On Choosing the Poems
Dickinson is well known for her profound and arresting poems about suffering, sacrifice, faith, doubt, God, and immortality, many of which were written in the period of 1861-63. Some of her poems name religious elements directly. “I’m Ceded – I’ve stopped being their’s” (F353, J508) refers to childhood baptism and a later, self-authorized secular baptism into full maturity and agency. “There came a day at summer’s Full” (F325, J322) refers to “Saints,” “Resurrections” and describes a meeting of lovers as a “Sacrament … the sealed Church … supper of ‘the Lamb.’” “Mine – by the Right of the White Election!”(F411, J528) tropes on the Calvinist doctrine of predestination, the “unconditional election” of the saved, to evoke a delirious sense of being chosen—but by whom and for what?
Dickinson questions faith and revelation, has doubts, is angry at God, wants to submit to a higher power. She often addresses God as “Father,” partly because she had a dominating patriarchal father but also because the Congregationalism she learned was Trinitarian—that is, it believed in the the trinity of the godhead: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Later revisionary sects like Unitarians believed, as their name implies, in a unitary godhead. Dickinson also writes more than twenty poems that mention crucifixion or Calvary, the hill upon which the crucifixion occurred, where the speaker declares herself the queen or empress of Calvary, a potent embrace of Christ’s ultimate sacrifice.
The many critical approaches to poems on the theme of religion have changed in response to R. W. Franklin’s revision of Thomas Johnson’s dating of Dickinson poems and further insight into her compositional process, which was far less linear and more restless than once thought. For example, using Johnson’s dating of the poems, critic Greg Johnson understands Dickinson’s career as a successful Romantic quest
from the presumptuous hope of the naïve quester to the “confident despair’” that is the poet’s mature stance.
But other readers do not find in Dickinson such a clear spiritual path. In her revisionary examination titled Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination, Linda Freedman uses the life of Christ to illuminate what she calls Dickinson’s “incarnational poetics.” Freedman brings a rich mix of contexts to illuminate Dickinson’s spiritual journey: Gethsemane, the Crucifixion, the Romantic sublime of Shelley’s “Prometheus,” John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (a book Dickinson heartily recommended to Austin), Dickinson’s elegy on Charlotte Brontë, the “agony of the in-between.” What replaces Johnson’s uni-directional quest with its “rarefied pearl of poetic achievement,” is
a version of internalized Romantic questing that taps religious sources in order to understand a process that is always in search of its own meaning and that finds its location in illocality.
Since many of the poems Dickinson wrote during this period and during her life touch on religious issues or use religious imagery, our problem was deciding which ones to include. We have already featured several of her most famous poems that touch on religion in earlier posts. The poems gathered here, some well-known and others less so, directly address central religious questions in Dickinson’s life and lifetime: why attend church at all? How are we transfigured by faith? What is revelation? Does God fulfill the promises of the sacraments? Does he hear and respond to our prayers? We might have to do another post on this topic.
Some – keep the Sabbath – going to church –
I – keep it – staying at Home –
With a Bobolink – for a Chorister –
And an Orchard – for a Dome –
Some – keep the Sabbath, in Surplice –
I – just wear my wings –
And instead of tolling the bell, for church –
Our little Sexton – sings –
"God" – preaches – a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So – instead of getting to Heaven –
- at last –
I'm – going – all along!
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XV, Fascicle 9-4. Includes 29 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862, Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in The Round Table, 1 (12 March 1864), 195, from the copy now lost ([A]). Poems (1890), 74, from the fascicle (B).
EDA offers this information on the poem:
Three fair copies (one lost), variant, about 1861 and 1862. The lost manuscript was the source for publication of the poem on 12 March 1864 in The Round Table, a new literary periodical edited by Charles H. Sweetser, who grew up as ED's neighbor, and Henry E. Sweetser, a first cousin, son of her Aunt Catherine. A word in line 11 differs from the extant holographs (“going” instead of “getting”), raising to three the number of times “going” is used. The lost manuscript may have been from about 1861, antedating the fascicle copy. At that time Charles Sweetser, a member of the Class of 1862 of Amherst College, was still a neighbor, much interested in poetry.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 9 in the fourth place and included a copy in her fourth letter to Higginson in July 1862, perhaps to test the humor of her chosen “Preceptor” about religion—he began his professional life as a minister. Helen Vendler compares the Fascicle version, printed here, with the copy sent to Higginson, which Franklin used for his edition, and protests that the latter version tones down the broad satire of line 9 by removing the quotation marks around God and the italics from “noted,” and regularizes the jaunty, bouncing rhythm that imitates the bubbling song of the bobolink by removing all but one dash. One should also note that line 3 of each quatrain is a pentameter line, nestled in the tetrameter and trimeter lines of the hymn form.
