EMILY DICKINSON: MYSTIC AND SKEPTIC
ROBERT GENE FLICK
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
To the administration and trustees of Jacksonville University I
wish to express sincere thanks for the paid leave of absence that allowed
me to complete this dissertation. For their interest and support of my
efforts to obtain such a grant, I am especially grateful to Dr. Dan A.
Thomas, Dean of the Faculty, Dr. John E. Tilford, Chairman of the Divi-
sion of Humanities, and Dr. George W. Hallam, Professor of English and a
I want to thank those members of the English Department at the Uni-
versity of Florida who have shown interest in my progress and have offered
advice and encouragement over a period of several years. I should like to
mention particularly Professors T. Walter Herbert, Edwin C. Kirkland, Peter
Lisca, and Alton C. Morris.
My principal debt of gratitude, for his kindness, patience, and wise
counsel, must go to the chairman of my committee, Dr. John T. Fain, who has
given generously of his time in going over my writing and guiding me in the
various stages of this study. I am indebted also to Dr. William Ruff, a
considerate and helpful member of my committee for several years, and to
the people who at various times have represented my minor in humanities:
Dr. John H. Groth, an inspiring former teacher, and Dr. Eugene A. Hammond,
who generously consented to replace the late Dr. Arthur W. Thompson.
Finally, I wish to thank my wife and family for their sacrifices
and understanding during the progress of my work.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACINTOWLEDGMENTS ....... . ... ...... ...... ii
INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND, DEFINITIONS, THE CRITICAL
CONTEXT. . . . . . . . . . . . ..
II UNCERTAINTY: THE CLEANSING PERIL OF SKEPTICISM
III ECSTASY: THE AWAKENING OF THE SOUL. . . .
IV DESOLATION: THE PARADOX OF LOSS AND GAIN . .
V ILLIJMI TION: t~IANSCENDENT CONCEPTS OF REALITY.
VI PURGATION: THE WAY OF DEATH . . . . .
VII RAVISH4ENT: THE CONSUMMATION OF UNITY . . .
CONCLUSIONS . . . . . . . . . . .
A SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . . . .
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . .. . . . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
. . .
* . .
. . .
. . .
INTRODUCTION: BACKGROUND, DEFINITIONS, THE CRITICAL CONTEXT
Background and purpose.--During the summer of 1962 I had occasion
to re-read a considerable body of the poetry of Emily Dickinson in view
of an illuminating introduction by Northrop Frye. It was partly a result
of Frye's criticism that I began to see what appeared to be a fusion of
religious skepticism and mystical awareness in her poetry. The concep-
tion of Emily Dickinson as mystic and skeptic grew steadily from that
time, culminating in the present study.
This study represents an attempt to select a significant number of
poems that reveal mystical or skeptical tendencies, to organize them into
meaningful phases of thought and feeling, and to explicate them emphasiz-
ing their mystical and skeptical qualities. Her mysticism, though it has
been discerned, has apparently never been fully documented; the poems
that illustrate it have not been brought together and analyzed to deter-
mine the distinctive character of her mysticism. Moreover, the unusual
role of skepticism as a stimulant to her mystical temperament has not
previously been described. These are some of the tasks undertaken here.
In an attempt to avoid being unduly influenced by the opinions of
other critics, I postponed the reading of several of the standard works
on the poet until the study was essentially complete. Though I was fully
aware that her mystical tendencies had been noted by various writers, I
Major Writers of America, ed. Perry Miller (New York, 1962), II,
had never encountered a statement describing her spiritual conscious-
ness specifically as a combination of mysticism and skepticism. It was
astonishing, therefore, after the study was finished, to run on to the
following passage in George Whicher's early biography, This Was a Poet.2
After noting the "close parallel between her work and that of Donne,
Herbert, and Vaughan," Whicher says that nevertheless she was evidently
"not well acquainted" with these seventeenth century poets.
She had, however, found one harbor in the seventeenth
century. The writer of that period whom she most cherished,
according to her statement to Higginson, was Sir Thomas
Browne. This is the first and last that we hear of him
from her, but the hint is not to be neglected. Browne, who
wrote the Religio Medici as a "private exercise" not in-
tended for publication, who lived much apart from the world
to speculate on the mysteries of time and death, who combined
the mental attitudes of skeptic and mystic, and who loved to
draw hermetic meanings out of scientific and mathematical
figures, was obviously her spiritual kinsman. (p. 211)
Whicher goes on to credit Margery McKay with the discovery that the poet's
use of "circumference is very similar to "Browne's use of the same word."
Moreover, Whicher's recognition of contradictory tendencies in
Emily Dickinson is not limited to his observation of her affinity with
Browne. He says elsewhere that "like Emerson's Brahma, she was able to
be both doubter and devotee in a fashion that puzzles more single-minded
readers" (p. 292). Specifically concerning her work, he says, "In con-
trast to her poems of affirmation, therefore, we find a number conceived
in a purely skeptical mood" (p. 300). His most penetrating comment on
her ambivalence is probably the following:
2George Frisbie Whicher, This Was a Poet (New York, 1939).
At any moment she was ready to acknowledge in herself the
claims of rationalist and mystic, Pyrrhonist and Transcen-
dentalist. A mood of faith that possessed her in the
morning might become matter of delicate mockery in the
afternoon, a piercing grief could be sublimated overnight
into a rapture of spiritual purgation. (p. 305)
It would seem then that Whicher observed in Emily Dickinson the
same "mental attitudes of skeptic and mystic" that I have tried to docu-
ment in the pages that follow. Though these statements come closest to
expressing the synthesis aimed at in this study, there are quite a number
of references that may be cited in support of mystical or skeptical ten-
dencies alone. It might be appropriate to look at some of these, from
both short and long works, before proceeding.
Critical comments on mysticism or skepticism.--Various short
critical analyses of Emily Dickinson's achievement have been assembled
in the collection of essays edited by Richard B. Sewall. In most of
these essays some statement may be found to suggest the poet's inclina-
tion toward mysticism or skepticism. In his introduction, Sewall himself
says, "She is variously a mystical poet, a romantic poet, a Metaphysical,
a Transcendentalist, and, most recently, a Meditative poet" (p. 5).
Conrad Aiken says that her inability to find intellectual compan-
ionship made her an easy "prey to the then current Emersonian doctrine of
mystical individualism." He also remarks on her skeptical tendencies,
particularly her irreverence toward the "Puritan conception of God."
Commenting on her use of the expression, "Burglar, banker, father" and
3Emily Dickinson: a Collection of Critical Essays (Englewood
Cliffs, N. J., 1963). References to these essays will be cited here-
after by page only.
on her apology to God for his own "duplicity," he concludes as follows:
This, it must be repeated, is Emily Dickinson's opinion of
the traditional and anthropomorphic "God," who was still, in
her day, a portentous Victorian gentleman. Her real rever-
ence, the reverence that made her a mystic poet of the finest
sort, was reserved for Nature, which seemed to her a more
manifest and more beautiful evidence of Divine Will than
creeds and churches. (pp. 12-13)
Allen Tate's essay, though it is one of the most illuminating,
contains no specific reference to mysticism, but it does contain three
or four statements that help to support my own conception of the poet and
her work. Though the present study is based almost entirely on the poet-
ry, I have nevertheless, in the title, implied a designation for the poet
herself. A comment of Tate's tends to justify the identification of the
poet with her work: "There is none of whom it is truer to say that the
poet is the poetry" (p. 19).
Tate has also put his finger on the peculiar ability that made it
possible for Emily Dickinson to be a mystic poet: ". . like Donne, she
perceives abstraction and thinks sensation." Such perception may be con-
sidered a mystical faculty, and the ability to translate the perception
into concrete sensory images is obviously a poetic faculty. He notes
other "remarkable ties" between Dickinson and Donne, but the one that
most clearly suggests her distinct position between mystic and skeptic
is the following:
In Miss Dickinson, as in Donne, we may detect a singularly
morbid concern, not for religious truth, but for personal
revelation. The modern word is self-exploitation. It is ego-
ism grown irresponsible in religion and decadent in morals.
In religion it is blasphemy; in society it means usually
that culture is not self-contained and sufficient, that the
spiritual community is breaking up. This is, along with
some other features that do not concern hs here, the per-
fect literary situation. (pp. 21-23)
To clarify the point Tate alludes to the situation that gave rise to
Shakespeare. When the "world order is assimilated . as medievalism
was in Shakespeare, to the poetic vision," it may be clearly seen for
the fiction that it is.
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.
In thus carrying Tate's point a bit farther and introducing Wallace
Stevens' use of "fiction," I am able to suggest an idea developed in
my final chapter. Though the Puritan fiction was a part of Emily Dick-
inson, she was never a part of it: hence her skepticism. Through her
rejection of orthodox religion, as of the world in general, she was able
to insist on personal illumination, however presumptuous it may seem.
Thus the dissolution of the Puritan fiction does not carry her with it.
Disintegration of a spiritual order is "the perfect literary situation"
because it prepares for the building of a more enduring structure through
the selecting and transforming power of art, and this was the process in
which she was engaged. The spiritual quest was, for her, identical with
the poetic process. Both were facets of the pursuit of immortality.
In his essay called "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment"
Yvor Winters mentions mysticism and mystical experience several times.
He even calls it a major subdivision of her poetry: "mystical experience,
or the definition of the experience of 'immortality,' to use a favorite
word, or of beatitude." In commenting on poem 1159, "Great streets of
silence led away,' he reveals the difficulty of actually calling her a
mystic, notwithstanding the mysticism in her poetry:
This is technically a mystical poem: that is, it
endeavors to render an experience--the rapt contempla-
tion, eternal and immovable, which Aquinas describes as
the condition of beatitude--which is by definition
foreign to all human experience, yet to render it in
terms of a modified human experience. Yet there is no
particular reason to believe that Emily Dickinson was a
mystic, or thought she was a mystic. (pp. 30-32)
The tone of Winters' essay as a whole is not one of admiration or
sympathy for Emily Dickinson, but he does pay her a backhanded compli-
ment when he says, "Her inability to take Christian mysticism seriously
did not, however, drive her to the opposite extreme of the pantheistic
mysticism which was seducing her contemporaries" (p. 35). Whatever may
have been her attitude toward Christian mysticism, which is largely
Catholic, Winters later notes that she was inclined to reinterpret cer-
tain aspects of Calvinist theology "in the direction of a more clearly
Catholic Christianity" (p. 39).
Henry U. Wells, in his essay on "Romantic Sensibility," attributes
Emily Dickinson's mysticism to--well of course, to romantic sensibility:
The contrasted seeds of mysticism and Stoicism took root
in Emily's mind not only because of her own personality,
but through a congenial ground prepared for them by roman-
tic sensibility. . In view of her total accomplishments
she is neither a mystic nor a stoic poet, though she undeni-
ably is both mystical and stoical. . Her mind was inte-
grated at least to the extent that such qualities as her
peculiar mysticism and Stoicism are themselves properly
explained in the light of her romantic environment and soul.
I wonder how mystical one must be to be a mystic. I have no particular
quarrel with those, like Wells and Chase, who place a great deal of em-
phasis on the poet's romantic temperament; this does not necessarily,
in my opinion, devaluate the genuineness of mystical perceptions. But
it should be remembered that Emily Dickinson's romanticism was balanced
by an almost severe realism and skepticism.
In "Communication of the Word' Donald E. Thackrey says that Emily
Dickinson's reverence for "the power of the individual word . helps
explain her use of poetic composition to discipline the mystical intui-
tions which involved her in both ecstasy and suffering of extreme inten-
sity" (p. 51). He believes, however, that she ultimately came to the
conclusion "that words, powerful as they are, cannot encompass what is
truly significant." What course of action must follow from such a con-
The apparently logical thing to do would be to withdraw
from all attempts at language communication and devote her-
self to a mystical experiencing of truth. Such a course of
action would not have been foreign to her nature or inclina-
tion. Few persons have so completely withdrawn from human
society as she did. However, Emily Dickinson was apparently
not the type of person who could attain a completely mystical
approach to life. She seemed to feel a desperate need for
language communication, or at least the need to organize her
experience to such a degree that it could be expressed on
paper if only for herself to read. Thus, fully aware that
she was attempting the exact thing which she considered im-
possible, she tried to find phrases for her thoughts. (p. 66)
This is a valuable comment, it seems to me, for explaining in another way
the intimate relationship between Emily Dickinson's art and her spiritual
life. As already noted, the spiritual quest was, for her, identical with
the poetic process. Poetry was a way of giving form to that which she
knew was formless and finally inexpressible, but human sensibility re-
Though he does not specifically mention mysticism, R. P. Blackmur
calls her, along with Herrick and Rilke, a "nuptial poet." "All three
celebrate the kind of intimacy we celebrate and sometimes find as nup-
tial. . Each marriage is an effort towards identity" (p. 81). He
also speaks of her protestantt self-excruciation in life's name" (p. 85).
Self-excruciation is an aspect of the mystic way of death described in
the sixth chapter of this study; marriage and identity are aspects of
mystic unity discussed in the last chapter.
John Crowe Ransom also avoids the word "mysticism," but something
very much like it is implied when he speaks of the "magnificent image of
her Soul which she has created in the poems. It may have been imaginary
in the first instance, but it becomes more and more actual as she finds
the courage to live by it." He observes further that she chose as an
artist to claim a heroic history which exhibited first a great passion,
then renunciation and honor, and a passage into the high experiences of
a purified Soul" (pp. 96-98). These steps clearly suggest a pattern
that can often be discerned in the Mystic Way: a movement from ecstasy
to renunciation and purification, and finally to the achievement of unity.
A similar pattern has been followed in organizing this study.
Austin Warren, like Whicher, remarks on the influence of Sir
Thomas Browne. It is not only her style that recalls Browne but the
"difficulties which beset the acceptance of the Bible and orthodox the-
ology." He mentions some of the incongruities that troubled Browne,
then notes Emily Dickinson's comparable skepticism:
Emily's most characteristic difficulties are with the
morals of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament,--which
in her time and place had not been subjected to the "Higher
Criticism." She "knew her Bible" well, the total Bible: it
was her prime mythology. She neither rejects nor accepts it
without question and reservation. (p. 107)
Warren later makes a point that I feel helps greatly to build the case
for her mysticism: "It seems archetypally true of Emily to say that God
was her lover" (p. 111). Much has been said in speculation about her
lover that seems to me totally irrelevant to our understanding of her
poetry, but if God--or "Awe," as she preferred--was the lover, it is not
only relevant but fundamental to the mystical consciousness that is per-
haps the source of her poetic power.
Along with others, James Reeves says, "Her wit has been compared
to the metaphysical style of Donne; it may also be compared with the
gnomic style of Blake." Both English poets have been described as mys-
tical, but of the two, Blake is more distinctly the visionary. Reeves
suggests that Emily Dickinson shared this quality:
Emily's arrival at the truth in this sibylline fashion
is not so much irrational as super-rational. She was in-
terested, not so much in a truth for its own sake--she was
not a philosopher or a moralist--as in a direct vision of
the truth. One might rationalize the vision or intuition
after it had occurred, but that was not her business as a
poet. In seeking to understand her poems, which are often
highly cryptic, we require intuition rather than reason.
Adding to what has been said before about the identification of her life
and her art, Reeves says, "She lived her poems, and never simply thought
them; they were paid for in sensibility or in suffering or in ecstasy"
(p. 124). If so, they are the fruits of mystical experience.
One of the finest short descriptions of Emily Dickinson's dis-
tinct sensibility is the essay by Richard Wilbur called "Sumptuous Des-
titution." I am glad I did not read it until my own study was completed,
for I doubt if I could have written the chapter on the paradox of loss
and gain without feeling deeply indebted to Wilbur. As it is, I only
wish I had written the essay too, for it so perfectly and eloquently
expresses my own understanding of Emily Dickinson's faculty for convert-
ing privation into abundance, loss into gain, pain into bliss. Wilbur
may himself be indebted to Whicher, who covers much the same ground in
the final chapter of This Was a Poet, but the following lines could
hardly be surpassed as an expression of the paradoxical nature of mys-
The creature of appetite (whether insect or human) pur-
sues satisfaction, and strives to possess the object in
itself; it cannot imagine the vaster economy of desire, in
which the pain of abstinence is justified by moments of
infinite joy, and the object is spiritually possessed, not
merely for itself, but more truly as an index of the All.
