Whose Words These Are: Helen Vendler’s Emily Dickinson

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Helen Vendler (64 minutes, 30 mb mp3)

Helen Vendler, our tutor in W. B. Yeats and Wallace Stevens, is showing us here how to swim the chilly depths of Emily Dickinson.

The poem that taught Vendler how to read Dickinson is “Ashes denote that fire was…” The bleak miniaturist “Belle of Amherst” imagined her tiny poems as the burnt residue of a life. Reading her becomes a sort of forensic analysis. The literary critic becomes a sort of reconstructive chemist — a natural move for Vendler who learned as a college chemistry major to study and marvel at organic structures and patterns.

For me the Dickinson poem that cracks the central mystery of her theology — her devotion to King James language, her preoccupations with Jesus’ suffering and Christian ideas of resurrection and immortality, and finally her staunch unbelief — is this three-line stanza:

In the name of the bee

And of the butterfly

And of the breeze, Amen!

It’s a parody, of course, of Jesus’ admonition to his disciples to baptize all nations “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” The three-B Dickinson version is the first fragment in Vendler’s grand selection of Emily Dickinson. It marked for me, as I volunteered to Professor Vendler, the first of Dickinson’s endless bouts — some playful, some pitiless — with the Big Guy:

HV: She’s wrestling with her society, I would rather say, that insists that she believe in what you just referred to as the Big Guy — that she thought of as an eclipse that the family prayers were addressed to every evening.

But when she baptizes her poems as she sends them into the world, she is taking up the sacred formula… She is ushering her poems into the world, as newborn children, you might say — being baptized in the elements of nature: bee for being; the butterfly is psyche, the soul; and the breeze is the breeze of the holy spirit — ‘the spirit bloweth where it listeth.’ All of these are translations from the religious substructure, but wittily, playfully, beautifully lifted into a summer afternoon with a bee, a butterfly and a breeze. And they all alliterate so that they’re a trinity — again a parody of the three equal persons of the Trinity.

All of this is so lightly touched and so sweetly done that you don’t think of this at first as a blasphemy. But if you took a child to church to be baptized and heard this, you’d be a little surprised.

CL: You’d know you’d arrived at a hippie wedding, or something.

HV: Yes, exactly.

In pursuit of Vendler’s Dickinson, we are talking about just a dozen poems out of some 1800.

Aurora: beginning: Of Bronze — and Blaze —

Ashes denote that fire was

This is my letter to the world

I died for Beauty

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant

The fascinating chill that music leaves

The gentian weaves her fringes

Safe in their alabaster chambers

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

God is a distant — stately Lover

A Spider sewed at Night

I know that He exists

In our unplotted conversation of 90 minutes or so, these were the poems that popped into the mind that’s studied them all.

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  • Potter

    I have not listened to this yet, but have to say your timing is perfect. After depressing subjects, it’s time for poetry. And Helen Vendler is a gift!! Looking forward to listening.

  • nother


    My cocoon tightens, colors tease,

    I’m feeling for the air;

    A dim capacity for wings

    Degrades the dress I wear.

    A power of butterfly must be

    The aptitude to fly,

    Meadows of majesty concedes

    And easy sweeps of sky.

    So I must baffle at the hint

    And cipher at the sign,

    And make much blunder, if at last

    I take the clew divine.

    Your podcast guided me to Ms. Dickinson’s poem, “Butterfly,” which then guided me to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, “The Artist of the Beautiful.” A story about a man who devotes his life to the pursuit of creating a single beautiful object, a mechanical butterlfy:

    The butterfly now flung itself upon the air, fluttered round Annie’s head, and soared into a distant region of the parlor, still making itself perceptible to sight by the starry gleam in which the motion of its wings enveloped it. The infant on the floor followed its course with his sagacious little eyes. After flying about the room, it returned in a spiral curve and settled again on Annie’s finger.

    “But is it alive?” exclaimed she again; and the finger on which the gorgeous mystery had alighted was so tremulous that the butterfly was forced to balance himself with his wings. “Tell me if it be alive, or whether you created it.”

