December 2011

Kevin Frazier


Star-Crossed: Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson

Each issue the Star-Crossed column chooses two or more writers who were born during a particular month and talks about their work. 

December Birthdays: 

Jane Austen -- born December 16, 1775, Steventon, England
Emily Dickinson -- born December 10, 1830, Amherst, Massachusetts

1 -- Austen: From Parody to Pemberley 

Jane Austen is a terrific realtor. Pemberley marks the center of her work: she sells it to us with admirable finesse. Much of how we respond to her depends on whether we agree that few things are more desirable than a tasteful estate. In Pride and Prejudice, Darcy is Pemberley and Pemberley is Darcy. The home is the man. Darcy is a male model who, when you open his centerfold, spreads out to form the panorama of his property, "a large, handsome, stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills."

Austen takes us to Pemberley through a tricky route. She starts by showing us what not to like. Northanger Abbey, the first novel she completed, is all about unacceptable addresses: the Gothic castles of the heroine's imagination. Real estate is a philosophical issue. Right minds seek the right residence with the right man inside.

The heroine of Northanger Abbey is Catherine Morland. She's the first major Austen character. Yet she's less a herald of the sensible Elizabeth Bennet than of the semi-reckless Marianne Dashwood and Emma Woodhouse. Catherine and Marianne and Emma belong to the Austen arsenal of spirited, overly romantic young women. They must learn to temper their enthusiasms and tamp down their fantasies. Fortunately, Austen gives us the chance to enjoy their irresponsibility, the mistakes they make along the way.

As a satirical figure, Catherine looks back to the 18th century. Austen is in many ways an 18th century author. She started the first version of Northanger Abbey in 1798. The story follows the tradition of writers like Samuel Johnson and Henry Fielding in mocking sentimentality and deflating pseudo-poetic passions. At first Catherine is less a character than a conceit. She's a conscious literary parody, not so far removed from what Fielding offers us in Shamela, his 1741 spoof of Richardson's Pamela.

Fielding and Austen advanced along similar tracks. They discovered that satirizing other forms of writing helped them come up with their own approaches to characterization. They laughed their way to seriousness. In 1742, Fielding ascended from the flat Mad-magazine burlesques in Shamela to the peaks and pits of Joseph Andrews. He intended Joseph Andrews as another parody. The more he wrote, though, the less he stuck to simple travesty. It's a terrible novel, but terrible in a promising way. Picture one of the Scary Movie sequels building its gags into a genuine storyline with a genuine set of characters, and you'll have some idea of how schizophrenic Joseph Andrews is.

By the time of Tom Jones in 1749, Fielding is practicing what will become one of Austen's main methods. He toys with the differences between people who view life through the overwrought emotions of popular literature and people who instead rely on their common sense, their personal observations, and their aversion to standardized compassion and inflated ardor. (Still, it's good to keep in mind that Tom Jones would be a creep in an Austen novel, and Darcy a prig in a Fielding novel. And while the biographical information is muddled, Austen appears to have been ambivalent about Fielding in general. Her family adored Tom Jones and thought Austen resembled the novel's heroine, Sophia Western. After Austen's death, however, her brother claimed she didn't care for Fielding's style. It's hard to know how to take the brother's remark: some Austen scholars have felt it was made merely to protect her reputation as a respectable lady who would have no traffic with Fielding's coarseness and low morals. I'm guessing Fielding's work was so much a part of her life that she loved him in some ways and deplored him in others. Certainly she was steeped in his writing.)

With Tom Jones, Fielding's approach to parody ceases to be an end in itself. It becomes part of the system of comparison and contrast he uses to animate his characters. You can inspect the system's Rube Goldberg mechanisms in Book IV, when the thirteen-year-old Sophia's caged bird is freed by Blifil. Tom Jones climbs a tree to catch the bird. Then the branch breaks and he falls into the canal below. Meanwhile, "the bird took a second flight, and presently a nasty hawk carried it away."

By freeing the bird, Blifil causes Tom's fall and the bird's immediate death. Blifil's justification is one of Fielding's classic parodies. It punctures the self-righteous way some of Fielding's contemporaries acted out the novel of sentiment, in which the pain of the caged bird was a common theme:

I had Miss Sophia's bird in my hand, and thinking the poor creature languished for liberty, I own I could not forbear giving it what it desired; for I always thought there was something very cruel in confining anything. It seemed to be against the law of nature, by which everything has a right to liberty; nay, it is even unchristian, for it is not doing what we would be done by...

