A scholar who deals with old books—especially a literary critic—can find themselves surrounded by a peculiar hostility. Even someone in the social sciences can say, for example, “I study disinformation,” then talk about the rhetoric of “death panels” and how that shaped political attitudes. If someone dares fight them, that someone is going to look awfully stupid. Careful and detailed accounts of recent events may not win converts, but they take no prisoners. They are not lazy; they are based on destroying bad assumptions. I’ve witnessed people who didn’t do the homework sputtering phrases like “you can’t trust the media” and “I’m more educated than all these guys with degrees.”
Old books present a different challenge. In general, they don’t persuade. I’m close to circles where old books are the only books, and they still don’t persuade. There’s nothing to make a case about; for some, they’re the extent of the world.
I don’t know that they should persuade, to be honest. I believe a scholar who deals with older things often provides value merely by shining a light on them. I admit this can collapse into antiquarianism, where love of ancient things replaces serious engagement with them. But it can also help scholars explain part of their value to an audience operating in good faith.
To that end, it may seem a bit strange I want to talk about Helen Vendler. Vendler does not need an introduction; as a professor, a critic, and an author she is a veritable titan. Generations of students read and comment in a specific way because of her influence. She is immune to the criticism a person who never read a book might make of someone with an English degree.
Vendler has a brief comment on an even briefer poem by Dickinson which raises the relevant issues. What, exactly, is the value of a critic of poetry? And what makes a poem in the first place? The latter is her question, the former mine. I felt it somewhat answered by her introducing me to a poem of Dickinson’s I had not heeded properly:
In the name of the Bee (J 18, Franklin 23) Emily Dickinson In the name of the Bee — And of the Butterfly — And of the Breeze — Amen!
The simple moves by people who know can be the most profound. One might glance at Dickinson’s mockery of religion and see a satirical prayer. Vendler is famous for close reading, for highlighting the relevant textual allusion. The precise origin of “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost” is Matthew 28:19. In her words, this is “initiated by Jesus’ commandment to his disciples that they should go forth baptizing all nations” (27).
This can be argued with. What seems to be at stake for Dickinson is as much as a bee, a butterfly, and a breeze. Why can’t she just have her say and be left alone? If we read too much into this poem, we could end up with some ridiculous notion that Dickinson wanted to start her own religion. Vendler plays with this idea for a moment—“[Dickinson offers] Nature as a better object of worship than the Trinity”— ultimately dismissing it because of Dickinson’s “comedy" (27).
I think it is good to be open to the larger possibilities, especially when they have textual support. Vendler’s on the right track, although one might go too far. What strikes me is how Dickinson describes simple, sensual pleasures—a bee, a butterfly, a breeze—against the imperative to convert everyone. She has an individual life, just as Jesus did. But Jesus’ life has been transformed into a pronouncement of ritual, as if the bee, the butterfly, and the breeze could not exist for him. Jesus exists only to convert people to Christianity, not as a human being who also struggled with temptation, lost friends he loved, and made sacrifices.
The conflict I believe most interesting is that of individual experience versus ritualistic experience. I can’t dismiss the latter, although Dickinson seems to. Many feel they are only men because of the performance of some task or a role given to them. However, Vendler proceeds in what I consider a different direction: Dickinson is convinced “of her intellectual and aesthetic authority,” such that she can offer her own species of baptism (27). “It is her own imaginative effort that Dickinson is 'baptizing' here,” as she must prove the bee, the butterfly, the breeze and how they relate can compare to the Trinity (28).
Dickinson’s whimsical phrasing shouldn’t prevent us from thinking she thought this necessary to write down. I imagine a number of us don’t like making blasphemous statements, however slight, because why tempt fate? Dickinson is far more daring, as she makes plenty such statements, but that only begs the question.
The value of the scholar of old books, the literary critic, lies precisely in the mistakes they can make. They constitute the window into the past and things thrown aside. Knowledge of the past or things people are neglecting, though, isn’t like a garage sale, where objects have seen repeated use to the point of obsolescence. When it comes to scholarship, only a few have really tried to understand the objects at hand and their value. A lot of the objects we examine might as well be brand new, overflowing with usefulness. It wasn’t a coincidence I could find an example of parasocial behavior in Plato, where the interlocutor Cleitophon is so taken with his vision of Socrates that he can’t relate to the Socrates directly in front of him. It wasn’t a coincidence that Cleitophon’s awful way of speaking reminds of Internet trolls.
