cover image Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson

Cynthia Griffin Wolff. Alfred A. Knopf, $25 (641pp) ISBN 978-0-394-54418-2

One hundred years after Emily Dickinson's death, the Amherst poet's life and work are increasingly the subjects of scholarly study and imaginative interpretation. Wolff, professor of humanities at MIT, presents within the framework of a life not long and not outwardly eventful an acute, erudite analysis of the sources and voices of the remarkable, individual, cryptic and often breathtaking poetry. Dickinson is seen here not as a timid woman who withdrew from life, but as a strong person aware of her talent and of the power of language, who chose to spend her time and energy on the writing and perfecting of poetry. The major part of the book identifies and analyzes subjects and influences, among them: the recurrent waves of religious revival in the mid-19th century, which Dickinson alone among her family and close associates resisted; the close observation of nature, sometimes ironic, sometimes playful; the fear of blindness, with its threatened loss of the joy of reading; the reciprocated but unfulfilled love for Judge Otis Phillips Lord late in life; the struggle to grasp and deal with the fact of death that produced some of her greatest work. In transmitting the quality of Dickinson, Wolff enlarges on a comment by Archibald MacLeish, that the person reading her is ""not so much reading as being spoken to. . . . '' Among the poetic voices described are those of the child, the wife, the voice of ``No'' and the proleptic voice: ``I felt a Funeral, in my brain . . . . '' A striking piece of explication is ``Interlude: Context and Subject,'' in which the poet, in her attempt to perfect her art, appears as a Jacob-like figure wrestling with the Angel, even as an Ahab. This powerful book is rich in equally provocative analogies and insights. Photos. BOMC alternate. (November 19)