That is how one comprehends a nectar. Miss Dickinson's
bee does not comprehend the rose which it plunders, because
the truer sweetness of the rose lies beyond the rose, in
its relationship to the whole of being. . Emily Dickin-
son elected the economy of desire, and called her privation
good, rendering it positive by renunciation. And so she
came to live in a huge world of delectable distances. (p. 133)
Wilbur is not the first to notice that at times in her poetry "the
life to come is described in an ambiguous present tense, so that we half-
suppose the speaker to be already in Heaven." This possession of eternity
in the ever-present now I take to be a distinctly mystical aptitude. In
the last few paragraphs of his essay Uilbur comments on the logic of her
claims to beatitude." He concludes that
. poetry must have been the chief source of her sense
of blessedness. The poetic impulses which visited her
seemed "bulletins from Immortality," and by their means
she converted all her losses into gains, and all the pains
of her life to that clarity and repose which were to her
the qualities of Heaven. So superior did she feel, as a
poet, to earthly circumstance, and so strong was her faith
in words, that she more than once presumed to view this
life from the vantage of the grave.
In a manner of speaking, she was dead. And yet her
poetry, with its articulate faithfulness to inner and
outer truth, its insistence on maximum consciousness, is
not an avoidance of life but an eccentric mastery of it.
It is easy enough to see the manner in which "she was dead" when we con-
sider the mystical meaning of death. She was dead to the outer life in
order that she might be inwardly alive. She had gone through the way of
death in order to achieve unity through transformation. This is the
final paradox, and it is treated in the last two chapters of the present
"A Mystical Poet" by Louise Bogan is obviously devoted in its en-
tirety to Emily Dickinson's tendencies toward mysticism. Published in
1960, the essay alludes to an article written in 1945 by the same author
in which she said "that the time had come 'to assess Emily Dickinson's
powers on the highest level of mystical poetry, where they should be
assessed'" (p. 137). That task, which had not yet been undertaken in
1960, is at least attempted in this study. Though there have been vari-
ous articles and longer works on her religious views, her renunciation,
and her concept of death and immortality, there has been no exhaustive
attempt to set forth the actual evidence of mysticism in her poetry, so
far as I have been able to determine.
Recognizing the importance of defining "mystic" and "mysticism,"
Louise Bogan notes that "when, in the West, we speak of true mysticism,
we have in mind the example of the Christian saints." She cites Evelyn
Underhill's statement that mysticism "came to itself" in Christianity
and became aware of its true object in the personality of God. "True
mystics," she believes, "do not indulge in diffuse pantheism. ." (p.
137). I do not wish to view mysticism so narrowly. As Bertrand Rus-
sell has pointed out, it is almost impossible for the mystic to escape
the consideration of pantheism; Christianity, moreover, because of its
roots in Platonic dualism, presents difficulties for the mystic that are
not found in Buddhism and other Eastern religions. Thus I do not limit
my consideration of Emily Dickinson's mysticism to the tradition of the
Christian saints. There are points of similarity, as noted in the last
chapter, between her conception of unity and that of Oriental mysticism.
There are times when her mystical insight seems to range outside the
bounds of any particular religion. In spite of Evelyn Underhill's claim
that the great mystics are generally "faithful sons of the great reli-
gions," I believe mysticism often denotes a level of understanding, a
dimension of experience, and an expansion of consciousness that simply
cannot be embraced by any religious system. The considerations of or-
thodox theology may be utterly irrelevant to it. Underhill comes close
to acknowledging this when she says that the true mystic does not need
the map of orthodoxy but is "willing to use the map of the community in
which he finds himself" (p. 104). She admits that mystics are often re-
garded as madmen or heretics by the orthodox.
Mysticism, as I see it, may be described as a faculty that is dis-
4Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, Meridian Book edition (Cleveland,
1955), p. 96. All references to Underhill are to this edition. See bib-
liography for original publisher and copyright date.
ciplined by an effort involving both mind and body--the whole being--
and that has, as its aim and potentiality, the fulfillment of the whole
being. It is partly an effort to negate and override death, foolish as
that may seem to the realist (which Emily Dickinson sometimes was), and
to achieve a sense of the eternal now that renders time meaningless. Yet
it has no use for considerations of sin, reward, punishment, heaven, or
hell. Eternity is no future time calling for hope of reward or fear of
damnation; it is a state of consciousness, an elect status and stasis,
wherein the attempt to grasp the rapidly fading pageant of the world is
Louise Bogan perceives that "the progress of the mystic toward
illumination, and of the poet toward the full depth and richness of his
insight--are much alike" (p. 138), and with this I can readily agree,
particularly when it is applied to Emily Dickinson. But she goes on to
say that Emily Dickinson belongs "in the company" of the English Roman-
tic poets--Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats--who identi-
fied the imagination with God. I am not fully sympathetic with this as-
sumption; it again tends to overlook her realism, and it ignores her
hesitation to say anything about God. I have the distinct impression
that Emily Dickinson regarded the term "God" as too ambiguous and anthro-
pomorphic to be meaningful. She preferred a term like "Awe" that could
not be addressed or visualized.
What was the basis of Emily Dickinson's mystical awareness9 Ac-
cording to Bogan, "Balance, delicacy and force--fed by her exquisite
sensesand her infinitely lively and inquisitive mind--these are the
qualities which reinforce her vision into the heart and spirit of nature,
and into her own heart." She adds later that the "power to say the un-
sayable--to hint of the unknowable--is the power of the seer, in this
woman equipped with an ironic intelligence and great courage of spirit."
Her aphorisms correspond to "mystical writing from Plotinus to Blake"
(pp. 141-43). Thus it is pointed out once more that the poetic faculty
is united with the mystical faculty, as it is in the ancient conception
of the poet as prophet. This is a point that cannot be stressed too
often as one tries to understand the distinctive power of Emily Dickin-
Two comments from Archibald MacLeish's examination of the poet's
"private world" permit further insight into the value of renunciation in
cultivating mystical consciousness:
The poet of the private world is not observer only but actor
in the scene that he observes. 'nd the voice that speaks in
his poems is the voice of himself as actor--as sufferer of
those sufferings, delighter in those delights--as well as his
voice as poet.
. it is not true that her withdrawal into her father's
house and into her own room in that house was a retreat from
life. On the contrary it was an adventure into life--a pene-
tration of the life she had elected to discover and explore--
the vast and dangerous and often painful but always real--
poignantly real--realer than any other--life of herself. (pp.
Here again it is stressed that the poet lived the poems, that the poet
and the poems are one. Added to that is the suggestion of a point that
is developed later in this study: that she came to regard this private
adventure of discovery and exploration as a poem in itself. Thus her im-
mortal poem was not made merely of the words she wrote but of the mystic
quest she lived.
Since Northrop Frye's introduction was mentioned as a major influ-
ence on the original conception that led to this study, it seems appropri-
ate to conclude this summary of comments from essays by citing a few of
his most pertinent remarks. On her skepticism he says,
. Emily Dickinson had a great respect for orthodox re-
ligion and morality, did not question the sincerity of those
who practiced it, and even turned to it for help. But she
never felt that the path of social conformity and assent to
doctrine was her path. (Frye, p. 11)
Frye points out her apparent belief that "there is another kind of re-
ligious experience that counterbalances, but does not necessarily contra-
dict, the legal and doctrinal Christianity which she had been taught."
He defines it more clearly as follows:
This other kind of religious experience is a state of
heightened consciousness often called "Transport" and
associated with the word "Circumference," when the poet
feels directly in communion with nature and in a state
of "identity"--another frequent term--with it. Nature
is then surrounded by the circumference of human con-
sciousness, and such a world is Paradise, the Biblical
Eden, a nature with a human shape and meaning, a garden
for man. (Ibid., p. 12)
Such a "heightened consciousness" of nature suggests an Oriental rather
than a Christian aspect of mysticism. Nature, in the Christian view, is
Eden after the fall; it is hard for the Christian to escape the vague
feeling that nature is condemned, that its sensuous temptations must be
resisted. For Emily Dickinson, however, nature can still be paradise,
as Frye says. The conclusion of his argument may be summarized with a
The first fact of Emily Dickinson's experience, then, was
that whatever the Bible may mean by Paradise or Eden .
it is something that is already given in experience. It is
attainable; the poet has attained it; it is not, therefore,
a "superhuman site," nor could it survive the extinction of
the human mind. . If so, then the experience of Paradise
in life is identical with the experience of eternity.
The people we ordinarily call mystics are the people for
whom this is true. Eternity to them is not endless time, but
a real present, a "now" which absorbs all possible hereafters.
Emily Dickinson also often speaks with the mystics of death
as a rejoining of heaven, of "Forever" as "composed of Nows,"
of an eternal state of consciousness symbolized by a continu-
ous summer and noon, of a coming "Aurora," a dawn that will
have no night. But in her background there were two power-
ful antimystical tendencies at work. One was the rationalism
of her generation; the other was the Puritanism in which she
had been reared. . For Emily Dickinson, therefore, the
identity between the experience of circumference she had had
and the post-mortal eternity taught in the Bible remained a
matter of "inference." (Ibid., p. 13)
If Frye is right in assuming that she believed heaven could not "survive
the extinction of the human mind" (and there is poetic evidence to sup-
port this assumption), then she obviously realized, as Wallace Stevens
did, that heaven is a fiction woven by the imagination. This point too
will be taken up later in detail.
Frye mentions rationalism as one of the two "antimystical tenden-
cies" in her background. Skepticism is a product of rationalism, and I
have chosen to express the delicate balance in her nature by using the
see-saw designation, mystic and skeptic. The point is not that she was
first one and then the other but that she was and remained both at once,
that she kept the two in a delicate state of tension. Though it may have
been painful, she is far more fascinating because of the combination.
In his full-length study of Emily Dickinson,5 Richard Chase devotes
5Richard Chase, Emily Dickinson, Delta Book edition (New York,
1965). All references to Chase's criticism are to this book. See bib-
liography for original publisher and copyright date.
considerable space to her religious attitudes and her spiritual under-
standing. He describes the "crisis of the Poet's religious life" at
Mount Holyoke, and he remarks that in spite of her inability to accept
Christian salvation, "she surely had more potential capacity for re-
ligious experience than any of her young friends." Of her growing skep-
ticism he says, "Like Melville, Emily Dickinson was finding Christian
belief impossible to accept in the nineteenth century. . She voices
her conviction that Christianity has come to represent passivity, spiri-
tual surrender, and mediocrity." A slightly different reason for her
rejection of orthodoxy is evident when he says that "she was a poet who
found that the poetic content of Christianity was, for her, incompatible
with a formal commitment to Christian dogma and the Christian church"
(pp. 55-60). Following T te's lead, he prefers to attribute her spiri-
tual effort to a requirement for the dramatic that was lacking in her
time and place:
. our poet's theme of renunciation finds one of its
sources in the historical situation which forces her to
give up the dramatically significant life she believes she
would have had as a birthright in more Christian times and
forces her, furthermore, to take up the arduous task of
constructing a privately dramatic life through imagination
and poetry. (p. 63)
Scattered throughout Chase's book are various brief comments that
point toward the poet's mysticism:
"Experience" in Emily Dickinson's best poetry is narrow
and profound. Typically it takes the form of a sudden
illumination, an appalling pause in the motion of things,
a seizure of an unspeakable power, an ecstatic influx. (p. 122)
She had certain visionary qualities in common with Blake, and
she invented a poetically imagined eschatology. (p. 124)
Reality and truth have for Emily Dickinson and H wthorne
so much the quality of something finally given to the
clairvoyant mind once and for all that they do not easily
take to ideas of evolution and unfolding. (p. 127)
. she presents the precarious possibility that the soul
can acquire its royal diadem through the reception of in-
effable experience. . (p. 130)
. Emily Dickinson can sometimes strike us as an embodi-
ment of purely magic power and an unprincipled but endlessly
searching and ingenious imagination mysteriously in touch
with the forces of the universe. (p. 136)
She was a realist and a seer. No moralist can delve such
abysses in the universe. (p. 147)
In her moments of what she called "rapt attention" Emily
Dickinson . was capable of the ecstatic experience of
grace. (p. 148)
To Emily Dickinson, then, the idea of grace entailed the
rare moment of exalted, intuitive experience which conferred
a redemptive status upon her personal and domestic life. (p. 150)
The pain of life as well as the preliminary "estates" one
has achieved are "guarantees" or "certificates" of immortal-
ity. Emily Dickinson's poetry is a contract or covenant with
God. (p. 180)
In view of the mystical connotations of these statements, it is
rather surprising to read the following:
Though Emily Dickinson's religion of immortality may be loosely
described as "mystical," she was surely not a mystic in any
closely defined sense of the word. . Our poet understood
the mystic experience, the totally engaged contemplation of
the eternal, beatific light, and she sometimes wrote about it
as an idea--as when she speaks of the "rapt attention" to im-
mortality. But she never tries directly to render the experi-
ence itself. She is no St. Catherine, no John of the Cross.
I devote this much space to Chase because the various comments point up
the problem of terminology. I can neither agree nor disagree with his
contention that "she was surely not a mystic in any closely defined sense
of the word." It is of course the "sense of the word" that is most
crucial to a basis of agreement. I would not try to contend that she
was the kind of mystic that John of the Cross was--or St. Catherine
or St. Teresa or any of the Christian saints. The difficulties she ex-
perienced in trying to accept Christianity have been adequately shown.
The question is, does this difference from the saints make her any the
less a mystic? I cannot fully agree that "she never tries directly to
render the experience itself." Either Chase has overlooked some poems
(he wrote before the variorum appeared), or else we see them different-
ly. I have included several examples of such direct and intense poems
in Chapters III and VII. It seems to me that she comes as close to
describing the unutterable as most other mystics. But she knew, as they
did, that mystical experience cannot finally be expressed.
One final aspect of Chase's criticism is interesting. He finds
it meaningful to account for her attitude toward immortality by relating
it to Gnosticism:
This extraordinary generalization of immortality,, outside
of history, church, and dogma, clearly has the quality of
Gnosticism. For, like the Gnostic believer of all ages,
Emily Dickinson makes of immortality an almost omni-present
magic power. . Also in the Gnostic manner is her occa-
sionally indulged habit of obscuring the fact of death by
speaking as if through suffering or receiving revealed
truth the fortunate individual may already possess immortality
in this life. (p. 183)
Just as he finds it meaningful to note her correspondence to Gnosticism,
by the same token many have found it meaningful to speak of her corres-
pondence to mysticism--based on some of the same evidence. The impor-
tant thing is not what Chase believed or what I believe but what the poet
herself believed about her experience, and as Chase himself notes,
"Emily Dickinson believed that the poet was indeed possessed at the
moment of utterance by that 'spectral power in thought that walks alone'"
(pp. 190-91). There can be little doubt that she also believed she had
received some kind of mystical illumination.
References to mysticism are few in Thomas Johnson's biography.
After stating that her ideas about poetry and poetics "are in the main
stream from Plato to Emerson," he describes her conception in words that
The poet is a seer; his inspiration comes as a grace, over-
leaping regular channels; he is thus a man possessed, who
reveals truth out of the agony of his travail; and the
anguish of such possession enables the receiver to partake
of reality and reveal at least a fragment of the mysteries
that the heart perceives.6
Johnson also recalls a letter in which she gives "a hint that Vaughan was
a poet she greatly admired," and he speaks of "her admiration for that
seventeenth-century mystic, whose imagination stirred her own, and whose
feeling for nature and the homely terms of everyday usage in which he
dared to express it, she shared." On the following page he says, "On
occasion her poems are in the tradition that records a mystical or philo-
sophical sense of nature" (pp. 196-97). The only other comment relative
to mysticism is the following:
A poem can convey the nuances of exultation, agony, com-
passion, or any mystical mood. But no one can success-
fully define mysticism because the logic of language has
no place for it. (p. 222)
Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: an Interpretive Biography
(Cambridge, 1955), p. 148.
This, of course, is one of the difficulties that must be faced in a
study such as the present one. I have already attempted a partial
definition, unsuccessful though it may be, and the efforts of others
to define it will be mentioned later.
