Emily Dickinson: Believer or Not While attending Amherst College, Emily Dickinson became fascinated with Dr. Hitchcock s philosophies. Dr. Hitchcock was the originator of the American Scientific Association and President of Amherst College. Dickinson loved to read Flowers of North America, along with other works by Hitchcock. She would attend his lectures, not knowing that one of his sermons would change her views on Christianity for the rest of her life.
Pollitt writes that In Dr. Hitchcock s philosophy of a natural religion as opposed to the purely scriptural doctrine, Emily s mind took it s first stride (Pollitt 34). He believed that the spiritual body will transcend the natural body; that it will have means of receiving knowledge far more delicate, certain, and rapid; that it will be possessed by an activity incapable of fatigue and eminently fitted for abstraction; that the memory will be perfect an organization so exquisite as never to mislead or allure from duty There will be recognition in heaven, all marriage vows dissolved, and the lover and his beloved will become but angles of God (Pollitt 35). Such a sermon was too convincing and too striking for her to ever forget it. Two of Emily Dickinson s critics, Francis J. Molson and Dorothy Huff Oberhaus, have contradicting views on Dickinson s Christianity, which are reflected throughout her poetry.
I believe that Dickinson can neither be named a conventional Christian, nor can she be labeled a disbeliever. Growing up, Dickinson was forced to attend church; however, she rejected all that made man insignificant and helpless before the crushing force of God (Molson 404). Dickinson was also forced to accept God. When she was young, Dickinson visualized the orthodox God as a kind, stern old man, who would help her in her need, provided she prayed to Him (405). At first Dickinson was willing to believe in Christ only if he would answer her prayers. After attending a funeral and hearing a Clergyman ask, Is the arm of the Lord shortened that it cannot save (405), she questioned immortality, realizing promises she had prayed for would not or could not be kept (405).
Dickinson was very skeptical about the existence of faith and the orthodox God. The Congregational minister once declared Dickinson a sound Christian, although she was always afflicted by doubts. It seems evident that Dickinson believed in the orthodox deity when it was convenient for her, but when her prayers went unanswered the authenticity of the Heavenly Father became suspect and eventually eroded her faith (410). Throughout her early childhood Dickinson related phrases such as golden dream and dear fancy (415) with her expectations of love and friendship. These were the things for which she asked from the Heavenly Father, which, in her mind, determined His credibility. She tested God with prayers and waited to see the outcome.
The answered prayers then established his credibility, which with her was very few. If we consider these aspects of Dickinson s faith, we are in a better position to perceive why she was not unduly bothered by the unattractive or harsh features oh the orthodox deity. As long as Dickinson retained her confidence in the Heavenly Father s ability and willingness to grant her prayers, she could overlook any possible distaste (Molson 410). Dickinson s absorption in the concept of eternal life was merely heightened by love, and she seeks baroque equivalents of the courtly or religious image mingling the two to express the fact. On the other hand, Emily Dickinson s Poems on the Life of Jesus Christ, is a collection of poems that takes the reader through Jesus birth, life, Crucifixion, and Resurrection. By recreating the Gospels, often with wit and American colloquial language, Dickinson assumes the role of that warbling, topic Teller her supposed person observes the Bible needs to captivate readers.
(Oberhaus 341) Dorothy Huff Oberhaus feels that Dickinson has a strong Christian way of writing. In Tender Pioneer, Oberhaus discusses how Dickinson feels about Jesus Christ being the loving and courageous Redeemer (Oberhaus 342). Oberhaus feels that the way Dickinson fuses Christ into her poetry is unlike anyone of her time. Dickinson takes biblical and devotional texts and makes her own original versions. Writing in this way that she does makes them a poetic tradition of Christian devotion (341). By reconstructing the Gospels, Dickinson makes them available to modern readers and acknowledges their unending significance.
To Emily Dickinson, religion is a mystery and a question with no answer or solution. Although she acknowledged no leader, religion itself appealed to her as one of the deepest aspects of man s life. Dickinson at times accepted it, at times undermined it, and at times frankly expressed bewilderment ranging from humorous to the tragic (Wells 145). She often questions why people would worship someone they will never see. Dickinson feels that no one really wishes to know God or even see him, this is why people as expected fear death.
This verse from one of her poems proves this statement. The Maker s cordial visage, However good to see, Is shunned, we must admit it, Like an adversity. (Dickinson 465 line 9-12) Dickinson s quest for God is identical to her battle for personal integrity. I believe that she blames God for her own social standings. Dickinson was a recluse due to the fact that she felt that she had no where to belong. Dickinson wants with all her heart to feel as if she belongs to something or someone.
When this falls through, she blames her maker for her mishaps. Her own soul and body upset by an earthly love, she unconsciously felt how close this human love stood to the godly love and how each in a measure interpreted the other. Both naturally and supernaturally she found a redeemer. A new understanding in love obviously resembled for her a conversion in faith.
She tells how faith is lost in this poem. To lose one s faith surpass The loss of an Estate Because Estates can be Replenished faith cannot (Dickinson 337 line 1-4) Dickinson s story consequently turns from the failure of the outward and visible churches to the partial success of the inner and spiritual life privately cultivated, sequentially not without similarity and reference to traditional ethics in religious studies. Dickinson, to use the terminology of her own day, preferred transcendentalism to Christianity. To some extent, Dickinson seems truly to have felt guilt for this nonconformity; yet it is encouraged mainly by her lifelong belief that she can love people more than God. She looks for all available evidence against God s fate. If there is any sign that renders an unanswered prayer, Dickinson will find it.
I do not think Dickinson is best defined as a religious poet. Her ambiguity as a poet for whom religion was a major theme along with her gained knowledge from school and reading definitely caused her to lead her life as an individualistic person.