The –––– Teller

Had but the Tale a –––– Teller –
All the Boys would come –

What’s the missing word? The couplet is taken from an Emily Dickinson poem (‘The Bible is an antique Volume’, Johnson 1545; Franklin 1577] that Helen Vendler discusses in her 2010 book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries(pp. 491-95).

Vendler has seen a draft of the poem, and writes that Dickinson was dissatisfied with her first choice, ‘thrilling’. So the poet launched ‘into a verbal extravaganza of thirteen different alternative adjectives, each a possible characterization of the Teller’: ‘typic’, ‘hearty’, ‘bonnie’, ‘breathless’, ‘spacious’, ‘tropic’, ‘warbling’, ‘ardent’, ‘friendly’, ‘magic’, ‘pungent’, ‘winning’ and ‘mellow’.

According to Samuel Taylor Coleridge ‘prose = words in their best order; poetry = the best words in their best order.’ For Coleridge a poem was a composition in which changing even a single word would alter its meaning. Reading closely requires an inner ear fine-tuned to hear quiet sounds and whispers, subtle distinctions and emphases. And this example from Dickinson’s poetry shows someone who is able to suspend judgement, and wait patiently until exactly the right word comes to mind. The process reveals an acutely sensitive, fertile mind.

One reason to study literature is to train the mind to read and listen in newly attentive ways. Poetry demands concentration. Equally, poetry is not just something to prod at and dissect dispassionately. Here’s Philip Larkin from a Paris Review interview:

‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, one doesn’t study poets! You read them, and think, That’s marvelous, how is it done, could I do it? and that’s how you learn.’


(Dickinson selected the word ‘warbling’: ‘Had but the Tale a warbling Teller – | All the Boys would come -‘)


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