AT THE LOEB last Thursday evening one wished that Mildred Dunnock in her recitation of a selection of Emily Dickinson's poems, had stepped aside to let Emily Dickinson through. As it was, she played the part of the the dragon guarding the gate.
Looking like a decolte rendition of the Dickinson stamp, in an English accent that came more from theatrics than the British Isles. Mildred Dunnock recited poems and read letters about frrriends, naatchah, death, Gawd, and Iuv.
Mildred Dunnock read the poems as though she knew what they meant. Which is a crime not because she didn't knew what they meant, but because anyone who would stake their life on the meaning of one of Emily Dickinson's poems is foolish. At any rate it is doubtful that the poems had the kind of meaning that the cadences in Dunnock's voice suggested. Dunnock used the rhythms we ordinarily use in pronouncing rational sentences, which would suggest that rationality, as opposed to emotion, is of little use in getting at Emily Dickinson's poems.
Dunnock gave extraordinary pronouncement to every word that Dickinson capitalized, as though she were a pianist who each time middle C appeared in a piece punched it with unusual force for no other reason that it was middle C.
Since understanding the poems is not a prerequisite to our enjoying them, how Mildred Dunnock should have approached the recitation is better based on Emily Dickinson's inspiration in writing the poems. My own feeling is that Emily Dickinson composed in order to ready her heart before God in the same way that Edward Taylor wrote his meditations to ready his heart for the composition of a sermon. But where Edward Taylor's Calvinist God of the 18th Century was as theologically and emotionally fixed as a God could be. Emily's mid-19th Century God was drowned in theological confusion, ministerial debacle and social disarray. Emily Dickinson readied herself before a confusing being who never made clear the emotion or the understanding he demanded. She was bitter and cynical about his elusiveness and her poems are themselves bitter, cynical and elusive. Mildred Dunnock would have done better to speak wrily, slowly and without hyperbole.
IT WAS CONSIDERED A stroke of genius when Perry Miller compared I.S. Bach to Jonathan Edwards, but when George Henry played Robert Schumann in accompaniment with Dunnock's readings, the genius was not so striking. Schumann's works did, however, evoke the internal tensions of the poetry in a way that Mildred Dunnock's voice did not.
Dunnock's reading was pitched too high: her voice should have descended like inverted stairs, to that last slippery step of the last line of the poem. Dunnock spoke without grief or mocking, perversity, bitterness or real joy. Childishness may have been the only thing Dickinson and Dunnock have in common. Like a child playing in coal dust, Mildred Dunnock played with the poems of Emily Dickinson and covered herself with a soft dusting of embarrassment.