    “Wherefore ask who created it, so it be beautiful?” replied Owen Warland. “Alive? Yes, Annie; it may well be said to possess life, for it has absorbed my own being into itself; and in the secret of that butterfly, and in its beauty,–which is not merely outward, but deep as its whole system,–is represented the intellect, the imagination, the sensibility, the soul of an Artist of the Beautiful!


    When I read a Dickinson poem, many times I feel disconcerted as I attempt to grasp the breath of her scope admist the scarcity of her words. This was mentioned in the podcast, but often Ms. Dickinson’s poems feel unfinished. Which again brought me to Hawthorn’s story, “The Artist of the Beautiful:”

    “The poet leaves his song half sung, or finishes it, beyond the scope of mortal ears, in a celestial choir. The painter–as Allston did–leaves half his conception on the canvas to sadden us with its imperfect beauty, and goes to picture forth the whole, if it be no irreverence to say so, in the hues of heaven. But rather such incomplete designs of this life will be perfected nowhere.

    This so frequent abortion of man’s dearest projects must be taken as a proof that the deeds of earth, however etherealized by piety or genius, are without value, except as exercises and manifestations of the spirit.”

  • Potter

    The very idea that one could ever blaspheme in search of the truth escapes me.

    I do not come from a Christian background so other than my studies in art history I have only understood enough about Christian doctrine to understand a painting or sculpture, and at that barely enough to understand how it works really to understand the iconography of what I was looking at perhaps since i have not embraced this myself. So this is a layer that buries Emily Dickinson for me unless I have a guide. There is no better than Helen Vendler for that. I think I may arrive at my own interpretations if I gave the poems the time necessary.

    It does not seem that Emily Dickinson had quite the same strong ideas that Emerson had about religion, or she did not express them so strongly but in her way she made enough of a point such that I can connect with her. It is for me about the spider, the bee the butterfly, the beetle, about nature and not the hereafter (of which who can say?) So rapture and ecstasy (elevation to a higher spiritual level) come through the arts (humans) and nature ( not separate) and are not different from religious experience.But I may have to listen again to get it about Emily Dickinson. I see in my own old copy of her poems bookmarks for

    (255- complete poems)

    To die-just takes a little while-

    They say it does not hurt-

    It’s only fainter- by degrees

    and then it’s out of sight

    A darker Ribbon- for a Day-

    A Crape upon the Hat-

    And then the pretty sunshine comes-

    And helps us to forget-

    The absent-mystic -creature

    That but for love of us-

    Had gone to sleep-that soundest time-

    Without the weariness-

    (The love remains) This poem is particularly touching at this tim. We have just lost a dear loving friend to brain cancer, after having watched her lose her ability to function over the months, growing fainter until death. She never lost her dignity or her ability to love, up to the end, now out of sight. And now, the sun shines, gloriously.

    So I have my copy out again.

    The portrait of Helen Vendler above is beautiful, regal actually.

  • Pete Crangle

    A poem may have an original address, but their journey is likely to be indeterminate and stochastic. They seem sent out into the aether to no one in particular. Asking why about their journey is an empty question, it is in the reading and listenings that we find the coup de grace.

    It was love at first hearing with Dickinson for me. She’s of her time and well beyond. My first listenings were little awakenings from a snooze I was unaware. Her poems are certainly a case where words are transcendent (not the capital ‘T’ sort); words without dimension fill me with something I cannot comprehend, but filled me intensely, even to the pervasive numbness we’re offered and billed for. No church has ever done so.

    I wish I knew the truth well enough to tell it slant, though I’d settle for hearing it slant. I seem to only glimpse it’s wake, in remnants found in what it’s not. Maybe next time around at a different place in another universe.

    These shows on poetry are wonderful Chris. A real gift to us out here. A continuance of our matriculation to the human experience. A big thank you for these. And a big thank you to Professor Vendler. Your works are helping me make Wallace Stevens less opaque (though admittedly, only slightly less so), and thus, making life less so. Best to all, and Potter and nother too! (whose posts are like old friends for me).