This summarizes the Blifilism of earlier novels and anticipates later novels like Sterne's A Sentimental Journey, with its famous starling. For Fielding, Blifil's explanation is self-serving nonsense. Tom is the one who demonstrates true feeling in his quick decision to help Sophia and bring back her bird. Blifil's decision is selfish and spiteful. He wants to hurt Sophia and at the same time impress her with his higher emotional, ethical, and spiritual sensitivity.

Fielding simplifies his case by making Blifil a fraud, a cruel narcissist masquerading as a person of strong feeling and concern. Fielding also stacks the deck by having the bird instantly killed by a hawk. This satirical clarity contributes to the novel's delightful crispness and brio. It also makes everything a bit glib and pat. Satire doesn't need to be fair. Sometimes, though, it can be more fun when it goes beyond straight propaganda.

Fielding's rigidity helps us appreciate just how much more agile Austen's satire is. Even in Northanger Abbey, Catherine and the other characters finally elude any schematic caricature of hypocrisy versus honest emotion.

The parody note is struck on the opening page. Austen says of Catherine's mother: "She had three sons before Catherine was born; and instead of dying in bringing the latter into the world, as anybody might expect, she still lived on -- lived to have six children more -- to see them growing up around her, and to enjoy excellent health herself."

Austen here pokes fun at the literary convention of the heroine's mother dying in childbirth. She announces that, in her writing, melodrama and pathos will give way to the mother's "useful plain sense." I think most of us like Austen for the intelligent good judgment she seems to radiate. Yet I also think most of us recognize that her sagacious, reasonable aura is in part an aesthetic trick, and not always a commendable one.

Novelists are in the odd position of being able to win any argument they start in their texts. That's one reason we tend to react so strongly against overt dogmatism in fiction. It's boring to hear a debate where most of the evidence has been rigged for one side. In Fielding's satire, we put up with the artifice because the jokes are good and because Fielding is too busy amusing us to bog things down in his prejudices for long. His moral viewpoint is almost a stylistic convenience. It's the port from which he launches his humor and propels his characters through their adventures.

Austen plays the same game but with more sophistication. Her pose of "useful plain sense" only convinces us, of course, as long as we ignore the snobbery and biases that critics like Edward Said have urged us to note. Said has been reviled for pointing out some of Austen's blind spots, as if he were solely a hostile witness. Yet he respects her work, and there doesn't need to be any contradiction between loving an artist and seeing the artist's limitations. We tend to have our biggest arguments with the writers who mean the most to us. Why would we want, for instance, a Tolstoy who doesn't challenge us with his epic strengths and epic weaknesses? All the same, Austen poses special difficulties. Tolstoy infuriates us by pretending to be the voice of God, but he never expects us to appreciate him for being the mealy-mouthed voice of the local community. Austen sometimes does expect it. This means she can be especially off-putting when we feel, as we do in Mansfield Park, or in parts of Pride and Prejudice, that she's speaking for some of the most blinkered values of her time and place.

As long as we accept the scope of her interests, however, she stands a fair chance to win us over. Decades before Madame Bovary, she teases Catherine for using novels and poetry to feed her fantasy life. The analysis is as acute as Flaubert's and a good deal less heavy-handed: was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had by nature nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of fourteen, to books -- or at least books of information -- for, provided that nothing like useful knowledge could be gained from them, provided they were all story and no reflection, she had never any objection to books at all. But from fifteen to seventeen she was in training to be a heroine; she read all such works as heroines must read to supply their memories with those quotations which are so serviceable and soothing in the vicissitudes of their eventful lives... So far her improvement was sufficient -- and in many other points she came on exceedingly well; for though she could not write sonnets, she brought herself to read them; and though there seemed no chance of her throwing a whole party into raptures by a prelude on the pianoforte, of her own composition, she could listen to other people's performance with very little fatigue.