Johnson makes two brief statements that may help to specify her
skepticism. He says that "from the first she quested for certainties
which from beginning to end she rejected" (p. 239). This is very apt.
Little needs to be added except to observe that the comment involves
both sides of her nature, religious and skeptical. Near the end of his
book he examines a poem (number 766) that he says "throws clear light
upon the nature of her skepticism. To have less faith in the upward
striving creature than in the outstretched arm of the Creator, she says
here and often elsewhere, is to expect a less than perfect union be-
tween God and man" (p. 255). Thus Johnson suggests that her skepticism
is based partly on faith in man.
The most recent and probably the most thorough treatment of Emily
Dickinson's intellectual and spiritual life is Albert Gelpi's book, The
Mind of the Poet.7 It contains many comments relative to this study--
too many in fact to include them all here. I have tried to select a
few, however, that offer some new light. Gelpi recalls, for example,
the early and important influence of Ben Newton:
From Benjamin Newton's superior mind and spirit she drew
not the orthodox faith, but a different kind of faith in
7Albert J. Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: the Mind of the Poet (Cam-
things unseen. . He introduced her to Emerson and gave
her a cherished copy of the Poems. Visionary faith in
Nature was, she realized through Newton, the vocation of
the poet. . (p. 16)
In connection with her skepticism he says that she was aware of
"the questions raised by Darwinism and the Higher Criticism," and as
he sees it, "The consistent implication is that the Bible must be con-
sidered as a humanly, not a divinely, inspired document, as a 'romance'
or 'myth.'" He cites several passages from her letters to show that for
her, as for Emerson, Jesus was not God but rather "the representative
man." He comments extensively on Emily's irreverent use of Biblical
passages for humorous or literary effect, again contending that it shows
her to have regarded the Bible as the literary expression of human situ-
ations and human truths. . ." He seems unwilling to dismiss her ir-
reverence as lightly as certain others: "In the attempt to make Emily
a Good Christian despite her eccentricities, some biographers berate
the humorless critic who would take her little jokes at face value as
intentional irreverence." Judge Lord was probably another influence on
her skepticism according to Gelpi. He feels that she must have at times
admired the Judge's stoicism "which neither feared extinction nor prized
redemption." Still another influence, he suggests, was Theodore Parker's
book The Two Christmas Celebrations that Mrs. Bowles gave her for
Christmas in 1859. "Parker moved his narrative from the humble simpli-
city of Jesus' birth through His preaching of individual piety and good
8Compare Austin Warren's comment on the Higher Criticism quoted on
will to the corruption of Jesus' example into Christianity, with all its
paraphernalia of redemption, resurrection, miracles, devils, heaven, and
hell." One further comment about her skepticism should be emphasized:
'She understood skepticism all too well and she could not take the easy
escape of merely dismissing the problems" (pp. 48-53).
Gelpi is inclined to emphasize the influence of Emerson on her
mystical tendencies as well as on her skepticism. Emerson's "metaphysic
found German idealism and Oriental mysticism more congenial than Chris-
tian dualism" (p. 57). Though Gelpi does not say so, it is altogether
possible that the appeal of Oriental mysticism, which seems evident in
the poems of unity, reached her through Emerson. He does say that she
had "absorbed, as early as 1850, the essential features of Transcenden-
talism" with its "metaphysical and mystical speculations" (p. 63).
Emily Dickinson's moments of illumination, according to Gelpi,
are part of a broad literary context:
In the whole span of the New England tradition, from
Bradford and Winthrop and Edwards to Emerson and Dickin-
son and later to Eliot and Frost, individual experience
finally focused and rested upon the pivotal moments of
revelation and insight--the moments of divine manifesta-
tion and human vision. This union--however insecure--in
which the individual lost himself in totality is the sole
end of that Augustinian strain of piety which Perry Miller
saw as the bright heart of Puritanism. . But while
Christians see regeneration as the moment of grace, "other
people have found other names for the experience: to
lovers it is love, to mystics it is ecstasy, to poets
inspiration." (p. 76)
Gelpi is here quoting Miller as background for his own conclusion:
For a poet she was; and, in some senses of the words, a
lover and a mystic as well. What remains, therefore, is
to see what she made of and with her fitful vision. (Ibid.)
He later notes that the "transforming experience was the momentous
interview" presumably with the divine. In the moments between such
interviews "she could only relive earlier bliss in memory or anticipate
bliss to come" (p. 87).
As I have done in this study, Gelpi places a great deal of em-
phasis on consciousness, which "defined the inner world in terms of the
outer and the outer world in terms of the inner, its arc sweeping vari-
ously around the central self" (p. 102). He declares that Emily Dickin-
son "made the cultivation of consciousness her religion" (p. 108). I
have noted earlier my own view that the mystic quest involves an expan-
sion of consciousness that cannot be satisfied or contained by any re-
ligious system. Such an expansion gives rise to the faculty whereby the
limits of time and physical form may be transcended. Gelpi adds that
In a body of poetry devoted to the main concerns of
consciousness the principal themes are, predictably,
love, death, and immortality: fulfillment, dissolution,
and transcendence inextricably entwined. The need for
love--that is, for external union which would complete and
express the self--is the force that pervades all of Emily
Dickinson's writing. (p. 109)
This she certainly has in common with the mystic. Gelpi maintains, how-
ever, that "on all levels--human, sexual, religious, and mystical--Emily
Dickinson's love was doomed, by its very nature and demands, to retire to
itself in unrequited frustration." Only in the "Eden-Heaven" would she
find "fulfillment in and absorption by the 'lover.'" Then, reverting
to her skepticism, he adds, "But what could the prospect of fulfillment
in the afterlife mean to one who was alternately skeptical or fearful of
immortality? She found herself trapped in the coils of her own doubts."
Immortality, for her, meant something quite different from the conven-
tional afterlife; it "had its deepest meaning for her, as did love and
death, as an existential state of mind and feeling" (pp. 111-15).
Once more Gelpi chooses to relate these concepts to the Transcen-
dentalists. He insists that "in Dickinson, as in Emerson and Thoreau,
eternity and infinity and God Himself can best be taken as the encircling
infinity into which the individual may expand in accordance with his in-
ner capacity." Commenting on the meaning of Circumference, he says that
it "signifies ecstasy in its expansiveness, in its self-contained whole-
ness, in its self-ordered coherence, in its definition of the individu-
al's capacity for being (and for Being)" (pp. 122-23).
Near the end of his book Gelpi acknowledges that Emily Dickin-
son "felt the impulse to find outside herself something which answered
her and which she could answer," but he believes that she "cringed" and
"retreated from that faceless presence . ." (pp. 160-61). I am con-
vinced, on the contrary, that she retreated from an external existence
precisely for the purpose of facing and cultivating that presence. The
search for the unknown center of being, he suggests, poses the question
of its location:
Is the goal within our individuality? This would compel
us to absorb externals into the fullest cultivation of
consciousness. Or is the goal without? This would compel
us to seek ourselves in a transcendent reality. Edwards,
Emerson, and Eliot would have told her that loss of self
and fullness of self were finally the same. (p. 173)
Again I am inclined to take issue, at least with her need for instruction
concerning the loss of self. In the last chapter I have tried to show
that she reached an awareness even of that highest stage of mystical
development, the annihilation of self. I would not maintain that she
achieved such fulfillment--How can one ever know?--but there is poetic
evidence to show that she understood it.
This summary of the criticism touching upon Emily Dickinson's
mysticism and skepticism is certainly not definitive, but it should con-
vey a fair idea of the range of opinion. Though there are exceptions, I
find in these comments considerable support for what is said in this
study. There is no attempt here, however, merely to repeat the conclu-
sions of others. The intention is to seek poetic evidence and to draw
the conclusions from that alone.
Definitions.--Anyone who writes about mysticism must be concerned
about the problem of ambiguity and the consequent need for clear defini-
tion. Yet an area so far from the ordinary realm of human experience
does not easily submit to definition. Language itself--a system of
sounds deriving meaning from shared human experience--is perhaps the
crux of the problem. Mystical experience is shared by very few. Evelyn
Underhill devotes an entire chapter of her well-known work on mysticism
to the symbols mystics have used in an effort to convey their unique ex-
perience to those less gifted.
How is it possible to impart the essence and exhilaration of a
wholly non-sensory experience to those familiar only with the sights and
sounds of the physical world? Obviously it is possible only by stimulat-
ing the imagination through metaphor. The poet has a distinct advantage
in that his use of language is special and extra-logical. I have already
cited Johnson's observation that "no one can successfully define
mysticism because the logic of language has no place for it," but I
would contend that the language of poetry is not strictly logical.
Though it may be impossible for the critic to formulate an adequate
definition, the mystical poet in a sense defines the experience in his
verses. The critic may therefore be well advised to build his defini-
tion by commenting on the poems themselves.
In "Mysticism and Logic" Bertrand Russell says, "Mysticism is, in
essence, little more than a certain intensity and depth of feeling in re-
gard to what is believed about the universe. . He goes on to
elaborate four characteristics of mysticism:
a. belief in the possibility of a way of knowledge which
may be called revelation or insight or intuition, as
contrasted with sense, reason, and analysis . .
b. belief in unity, and its refusal to admit opposition
or division anywhere.
c. denial of the reality of Time.
d. belief that all evil is mere appearance and illusion
produced by the divisions and opposition of the ana-
lytic intellect. (pp. 9-11)
I have no quarrel with any of these, and I would be quite content to ac-
cept them as characteristic of Emily Dickinson's mysticism. It should be
noted that in each case Russell speaks of belief or a state of mind
rather than a claim of experience. By the same token, I do not wish to
indulge in claims relative to supernatural visitation, visions, or voices
in regard to Emily Dickinson. I am concerned here primarily with the ex-
tent of her ability to conceive and write about the range of mystical
9Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays (London,
1917), p. 3. All references to Russell's essays are to this collection.
William James sets forth what he calls "four marks which, when
an experience has them, may justify us in calling it mystical."10 These
are ineffability, noetic quality, transiency, and passivity. The first
suggests, as noted above, that such an experience cannot be expressed
and stresses that it is a state of feeling. The second stresses that
it is also a state of knowledge or of the intellect, a kind of illumi-
nation. The third obviously implies that "mystical states cannot be sus-
tained for long." And the fourth indicates that such states are involun-
tary, cannot be clearly induced or controlled; "the mystic feels as if
his own will were in abeyance. . ." Each of these marks is suggested,
at one time or another, in Emily Dickinson's poetry. The chapters on
ecstasy and ravishment both include poems that try to describe inexpres-
sible feelings. Chapter V deals specifically with intellectual transcen-
dence or illumination, which James calls noetic quality. And Chapter IV
deals not only with the desolation resulting from the transiency of ec-
stasy, but also with the poet's inability to bring about a repetition of
the experience--an indication of passivity.
In setting up a definition of mysticism it is necessary to recog-
nize that there is not only a difference between genuine and spurious,
but more importantly a difference in the degrees or levels of mystical
experience. Evelyn Underhill states that "No one mystic can be discovered
in whom all the observed characteristics of the transcendental conscious-
ness are resumed . ." (p. 167). Thus it is impossible to establish an
10William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, Modern
Library Edition (New York, 1902), pp. 371-72.
inflexible set of criteria and then try to determine whether a person
measures up to it as a means of proving his mysticism. In addition to
the partial definition attempted on pages 12 and 13, it might be said
that the whole merit of this study is definition, in which the connota-
tions of description, distinction, and delimitation are subsumed. It is
not so much an effort to prove her mysticism--if such were possible--as
to qualify, describe, and define it.
Limitations.--The Emily Dickinson this study is concerned with is
the poet, the persona of the poems, and not necessarily the spinster re-
cluse of Amherst who is the subject of biographers. There are several
reasons for confining the study to the poetry. In writing about mysti-
cism there is a positive value in focusing on the deliberate work of a
writer rather than on the fortuitous circumstances of his life and soci-
ety. One does not often live as deliberately as Thoreau did on Walden
Pond, even though a life of semi-isolation such as Emily Dickinson's may
well represent an attempt to do so. Our lives are not usually quite what
we intend, even for the most severe individualists. In some respects the
events of one's life comprise what might be called an accidental catalog
of facts. For this reason I have, for the most part, ignored biographi-
cal material in attempting to assess and define mystical tendencies in
For the same reason I have generally excluded consideration of the
letters. They too, it seems, represent a self that is less than fully
revealed. Even as frank and startling a personality as Emily Dickinson
was inclined to adopt a persona to suit the occasion or the reader to
whom a letter was directed. We know, for example, that she led Higginson
to believe that she had the highest regard for his literary judgment even
though she "rejected--politely and gratefully but adamantly--every piece
of practical literary advice that 'Preceptor' Higginson offered." She
occasionally liked to strike a dramatic pose in a letter, and one senses
that the real Emily was smiling all the while at the reaction she knew it
would produce. This is not to say that she is not sometimes playful and
ironic in the poems as well, but the poet's awareness of a more general
audience ordinarily gives the irony some fairly obvious significance in
the context of the poem. In letters, as in personal relations, we tend
to become the persons we want others to sec. In short we assume a mask
Can we not say, then, that biography tends to represent the acci-
dental self, and letters the assumed self, whereas the poetry can be
taken as an intentional and ideal statement of one's deepest self?
There is yet another reason for limiting our consideration of
mysticism to the poems, and it is to some extent reflected in this matter
of the deepest, intentional self. Biography is generally a record of
events that transpire in the physical realm of existence, but mysticism
is concerned with a level of ultra-sensory being. External events may
have little bearing on the interior life of mystical consciousness.
Thus ordinary biography may be largely irrelevant to a study of this
Gelpi, p. 144.
Considered as an expression of intentional being, poetry itself
becomes a kind of biography, not of external events but of the interior
life. In the Ion Plato says that the poet "is an airy thing . and
he cannot make poetry until he becomes inspired and goes out of his
senses and no mind is left in him."12 The poet, like the mystic, must
escape the senses and the self-conscious mind. Thus poetry seems to be
the most appropriate medium for recording life on the mystical level,
and in exploring that life it is actually better to shun the distractions
of external biography and to concentrate on the life recorded in the poems.
Organization.--Since the poems range from early to late in every
conceivable grouping, it is not feasible to order the categories so as
to show that Emily Dickinson experienced a consistent mystical develop-
ment. Some kind of development undoubtedly took place, but because of
uncertainties in chronology, such a development would be difficult to
trace on the evidence of the poems alone. I took a cue for the arrange-
ment used here from Evelyn Underhill, who says that "the typical mystic
seems to move toward his goal through a series of strongly marked oscil-
lations between 'states of pleasure' and 'states of pain.'" She proceeds
to offer her own classification for studying the "phases of the mystical
life." Though her exposition of the phases is quite detailed, they may
be summarized or listed as awakening, purgation, illumination, the mystic
death or spiritual crucifixion, and union. She admits "that Oriental
Mysticism insists upon a further stage beyond that of union" which she
W. H. D. Rouse, trans. Great Dialogues of Plato (New York,
1956), p. 18.
calls "annihilation or reabsorption of the individual soul in the In-
finite" (pp. 168-70).
I have tried to retain the structure of oscillation between
pleasure and pain in the arrangement of the last five chapters, those
concerned specifically with mysticism. Except for the fourth chapter,
the titles obviously bear a resemblance to Underhill's classification
of phases, but I have tried to word them so as to reflect states of
mind and feeling implied specifically in the poems. Emily Dickinson
uses the word "ecstasy" frequently, and since this is generally an early
and momentary state, I have placed it first. The feeling that seems to
follow most closely after ecstasy in her experience is the emptiness oc-
casioned by the withdrawal or loss of ecstasy; this state of pain I have
called desolation. Then follows a significant group of poems that re-
veal the poet's illumination, her intellectual and imaginative concep-
tions of transcendent reality. The state of pain that has been described
after this is clearly a more mature experience than that called desola-
tion; the poet often compares it to crucifixion and is aware of its pur-
gative value. In the final chapter I have included the many poems of
divine love and ravishment that reveal the poet's longing for unity.