I need to clarify how I’m not saying the same thing as Professor Vendler. After all, if Dickinson baptizes her own imaginative efforts, isn’t that the triumph of “her own imaginative effort” over against ritual?
Vendler’s brief comment on this poem is thought-provoking, but it does not spend any time on the theme of change. Rather, she’s concerned with how this little poem is a poem. She holds that this was a challenge for her first editors because they could not appreciate how subtle she was. They took this poem and attached it to two others, making a “compound assembly.” To prove this is a poem, she states “that what a poem needs above all is imagination,” and then lists four ways in which the poem is a demonstration of Dickinson’s own imaginative power (27).
Vendler’s argument is far and above anything I’ve ever written. I think the reason why it feels a bit flat, though, is that she wants to try to say why Dickinson’s words have relevance and meaning independent of their relevance and meaning. In short, this is the limit of close reading, of formal criticism.
Vendler attends to the words, to be sure. She points out, regarding Dickinson’s diction, that “the nouns chosen must have a ‘spiritual’ quality, must be symbolic as well as ‘real’; the Bee (for Being), the Butterfly (Psyche, the resurrected Soul), and the Breeze (the Spirit) all fit that criterion” (28). The nouns must have this quality in order for the parody of the Trinity to work, and this certainly is a convincing argument as far as what it chooses to address.
The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost do not change. They stand outside of time; in our time, as names, they bestow being. Again, there is no way to get to individual experience from here. Scripture almost seems to concede as much, as the names of those converted have to change. New life is the only life.
Dickinson gives us two creatures that transform—one with a most spectacular transformation—and “the Breeze.” The heart of her imagery is gentleness. A bee buzzes, visits flowers, makes honey. A caterpillar eats a few leaves and grows the most elaborate wings. The breeze blows on both, not hurting either.
This isn’t a baptism of any sort. This is, if one is sincere about prayer, what prayer might aspire to—gratefulness for a moment to enjoy the world. To endure change and have more joy and beauty because of it. But that moment, that gratefulness, can’t be generalized. It’s Dickinson’s and Dickinson’s alone. We can relate through our similar experiences. The song is from Dickinson the individual, but it carries over to other individuals because of what it consciously rejects.
A final word. Dickinson takes the formality of ritual seriously enough. She’s written a tercet, as Vendler mentions, and her invocation of the Trinitarian formula is a matter of some profundity.
However, her focus in appropriating the language of ritual in this little poem is squarely on the dangers of ritual. The bee, the butterfly, and breeze can be easily ignored by a religion which worships God as the Creator. And it would stand to reason, then, that if Dickinson needs to establish her poetic authority through ritual, she too might not do justice to what life offers and takes away.
Vendler’s final sentence of her short comment: “It is her own imaginative effort that Dickinson is ‘baptizing’ here, calling on the authority of Nature, not of God” (28). I’ve stated my issue with the “baptizing” language, but “Nature” also is a problem. I assume Vendler does not mean the natural world or Dickinson’s intellect, but the intellect as it engages and apprehends the world, understanding the laws underlying it.
The trouble with this reading is that Dickinson’s imagery has an immediacy that Nature with a capital N does not have. And that immediacy is important if we’re talking about reading poetry as something real people do, not just academics. It’s something a literary critic and a scholar want to speak about because their audience, their students, can carry it with them for life. “Nature” isn’t at stake as much as actually living life, being literally outside church walls in, perhaps, a garden. Her poem speaks gentleness and delicacy—the creatures are small, the breeze itself can become something far more fierce. Because it speaks delicacy, it’s open to pain in a way pronouncing the eternal authority of the eternal deity isn’t. Again, that’s not “Nature.” That’s not proclaiming authority. Rather, it’s an invitation to consider where the things which speak our lives are.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 27-28.