This is the book on Dickinson I have always been waiting for, and wished I could write. Though I have loved Dickinson since I first started reading poetry and have brooded on a number of her poems and have even visited her residence in Amherst, Vendler's endless array of superb insights prove my previous interpretive sallies splendidly inadequate. Like Vendler's previous work on Keats, Hopkins, Yeats and Stevens, Vendler's lucid commentaries on Dickinson open up the poems to the reader's own imagination. This is to say that, though Vendler writes confidently and persuasively, even less than in her books on Keats and Stevens, she is not beholden to any overarching `argument' she must continue to address. (Some have criticized Vendler for her argument that Keats's Odes constitute a `sequence'; even if you disagree, you could very well ignore that thesis and instead concentrate on the local insights that constitute so much of the book's pleasure.) Without having to worry about promoting a ground-breaking thesis (other than a general one about Dickinson's originality of poetic argument, language, form and metaphor), we can simply enjoy Vendler thinking through each poem, providing us with intellectual and `algebraic,' to use her metaphor, schemas upon which to apply our own emotional responses.
Unlike some other great poetry critics (such as Harold Bloom), Vendler is intuitive and imaginative without being so idiosyncratic or doctrinaire as to promote her reading as THE reading or at least the definitive "Vendler" reading. We feel, rather, that we are being taught, instructed, provoked without being asked to incorporate ourselves into an unfamiliar theoretical interpretive system that would leave any vigorous response under the spell of that system rather than under the spell of the poem. You can just jump right in to Vendler; you don't need to learn how to read her.
Samuel Johnson (whom she, surprisingly, invokes in the course of her book) and William Hazlitt and Kenneth Burke and Paul de Man and Harold Bloom were/are all among the greatest readers of literature of all time, but their responses to works of art can be intransigent (Johnson disparaged Milton's `Lycidas'; Harold Bloom in his many great commentaries on Victorian Poetry, unnecessarily downgrades certain key works of Tennyson and Gerard Manley Hopkins), extraordinary but philosophically and linguistically dense (see de Man's commentaries on Mallarmé, Rilke, Shelley or Yeats), or, perhaps, ingenious but highly dependent on overarching aesthetic or rhetorical systems (Hazlitt's romantic `gusto,' Burke's `symbolic action,' Bloom's `anxiety of influence'). When I read `Lycidas' now, I may have Johnson's thoughts on the inadequacy of the pastoral mode for elegy or Bloom's mapping of his six revisionary ratios in the back of my mind, but these insights do not necessarily clarify local problems of poetic argument, formal innovation or visual logic.
Vendler, to be sure, is a formalist, but she is not dead-set on making us formalists too; she lets her readings speak for themselves. This lack of doctrine is a great stress reliever for the reader who simply wishes to get to the bottom of a Dickinson poem. As such, the book can be useful for advanced students (scholars, graduate students, undergraduates), high school teachers, high school students, casual readers, even your occasional exceptionally talented middle or elementary school student. In her introduction, Vendler characterizes the book as one to be "browsed in," much as we tend to find ourselves browsing in the collection of Dickinson's 1,800 or so poems. She resorts infrequently to the (admittedly very interesting, but already well-treated) subject of Dickinson's biography in interpreting the poems, and, only when appropriate for interpretation does she uncover the textual history of a poem (its many editorial iterations). Instead, Vendler gracefully uses the strategy of close reading; to justify this, she appropriately quotes in her introduction from possibly my favorite short poem in all of English literature, Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light," a poem which, I think, effectively encapsulates the Dickinsonian aesthetic of "internal difference,/ Where the meanings, are."
Have you ever had a teacher who said just the right thing to you to open you up to a work of art? Perhaps a music teacher taught you to appreciate proper instrumentation, an art teacher the virtues of abstract impressionism, or a physics teacher the secret of an elegantly constructed experiment. I consider this book loaded with those moments of saying "just the right thing" to help us find, to quote another Dickinson poem, "another way - to see." For the first time you may take pleasure in a poem you previously thought obscure, or wish to memorize a phrase the evokes an image or an emotion that only Dickinson could present. To sample just one of those moments, take Vendler's interesting comment on the final two lines of "Safe in their Alabaster Chambers -": "Soundless as dots,/On a disc of Snow." Vendler writes: "Her field of snow is, as a disk, circular in shape and perhaps alludes here to "The (apparently flat) surface or `face' of the sun, the moon, or a planet, as it appears to the eye" (OED, s.v., "disk, 4a)." Our planet, seen from afar, in the Arctic light of death, is rather like our full moon - a white disk frozen into snow...In the cosmic distance, human deaths, even the fall of crowns, cannot be heard. The world altering effects of a change of earthly government are insignificant to a cosmic observer-from-afar." Even if you disagree with Vendler on some local points, her visionary reading here of the single word `disc' is breathtaking and exciting to the imagination.
Having pre-ordered this book a while ago, I was admittedly pre-disposed to like it, especially since I am an unapologetic Dickinson freak. Maybe I'm a little strange for how excited I was, more excited than for any other work of criticism published in some time. I have very few complaints. Otherwise attractively produced, my main criticism is that the font, Adobe Garamond Pro, while great for prose, is somewhat ill-suited to Dickinson's poems; the font allows for somewhat unimpressive dashes (they look more like hyphens). If you've seen any of Dickinson's fascicles, her dashes are long, striking and manic. Some readers may object to Vendler's endless references to Keats, especially to "Autumn," but these references are never inapt and she even dedicates the book, lovingly, to Keats, who presumably, along with Stevens, taught her how to read nature lyrics, especially those of the emotions and the seasons. If I had any other complaints, it would be that she does not read more poems! With her selection capped at 150, while generous and inclusive of most of Dickinson's greatest pieces, Vendler manages to enlighten us on less than 10% of the Dickinson canon. The rest of the work, I suppose, is up to the industrious reader whose mind has been opened by this lovely, loving and thoughtful book.