David Reynolds frames this poem in the context of the popular sermon style that evolved between 1800 and 1860 to replace the rigorous Puritan style with “diverting narrative, extensive illustrations, and even colloquial humor.” For him, the poem is
a clever adaptation of the new antebellum religious style: not only does it shift worship from church to nature and sing praise to short sermons, but it actually converts God into an entertaining preacher obviously trained in the new sermon style.
But this new style apparently did not entice Dickinson to become a member of the church. She is clearly having fun presenting her refusal to attend the Congregational church of her father and depicting her alternative in nature, sitting in her orchard listening to the birds, as far superior. But beneath the cheerful surface is a serious theological point. She doesn’t need a clergyman as intermediary to preach to her; she has direct access to God through his creation (an Emersonian idea). Furthermore, while Congregational preachers teach their listeners that Heaven is a posthumous aspiration that takes them out of time, for Dickinson it is processional, happening in time. It’s the difference between “getting to Heaven” as if catapulted across an abyss, and “going – all along.” Not just that in her world earth is a form of heaven, but that living is the experience of grace and salvation on a daily basis.
Reynolds, David. “Popular Culture.” Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson. Ed. Wendy Martin. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002: 168-171.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 72-74.
He touched me, so I live to know
That such a day, +permitted so,
+I groped opon his breast –
It was a boundless place to me
And silenced, as the awful Sea
Puts minor streams to rest.
And now, I'm different from before,
As if I breathed superior air –
Or brushed a Royal Gown –
My feet, too, that had wandered so –
My Gypsy face – transfigured now –
To tenderer Renown –
Into this Port, if I might come,
Rebecca, to Jerusalem,
Would not so ravished turn –
Nor Persian, baffled at her shrine
Lift such a Crucifixal sign
To her imperial Sun.
+persuaded so – • Accepted so –
+ I perished • I dwelt
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85 asc:17626 – p. 3. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, MA. First published in Poems (1896), 92, the first and second stanzas.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 17 in the third place around summer 1862. It is written in triplets of 886 loosely rhyming AAB. Is it going too far to say the triplets suggest the trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit?
Linda Freedman puts this among a group of poems exploring “transfiguration,” the moment when the disciples see Jesus shining with divine light and realize his divinity: “His face shone like the sun and his raiment was white as light” (Matthew 17:2) But she also notes that Dickinson’s
understanding of the trope extends beyond [the Gospel story], fueled by an awareness of other religions. Mythological sun-gods and Old Testament fires fuse with New Testament transfiguration to dramatize inspiration as the intrusion of eternity into time.
In this poem, Dickinson fuses “religious imagery with Romantic notions of the sublime in the story of a lover’s embrace.” This “touch” “transfigures” the speaker but also requires submission to a greater force. The Romantic sublime occurs in the encounter with the “boundless … awful Sea” in which the “minor stream” of the speaker merges and comes to “rest.”
The last stanzas fuse the story of Rebecca from the Hebrew Bible and the image of Persian priestesses worshiping the sun with the crucifixion of Christ. The Biblical story depicts Rebecca, the wife of Isaac and foremother of Jesus, as generous, pious and humble — a fit wife for the son of Abraham, who was the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
But, as Freedman points out, although “submission and worship are empowering” for Rebecca, the “baffled” priestess and Christ “because they forge a relationship with divinity,” they are also possessed by an “alien subjectivity” which foretells their sacrifice and death: at the moment of his transfiguration, Jesus is claimed by God as his son, gains divine authority, and “his sacrificial and submissive role in the divine plan is foreshadowed in the idea of his future death and resurrection.” Dickinson manages to infuse this complex experience with a dark and creative eroticism.
Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 74-82.
It will be Summer – eventually.
