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25 March 2013

A charm invests a face charm invests a face
Imperfectly beheld.
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.


  1. The two stanzas are interesting -- the first objective, a view from outside. The second stanza is more deeply personal -- we are inside the veil, peering "beyond the mesh". In this stanza, I think the poem is tied to ED's theme of what can be spoken and what must be approached from an angle ("tell it slant"; "can blaze be shown in cochineal or noon in mazurin?").

    Interview is such a strong word in what is the strongest line of the poem. And I agree -- annul is so beautiful and ties so much in -- the harsh verdict of law and the intimacy of marriage lost.

  2. Your distinction between the first and second stanza seems just right to me and is beautifully put.

    Another good word in the poem: "peers." The mesh veil is clearly over the eyes and so it works both ways. The wearer must peer at the world as if standing in front of a screen door. She is not clearly seen, but then neither does she see clearly.

  3. This is one of her poems which exquisitely exhibits how universal her work is. It's inconceivable that some critics have claimed her scope was limited.

  4. This seems her credo: the primacy of the imagination over the reality of the Interview. ED, the last many years of her life, would many times allow guests to speak with her only outside of her closed, or ajar, bedroom door.

    The power lies in the secret not revealed, that's why, in a more shadowy context, it's important for survivors of sexual or other kinds of trauma to reveal what they have kept either consciously or unconsciously veiled; once revealed the secret begins to lose its powerful grip.

    1. I hadn't thought of the peering from behind the door or window. This poem does foreshadow it -- and the alluring mystery that ED became in her own time in her own town.

  5. hey prowling bee
    I just wanted to say thank you for your blog , it is very helpful , I am Arabic writer and poet and I am starting to read american poetry and I do not want to read translated versions because I believe the poems will lose a lot by translation and your blog is helping me a lot in understanding these poems , thank u again and keep the great work up .

  6. I'd also like to thank you for your amazing blog. I'm just beginning to learn to read poetry and the insight and understanding I've gained from reading your explanations of these beautiful poems has helped me so much. Thank you once again

  7. Just as a veil or make up hide skin imperfections or enhance physical features, “persona” behaviors hide personality imperfections or enhance attractive features. We chose clothing for similar reasons, dressing up or dressing down for effect. It’s hard to imagine an almost-closed door as a veil except for a pathologically shy or seriously antisocial personality.

    ED in her mid-40s could be attractive and in love, as she was with Judge Otis Lord during the late 1870s. His proposal of marriage and her coy refusal, “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer - dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?”(L562, about 1878).

    These are not words of pathological shyness or serious antisociality. Rather, they are words of a person selective with her time, unwilling to spend it with any but her chosen.

  8. any but her chosen, with poetry at the front of a short wait line.