

To resist the intelligence is a quality we might ascribe to higher mathematics – and we admit to ourselves readily that we are unable to penetrate such formulations. But verbal artefacts can resist the intelligence too, and can set puzzles that the casual reader will not feel competent to solve. A poem that seems to use only perfectly simple words … should, the reader feels, be easy to understand … Dickinson sits in a transparent house with no visible door, enjoying the self-selected sympathisers who can slip inside the glass. Those who find a poem unintelligible are incompetent not so much through class or education as through a lack of imagination … By sending her poems to friends and relatives (many of whom were women with little higher education), she asserted her own confidence that readers of the poems needed no special preparation.

Surely this is a project to be praised. And yet, as I read the commentaries, one after another, I begin to feel as if I am listening to a scholar talking to what she suspects may be an empty room. The level of discussion sags and soars; inexplicable or at least unexplained allusions appear, together with what sound like learned but still free and private associations. Vendler is talking to the possible reader who might be a housewife, who might be a man on a bus, who might be a ten-year-old with homework to do, who might be a figment of her hopeful imagination, and she is talking about Keats and Herbert and Stevens and the Ten Commandments in the form of mountains and the appearance of anapaests that sound like bobolinks among the iambs and what happens when you pretend that that line might have been divided differently and listen to that pattern of assonance. She has opened the door wide, but it is as if it were closed. Vendler is thinking about the poetry alone by herself.

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