This longing is sometimes expressed as a desire for wholeness, and
though the illustrations are not as numerous, it even appears in terms
of the Oriental conception of annihilation and absorption. While this
arrangement cannot be proven by chronology, it is a meaningful order for
analysis, and it reveals the extent to which Emily Dickinson's mystical
awareness corresponds to Evelyn Underhill's standard and widely respected
Text.--The text of Emily Dickinson's poems used in this study is
derived from the 1955 variorum edition of her complete poetry by Thomas
H. Johnson. Following his own example in the later one-volume edition,
I have corrected misplaced apostrophes in such words as "it's" and
"was'nt," but I have preserved her curious spelling (e.g., visitor,
withheld, exhilirate, sovreign, wo, extasy) whereas Johnson corrects
these words and many others in the one-volume edition. It is my belief
that the intruding or misplaced apostrophe is distracting in a study of
this kind, although it might be significant in a prosodical or textual
study. The unconventional spelling, however (and spelling is nothing
more than convention), is a quirk that contributes to the poet's dis-
tinctive personality. It may be generally unintentional, but this is not
certain, and in any event it is an idiosyncrasy that should not be lost.
The same may be said of her unconventional use of capital letters and
dashes, which I have also retained. Johnson saw fit to preserve these
in the one-volume edition even though he corrected her spelling.
Throughout the study I have referred to the poems by Johnson's
numbering. The letters likewise, though not often quoted, are desig-
nated by their number in the Johnson-Ward text. It seems unnecessary
to give volume and page numbers since the poems and letters are in se-
quence. The bibliography provides complete data on the collected works
as well as on other sources used.
UNCERTAINTY: THE CLEANSING PERIL OF SKEPTICISM AND DOUBT
Before the new can be constructed, the old often must be swept
away. This observation is no less true of intellectual than of physi-
cal achievement. When one attempts to raise an edifice of spiritual
consciousness, the rubble of lost meaning must first be cleared from
the mind. Such a clearing process requires disinterested inquiry and
skepticism. It requires that one refuse to clutter the spaces of the
mind with furniture designed primarily for comfort. To doubt is often
unpopular and never comfortable.
If conventional religion, as Wallace Stevens suggests, is a fic-
tion that has now lost most of its meaning, earlier stages in the gradual
loss are observable in the nineteenth century and before. Calvinists had
long since installed lightning rods, a sign of declining belief in God's
direct intervention, his responsibility for natural phenomena. Science
was having a telling effect on religion in the United States as well as
in Europe, and intellectuals were searching for compromise and adjustment.
The time was ripe for the poet, as prophet, to point the way toward a
new fiction. Emerson seemed a likely candidate for the role of prophet,
and he did indeed help build a fiction called Transcendentalism. Whit-
man went so far as to declare himself prophet of the new democracy, and
his ever-expanding, iconoclastic book was being debated in public. Emily
Dickinson, working in privacy and silence, was also clearing away crumb-
ling beliefs that could no longer stand, but more important, she was
building a new and more spacious spiritual temple, founded on the bed-
rock of skepticism and dedicated to the exaltation of consciousness.
This study attempts to describe the spiritual edifice that Emily
Dickinson erected and to show wherein that structure resembles mysticism.
If mysticism is the shape of the edifice, the steel frame that supports
it is skepticism. Mysticism and skepticism are so intertwined in her
poetry that it is impossible to separate them so as to speak of develop-
ment from one to the other, probably because their coexistence had been
established before she began seriously to write. She wrote very few
poems before she was twenty-eight, and there is every reason to believe
that her spiritual crisis had passed some time before that, in the years
immediately following her brief but disturbing psychological experience
at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary ten years earlier. After being exposed
to extreme emotional pressure to be "saved," and almost submitting, she
finally withdrew--from commitment, from the school, and eventually from
the world. The result of that withdrawal was her remarkable poetic
achievement, which at the same time represented an unsuspected spiritual
To account for the poet's achievement, the critic may also seem
to construct a fiction, but such a construction is an attempt to find,
not to impose, an order. This study, accordingly, attempts to discover
the fictional temple that Emily Dickinson built to replace the church
that, for her, had fallen into ruins. The order of the study is itself
a construction, an arrangement of the poems into a series of progressive
steps on the road to a sublime spiritual ideal. Though marked by the
poems themselves, the steps may or may not have been taken by the poet
in the order they are given here. The expansion of consciousness was
hers, to be sure; the order is for us.
As stated, it is not possible to show that the skeptical poems
are separated in time from the mystical ones, but it is probable that in
her search she had to reach to the bottom of doubt before she could as-
cend to spiritual heights. It thus seems logical to construct and fol-
low an order approximating such a search. The poems of uncertainty,
skepticism, and doubt mark a descent, while the poems of ecstasy,
transcendence, and unity may be viewed as steps upward. Since the
poems of descent comprise a smaller body, they are treated in one chapter.
Since the long and arduous ascent is typically interspersed with periods
of loss and trial, the poems denoting ascent are arranged into five
stages or chapters alternating between bliss and suffering. Such a pat-
tern is suggested by Evelyn Underhill's observation that ". . the
typical mystic seems to move toward his goal through a series of strongly
marked oscillations between 'states of pleasure' and 'states of pain'"
A division of the poems of uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt
under three separate headings would be artificial since many of the
poems reflect the full range of attitudes. In the hope that Johnson's
variorum numbering represents an approximate chronology and hence a kind
of development in skepticism, I have, for the most part, taken the poems
in numerical order. A further question concerns the relationship of un-
certainty to skepticism and doubt in Emily Dickinson's poetry.
In one sense uncertainty is the matrix out of which skepticism
and doubt emerge. Anyone who inquires into universal questions begins
in uncertainty and never wholly escapes it, for it is an integral part
of the human condition itself. There are persuasive reasons to believe
that Emily Dickinson willingly accepted uncertainty as a state that
could never be fully overcome. Though we shall pass on to the consider-
ation of other states of mind, it should be remembered that uncertainty
reserves a place in her thought, providing openmindedness and flexibility.
The reasons for combining the poems of uncertainty, skepticism,
and doubt may then be summarized as follows: First, they help us to see
the full intellectual effort necessary to reach the bedrock of unbelief
on which a new edifice could be erected. The descent toward that bed-
rock may be compared to Dante's descent into hell; for purposes of under-
standing we need to see the bottom before we can turn toward purgatory
and paradise. Second, mysticism must logically be discussed in a progres-
sive order, and it is necessary to consider all phases of skepticism be-
fore the alternating stages of mysticism can be set forth with coherence.
Finally, the full range of uncertainty, skepticism, and doubt needs to
be viewed as a context and background against which Emily Dickinson's
mysticism can be seen in perspective. Her mysticism was unique pre-
cisely because of its foundation in such a context. Intellectual honesty,
an acceptance of undertainty and a continuous spirit of inquiry are aspects
of her skepticism that should be kept steadily before us in trying to
understand her mysticism.
Even such an early poem as number 3, her valentine of 1852, pub-
lished in the Springfield Daily Republican, reveals a certain flippancy
toward traditional religious teaching. For example, one stanza of that
poem reads as follows:
Put down the apple, Adam,
And come away with me,
So shalt thou have a pippin
From off my father's tree!
One could not say on the basis of this bit of humor that she yet seri-
ously doubted the doctrine of original sin, but the stanza shows that she
is willing to poke fun and to question. It is evident from certain ex-
periences recorded in her biography that she enjoyed playing the part of
the rascal, and in another stanza of the same poem she confirms her de-
light in such a role:
Mortality is fatal--
Gentility is fine,
Insolvency, even in matters of faith or belief, is a state she comes to
regard as stimulating.
Another kind of flippancy is evident in poem 49, the well-known "I
never L-st as Much but Twice," where she refers to God as "Burglar!
Banker--Father!" The image of God that religion had given her is that
of a thief who takes away loved ones, an accountant who keeps careful
records of our deeds, and a patriarchal figure of authority who commands
obedience. It is an image she was not able whole-heartedly to accept.
In poem 62 she openly argues with the notion that the human state
is corrupt and dishonorable:
"Sown in dishonor"!
May this "dishonor" be?
If I were half so fine myself
I'd notice nobody!
"Sown in corruption"'
Not so fast!
Apostle is askew!
Corinthians 1.15. narrates
A Circumstance or two!
The passage in I Corinthians 15:41-43 answers those who have questioned
how the dead shall rise and what kind of body the resurrected shall in-
There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the
moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star dif-
fereth from another star in glory. So also is the resur-
rection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is
raised in incorruption: It is sown in dishonour; it is
raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised
In spite of what is obvious questioning of one doctrine, the poet still
relies on the scriptures for a counter argument. The poem may point to
the fact that she was troubled by Biblical inconsistency.
The last stanza of poem 79 is one of the clearest early declara-
tions of disbelief. The poem concerns "Going to Heaven." In the first
stanza she wonders how and when but says "it will be done/ As sure as
flocks go home at night." In the second she asks another to "Save just
a little place for me/ Close to the two I lost." Then in the last stanza
comes a surprising reversal, an abrupt shift from confidence to disbelief:
I'm glad I don't believe it
For it w'd stop my breath--
And I'd like to look a little more
At such a curious Earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty Autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.
Two attitudes should be noted: exceeding delight in "such a curious
Earth" and kindliness toward those who "did believe it" since the pros-
pect of a hereafter evidently gave them comfort and made the going easier.
Poem 101, rather than stating positive disbelief, merely asks the
simple question "Will there really be a 'Morning?'" It is both an in-
quiry and a plea for understanding:
Oh some Scholar! Oh some Sailor!
Oh some Wise Man from the skies!
Please to tell a little Pilgrim
Where the place called "Morning" lies!
One possible reason for her ambiguous attitude toward religion is
given in poem 103:
I have a King, who does not speak--
So--wondering--thro' the hours meek
I trudge the day away--
Half glad when it is night, and sleep,
If, haply, thro' a dream, to peep
In parlors, shut by day.
And if I do--when morning comes--
It is as if a hundred drums
Did round my pillow roll,
And shouts fill all my Childish sky,
And Bells keep saying 'Victory'
From steeples in my soul!
And if I dont--the little Bird
Within the Orchard, is not heard,
And I omit to pray
'Father, thy will be done' today
For my will goes the other way,
And it were perjury!
If she is given the grace, in "dream" or vision, "to peep/ In parlors,
shut by day," the world is filled with "drums," "shouts," and "Bells"
of "Victory,'" but if the vision or insight is not granted, "my will
goes the other way,/ And it were perjury!" In short, religious doc-
trines then become lies, and she seeks to defy them. The poem fore-
shadows how very much she came to require and depend on personal reve-
lation or spiritual experience.
Poem 105 expresses uncertainty concerning our proper attitude
To hang our head--ostensibly--
And subsequent, to find
That such was not the posture
Of our immortal mind--
Affords the sly presumption
That in so dense a fuzz--
You--too--take Cobweb attitudes
Upon a plane of Gauze!
In "so dense a fuzz" of unknowing one has no choice but to take non-
dogmatic "Cobweb attitudes," at times hopeful, at times despairing. The
poet recognizes that the conventional picture of saintliness is one in
which the head is bent in prayer or humility, but she questions whether
we might not subsequently find "That such was not the posture/ Of our
immortal mind." Perhaps a more fitting posture is one with head boldly
erect in the face of the blank "plane of Gauze" where we must find our
way without help.
A similar question about humility is asked in poem 124:
In lands I never aaw--they say
Immortal Alps look down--
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament--
Whose Sandals touch the town--
Meek at whose everlasting feet
A Myriad Daisy play--
Which, Sir, are you and which am I
Upon an August day?
"Sir" is obviously addressed to God, and one would conventionally iden-
tify God with the peaks touching the firmament, man with the meek
daisies. In questioning which is which the poet may be suggesting
that God is a product of the mind of man and hence that the mind stands
taller and more immense than its creation. She at least implies that
man's relationship toward God may not be that of the meek and humble
The posture she most frequently seems to favor is that of the
searcher who is willing to struggle for knowledge, either as a substi-
tute or as a support for faith. This is evident in poem 114:
Good night, because we must,
How intricate the dust!
I would go, to know.
Saucy, Saucy Seraph
To elude me so!
Father! they wont tell me,
Wont you tell them to?
This poem, like so many others, seems to be inspired by someone's death.
But death is here recog ized as a possible gateway to knowledge, and the
poet is willing to go through the "intricate" dust, even at the cost of
her identity ("incognito"), to find answers to the question of immortal-
ity. The tone of the poem is one of playfulness, indicating that the
poet recognizes uncertainty as part of the game of life, yet she appeals
to God for answers that the angels refuse to give.
Poem 121 seems squarely neutral in regard to heaven's truth:
As Watchers hang upon the East,
As Beggars revel at a feast
By savory Fancy spread--
As brooks in deserts babble sweet
On ear too far for the delight,
Heaven beguiles the tired.
As that same watcher, when the East
Opens the lid of Amethyst
And lets the morning go--
That Beggar, when an honored Guest,
Those thirsty lips to flagons pressed,
Heaven to us, if true.
While it is eagerly awaited, but distant and unseen, heaven is like a
feast for beggars and a mirage in the desert; however real, it is un-
available. Its value is only to tease and tantalize. But if heaven
turns out to be true, it will be as startling as if the beggar were in-
vited to be an "honored Guest," and the waiting in uncertain hope will
only enhance the splendor of fulfillment. The poem does not quite ex-
press doubt, but neither does it reveal confidence.
In poem 178 "my priceless Hay" seems to represent the valuable
(meaningful religious beliefs perhaps) that the poet has separated from
the worthless (meaningless ones), only to have her harvest disappear:
I cautious,scanned my little life--
I winnowed what would fade
From what w'd last till Heads like mine
Should be a-dreaming laid.
I put the latter in a Barn--
The former, blew away.
I went one winter morning
And lo--my priceless Hay
Was not upon the "Scaffold"--
Was not upon the "Beam"--
And from a thriving Farmer--
A Cynic, I became.
Whether a Thief did it--
Whether it was the wind--
Whether Deity's guiltless--
My business is, to find.
So I begin to ransack!
How is it Hearts, with Thee?
Art thou within the little Barn
Love provided Thee?
The loss has made her a "Cynic," a term that even more strongly suggests
that the "priceless Hay" represents faith, since "cynic" is often equated
with "skeptic." The poem may well indicate that she has consciously
adopted the position of skepticism. Just as God was called "Burglar"
in poem 49, here "Deity" is juxtaposed with "Thief." When one trans-
lates the fourth stanza into literal terms, she seems to say that the
traditional Christian concept of God may be at fault in the loss of
faith she has experienced. She has apparently found it impossible to
believe in the images of "Burglar! Banker--Father!" and now, in the last
stanza, she wonders whether the concept of God as love may also be gone.
Another aspect of the struggle to maintain a hold on faith is evi-
dent in poem 190:
He was weak, and I was strong--then--
So He let me lead him in--
I was weak, and He was strong then--
So I let him lead me--Home.
'Twasn't far--the door was near--
'Twasn't dark--for He went--too--
'Twasn't loud, for He said nought--
That was all I cared to know.
Here she says that when "He was weak" (probably meaning God's influence
with her), she was strong (in her faith perhaps) and hence led him into
her life. Then when she became weak (physically), his influence in her
life was strong, and she let him "lead me--Home." The going was easy
with him to help. Thus, up to the end of the second stanza, the poem
could be taken as a familiar type of religious testimonial, but then
Day knocked--and we must part--
He strove--and I strove--too--
We didn't do it--tho'!
Unlike the conventional testimonials, the struggle is not rewarded with
success. Neither the power of God in her nor her own strength is suffi-
cient to break through the curtain of death and to affirm immortality.
It is also possible to read the poem as an account of sexual union, in
which case the strength and willingness of one suffices when that of the
other flags. But even in this interpretation the little death of orgasm
is such that neither can rise up from it at the break of day. In either
reading resurrection fails.
The last seven lines of poem 191 seem to affirm that the poet has
come to prefer uncertainty to questionable religious teaching concerning
life after death:
It's finer--not to know--
If Summer were an Axiom--
What sorcery had Snow?
So keep your secret--Father!
I would not--if I could,
Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,
In your new-fashioned world!