Austen is amused by Catherine's pretensions without feeling the disgust for them that swallows up Flaubert's characters. You can come away from Flaubert with the impression that human beings are nothing but their bad taste. We're all Blifil, all the time. With Austen, the ability of literature to fuel our fantasies isn't wholly objectionable, and doesn't always show us at our worst. If Catherine's reading is "ignorant and uninformed," its unchecked sentimentality still reveals that "her heart was affectionate; her disposition cheerful and open."

Catherine's favorite book is the standard-bearer for early Gothic romances, The Mysteries of Udolpho. Radcliffe's novel was a kind of Twilight for its time. It stands in the same relationship to Northanger Abbey as Pamela does to Shamela: it typifies the literary approach against which Austen distinguishes herself. Yet Austen doesn't completely reject Udolpho. She absorbs it, places it within a larger perspective. Most of the major characters in Northanger Abbey express their literary opinions, and each opinion contributes to our knowledge of Catherine and her world.

Isabella Thorpe superficially resembles a beautiful and brave Gothic heroine: she's the one who introduces Catherine to Udolpho. Slowly we apprehend that Isabella thinks of Udolpho as an excuse for her irresponsibility. She obscures her fortune-hunting in a fog of overstated sentiment, rationalizes her self-serving changes of position as the grand emotional sweeps of Gothic passion. Yet Austen is careful to blame the person and not the literary leanings that Isabella expresses: Northanger Abbey is a defense of fiction as much as a critique of how fiction can be misused. When Isabella's brother talks to Catherine about novels, his taste is different from Isabella's. He thinks this justifies his smug ignorance of the authors he attacks, and his condescension toward Catherine. He doesn't see that he's very much like Isabella in his selfish disloyalty. His preference for Tom Jones over Udolpho does nothing to make him a good person. Actually, there's some doubt whether he knows any of the writers he talks about. He starts by saying he would never read Udolpho. He then adds: "No, if I read any [novel], it shall be Mrs Radcliffe's; her novels are amusing enough; they are worth reading; some fun and nature in them." When Catherine points out that Radcliffe wrote Udolpho, he compounds his foolishness. He says he has confused Udolpho with Frances Burney's Camilla, a novel Austen greatly admired. Camilla combines the comic and the Gothic, and Austen's approval of the book confirms that her satire of Gothic writing is far from a blanket condemnation. The satire is shaded, detailed. She's ready to distinguish the absurdities of Gothic literature from its more accomplished features.

Austen detects virtues in Camilla that I didn't find in my one quick reading of it a few years ago. She maybe takes Camilla less as it is than as she would have liked it to be, as she needed it to be in order to inspire her own writing. But of course some of the greatest nineteenth century novels, from The Scarlet Letter to Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre to Our Mutual Friend, are inconceivable without their strong Gothic flavoring. Austen's praise of Burney definitely applies to writers like Hawthorne and Dickens, and to many of the best novelists who have set Gothic currents coursing through their work:

...there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them. "I am no novel-reader -- I seldom look into novels -- Do not imagine that I often read novels -- It is really very well for a novel." Such is the common cant. "And what are you reading, Miss -- ?" "Oh! It is only a novel," replies the young lady, while she lays down her book with affected indifference, or momentary shame. "It is only Cecilia, or Camilla, or Belinda"; or, in short, only some work in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language.

Austen contrasts the general distaste for fiction expressed by Isabella's brother with the open appreciation for novels proclaimed by the hero of Northanger Abbey, Henry Tilney. In Bath, Henry and Catherine stroll around together, chaperoned by Henry's sister. Catherine sees Beechen Cliff through her fiction-bred vision of foreign lands:

"I never look at it," said Catherine, as they walked along the side of the river, "without thinking of the south of France."

"You have been abroad then?" said Henry, a little surprised.

"Oh no! I only mean what I have read about. It always puts me in mind of the country that Emily and her father travelled through in The Mysteries of Udolpho. But you never read novels, I dare say?"

"Why not?"

"Because they're not clever enough for you -- gentlemen read better books."

"The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid. I have read all Mrs Radcliffe's works, and most of them with great pleasure. The Mysteries of Udolpho, when I had once begun it, I could not lay it down again: I remember finishing it in two days -- my hair standing on end the whole time."

