Surprisingly, there isn't much commentary on this little, famous, and oft-assigned poem. That's a shame. It lends itself to rich, vigorous discussion. I wonder: under what circumstances would I write a "letter to the World?" Why would the World want to read my letter? Why is everyone telling me no one is going to read my stupid letter?
This is my letter to the World (J 441, F 519) Emily Dickinson This is my letter to the World That never wrote to Me — The simple News that Nature told — With tender Majesty Her Message is committed To Hands I cannot see — For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen — Judge tenderly — of Me
Helen Vendler has a thoughtful, comprehensive reading of this poem. For Vendler, Dickinson makes herself no less than an "Evangelist" (237). She writes an epistle to proclaim the News told by a superhuman force kindly but regally. The content of that News can be seen by contrast with male prophets, law's terrible majesty, and a complex narrative of divine redemption (238). She's, well, a she. "Tender Majesty" calls into question the harshness of the moral order. "Simple News" is pretty easy to understand: this is my letter.
The goal is to advance a new commandment: "the tenderness of feminine 'Majesty' is [to be] matched by the tenderness of Nature's subjects" (238).
I'm awed by what close-reading can accomplish. Vendler allows this lyric to resonate with moral force, and I have no doubt some will commit this poem to memory because of her interpretation.
I still have questions.
"This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me."
I have to stop there. "That never wrote to Me." Never addressed me or saw me as an individual. Created an atmosphere filled with neglect. Without others who care about what we're trying to accomplish, it's near impossible to know or actualize oneself.
I have some personal stories. When my skin was rapidly falling apart, family and friends preferred to pretend they didn't see the problem. I get this—they didn't mean to be unkind. But they also gave plenty of moralizing, counterproductive advice. A few told me to "get another job" at a time I needed powerful anti-allergy drugs to control the swelling around my eyes so I could see. I recovered through a combination of professional advice and sheer luck. It took years to find the right help.
It's also weird having a PhD, serious intellectual interests, and a lot of people around who could care less. I used to think this was merely a luxury, but now that I see successful academics and writers, I realize how extensive their support is. Furthermore, this I know from experience: it is very possible for people to be so ignorant or lack curiosity that they're harmful. If you accept their definition of "good"—and they're not entirely wrong, of course—you can end up neglecting what you yourself worked for and stand for. They won't see any of this, they certainly won't help, and your actual studies will feel like writing messages in a bottle and throwing them into the ocean as opposed to having value for all.
Vendler argues that Dickinson writes to other Americans with a vague idea of a larger audience in mind (237). "This is my letter to the World" eventually resolves into "For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen — / Judge tenderly — of Me." I believe "World" and "countrymen" can be understood more broadly based on what I've written above. The "countrymen" are like a lot of the people I deal with, people who even if they read for themselves, ultimately succumb to the tropes of television. Cheap moralizing that looks grand because of its presentation and ubiquity. There's a deeper level of conventionality, though, residing in "World." The same World which can accept you or even give eternal fame will more than likely ignore you even if there was no television, apocalyptic Christianity, or patriarchy. At the heart of it, we serve convention, not the other way around.
I do think Dickinson wants far more tenderness. But I think Vendler errs in a way by holding her to be like Jesus in issuing a commandment (238). Vendler would probably agree if I said that she's just putting on the garb, the airs, of Christianity, but I feel like even that doesn't go far enough.
A related problem is the depth of neglect she faces. "Never wrote to Me;" "[Please] Judge tenderly." We're all too aware that the "countrymen" she leaves her letter with are not "Sweet." This is a vicious patriarchal order, looking for any sign of weakness, discontent, or nonconformity in order to bully. One could argue that her pleading language is expected from her. I know from being a brown man in Dallas that there are a lot of things on which I cannot directly comment, let alone confront without consequences.
These are twin concerns. How exactly does Dickinson use religion? How does she do justice to a brutal, nearly inconceivable situation? I find an indirect answer not in the religious imagery, but the vagueness of "Nature." "Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see" acquires a crucial place in this reading.
To be sure, "Nature" is primarily about Dickinson herself. It spoke to her, giving her News. Something that few, if any, have realized or acted upon. It not only sets her against her age, but it speaks access to another realm entirely. One in which reason guides more than tradition, the passions are different, and greater truths can be had. This is not as corny, remote, or idealistic as one might think. I, like a lot of you, have stocked shelves while wondering about the existential possibilities of Descartes' cogito or whether Ancient Greek ideas about law can be applied to our estimate of politics today. Again, a lot of us do this, and what a difference between this and complete absorption in the Fox News Extended Universe.
But "Nature" isn't just knowledge. It's knowledge that speaks to possibilities. This is made abundantly clear in "Her Message is committed / To Hands I cannot see." I think about Helen Vendler, one of the greatest literary critics of this time. A veritable titan who has trained generations of literary scholars and has influenced a number of curricula, if not the curriculum, for generations to come. I don't know that someone can have that degree of success and be fully sensitive to what Dickinson is going through in these lines. They feel for me like the lines where one breaks down. I consider it a big success on Twitter if I get a few likes and retweets and someone says they like what I wrote. What if I didn't even have that? What if I felt I had to hide, that I would be more useful if I were gone? If Dickinson is writing these lines with the feeling I imagine, what a trust in possibility. And what a sad, cruel world.
Is the world redeemable? That's really the question Dickinson is getting at in this letter. It's not the "new commandment" that matters as much as the fact it was never obvious in the first place.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 237-38.