The uncertain status of not knowing is "finer" because it enhances the
mystery of life and sharpens our sensitivity for the "Summer" of short
duration. Summer is usually symbolic of the fullness of life, even of
the total ecstasy of nature, as we shall see in the next chapter. If it
were "an Axiom," that is, if it were taken for granted or continued
without change, what mystery would be left in "Snow," by which she ob-
viously means death? Life is more savory because it is seasoned by the
"sorcery," the uncertain transformation, and the fear of death. There-
fore she will not listen to its secret which the skies, the hills, the
flower and bird (of the first two stanzas) seem ready to reveal. Quite
the reverse of poem 114, where she complains, "Father! they wont tell
me,/ Wont you tell them to," she now declares, "So Keep your secret--
Father'" She no longer wishes to speculate about the activities of "the
Sapphire Fellows," those who are crowned with the jewels of heaven. Her
full acceptance of uncertainty as a necessary state may have been prompted,
at least in part, by a romantic appreciation of the value of mystery and
the nostalgic sweetness of transience.
In spite of this temporary disavowal of interest in the affairs
of heaven, she is soon asking further questions about it, as may be seen
in poem 215, but they are probably facetious questions:
Who live there--
Are they "Farmers"--
Do they "hoe"--
Do they know that this is "Amherst"--
And that I--am coming--too--
Do they wear "new shoes"--in'Eden"--
Is it always pleasant--there--
Wont they scold us--when we're hungry--
Or tell God--how cross we are--
You are sure there's such a person
As "a Father"--in the sky--
So if I get lost--there--over--
Or do what the Nurse calls "die"--
I shant walk the "Jasper"--barefoot--
Ransomed folks--wont laugh at me--
Maybe--"Eden" a'nt so lonesome
As New England used to be!
As a subtle side effect, this poem seems intended to satirize the pro-
vincial concepts of heaven that Emily Dickinson must have encountered in
her community and region. Some of the New England farmers may have
found it impossible to conceive of a heaven in which there was no work
to be done. Going to heaven was surely much like going to church, a
place to wear "'new shoes.'" The attitude of God had to be like that of
a typical Calvinist parent who scolded his children for being cross or
hungry. The last stanza suggests that if there is such a "Father" and
if there is such an "Eden," they may be less austere than their counter-
parts in New England. It is thus possible to see the poem as a gentle
Poem 236 seems to indicate her attempt to hold on to a faith she
is in danger of losing:
If He dissolve--then--there is nothing--more--
It was dark--before--
Blindness--on the Dawn--
Faint Star of Bethlehem--
Would but some God--inform Him--
Or it be too late'
Say--that the pulse just lisps--
The Chariots wait--
Say--that a little life--for His--
His little Spaniel--tell Him!
Will He heed?
If belief in Christ dissolves, "then--there is nothing--more." All would
return to darkness. The poem is an urgent cry for help. Her life, or
perhaps her faith, is leaking away, and she asks "some God" to "inform
Him--/ Or it be too late!" The various metaphors for darkness--sunset,
blindness, the star gone down--are an indication of the profundity of
her doubt. The metaphors of dying--lisping pulse, waiting chariots,
leaking red--attest to the urgency of her struggle to overcome it.
Poem 243 quite clearly, effectively, and unemotionally describes
the gradual disappearance of heaven:
I've known a Heaven, like a Tent--
To wrap its shining Yards--
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear--
Without the sound of Boards
Or Rip of Nail--Or Carpenter--
But just the miles of Stare--
That signalize a Show's Retreat--
In North America--
No Trace--no Figment of the Thing
That dazzled, Yesterday,
No Ring--no Marvel--
Men, and Feats--
Dissolved as utterly--
As Bird's far Navigation
Discloses just a Hue--
A plash of Oars, a Gaiety--
Then swallowed up, of View.
Comparing heaven to a tent suggests her awareness that it was never a
permanent structure in man's cosmic consciousness. It retreats from
view silently as it ceases to be real, leaving "No Trace" of its daz-
zling streets, "No Ring" of celestial music. It dissolves like Shake-
speare's "insubstantial pageant faded" and leaves "not a rack behind."
Shakespeare's influence was second only to that of the Bible, and in this
poem his words are almost certainly in her ear.
The anguish of doubt and uncertainty are again evident in poem 244:
It is easy to work when the soul is at play--
But when the soul is in pain--
The hearing him put his playthings up
Makes work difficult--then--
It is simple, to ache in the Bone, or the Rind--
But Gimblets--among the nerve--
Like a Panther in the Glove--
When her soul suffers the pain of doubt, sensing that the "playthings" of
childlike faith are being put up, she finds it difficult to carry on her
daily work. Unlike the superficial physical pains of "the Bone, or the
Rind," this pain "among the nerve" is terriblee" and cannot be ignored.
Such poems attest to her inability to ignore painful questions that "Like
a Panther in the Glove," threaten to burst the comfortable protection
from harsh realities.
Salvation has been called the pearl of great price, and in the
next poem, 245, it seems likely that the jewel the poet has lost while
sleeping is the gem of faith:
I held a Jewel in my fingers--
And went to sleep--
The day was warm, and winds were prosy--
I said "'Twill keep"--
I woke--and chid my honest fingers,
The Gem was gone--
And now, an Amethyst remembrance
Is all I own--
Upon awakening, she realizes that she now has only "an Amethyst remembrance"
of the valuable "Gem" she once possessed. The word "remembrance" coupled
with the idea of sleep suggests that the changes wrought by time and
maturity have deprived her of a child's faith. Images of "Pearl" and
"Gem" are used with similar connotations in poem 270, which is discussed
in a later chapter.
Bertrand Russell says,
To take into the inmost shrine of the soul the irresistible
forces whose puppets we seem to be--Death and change, the
irrevocableness of the past, and the powerlessness of man
before the blind hurry of the universe from vanity to vanity--
to feel these things and know them is to conquer them .1
Very nearly the same understanding is expressed poetically in poem 281:
'Tis so appalling--it exhilirates--
So over Horror, it half Captivates--
The Soul stares after it, secure--
To know the worst, leaves no dread more--
To scan a Ghost, is faint--
But grappling, conquers it--
How easy, Torment, now--
Suspense kept sawing so--
The Truth, is Bald, and Cold--
But that will hold--
If any are not sure--
We show them--prayer--
But we, who know,
Stop hoping, now--
Looking at Death, is Dying--
Just let go the Breath--
And not the pillow at your Cheek
Others, Can wrestle--
Yours, is done--
And so of Wo, bleak dreaded--come,
It snts the Fright at liberty--
And Terror's free--
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday'
When one has known "the worst," he is beyond the reach of fate; it can
do him no further harm. In almost the same words as Russell's, she af-
firms that "grappling, conquers it." Questioning, the panther in poem
244, has broken the glove, and she is now exposed: "The Truth, is Bald,
and Cold." Now that she has come to know, she has passed the point of
1"A Free Man's Worship" from Mysticism and Logic, p. 55. Succeed-
ing references to Russell in this chapter are to this essay.
hope. In her omn time such an admission of hopelessness would have
been tantamount to blasphemy; a hundred years later an existentially
oriented theology can assert that the ultimate religious life is a life
without hope in anything behind this life. Once the "Wo, bleak dreaded,"
has been faced, the "Fright" and terror are released, and the soul gains
that freedom implied in the title of Russell's essay "A Free Man's Wor-
The slave is doomed to worship Time and Fate and Death,
because they are greater than anything he finds in him-
self, and because all his thoughts are of things which
they devour. But great as they are, to think of them
greatly, to feel their passionless splendour, is greater
still. And such thought makes us free men. . (p. 55)
Emily Dickinson, feeling "their passionless splendour," called it a "Gay,
Poem 370 offers persuasive evidence that Emily Dickinson, like
Wallace Stevens, regarded heaven as a construction of the mind:
Heaven is so far of the Mind
That were the Mind dissolved--
The Site--of it--by Architect
Could not again be proved--
'Tis vast--as our Capacity--
As fair--as our idea--
To Him of adequate desire
No further 'tis, than Here--
The dimensions of heaven are just such as the capacity of the mind can
comprehend, its beauty determined by the extent of our aesthetics. To
one who desires it strongly enough, heaven may even be "Here."
In poem 376 God is just as silent and oblivious of humanity as he
2Notes from a lecture on the new theology by Dr. William Mallard,
Associate Professor, Emory University School of Theology.
is to Captain Ahab or to the men in Crane's "Open Boat."
Of Course--I prayed--
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird--had stamped her foot--
And cried "Give Me"--
I had not had--but for Yourself--
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's Tomb--
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb--
Than this smart Misery.
Man's questions are as vain and insignificant as the bird's soundless
foot stamping "on the Air." A full stop should come after "Reason,"
squarely in the poem's center; thus the bird asks its reason for being.
The last half of the poem, beginning with "Life," could be spoken by
either bird or poet. In either case it would have been better never to
have emerged from the "Atom's Tomb" of inert matter than to be forced to
bear the "smart Misery" of not knowing.
Poem 377, a very straightforward statement, again declares the
pricelessness and irreplaceability of faith:
To lose one's faith--surpass
The loss of an Estate--
Because Estates can be
Inherited with Life--
Belief--but once--can be--
Annihilate a single clause--
She recognizes that faith is "Inherited" and hence a gift, probably to
childhood, that can be received but once. Being becomes poor without it,
but one wonders if she does not recognize that its annihilation, for
some, is inevitable.
What are the impediments between man and God, and what kind of
effort is needed to bring them down, or to break through and glimpse
his face? The poet's straightforward struggle seems unsuited to the
subtle barrier, as she notes in poem 398:
I had not minded--Walls--
Were Universe--one Rock--
And far I heard his silver Call
The other side the Block--
I'd tunnel--till my Groove
Pushed sudden thro' to his--
Then my face take her Recompense--
The looking in his Eyes--
But 'tis a single Hair--
A filament--a law--
A Cobweb--wove in Adamant--
A Battlement--of Straw--
A limit like the Vail
Unto the Lady's face--
But every Mesh--a Citadel--
And Dragons--in the Crease--
If reaching God were a test of physical strength or endurance, she would
be equal to the task, but it is a "Hair," a "filament," a "Cobweb," and
a "Vail." These terms suggest the subtle hair-splitting of scholastic
argument, the entangled cobwebs of orthodoxy, and the veil of theologi-
cal definitions. To be sure, Emily Dickinson was not equipped to cope
with these, either by temperament or by inclination. As we shall see,
she preferred to tunnel straight through to direct experience by her
own mystic way.
Several poems indicate her skepticism of the literal truth of
Biblical events. The last stanza of poem 403 is an example:
And so there was a Deluge--
And swept the World away--
But Ararat's a Legend--now--
And no one credits Noah--
It is doubtful that such a liberal attitude was common in rural New
England during the mid-nineteenth century. It might have been so among
intellectuals, but it would hardly be accurate even today to say that
"no one" takes the story of Noah as literal truth.
Poem 413 is too playful and childlike to deserve serious comment,
but it reveals her obvious delight in making mildly heretical and daring
statements such as these: "I don't like Paradise--/ Because it's Sunday--
all the time" and "Myself would run away/ From Him--and Holy Ghost--and
In the last two stanzas of number 420 the poet again suggests her
preference for deed rather than word, for intuition rather than utter-
ance, and she believes that deity shares this preference:
By intuition, Mightiest Things
Assert themselves--and not by terms--
"I'm Midnight"--need the Midnight say--
"I'm Sunrise"--Need the Majesty?
Omnipotence--had not a Tongue--
His lisp--is Lightning--and the Sun--
His Conversation--with the Sea--
"How shall you know"?
Consult your Eye!
Such a belief concerning the route to knowledge of God obviously called
for direct experience through the expansion of consciousness rather than
mare intellectual and bookish inquiry. Emily Dickinson was skeptical
not only of theological subtleties but of any attempt at verbalization
of God. In this way her skepticism itself led to mysticism. Skepticism
of the word led her to rely on the inner eye.
Poem 435 is an interesting commentary on the pressure to conform:
Much Madness is divinest Sense--
To a discerning Eye--
Much Sense--the starkest Madness--
'Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail--
Assent--and you are sane--
Demur--you're straightway dangerous--
And handled with a Chain--
The poet obviously considers herself as one who often has to "Demur" and
cannot "Assent" simply to be regarded with favor by the "Majority." This
was doubtless true in respect to her religious opinions. She refused to
assent to an act of faith or acceptance of salvation just because her
elders urged it or because everyone else was submitting. She refused
to conform even to the pattern of life that her region and her genera-
tion considered normal. To her "discerning Eye" the "Madness" of the
mystic way was indeed "divinest Sense," while the "Sense" of tradition
and orthodoxy were "the starkest Madness." She chose the solitary way
even though it meant being looked on as insane and "dangerous," even
though it meant being "handled with a Chain."
Her attitude toward prayer is revealed in poem 437:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence--is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it--in God's Ear--
If then He hear--
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer--
The use of such functional terms as "implement" and "Apparatus" reveals
that she considered prayer as little more than a mechanical device. She
is not at all sure God hears the "Speech" they so perfunctorily "fling."
The connotations of this description are that prayer is often a search
for favors or for favor, an act without love, and she came increasingly
to see that genuine spiritual experience was motivated solely by love.
Poem 441 may be read as a kind of variation on Hunt's "tbou Ben
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me--
The simple News that Nature told--
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see--
For love of Her--Sweet--countrymen--
Judge tenderly--of Me
Though Ben Adhem's name was not in the angel's book showing those who
love the lord, he asked that he be recorded as one who loves his fellow-
men. The poet here asks to be judged "tenderly" for her love of "Nature"
whose "Message" she believes to be "committed/ To Hands I cannot see."
In short, just as Ben Adhem's love reached God through his fellow men,
whom he could see, her love, she believes, reaches to God through nature.
Poem 455 describes four kinds of triumph. The last two pertain to
the price of skepticism:
A Triumph--when Temptation's Bribe
Be slowly handed back--
One eye upon the Heaven renounced--
And One--upon the Rack--
Severer Triumph--by Himself
Acquitted--from that Naked Bar--
Since the promise of heaven was said to be dependent on conformity to
orthodox precepts, she could not help feeling risk and danger in refusing
to submit to those precepts and thus renouncing the "Bribe" of heavenly
hope. Yet to refuse, in obedience to conscience, is truly a "Triumph"
of the will. The uncertainty and anxiety of making such a choice is
vividly revealed in the lines "One eye upon the Heaven renounced--/
And One--upon the Rack," or hell. It will be an even greater triumph,
however, when all pretension is swept away and she is "Acquitted" by
that judge of severe integrity whcse "Countenance" cannot be faced by
the insincere. This poem stands among various others as an indication
of Emily Dickinson's disdain for religion based on a system of rewards
and punishments, which she considered bribes and threats.
The first three lines of poem 462 again comment on the pain of
doubt and uncertainty, and since the subject has already been explored,
they are sufficient to represent the poem:
Why make it doubt--it hurts it so--
So sick--to guess--
So strong--to know--
For the poet there was no avoiding the pain, however severe, since she
could not accept the security of those who claim "to know." The uncer-
tain state of not knowing was simply a fact of life.
The first twenty-four lines of poem 476 describe a child's belief
in prayer and in the Bible's promise
That "Whatsoever Ye shall ask--
Itself be given You"--
She concludes with a four-line statement of skepticism that has grown out
of disappointed expectation:
But I, grown shrewder--scan the Skies
With a suspicious Air--
As Children--swindled for the first
Either God has proven a swindler or those who have spoken for him are
The poet must have felt at times that her declining faith was lead-
ing to despair, which in poem 477 she compares to a "Goalless Road" that
cannot be compassed:
No Man can compass a Despair--
As round a Goalless Road
No faster than a Mile at once
The Traveller proceed--
Unconscious of the Width--
Unconscious that the Sun
Be setting on His progress--
So accurate the One
At estimating Pain--
Whose own--has just begun--
His ignorance--the Angel
That pilot Him along--
The image is that of a traveller proceeding in a circle, led by the
angel of his own ignorance. He is unconscious of both the futility of
his movement and the fact that death is closing in on him. Such a state
of desperation may well have been the ground in which a mystical con-
sciousness began to take root.
Poem 503 not only discloses another doubt about literal truth,
but describes what may be a first experience of mystical illumination.
