The lady dare not lift her veil
For fear it be dispelled.
But peers beyond her mesh,
And wishes, and denies,
'Lest interview annul a want
That image satisfies.
F430 (1862) J421
Reading this little poem today, it’s hard not to think about the various countries in the world where women are veiled. Although often associated with patriarchal attempts to control women (rightly or wrongly), there is also the romantic tradition of the veiled woman, popularized in the West by The Arabian Nights. In that series of interlocking tales, the veil might hide some monstrous face but was more likely to hide beautiful women, enchanted women, or women in need of protection.
While in some cultures the veil is worn because of assumptions about male lust, if Dickinson and the author of The Arabian Nights are correct, veils are more enticing than faces. Dickinson reflected on a similar theme in F203, “The thought beneath so slight a film.”
The thought beneath so slight a film –
Is more distinctly seen –
As laces just reveal the surge –
Or Mists – the Apennine.
A bit of mist and mystery increase the charm and attractions of both mountains and ladies. Our imaginations are pretty good at filling in details.
There is a wistful quality to the poem. The speaker dares not show her real self for fear her charm will be “dispelled.” Worse, although she would like to share her thoughts and feelings with others (or perhaps just one special other), she “denies” them any “interview” for fear they would soon lose interest in her. It is the “image” that satisfies them (or him) rather than the actual woman.
Well, what can we say about that? That the speaker lacks self confidence? That she lives in a sexist society, or that she does not trust the gentleman or people who want to get to know her better? Or that people are more charmed by a bit of mystery than with the plain reality? Probably all of the above.
Dickinson employs the legal language of her lawyer father and brother again. Removing the veil would “annul a want.” The formulation is quite harsh: desire for the veiled woman would not just diminish but be entirely erased as if it had never been. Marriages can be annulled, too, and so the use of the term here might speak to a fear of marriage: will the groom’s love hold steady once the bridal veil is removed? The speaker of this poem does not believe it will. And so she prefers instead to simply peer from behind her veil, wishing for more but denying any opportunity.
The poem speaks to all of us, however – at least those of us who are not very extroverted. We have our public personas, our personas for our acquaintances, and even our personas for family and loved ones. How often do we truly lift the veil? Aren’t we all a bit afraid of showing others what is there?
It should be noted that women around Amherst in the 1860’s probably did not wear veils – neither Puritan nor Victorian fashions featured them, so Dickinson is speaking metaphorically.