The passage resembles another section of Madame Bovary, the conversation between Emma and Léon in the second chapter of Part Two. But where Léon's agreement with Emma proves his submissive weakness and unoriginality, Henry's open declaration of support for Udolpho demonstrates his youthful high spirits and affability. Just as importantly, it demonstrates the independence of Henry's judgment, his refusal to deny his reactions just to satisfy some timid idea of what men should read. Catherine says, "I really thought before, young men despised novels amazingly." Henry replies:

"It is amazingly; it may well suggest amazement if they do -- for they read nearly as many as women. I myself have read hundreds and hundreds. Do not imagine that you can cope with me in a knowledge of Julias and Louisas. If we proceed to particulars, and engage in the never-ceasing inquiry of 'Have you read this?' and 'Have you read that?' I shall soon leave you as far behind me as -- what shall I say? -- I want an appropriate simile -- as far as your friend Emily herself left poor Valancourt when she went with her aunt into Italy..."

The Oxford-educated Henry seems closest to Austen's own judgment of Udolpho. He enjoys it, appreciates its strengths, and yet retains a good-humored awareness of the absurd side of much Gothic writing. This dual vision -- the combination of admiration and criticism, holding two different reactions together at the same time -- is crucial not only to Austen's perception of literature but to her perception of her characters. Fielding's stark clash of artificial, hypocritical sentimentality against honest, natural feeling becomes, in Austen, a much finer spectrum of distinctions, a range of degrees rather than a choice between opposites.

When Catherine learns she will go to Henry's home, Northanger Abbey itself, she projects Udolpho onto the estate and tries to tailor it to her imagination. She starts to think the home contains a secret chamber where she might discover evidence that Henry's father, General Tilney, has murdered or imprisoned Henry's missing mother. Austen has fun with the folly of Catherine's misapprehensions, yet wants us to know that the feelings behind Catherine's fantasies are accurate. General Tilney is indeed the monster she believes him to be. He is proportioned, however, not to the majestic evil of Gothic literature but to the small-minded, narrowly grasping form that evil tends to take in day-to-day life. The question of scale is everything. Catherine must learn that cruelty and moral ugliness can be expressed in much less extravagant ways than through murder and physical violence. General Tilney rejects Catherine because he feels she isn't wealthy enough to marry his son. He orders her to leave his home, demands that Henry give her up. The actual horror of Northanger Abbey is all the more devastating for Catherine because it's so petty and mean-spirited. And Henry's refusal to follow his father's orders is all the more inspiring for her because it's a rejection of that pettiness. The beauty of Udolpho, of the very excess that characterizes the Gothic vision, is that it helps hold open in Henry's mind the imaginative sentiment that allows him to resist his father. As Austen will demonstrate more artfully in Sense and Sensibility, common sense and emotion must work together. Emotion can never protect itself from fraud and delusion without the force of common sense, while common sense can degenerate into selfishness and cruelty without the guidance of emotion.

Austen works through the relationship between common sense and emotion so thoroughly in Northanger Abbey and Sense and Sensibility that she no longer needs to harp on the subject when she reaches Pride and Prejudice. Our view of Pemberley is clear from the moment Elizabeth arrives there. It requires no special focusing through the lenses of parody or satire. This is Austen's idea of paradise. Like most tangible Edens, it repels as many readers as it attracts. I don't really like Pemberley, and I don't really like Darcy. Out of my love for Austen's other novels, I'm willing to try to see Elizabeth's future home and husband as Austen wants me to, but I'm always aware that it requires some extra effort on my part.

Despite its obvious attractions, Pemberley is far too confining and complacent a final goal for Austen's heroines. It's silly to pretend that prosperity and security aren't ever desirable or that they can't solve many difficult problems, but it's equally silly to pretend that prosperity and security are nirvana. For most of us, there needs to be more, or something else, maybe something entirely different. With Austen, I'm not sure there can be: in her mind, any desire that doesn't aspire to Pemberley is self-deception. Pemberley might be less objectionable, of course, if Darcy were a human being and not The Sensible Woman's Ideal Mate. As it is, he doesn't transform Pemberley so much as he accessorizes it. He's a divine projection of his property, which emerges far more realistically than he does. His only true flaw, his pride, isn't even a plausible defect. It's merely one of the necessary conditions for his godlike perfection. He procures some ornamental humility because he must come down from his celestial heights long enough to rescue Elizabeth from her embarrassing relatives and faulty social connections. In the end, he doesn't develop into a new or more complex person so much as he lifts Elizabeth to the summits of his home. Once there, she can join him in looking down on everyone else, viewing them with affection and forgiveness. In all her books, Austen takes up the legitimate role of writer as matchmaker and dream-fulfiller. This is part of why she's always been so widely read and widely loved. But I wish her matches were finally more inventive, her dreams less constricted. Her greatness as an artist makes me feel all the more sharply her shortfalls as a fantasist.           