In retrospect it takes the form of music:
Better than Music! For I--who heard it--
I was used--to the Birds--before--
This--was different--'.Tas Translation--
Of all tunes I knew--and more--
'Twasn't contained--like other stanza--
No one could play it--the second time--
But the Composer--perfect Mozart--
Perish with him--that Keyless Rhyme!
So--Children--told how Brooks in Eden--
Bubbled a better--Melody--
Quaintly infer--Eve's great surrender--
Urging the feet--that would--not--fly--
In contrast to the song of "Birds" or nature that she is used t, this new
ethereal music is like a "Translation/ Of all tunes," a chord of univer-
sal truth, that the "Composer" alone can play. The disappearance of the
sound suggests man's nostalgia for what "Children" are told is the "Melody"
of "Eden," which they assume was lost by "Eve's great surrender" to the
Eden--a legend--dimly told--
Eve--and the Anguish--Grandame's story--
But--I was telling a tune--I heard--
Not such a strain--the Church--baptizes--
When the last Saint--goes up the Aisles--
Not such a stanza splits the silence--
When the Redemption strikes her Bells--
Let me not spill--its smallest cadence--
Humming--for promise--when alone--
Humming--until my faint Rehearsal--
Drop into tune--around the Throne--
In maturity we come to realize that "Grandame's story" is only "a legend--
dimly told." Unlike that legendary melody, the tune "I heard" is not to
be heard in any "Church." Even the invitational hymn, sung "When the
last Saint--goes up the Aisles" to be redeemed, cannot compare with it.
To remember it until she joins the heavenly choir, she must rehearse it
"when alone." Again she prefers her solitary spiritual experience to the
mythology and rituals of the church. Her skepticism and rejection of
these is accompanied by a gradual mystical awakening.
Poem 508 marks her ultimate break with orthodoxy in the clear-
est possible terms:
I'm ceded--I've stopped being Theirs--
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading--too--
Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace--
Unto supremest name--
Called to my Full--The Crescent dropped--
Existence's whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.
My second Rank--too small the first--
Crowned--Crowing--on my Father's breast--
A half unconscious Queen--
But this time--Adequate--Erect,
With Will to choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown--
The term "ceded" suggests both surrender and secession, a word with very
strong implications in 1862. She has severed ties even to the extent of
giving up her baptismal name. Abandoning the "Dolls" and toys of child-
hood, she also assumes a new identity, "consciously" choosing a name to
signify her new and fuller existence. Her new status as "' half uncon-
scious Queen" suggests mystical ecstasy and will be treated more fully
in the next chapter; here the emphasis is on her "Will to choose, or to
reject." She has, in fact, done both. She has rejected the cramped
identity of the country church and chosen to accept the offer "of Grace"
that will eventually fill up the "whole Arc" of being.
Poem 510 describes an experience that seems to be at once the
bottom of "Despair" and at the same time the stillness of ecstatic trance:
It was not Death, for I stood up,
And all the Dead, lie down--
It was not Night, for all the Bells
Put out their Tongues, for Noon.
It was not Frost, for on my Flesh
I felt Siroccos--crawl--
Nor Fire--for just my Marble feet
Could keep a Chancel, cool--
And yet, it tasted, like them all,
The Figures I have seen
Set orderly, for Burial,
Reminded me, of mine--
As if my life were shaven,
And fitted to a frame,
And could not breathe without a key,
And 'twas like Midnight, some--
When everything that ticked--has stopped--
And Space stares all around--
Or Grisly frosts--first Autumn morns,
Repeal the Beating Ground--
But, most, like Chaos--Stopless--cool--
Without a Chance, or Spar--
Or even a Report of Land--
Similar to poem 508, this too seems to mark a turning point, like that
nadir of hell where gravity reverses and Dinte and Virgil begin to climb
upward. It is an experience that can be described only in negatives, yet
in saying what it was not, she suggests what it was like: death, night,
frost, and fire. The feeling of "Siroccos," a hot oppressive wind blow-
ing out of the desert, suggests the crucible of the wasteland where
saints are born. "Bells" and "Noon" are terms whose ecstatic connota-
tions will be discussed later. The supine figure is like that of one in
a trance. Most significantly, it is a sensation of timelessness and
empty space, of "Chaos" and loss of direction and location. Skepticism
and doubt have seemingly led to a state of absolute unknowing and "Des-
pair." The ground has been cleared and bedrock reached; a new edifice
can now be built.
Poem 513 gives an indication of what follows such a moment of
absolute despair. It has had the effect of instilling a sense of deep
unworthiness, which prepares for the conferring of an unexpected "prize."
Like Flowers, that heard the news of Dews,
But never deemed the dripping prize
Awaited their--low Brows--
Or Bees--that thought the Summer's name
Some rumor of Delirium,
No Summer--could--for Them--
Or Arctic Creatures, dimly stirred--
By Tropic Hint--some Travelled Bird
Imported to the Wood--
Or Wind's bright signal to the Ear--
Making that homely, and severe,
Contented, known, before--
The Heaven--unexpected come,
To Lives that thought the Worshipping
A too presumptuous Psalm--
The four examples of unexpected wonders prepare for the last stanza.
She finds it hard to believe that "Heaven," a sense of privately con-
ferred grace, could come to one who has been skeptical of "Worshipping,"
but is it not this very skepticism of "A too presumptuous Psalm" that
has qualified her for the grace? In each example it is the unassuming
and non-presumptuous that has been unexpectedly rewarded.
Poem 515 embodies a different kind of skepticism. The poet seems
to note some of the problems posed by the belief in resurrection of the
body. First of all, it will mean the assembling of such a crowd as has
No Crowd that has occurred
That General Attendance
Circumference be full--
The long restricted Grave
Assert her Vital Privilege--
The Dust--connect--and live--
That "Vital Privilege" is obviously to open and allow the particles of
dust to "connect--and live" again. It beggars the imagination to visu-
alize the "Atoms" assuming the "features" of all the "Multitudes" who
have been dissolved into the earth.
On Atoms--features place--
All Multitudes that were
Efface in the Comparison--
As Suns--dissolve a star--
Its Individual Doom
Possess each separate Consciousness--
What Parallel can be--
Of the Significance of This--
To Universe--and Me?
One wonders if the words "Solemnity" and "August" are not an ironic way
of suggesting the presumptuousness of supposing that "each separate
Consciousness" will be possessed of "Its Individual Doom." If such an
event were possible, it would surely have no "Parallel" in "Significance,"
both "To Universe--and Me." The poet seems almost to waver between awe
Poem 518 combines four words that might serve as a title for this
entire study: "A Fiction superseding Faith." This is ultimately what
Emily Dickinson created--a fiction of mystical status superseding faith
through a rigorous skepticism that would permit nothing unessential to
stand. The context of these four words helps to place in perspective
the beginning and the end of this exploration of her spiritual conscious-
Her sweet Weight on my Heart a Night
Had scarcely deigned to lie--
When, stirring, for Belief's delight,
My Bride had slipped away--
If 'twas a Dream--made solid--just
The Heaven to confirm--
Or if Myself were dreamed of Her--
The power to presume--
With Him remain--who unto Me--
Gave--even as to All--
A Fiction superseding Faith--
By so much--as 'twas real--
The "Weight on my Heart" is evidently childhood faith or conviction that
"slipped away" almost before "Belief's delight" could be felt, suggest-
ing that it was perhaps eroded by skepticism. Only God can "presume" to
know whether that early "Dream," or faith, offered "solid" confirmation
of heaven or whether the pcet was herself "dreamed." (The latter alter-
native may suggest a kind of Cartesian doubt about external existence.)
It does not really matter, however. The new "Fiction superseding Faith,"
given to her "even as to All," is "real" so long as she conceives it.
One may say, then, that while skepticism attacked and eventually under-
mined conventional "Faith," something even more valuable and enduring
arose in its place, namely a "Fiction" embracing a level of consciousness
and being toward which she might aspire with all her intellectual and
Still further proof that this new and enduring fiction could not
have been the product of hope or presumption is offered in poem 522:
Had I presumed to hope--
The loss had been to Me
A Value--for the Greatness' Sake--
As Giants--gone away--
Had I presumed to gain
A Favor so remote--
The failure but confirm the Grace
In further Infinite--
Since she had not "presumed to hope" or "to gain," she was not so easily
crushed when the fiction of heaven and of man's privileged status failed.
Nor did she feel compelled to cling to the "Grace" by readjusting her
perspective and placing it "In further Infinite."
'Tis failure--not of Hope--
But Confident Despair--
Advancing on Celestial Lists--
With faint--Terestrial power--
If the failure of hope is like the loss of "Giants," then according to
the theory of opposites, the failure of despair would be tremendous gain.
This she seems to affirm here in the third stanza. Only through unflinch-
ing despair can the "Terrestrial power" advance on the "Celestial" blank
and defeat the amoral universe. As Russell says in "A Free Man's Wor-
ship": ". . only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can
the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built" (p. 48).
'Tis Honor--though I die--
For That no Man obtain
Till He be justified by Death--
This--is the Second Gain--
Death does not diminish the "Honor" of one who wins through acceptance of
despair, whose virtue does not depend on hope. He who expects nothing
and whose goodness is not motivated by the lure of reward cannot be de-
feated in the effort to retain a system of values. Russell comments
further on such an effort:
Victory, in this struggle with the powers of darkness,
is the true baptism into the glorious company of heroes,
the true initiation into the overmastering beauty of human
existence. From that awful encounter of the soul with the
outer world, renunciation, wisdom, and charity are born;
and with their birth a new life begins. (pp. 54-55)
Death, in fact, is the ultimate justification of the struggle, which is
a way of coming to face the worst that death can bring. If that can be
faced, then one is beyond reach; no lesser terror can touch him, and he
is thus free. If freedom from the servility of hope is the first gain,
then freedom from the fear of death is the "Second Gain." It has been
said that the aim of all philosophy is to teach man how to die, for only
when he has learned to face death will he know how to live.
The poet comments further on the encounter with death in poem 531:
We dream--it is good we are dreaming--
It would hurt us--were we awake--
But since it is playing--kill us,
And we are playing--shriek--
What harm? Men die--externally--
It is a truth--of Blood--
But we--are dying in Drama--
And Drama--is never dead--
Cautious--We jar each other--
And either--open the eyes--
Lest the Phantasm--prove the Mistake
And the livid Surprise
Cool us to Shafts of Granite--
With just an Age--and Name--
And perhaps a phrase in Egyptian--
It's prudenter--to dream--
Since death too is part of the fiction, it does not really hurt. "Drama,"
as well as "dream," is apparently synonymous with what has been called
fiction, and since it is not a matter of "Blood," it is not subject to
death. Being an art, it is timeless. Even though we may realize that
it is a fiction, "It's prudenter--to dream" than to awaken to a meaning-
less universe of gravestones. She thus suggests that the fiction sus-
tains us in that it gives meaning and order to the universe. Man has no
choice but to order his universe; poetry and drama, like other arts, are
what Wallace Stevens calls "Ideas of Order."
Poem 532 suggests that becoming aware of "Death's tremendous near-
ness" instills in us a feeling of pity for others caught in the same mor-
I tried to think a lonelier Thing
Than any I had seen--
Some Polar Expiation--An Omen in the Bone
Of Death's tremendous nearness--
I probed Retrieveless things
My Duplicate--to borrow--
A Haggard Comfort springs
From the belief that Somewhere--
Within the Clutch of Thought--
There dwells one other Creature
Of Heavenly Love--forgot--
I plucked at our Partition
As One should pry the Walls--
Between Himself--and Horror's Twin--
Within Opposing Cells--
I almost strove to clasp his Hand,
Such Luxury--it grew--
That as Myself--could pity Him--
Perhaps he--pitied me--
The probing of "Retrieveless things" suggests what Bertrand Russell
says about the "irrevocableness of the past":
The beauty of its motionless and silent pictures is like
the enchanted purity of late autumn, when the leaves, though
one breath would make them fall, still glow against the sky
in golden glory. The Past does not change or strive .
Its beauty, to a soul not worthy of it, is unendurable; but
to a soul which has conquered Fate it is the key of religion.
We take "A Haggard Comfort" from the fact that others share the same fate
of "Heavenly Love--forgot." We are drawn together by a common bond; it
becomes a "Luxury" to clasp hands, knowing that we are doomed together.
The following passage from Russell's essay reads like a commentary on
the poem under consideration:
United with his fellow-men by the strongest of all
ties, the tie of a common doom, the free man finds that
a new vision is with him always, shedding over every
daily task the light of love. . One by one, as they
march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the
silent orders of omnipotent Death. Very brief is the time
in which we can help them, in which their happiness or
misery is decided. Be it ours to shed sunshine on their
path, to lighten their sorrows by the balm of sympathy,
to give them the pure joy of a never-tiring affection,
to strengthen failing courage, to instil faith in hours
of despair. . let us remember that they are fellow-
sufferers in the same darkness, actors in the same tragedy
with ourselves. (p. 56)
Emily Dickinson's apparent preoccupation with death can be understood in
light of her skepticism concerning the afterlife combined with her aware-
ness that the sense of impending doom heightens human perception and in-
tensifies human sympathy and affection. One must bear in mind that her
preoccupation with death was balanced by ecstatic delight in the sensory
world. She was able to treat death casually because she had faced up to
it and won the freedom to speak easily about it.
Just as doom heightens human perception and sympathy, so also
the goal of knowledge is enhanced by doubt. Poem 550 describes the
struggle to know, in the face of doubt, as an arduous journey over moun-
tain, sea, and desert. The fourth stanza is most significant, for it
suggests the fruitfulness of doubt and uncertainty, their stimulation
toward deeper understanding:
What merit had the Goal--
Except there intervene
Faint Doubt--and far Competitor--
To jeopardize the Gain?
In contrast to the condition of doubt and uncertainty, the state of un-
questioned belief is barren: arrived at comfortably and without travail,
costing nothing in lost hope and faith, hardening into meaningless rote
and ritual and ultimately into ennui. It is perhaps ironic that Emily
Dickinson, a spinster, could not tolerate such a state of barrenness.
Belief, for her, had to be dynamic and transforming or not at all. The
dynamic aspect of uncertainty is stressed in the last stanza, and appro-
priately the poem stops, without really ending, by asking a question--the
same crucial question that has long tantalized the reader and viewer of
They strive--and yet delay--
They perish--Do we die--
Or is this Death's Experiment--
"Death in Victory"3 or victory in death is related to the paradox of the
"Death in Victory" is the title of an essay on Shakespearean
tragedy by Fredson Bowers. It is printed in the South Atlantic Bulletin,
Vol. XXX, No. 2, March, 1965.
fortunate fall: just as Christ had to be crucified before he could be
resurrected, so man has to fall before he can rise, has to suffer in
order to learn. Our inability ever to know whether death is "Reversed--
in Victory" is what makes the whole quest worthwhile. Without the doubt,
without the question, the tragic experience would be deprived of its in-
tensity and fire.
In poem 555 the poet acknowledges the necessity of believing in
the unseen, using the examples of "William Kidd" and the "Buried Gold,"
belief in the philosopher's "Talismanic Stone," and Columbus' faith in
an unseen land. By implication, however, she compares herself to Thomas,
who had to be shown Christ's wounds:
The Same--afflicted Thomas--
When Deity assured
'Twas better--the perceiving not--
Provided it believed--
In the next poem,556, she notes that the brain "Runs evenly" in
its "Groove" of conformity until a splinter (doubt perhaps) intervenes.
Then, shifting the metaphor, she compares the destructiveness of such an
intervention to floods that "slit the Hills," blot out the original stream,
and trample everything in their path. Almost the same metaphor is used in
poem 928, where the heart is compared to a sea that remains within "nar-
row Banks" until "A cuestioning--dissolvcs" the gauze wall as might a
"Hurricane." In the description of such catastrophes there is a mixture
of terror and splendor.
Poem 564 relates an experience that results in her overcoming an
anthropomorphic conception of God:
My period had come for Prayer--
No other Art--would do--
My Tactics missed a rudiment--
Creator--Was it you?
Cod grows above--so those who pray
And so I stepped upon the North
To see this Curious Friend--
His House was not--no sign had He--
By Chimney--nor by Door
Could I infer his Residence--
Vast Prairies of Air
Unbroken by a Settler--
Were all that I could see--
Infinitude--Had'st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?
