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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