Dickinson and her Religion Emily Dickinson was one of the greatest woman poets. She left us with numerous works that show us her secluded world. Like other major artists of nineteenth-century American introspection such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville, Dickinson makes poetic use of her vacillations between doubt and faith. The style of her first efforts was fairly conventional, but after years of practice she began to give room for experiments.
Often written in the meter of hymns, her poems dealt not only with issues of death, faith and immortality, but with nature, domesticity, and the power and limits of language. Dickinson's Christian education affected her profoundly, and her desire for a human intuitive faith motivates and enlivens her poetry. Yet what she has faith in tends to be left undefined because she assumes that it is unknowable. There are many unknown subjects in her poetry among them: Death and the afterlife, God, nature, artistic and poetic inspiration, one's own mind, and other human beings.
Dickinson was educated in a traditionally Protestant, provincial community and in a religious conservative schools and churches in Amherst and South Hadley. This affected Dickinson as a poet of religious concern, stimulating her to opposition as well as reverence. The Calvinist God she was taught to worship was an arbitrary God of absolute power. She struggles prodigiously in her writing against such an image of God, but also invokes it normally. Emily Dickinson's imagination is dynamic partly because she thinks of her mental world as always in flux and prefers not to adhere for long to any preconceived religious of philosophical doctrine. At different times she advances opposed positions on such central questions as the goodness of God, the reality of heaven, or the presence of the divine in nature.
As a child of her culture, the fixed positions of her local Calvinism are inscribed in her mind and heart, while at the same time she distrusts them and seeks an alternative faith that will be truer to her moral conceptions. Since she takes different positions on religious questions, it has proved hard for commentators to summarize her religious perspective. At the start of her career she assembles her poems in fascicles and sets, thus giving them a separate existence as poems, while later she experiments increasingly with a style of letter writing in which the border between verse and prose tends to disappear, and she writes poetically wherever she wants to (Martin). More and more she seems to conceive of poetic writing as an all-engaging process with only temporary closure. In addition, Dickinson's poetry changes with the variation of her personal experience. In spite of her withdrawal from society and the persistence of her themes and preoccupations, her work not only circles back on itself but also reflects her intense response to personal changes that encroach on her world.
Her very early poems (1858-60) are generally smoother in form, sprightlier and less troubled in spirit than the prodigious group of poems assigned to her most productive years (1861-65) (Anderson). These are years of apparent crisis and of profound poetic inventiveness, when Dickinson composes many poems with dramatized speakers who anxiously explore religious questions as these affect their own happiness. In the last years she turns her writing concerning God, nature as God's creation, relation between flesh and spirit, and the afterlife, often expressed in condensed and elliptical verse. Early work that displays her preoccupation with divinity in nature is Poem 155 "The Murmur of a Bee...
." . This is one of the early Dickinson's songs of innocence, with its biblical resonance of idiom, its deliberate simplicity and sentiment, and its projection of a landscape where one encounters God as a friend (Duchac). The speaker assumes the wondering openness of a child and invokes God in whom she confides without hesitation, Her confiding generosity is what makes the poem work, along with its metrical subtlety, especially in the last stanza, where the modulation of open half-rhymes intimates the presence of the sophisticated poet behind childlike speaker. The thematic emphasis on inner transformation following on natural delight, voiced simply here, persists through all of Dickinson's poems of faith in the experience of nature. In Poem 342, Dickinson marks the changing of natural seasons as a material, visible embodiment of immortality (Duchac).
Using both the language of the physical, natural world and the language of the sacramental, Dickinson recognizes a symbolic experience of spirituality and rebirth. This experience, of course, lies outside the realms of the church and is a revolutionary form of sacrament. Here, the material 'sign and seal' is not sanctioned by doctrine, but is nevertheless experienced intimately by the poet as a sacred experiential marker. For Dickinson, connection to the natural world is a connection to the real self, and ultimately to the Divine. Here, divine promise becomes real in the cycles of nature rather than in the communion cup or at the baptismal font. In Poem 508, Dickinson overtly rejects the sacraments of the Calvinist church, embracing instead the 'self' (Duchac).
Her direct sacramental language parallels the emptiness of the church's baptism with the richer meaning of her own unique baptism. As an expression of nature and what is 'natural,' the individual consciousness is celebrated here. Individual power and free will, in direct opposition to Calvin's doctrine, is embraced as an alternative baptism into salvation. The covenant with the divine, and acceptance into the community of the elect, comes only by valuing the individual 'self'.
It is an odd fact that Dickinson wrote so few explicit prayer poems and that those few tent to be complicated with irony. She obviously found it difficult to talk directly to God, just as she found it awkward to talk about him. Yet her poems as a whole testify to a lifelong process of religious search and communicate a grateful, loving adoration she found it impossible to express adequately in the language her Calvinist culture gave her. God reached her indirectly through everything she loved, and she responded indirectly through the magical associations of language. Bibliography: 1.
Anderson, Charles. Emily Dickinson's Poetry, Stairway of Surprise. New York. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. 19602. Duchac, Joseph.
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, an annotated guide to commentary published in English, 1890-1977. Boston. G. K. Hall & Co.
19793. Martin, Wendy. The Cambridge companion to Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press. 2002.