The Silence condescended--
Creation stopped--for Me--
But awed beyond my errand--
I worshipped--did not "pray"--
Each verse except the last seems to comment on a different aspect of the
conventional view of God. In the first she is unable to discover God as
creator. In the second He is sought as a "Curious Friend" beyond the
horizon. In the third He is supposed to have a residence--in heaven no
doubt. In the fourth it is specifically his "Face" that she seeks. All
of these notions about God prove incorrect. There are only "Vast Prairies
of Air," "Infinitude," and "Silence." She can no longer respond with
prayer--only awe. "Awe," in fact, becomes the name she prefers and uses
repeatedly in other poems, since the term "God" has become clouded by
Poem 576 describes still another change in her attitude toward
prayer. The first two stanzas are sufficient to illustrate:
I prayed, at first, a little Girl,
Because they told me to--
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel--to me--
If I believed God looked ar und,
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on his own
In Childish honesty--
How presumptuous our "Childish" wants would seem to Cod--even if He
heard. Here, as elsewhere (poems 513, 515, 522), it seems to be the
presumption of conventional religion that offends her most.
The first stanza of poem 594 makes a simple statement that dis-
closes the poet's struggle against the blank nothingness of the universe:
The Battle fought between the Soul
And No Man--is the One
Of all the Battles prevalent--
By far the greater One--
To describe the adversary as "No Man" may imply a denial of deity, or it
may suggest merely that whatever deity there be is nonhuman and perhaps
non-intelligent. The remainder of the poem indicates only that the
battle is interior and hence unnoticed by the world.
Poem 597 reveals skepticism of two kinds: further doubt about
the actuality of Biblical heroes and disagreement with "God's" justice:
It always felt to me--a wrong
To that Old Moses--done--
To let him see--the Canaan--
Without the entering--
And tho' in soberer moments--
No Moses there can he
I'm satisfied--the Romance
In point of injury--
Surpasses sharper stated--
Of Stephen--or of Paul--
For these--were only put to death--
While God's adroiter will
On Moses--seemed to fasten
With tantalizing Play
As Boy--should deal with lesser Boy--
To prove ability.
The fault--was doubtless Israel's--
Myself--had banned the Tribes--
And ushered Grand Old Moses
In Pentateuchal Robes
Upon the Broad Possession
'Twas little--He should see--
Old Man on Nebo! Late as this--
My justice bleeds--for Thee.
In "soberer moments" she cannot really believe Moses existed, but she
accepts the "Romance" as an indication of Old Testament justice, which
she evidently feels is more unjust than that of the New Testament repre-
sented by the martyrdom of Stephen and Paul. It is probably her sense
of artistic rightness that is most offended, since she apparently re-
gards the stories as works of art and imagination rather than as records
of historical fact. The martyrdom is consistent with the structure of
tragedy, which assumes "Death in Victory," but the refusal to admit
Moses to the Promised Land is simply bad art and completely without
justification. It makes God appear as a bully who delights in "tantaliz-
ing Play" simply "To prove ability." She rightly recognizes that "The
fault--was doubtless Israel's," indicating her awareness that she is ac-
tually criticizing a primitive Hebrew concept of justice and that God,
as thus pictured, is merely an unseen character in the legend.
Like many of the poems, number 696 declares the poet's preference
for the earth and finite existence rather than the uncertain "Glory" of
the "House of Supposition":
Their Hight in Heaven comforts not--
Their Glory--nought to me--
'Twas best imperfect--as it was--
I'm finite--I cant see--
The House of Supposition--
The Glimmering Frontier that
Skirts the Acres of Perhaps
To Me--shows insecure--
The Wealth I had--contented me--
If 'twas a meaner size--
Then I had counted it until
It pleased my narrow Eyes--
Better than larger values--
That show however true--
This timid life of Evidence
Keeps pleading--"I don't know."
If one were to try to show that Emily Dickinson was an agnostic,
this poem would furnish significant evidence. "I cant see" in the
first stanza compares to "I don't know" in the last. Both are simple,
unpretentious admissions that finite man cannot scan the infinite.
Thus "Their Hight in Heaven" is finally meaningless, "Their Glory--
nought" to the lowly. Man can have no secure knowledge of the
supposed heaven, and the poet is therefore content with the "Wealth"
of earth, which is "Better than larger values." The statement also
shows her to be a humanist. She prefers "This timid life of Evi-
dence" to one in which blind faith is a substitute for knowing.
Her preference for earth is once again evident in poem 722:
Sweet Mountains--Ye tell Me no lie--
Never deny Me--Never fly--
Those same unvarying Eyes
Turn on Me--when I fail--or feign,
Of take the Royal names in vain--
Their far--slow--Violet Gaze--
My Strong Madonnas--Cherish still--
The Wayward Nun--beneath the Hill--
Whose service--is to You--
Her latest Worship--When the Day
Fades from the Firmament away--
To lift Her Brows on You--
The constancy and truthfulness of the silent mountains compare to the
wavering vision, the half truths, of those who profess to speak for God.
The hills do not abandon her for small transgressions. In comparing
them to "Madonnas" and calling herself a "Wayward Nun," she says a
great deal about her personal religion. "Wayward" suggests her un-
certainty and doubt; yet "Nun" tells us that she is a worshipper; and
mountain "Madonnas" confirm that she worships the earth. Like the
psalmist, she lifts up her eyes to the hills, not because a God dwells
there, but because they themselves symbolize eternity, strength, and
Poem 724, though it does not seem to doubt God's existence, does
question his goodness. The creation and destruction of human life is no
more to him than the painting in and blotting out of images on a canvas:
It's easy to invent a Life--
God does it--every Day--
Creation--but the Gambol
Of His Authority--
It's easy to efface it--
The thrifty Deity
Could scarce afford Eternity
The Perished Patterns murmur--
But His Perturbless Plan
Proceed--inserting Here--a Sun--
There--leaving out a Man--
If poetry is an "invented world' to man, then perhaps creation is such
to God. As one is merely an exercise of the imagination, the other is
possibly no more than a game to exercise "His Authority." For the sake
of variety and interest, man the plaything could hardly be made eternal.
The "Spontaneity" of imagination demands that some patterns perish to be
replaced by new ones. The poem is obviously skeptical of the tradition
that "His eye is on the sparrow" and that he cares for each individual
Man's blindness in a "Blank" universe is the subject of poem 761:
From Blank to Blank--
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet--
To stop--or perish--or advance--
If end I gained
It ends beyond
I shut my eyes--and groped as well
'Twas lighter--to be Blind--
If God seemed indifferent to man's perishing in the previous poem, here
the poet herself is "indifferent." Since the way is "Threadless" and
there is only emptiness on all sides, it really does not matter whether
one "stop--or perish--or advance." No end or goal is in sight; indeed
none is possible. Perhaps it is better that we are blind, as Pope sug-
Oh blindness to the future! kindly given,
That each may fill the circle marked by Heaven:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
See Wallace Stevens' "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction," I.
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurled
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
(Alexander Pope, Essay on Man, I, iii)
A significant difference should be noted however. Pope could consider
blindness "kindly given" because he trusted that the "equal eye" of God
was on hero and sparrow alike. But what if God is blind too? That is
the uncertainty Emily Dickinson faced.
Again in poem 779 she intimates her disdain for a system of values
based on reward:
The Service without Hope--
Is tenderest, I think--
Because 'tis unsustained
By stint--Rewarded Work--
Has impetus of Gain--
And impetus of Goal--
There is no Diligence like that
That knows not an Until--
The severest virtue is obviously that "That knows not an Until," that
has no "Goal" in view, that expects no "Gain." For the poet the recog-
nition of hopelessness, either in regard to this life or the next, was
no cause for the surrender of moral and ethical values. It was instead
an occasion for discovering higher motives.
Such hopelessness is a form of despair, and as she notes in poem
Despair's advantage is achieved
To be assisted of Reverse
One must Reverse have bore--
There is positive value to be gained from the suffering of despair and of
The Worthiness of Suffering like
The Worthiness of Death
Is ascertained by tasting--
As can no other Mouth
As noted in connection with poem 532, awareness of impending doom
heightens perception and intensifies human sympathy. To determine
the "Worthiness" of one's moral motives and one's love, death and suf-
fering must be tasted by "no other Mouth" than one's own.
Of Savors--make us conscious--
As did ourselves partake--
Affliction feels impalpable
Until Ourselves are struck--
The poet had come to realize that the expansion of consciousness depended
on partaking of "Affliction." My chapter called "Purgation, the Way of
Death," will explore this understanding more fully. Here it is important
to note that the impetus is despair, a product of skepticism.
The function of pain in proving values is also the subject of poem
806. The poet suggests that one must live
A Plated Life--diversified
With Gold and Silver Pain
To prove the presence of the Ore
In Particles--'tis when
A Value struggle--it exist--
A power--will proclaim
Although Annihilation pile
Whole Chaoses on Him-- Whole Chaoses/ Oblivions
The ultimate values will remain unassailable even in the face of human
"Annihilation" and the meaningless "Chaoses" or "Oblivions." Only through
skepticism are values subjected to such a test.
Quest literature, as a whole, is concerned with man's search for
God or for answers to universal questions. Poem 870 seems to be a paradigm
for such literature:
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The "Golden Fleece"
Fourth, no Discovery--
Fifth, no Crew--
Finally, no Golden Fleece--
The first finding is perhaps a child's encounter with religion. Then,
through questioning, faith is lost. The search to regain it is the typi-
cal quest. As the poet sees it, the objects of the quest, along with the
searchers, are all proven false, one by one. The reality even of one's
own existence is doubted in the final line.
Poem 910 poses a question that relates to the choice one was ex-
pected to make to be "saved":
Experience is the Angled Road
Preferred against the Mind
By--Paradox--the Mind itself--
Presuming it to lead
Quite Opposite--How Complicate
The Discipline of Man--
Compelling Him to Choose Himself
His Preappointed Pain--
Man insists on learning through experience, preferring it to the "Mind,"
which paradoxically presumes to lead in the opposite direction. In seek-
ing salvation man is faced with an even more complicated contradiction.
He is compelled to "Choose" a destiny that has already been "Preappointed."
This is one of several ironic commentaries on predestination. The poem
also seems to ask, How can man choose the right road ahead of time, as
expected, if he can learn only by experience The last stanza of the
succeeding poem, 911, seems to comment further on this:
Too narrow is the Right between--
Too imminent the chance--
Each Consciousness must emigrate
And lose its neighbor once--
All must sin or err at times, for it is through trial and error, loss
and gain, that we learn.
If faith is meant to comfort us in time of grief or death, it
does not succeed, according to poem 912:
Peace is a fiction of our Faith--
The Bells a Winter Night
Bearing the Neighbor out of Sound
That never did alight.
Death is just as real, just as silent, and just as cold as it would be
without the "Bells."
As noted in poem 951, those who depend on "Presumption" for
"Vitality" are apt to be disillusioned:
As Frost is best conceived
By force of its Result--
Affliction is inferred
By subsequent effect--
If when the sun reveal,
The Garden keep the Gash--
If as the Days resume
The wilted countenance
Cannot correct the crease
Or counteract the stain--
Presumption is Vitality
Was somewhere put in twain.
Presumption about the hereafter causes man to deny the effect of "Frost"
and "Affliction," but that presumption will be cut in two when the "sun
reveal" the "wilted countenance." In short, the hard light of fact shows
the futility of our attempt to nullify the ravages of death.
"Denial," in poem 965, is probably a reference to original sin:
Denial--is the only fact
Perceived by the Denied--
Whose Will--a numb significance--(Blank intelligence)
The Day the Heaven died--
And all the Earth strove common round--
Without Delight, or Beam-- (aim)
What Comfort was it Wisdom--was--
The spoiler of Our Home?
In a sense, the denial is double: man denies God through disobedience,
and God denies heaven to man. The "significance" of the act is perhaps
not immediately evident to either, but in its wake the earth strives
"Without Delight" or "aim," and it is little "Comfort" that "Wisdom," or
God,was "The spoiler of Our Home." The poem should not be read as an ex-
pression of regret about an actual happening, but rather as regret that
man has spoiled his earth by inventing a doctrine that is patently ab-
surd. Use of the word "Wisdom" as a substitute for God is a fairly clear
indication of this. It is unthinkable that the source of all wisdom
should have set the stage for such a colossal error, but apparently
neither man nor God perceives the incongruity, or anything beyond the
supposed "Denial" itself.
In poem 971 she suggests that spoiling this world through expecta-
tion of the next is like
Staking our entire Possession
On a Hair's result--
Trying if it split--
It is an unwarranted risk.
A certain significance for Emily Dickinson's skepticism is to be
gathered from her reworking of poem 982. The version quoted below is
the earliest of three. In both of the later versions she dropped the
last eight lines or two stanzas. Since the first two stanzas are pes-
simistic and the last two optimistic concerning man's destiny, it seems
that she preferred to stick by pessimism and could not, after all, be
hopeful. Whereas the last two versions are dated 1865, Johnson assigns
1863 to the one that follows:
No Other can reduce Our
Like the remembering it be nought--
A Period from hence--
But Contemplation for
Our Mutual Fame--that haply
No Other can exalt Our
Like the remembering it exist--
A Period from hence--
Invited from Itself
To the Creator's House--
To tarry an Eternity--
Like many other skepdcs, the poet is most struck by "Our mortal" insig-
nificance when she reflects that we will soon be nothing but a memory in
the "Contemplation" of those who come after us, who will themselves soon
be nothing. For both contemplator and contemplated, the only hope for
continuity is that, by chance, "Jehovah--recollect," and the likelihood
of this is expressed by an archaic haplyy." Consideration of our even-
tual nothingness suggests the Stoic philosophy.
In poem 1010 she seems to picture herself as a traveller on an
endless road chosen long ago:
Up Life's Hill with my little Bundle
If I prove it steep--
If a Discouragement withhold me--
If my newest step
Older feel than the Hope that prompted--
Spotless be from blame
Heart that proposed as Heart that accepted
Homelessness, for Home--
The continuous journey apparently denotes a condition of uncertainty that
now is fully accepted and can be viewed in retrospective tranquility..
"Hope" may have prompted the journey but has long since been abandoned.
Even "Discouragement" seems old; she no longer dreads the insecurities
of "Homelessness." When one considers the significance of "Home" in
Emily Dickinson's cloistered life, the acceptance of homelessness is
not only ironic but daring.
Not only does she choose "Homelessness, for Home," but she chooses
earth for heaven. Poem 1012 makes use of a cliche to explain why:
Which is best? Heaven--
Or only Heaven to come
With that old Codicil of Doubt?
I cannot help esteem
The "Bird within the Hand"
Superior to the one
The "Bush" may yield me
Or may not
Too late to choose again.
Since the "Heaven to come" is encumbered by an appendix of "Doubt," she
chooses the heaven "within the Hand," namely earth. If she staked all
her happiness on a hereafter that may "Or may not" be, it would be "Too
late to choose again" when it proved false. The poem is playful in
tone, so as not to be too shocking perhaps, but the theme is sufficiently
prevalent in her work to encourage belief in her sincerity.
Though the poet employs the term "Heavenly Father" in poem 1021,
there can be little doubt that she is commenting on the i age of God
presented by religion, particularly Calvinism:
Far from Love the Heavenly Father
Leads the Chosen Child,
Oftener through Realm of Briar
Than the Meadow mild.
Oftener by the Claw of Dragon
Than the Hand of Friend
Guides the Little One predestined
To the Native Land.
As the final chapter of this study is designed to show, the strongest
spiritual motivation for Emily Dickinson, as for the mystic, was love.
It is highly probable, therefore, that the most offensive aspect of
conventional religion, for her, was the image of an unloving God. She
was willing to accept the discipline of a "Realm of Briar," as we shall
see in the chapter on purification, but such discipline and purifica-
tion was endured for the sake of love. It was even welcomed as a way
of demonstrating love, but the god depicted in this poem is "Far from
Love." He is, in fact, far more primitive, as indicated by the "Claw
of Dragon," than the poet's nameless "Friend," who ultimately became
her Divine Lover. By thus suggesting the primitivism of such a love-
less god, she intimates, by analogy, the primitivism of the doctrine of
predestination, alluded to in the same stanza.
