EMILY DICKINSON by Cynthia Griffin Wolff


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A heavy, unexciting study of the life and works of Amherst's Belle. Unlike her excellent predecessor Sewall, Wolff mixes a little biography with lots of criticism, piling up a book few will want to read straight through. She harps on certain themes, such as religiosity, until they become something of a bore. The poet herself used brevity as a literary weapon; would that her biographers were as aware of its value. Wolff's Latinate prose style gives the narrative a galumphing weight; the reader wonders whether Dickinson's spare verses are being analyzed, or the sermons of Dr. Johnson. The biographical details given here are slightly irrelevant, too. We are told all about 19th-century obstetrics, with quotes about fetuses and forceps, without learning what this has to do with Emily. Wolff's canon of Emily's great poems may be too elastic: she praises as one of the ""Freest"" a verse that rhymes ""stare"" with ""North America."" Surely a tougher criterion of quality would not lessen the great poet's achievement. If anything, with 19th-century bards like Dickinson and Walt Whitman, the undiscriminating reader can get lost in the vast unevenness of the literary remains. In sum, this weighty effort loses sight of its subject amid elaboration more of concern to the author than to the subject. The evaluation of quality is jeopardized in a quest for critical elaboration and generalization. Sewall did much more lucid work on the often perplexing life and work of the poet. A couple of hundred pages too long, this book is like a boring seminar; the poet deserves far better.

Pub Date: Nov. 19th, 1986
ISBN: 020116809X
Publisher: Knopf