2 -- Dickinson: The Appetites of the Robin

My grandmother gave me my first book of Emily Dickinson's verse, the 1924 edition of the Collected Poems. Sane and levelheaded, with her mind fixed in the practical Austen mode, my grandmother admired aspects of Dickinson's poetry that we now tend to neglect. These days we're most likely to focus on the paradoxes and intricacies of her writing. We forget that much of it can be read straight, without necessarily requiring any lengthy analysis.

My grandmother recognized what she called the "odd streak" in Dickinson, but it didn't impress her. A hardworking teacher who testified before Congress on the need to improve the laws protecting women's economic rights, my grandmother was too active and too social, too heavily involved in her family farm and community affairs, to approve of Dickinson's self-containment. It struck her as foolish. She didn't like the verse where Dickinson was ostentatiously bizarre (more foolishness) or where she felt sorry for herself ("God gave a Loaf to every Bird -- / But just a Crumb -- to me") or where she was "too violent" in her descriptions:

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy flower,
The frost beheads it at its play
In accidental power.
The blond assassin passes on,
The sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another day
For an approving God.

She would have liked even less the lines in the later and more accurate Thomas H. Johnson edition of the Complete Poems, which tries to reproduce Dickinson's highly individual capitalization and punctuation:

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play --
In accidental power --
The blonde Assassin passes on --
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an approving God.

My grandmother was suspicious of eccentricity. She equated it with affectation. For her, the valuable Dickinson poems were the ones that crystallized sentiments and observations you could express among your friends, in open discussions and at public events. Dickinson can be a good citizen when she wants to be, and it was the good citizenship verse that my grandmother extracted from the varieties of Dickinson's work.

For these seemingly well-behaved Dickinson poems, I'll use the 1924 texts, which underline how the early editorial obscuring of Dickinson's style aided my grandmother's appreciation:

Read, sweet, how others strove,
Till we are stouter;
What they renounced
Till we are less afraid;
How many times they bore
The faithful witness,
Till we are helped,
As if a kingdom cared!

Read then of faith
That shone above the fagot;
Clear strains of hymn
The river could not drown;
Brave names of men
And celestial women,
Passed out of record
Into renown!

I can imagine my grandmother quite reasonably taking this as inspirational poetry and reading it to me the night before one of my basketball games, or before a big test at school. It's possible to tease out the ambiguities in some of the lines ("As if a kingdom cared!" 'Passed out of record"), but most readers have simply enjoyed the poem as a display of commonplace sentiments in commonplace language. This accessible facet of Dickinson's work is part of what her niece Martha Dickinson Bianchi meant when she wrote for the 1924 edition's introduction:

...she is supremely the poet of those who "never read poetry." The scoffers, the literary agnostics, make exception for her. She is also the poet of the unpoetic, the unlearned foreigner, the busy, practical, inexpressive man as well as woman, the wise young and groping old, the nature worshipper, the schoolgirl, children caught by her fairy lineage, and lovers of all degrees.

Full many a preacher has found her line at the heart of his matter and left her verse to fly up with his conclusion. And it is the Very Reverend head of a most Catholic order who writes, "I bless God for Emily, -- some of her writings have had a more profound influence on my life than anything else that any one has ever written."

For a writer who can be as difficult as Pound or Joyce, Dickinson's popularity has always been surprising. Klaus Lubbers, in Emily Dickinson: The Critical Revolution, has traced the public reactions to her writing over the years. Her first volume of selected verse appeared in 1890, following her death in 1886. The volume was an instant success with both critics and readers. Lubbers notes that many reviews singled out the nature poetry for special commendation. The most frequently praised poem in the collection was "The Sea of Sunset," a piece that few of us would now place among her finest work:

This is the land the sunset washes,
These are the banks of the Yellow Sea;
Where it rose, or whither it rushes,
These are the western mystery!

Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;
Merchantmen poise upon horizons,
Dip, and vanish with fairy sails.

This edited version of the poem has a smoother and less curious rhythm than the dash-guided progress of Dickinson's original text, and rewrites the final line to create that bland rhyme between "opal bales" and the new addition of "fairy sails." The change entirely removes the "Orioles" from the original's much stronger conclusion: 

This -- is the land -- the Sunset washes --
These -- are the Banks of the Yellow Sea --
Where it rose -- or whither it rushes --
These -- are the Western Mystery!

Night after Night
Her purple traffic
Strews the landing with Opal Bales --
Merchantmen -- poise upon Horizons --
Dip -- and vanish like Orioles!

Appropriately, the orioles suggest simultaneously the dipping birds, the Latin for golden, aureolus, and the radiance around a cloud or a sacred body, aureoles. In the original, all three aspects, bird and gold and floating radiance, vanish from the horizon along with the merchantmen and the opal bales. The opal complements the gold -- jewel in setting -- and the bales offer us the bundled play of opalescent colors as well as bale's alternative meanings of "great evil" and mental suffering, part of the "Western Mystery" in the merchantmen's transitory appearance on the horizon. Many of these connections are, however, greatly diminished by the coy "fairy sails" of the edited version. 

At first glance some of Dickinson's nature poetry can look mawkish. Her early readers would have found little that was challenging or unusual in this, for instance:

The robin is the one
That interrupts the morn
With hurried, few, express reports
When March is scarcely on.

The robin is the one
That overflows the noon
With her cherubic quantity,
An April but begun.

The robin is the one
That speechless from her nest
Submits that home and certainty
And sanctity are best.

Yet the wide-eyed sentimentality here isn't a falling-off from the stranger and more disturbing poems. It's a deliberate stitching of one popular fabric against a contrasting and less expected material, the pink silk of a bridesmaid's gown against the black bombazine of a funeral dress. Each fabric offsets and comments on the other. The robin that glorifies home and certainty and sanctity must share poetic space with the bird whose appetites are viewed by Dickinson with unblinking clarity in poem 328 (from here on I'll use the original texts from the Johnson edition):

A Bird came down the Walk --
He did not know I saw --
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw...

The presentation of the robin as guardian of the home develops still weirder patchworks of meaning once we consider poem 348:

I dreaded that first robin, so,
But He is mastered, now,
I'm some accustomed to Him grown,
He hurts a little, though --

The poem goes on to complicate everything familiar or reassuring that we might find in the nature poems:

I thought if I could only live
Till that first Shout got by --
Not all Pianos in the Woods
Had power to mangle me --

I dared not meet the Daffodils --
For fear their Yellow Gown
Would pierce me with a fashion
So foreign to my own --

I wished the Grass would hurry --
So -- when 'twas time to see --
He'd be too tall, the tallest one
Could stretch -- to look at me --

The poet's relationship with nature opens into a despairing sense of separation. To the extent that Dickinson has elsewhere projected conventional domesticity onto the robin, the projection is now shown to be far from complacent or serene:

I could not bear the Bees should come,
I wished they'd stay away
In those dim countries where they go,
What word had they, for me?

They're here, though; not a creature failed --
No Blossom stayed away
In gentle deference to me --
The Queen of Calvary --

Each one salutes me, as he goes,
And I, my childish Plumes,
Lift, in bereaved acknowledgment
Of their unthinking Drums --

The early reviewers of Dickinson's work were struck by its originality and oddness. The presence of her many superficially traditional poems must have heightened this unnerving effect, in the same way that a movie like Blue Velvet uses its consciously ingenuous yet surprisingly earnest Fifties romanticism to heighten the impact of the Dennis Hopper scenes. Blue Velvet actually includes a Dickinsonian robin motif: Laura Dern, in a remarkable combination of absurdity and passion, explains her dream of the robins coming back to put an end to all darkness and trouble. At the close of the film, she sees that a robin has indeed returned, but the idyll is complicated by the image of the robin eating a beetle, a darkly comic shot that recalls Dickinson's bird-halved angleworm. The robin might be the bird of family and faith, but its appetites are raw and violent, and Dickinson isn't sure how she feels about its tastes. Neither, after reading her, are we.