In poem 1080 her doubts about resurrection are compared to similar
doubts about the return of blossoms, robins, and May, but she concludes
with a stipuhtion:
If I am there--One does not know
What Party--One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say--
In poem 1144 she seems to realize that in the final analysis even
religion is uncertain about the afterlife, in spite of the claim that we
should rejoice and not weep at the time of death.
Ourselves we do inter with sweet derision.
The channel of the dust who once achieves
Invalidates the balm of that religion
That doubts as fervently as it believes.
Perhaps the real purpose of religion is to provide a "balm" to make the
dying smoother, but the "dust" absorbs and hence "Invalidates" it. The
fervent belief of religion is like a mask that hides a fundamental doubt.
A part of Emily Dickinson's skepticism can be accounted for by
the delight she apparently took in quiet defiance of authority. Poem
1201 provides an example of such defiance:
So I pull my Stockings off
Wading in the Water
For the Disobedience' Sake
Boy that lived for "Ought to"
Went to Heaven perhaps at Death
And perhaps he didn't
Moses wasn't fairly used--
Since the justice of heaven cannot be trusted, she has no qualms about
disobeying what religion tells her she "ought to" do.
Like many before and after her time, Emily Dickinson was repelled
by conventional religion partly because of its "counterfeit" peddlers of
"Truth." Rarely does she attack individuals in her poetry, but poem 1207,
though no name is mentioned, suggests her reaction to a specific sermon:
He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow--
The Broad are too broad to define
And of "Truth" until it proclaimed him a Liar--
The Truth never flaunted a Sign--
Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As Gold the Pyrites would shun--
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a Man!
Her concept of God, unlike the preacher's, is "too broad to define"; her
truth, unlike his, unutterable. She surely includes herself when she says
that "Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence," for simplicity, to
her, was a signal virtue, to be cultivated in style as in behavior. Sim-
plicity, in fact, was what set Jesus apart from so many who presume to
preach his word. It would not miss the mark by far to say that Emily
Dickinoon's skepticism compares with that of Jesus, who shattered the
idols and rebuked the chief priests just as she does in her poems.
In a poem written during her forties, number 1258, the poet re-
flects on the childhood conception of the Father and the Son. As chil-
dren we are given an explanation that excites awe and wonder, but in
maturity we seem to lose the capacity for portentous feeling. The fifth
stanza summarizes the problem:
We start--to learn that we believe
Belief, it does not fit so well
When altered frequently--
Frequent alteration of belief produces uncertainty that dulls faith and
makes acceptance difficult.
We blush, that Heaven if we achieve--
We shall have shunned until ashamed
To own the Miracle--
She realizes that she has passed the point of childlike acceptance. The
sense of struggle and terror found in the earlier poems is passed. Now
there is only a feeling of dull nostalgia and half regret.
A similar sense of regret appears in poem 1551. She compares the
security of belief in past times with the dark uncertainty of the present:
Knew where they went--
They went to God's Right Hand--
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found--
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small--
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all--
The use of such strong words as "amputated" and "abdication" indicates
a fairly clear understanding that there is no turning back to the faith
of the past, however much more heroic and saintly behavior may have
seemed then. The use of "ignis fatuus," literally "foolish fire," some-
times called will-o'-the-wisp, implies her awareness that the light of
the past may have been deceptive and fictitious, but it was better than
the darkness of doubt.
She knows there is no turning back however. In poem 1264 she
compares herself with those who have "hoped before" but passed inexor-
ably into the escapelesss sea":
This is the place they hoped before,
Where I am hoping now.
The seed of disappointment grew
Within a capsule gay,
Too distant to arrest the feet
That walk this plank of balm--
Before them lies escapeless sea--
The way is closed they came.
"Disappointment" begins inconspicuously within the gay "capsule" of the
mind, without impeding movement, for the "plank" is made to seem smooth
by the "balm" of religion. In spite of the balm, there is no escape,
perhaps no resurrection, from the sea of infinity and eternity. All
must walk the plank.
She rejects two of the conventional attributes of heaven in poem
Is Heaven a Physician?
They say that He can heal--
But Medicine Posthumous
Is Heaven an Exchequer?
They speak of what we owe--
But that negotiation
I'm not a Party to--
She was humanist enough to believe that it is the living and not the
dead who need healing. Having already rejected the image of an accoun-
tant God, she could hardly be "a Party to" any heavenly "negotiation"
of human debts.
It perhaps summarizes her position to say, as she does in poem
1293, that heaven is "Untenable to Logic," but she admits the possibil-
ity that it may exist even so:
The Heaven, in which we hoped to pause
When Discipline was done
Untenable to Logic
But possibly the one--
In poem 1295 she attempts a limited definition of eternity and
Two Lengths has every Day--
Its absolute extent
And Area superior
By Hope or Horror lent--
Eternity will be
Velocity or Pause
At Fundamental Signals
From Fundamental Laws.
To die is not to go--
On Doom's consummate Chart
No Territory new is staked--
Remain thou as thou art.
The eternity she envisions is materialistic and apparently patterned
after the Newtonian universe: made up of matter either in motion or at
rest, in obedience to "Fundamental Laws." Man also is matter; there-
fore death affords no transcendence. There is no "Territory" known as
heaven. When she says "Remain thou as thou art," she suggests that
since man is earth, he will never be anything else. The strict materi-
alism of this poem is not really typical, but it shows the extent to
which her skepticism carried her at times.
Poem 1317 similarly shows the extent of her disdain for the Old
Abraham to kill him
Was distinctly told--
Isaac was an Urchin--
Abraham was old--
Not a hesitation--
Flattered by Obeisance
Isaac--to his children
Lived to tell the tale--
Moral--with a Mastiff
Manners may prevail.
She retells the story with remarkable economy and at the same time pro-
jects a most devastating picture of God. He is a tyrant "Flattered by
Obeisance," rather than--as the story is generally rendered--a majestic
patriarch who tests and takes pity at the last moment. He is not unlike
a beast which, in spite of its viciousness, may occasionally respect
The poet has already suggested, in poem 1264, that religion is a
balm to make dying easier. In poem 1323 she notes that the "Daily mind"
is threatened with "Madness" when forced to come face to face with the
"yawning Consciousness" of death, "That mightiest Belief":
I never hear that one is dead
Without the chance of Life
Afresh annihilating me
That mightiest Belief,
Too mighty for the Daily mind
That tilling its abyss,
Had Madness, had it once or twice
The yawning Consciousness,
Beliefs are Bandaged, like the Tongue
When Terror were it told
In any Tone commensurate
Would strike us instant Dead
I do not know the man so bold
He dare in lonely Place
That awful stranger Consciousness
It is possible to see here another reason for the prevalence of death as
a theme in Emily Dickinson's poetry. She realized the great value of
death as a teacher of incontrovertible truth, its great power of cut-
ting through the lesser "Bandaged" beliefs that cannot stand the ulti-
mate test. Hearing "that one is dead" renews the poet's own latent
urge for annihilation. In the last chapter we shall see how that urge
is translated into mystical fulfillment through unity. To face death's
unknown terror in its full intensity "would strike us instant Dead."
Though the poet professes not to "know the man so bold" as to "Deliber-
ately" face "That awful stranger Consciousness," she in fact devoted
much of her energy to a mystical expansion of consciousness that would
enable her to savor the sublime beauty and terror of such a confronta-
There is an indication here of the dramatic and profound religious
experience that Emily Dickinson eventually substituted for the conven-
tional orthodoxy of her acquaintances. In commenting on the influences
that may have prompted her to reject orthodoxy, Richard Chase speaks of
the "amalgam which Emily Dickinson made out of romanticism, popular sen-
timentality, and Calvinist Christianity." He concludes as follows:
She sensed that, for her, Christianity could be honestly
understood and accepted only as privately reconstituted
by the poetic imagination and that consequently it must
be abandoned as dogma and convention. (pp. 64-65)
Romantic poets and philosophers on both sides of the Atlantic were turn-
ing more and more to man's intuitive responses and to the poetic imagina-
tion as substitutes for conventional religious experiences. The prose
writings of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley bear this out as do the
works of Emerson and Thoreau. They were all apparently seeking a more
dramatic, vital, or transcendental relationship with nature and with the
indwelling life spirit, by whatever name it may have been called. Emily
Dickinson was doubtless influenced by this general movement, which com-
bined with her own sense of the dramatic and her curiosity about death
to stimulate mystical tendencies.
Again in poem 1357 the poet intimates her abhorrence for a re-
ligion based on a system of rewards and punishments. There are two
versions, but the first seems most lucid:
"Faithful to the end" 'mended
From the Heavenly Clause--
Constancy with a Proviso
"Crowns of Life" are servile Prizes
To the stately Heart
Given for the Giving, solely,
She realizes that far greater love is shown when it is given without
hope of reward. Likewise it is to treat men as children to offer the
"'Crowns of Life'" in return for being "'Faithful to the end.'" They
are "servile Prizes/ To the stately Heart," which gives freely and
without expectation of profit. Implicit in such a conception is the
meaning of caritas as selfless and disinterested love.
The bliss available to the poet on earth, as indicated in poem
1408, proves to her that she would not be at home in heaven even if she
could be sure it existed:
The Fact that Earth is Heaven--
Whether Heaven is Heaven or not
If not an Affidavit
Of that specific Spot
Not only must confirm us
That it is not for us
But that it would affront us
To dwell in such a place--
The poem that supports most forcefully her commitment to a philos-
ophy of perpetual uncertainty and skepticism is number 1413:
Sweet Skepticism of the Heart--
That knows--and does not know--
And tosses like a Fleet of Balm--
Affronted by the snow--
Invites and then retards the Truth
Lest Certainty be sere
Compared with the delicious throe
Of transport thrilled with Fear--
The poem is a startling accumulation of paradoxes: that skepticism is
sweet, that not knowing is seemingly better than knowing, that the
heart's tossing is like gentle floating in balm, in spite of the threat
of death ("snow"), that truth and certainty may be barren or sere, that
a throe is delicious and not painful, and that transport is more thrill-
ing because of fear. This ambiguity of feeling and inversion of ordin-
ary assumptions prepares for the ultimate result of her acceptance of
uncertainty and skepticism, namely the embracing of mysticism--but
mysticism built on no conventional base.
Poem 1417 may be a rather sophisticated attempt to account for the
psychological need to construct a Heaven:
How Human Nature dotes
On what it cant detect.
The moment that a Plot is plumbed
Its meaning is extinct--
Prospective is the friend
Reserved for us to know
When Constancy is clarified
Of subjects that resist
Redoubtablest is this
Where go we--
Go we anywhere
Creation after this?
"Human Nature" must have something always out there unreachable and un-
determined. Browning, of course, implied much the same thing, and said
that otherwise what's a heaven for? The question of "Where go we," if
anywhere, must remain a mystery; life would be barren without mystery.
In summarizing the poems of skepticism and doubt one would be
less than fair to imply that the poet did not at times attempt to re-
affirm her faith in Christianity despite its weakened supports. Poem
1433 expresses both the weakness and the basis for reaffirmation:
How brittle are the Piers
On which our Faith doth tread--
No Bridge below doth totter so--
Yet none hath such a Crowd.
It is as old as God--
Indeed--'twas built by him--
He sent his Son to test the Plank,
And he pronounced it firm.
That she retained some hope of mending her faith is evident in poem 1442:
To mend each tattered Faith
There is a needle fair
Though no appearance indicate--
'Tis threaded in the Air--
And though it do not wear
s if it never Tore
'Tis very comfortable indeed
And spacious as before--
Though it may seem comfortable, the garment will never fit quite as it
once did. Whether she really found it quite spacious enough is doubtful,
for she devoted much of her artistic energy to weaving the seamless gar-
ment of an expanded consciousness capable of embracing infinity.
She must at times have felt torn between the attempt to reaffirm
conventional belief and the effort to discover a new level of under-
standing and experience. For some the dilemma might have led to a plateau
of accommodation or compromise, but the romantic temperament is not con-
tent with the climate of the plateau, and the honest intellectual is
aware that questions cannot be put down by compromise. Emily Dickinson
shared, to come degree, the characteristics of both the romantic and
the intellectual. Thus she came to realize that uncertainty must be
a continuing state. Perhaps most serious inquirers, whether in the realm
of science or religion or philosophy, come eventually to realize that
there is no end to the search and that one should not merely make the
best of it but welcome inconclusiveness as a sign of vitality. Emily
Dickinson seems to have accepted uncertainty as a desirable state of
tension between the static satiety of belief and the vacuity of doubt.
Additional reasons for her commitment to such a state of uncer-
tainty and insecurity are visible in poem 1434:
Go not too near a House of Rose--
The depredation of a Breeze
Or inundation of a Dew
Alarm its walls away--
Nor try to tie the Butterfly
In insecurity to lie
Is Joy's insuring quality.
Aside from the Dantesque allusion, the spiritual edifice she built could
itself be called a "House of Rose." Her sense of the romantic made her
aware that anything so finely constructed could not be formulated in
literal terms. In short, one dare not go "too near." Ecstasy is like-
wise a fragile state that cannot be firmly held. Paradoxically, it may
be insured only through an acceptance of insecurity.
In later considering her poems of ecstasy, one should remember
that her decision in favor of enduring uncertainty may have helped to
prepare for such ecstatic moments. The secure and comfortable structure
of organized religion was, for her, not conducive to mystical experience.
The Puritanism of Jonathan Edwards may have offered an opportunity for
The Puritanism of Jonathan Edwards may have offered an opportunity for
dramatic religious experience, but by the mid-nineteenth century the
churches descending from Puritanism had apparently lost that capacity.
As Richard Chase says,
She regrets that life is bereft of the pomp and drama
which the Puritan belief once gave it. What a blank day,
what a day of denial it was when "the Heaven died." We
are "dying in Drama," as she wrote in a memorable phrase,
and it is the business of the poet to preserve the dramatic
quality of existence which religious belief no longer
guarantees. (pp. 62-63)
This may help to explain why Emily Dickinson could not be orthodox, even
though apparently many of the greatest mystics have been. As Evelyn
The view which regards the mystic as a spiritual anarchist
receives little support from history; which shows us,
again and again, the great mystics as faithful sons of the
great religions. (pp. 95-96)
For Emily Dickinson as for many others, one of the greatest
stumbling blocks in orthodox religion was the Pauline, Augustinian, and
Calvinist emphasis on the doctrine of original sin and natural deprav-
ity. Is man so corrupted, as a result of original sin, that he is in-
capable of goodness and utterly deprived of free will? If so, then as
Augustine maintained, God works both good and evil in us, rewarding his
own good works in us and punishing his own evil works. After recalling
these assumptions, Erasmus pointed out the rational absurdity of pre-
destination in the strongest of terms:
Who could persuade his soul to love with all his heart a
God who prepared a hell flaming with eternal tortures where
lHe may avenge on wretched men His own misdeeds, as if He
delighted in human tortures?5
5Erasmus, "On Free Will," trans. by Mary M. McLaughlin in The
Portable Renaissance Reader (New York, 1953), p. 679.
With a great deal more subtlety but no less devastation, Emily Dickin-
son, in poem 1461, demonstrates that she finds a similar image of God
implicit in the doctrine of predestination and natural depravity:
"Heavenly Father"--take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband--
Though to trust us--seem to us
More respectful--"We are Dust"--
We apologize to thee
For thine own Duplicity--
She seems to say, Please accept the "iniquity" you have reportedly
"Fashioned," but wouldn't it have been more "respectful" to have granted
us free will? As it is you put us in the untenable position of asking
your forgiveness for your own evil deeds and for a mistake you knew was
In an even more impish mood, she professes a certain affection for
the devil in poem 1479. She seems to admire qualities similar to those
Goethe gave to Mephistopheles: ability, resourcefulness, tireless ac-
The Devil--had he fidelity
Would be the best friend--
Because he has ability--
But Devils cannot mend--
Perfidy is the virtue
That would but he resign
The Devil--without question
Were thoroughly divine.
By adopting a nonhuman persona the poet can express unconventional
views without subjecting himself to the scorn of conventional readers.
Emily Dickinson freely made use of this device. Perhaps the best known
example is poem 214, "I taste a liquor never brewed," in which she