Ladies – with parasols –
Sauntering Gentlemen – with Canes –
And little Girls – with Dolls –
Will tint the pallid landscape –
As 'twere a bright Boquet –
Tho' drifted deep, in Parian –
The Village lies – today –
The Lilacs – bending many a year –
Will sway with purple load –
The Bees – will not despise the
Their Forefathers – have hummed –
The Wild Rose – redden in the Bog –
The Aster – on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion – set –
And Covenant Gentians – frill –
Till Summer folds her miracle –
As Women – do – their Gown –
Or Priests – adjust the Symbols –
When Sacrament – is done –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Loose sheets. Various poems. MS Am 1118.3 (381), Houghton Library – (381a). Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Letters (1894), 209, the lines to Bowles (A); Poems (1896), 101, the fascicle copy (B), with stanza 1 omitted and alterations in stanzas 2 and 3 by Mabel Todd's father, Eben Jenks Loomis. Further Poems (1929), 195-96, with the first stanza restored and Loomis's alterations undone, but with five stanzas of another poem appended; corrected in Bingham, Ancestors’ Brocades (1945), 389n.
EDA gives this information on the poems:
Two (one in part), variant, about 1862. A few lines, addressed "Mr Bowles" and signed "Emily," were sent to Samuel Bowles (a 670) about early 1862.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 18 in the 13th position about autumn 1862. It is a winter reverie about the coming of summer in all its glory. In her study of “Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition,” Jane Donahue Eberwein argues that when Dickinson attended the First Church in Amherst
nothing significant had changed in Calvinist theology or diction with regard to sacramental understanding. A Young Communicant’s Catechism of 1830 reminded young converts … that sacraments were “seals of the covenant of grace” appointed by God “to be sacred signs, memorials, and pledges of his mercy to us through a crucified Jesus, he being the great surety and sacrifice, to which we are directed constantly to look for pardon, grace, and glory.
Eberwein then reads the “Covenant gentians” as “a pledge of new birth following the apparent death of the botanical year,” which Dickinson depicts as the village “drifted deep, in Parian.” The Lexicon defines Parian as: “Pure whiteness; color of exquisite white marble from the island of Paros in the Aegean Sea; [fig.] snow.” But Eberwein cautions, “Even though the promise it seals will continue, however, an actual sacrament concludes,” which is indicated by the last two lines where “Priests – adjust the Symbols – When Sacrament – is done.” The moment of “interchange between the material and spiritual worlds” is transient.
An issue with this reading is that “Priests” is a term usually applied to clergy of the Catholic Church, especially those who are charged with celebrating Mass and authorizing the transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (an anathema to Protestants). Benjamin Goluboff examines the cultural valence around the term “Priests” that might have influenced Dickinson and finds an anti-Catholic bias in the definitions Dickinson might have encountered in her 1844 Webster’s Dictionary, in the pages of the Springfield Republican and from the pulpits of her local church. He then reads this anti-Catholic bias into this poem’s diction, where, he argues, the Priests are “agents of deception.” “Summer’s end is a standard Dickinson topos through which the poet arraigns both nature and Divinity for the transience of life and beauty,” he notes. In their “adjustment” of the Sacrament, these Priests
perpetuate a fraud: the promise of Real Presence in their sacrament is not more valid than the promise of an eternal summer. Summer will cheat us again, says the speaker, just as the priest hoodwinks his flock with empty symbols.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition.” Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Judith Farr. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996, 89-104, 91-2.
Goluboff, Benjamin. “‘If Madonna Be’: Emily Dickinson and Roman Catholicism.”
The New England Quarterly 73, 3 (Sep., 2000): 355-385, 365-66.
You constituted Time –
I deemed Eternity
A Revelation of Yourself –
'Twas therefore Deity
The Absolute – removed
The Relative away –
That I unto Himself
My slow idolatry –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXXI, Fascicle 23, Houghton Library – (167d). Includes 20 poems, written in ink, ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 176, from a transcript of A (a tr563), with the alternative not adopted.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 23 in the 10th place sometime late in 1862. It is written in the short meter, quatrains of 6686 syllables rhyming abcb, perhaps an ironic formal comment on its subject, Eternity.
Linda Freedman frames a reading of this poem with a discussion of embodiment, arguing that “the word made flesh” or the Protestant doctrine of “incarnation,”
was the prime example of divine-human communication. … Calvinist orthodoxy required such a space between spirit and natural man. … The gap between the thing-in-itself and the image of the thing, or the divine referent and its representational sign could not be closed.
By the time of Dickinson’s birth, Emerson radically revised the orthodox Protestant doctrine of revelation, which he believed was cold and lifeless, proclaiming:
the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.
That is, humans could and should experience the revelation of God daily, through the senses, perception of nature, and in the body.
But there is still the problem of the “gap,” which Dickinson explores in this poem, according to Freedman, “from the point of view of a disappointed lover.” The speaker here wants to believe that they are in the presence of divinity, in the Emersonian sense that divinity can be reconfigured as humanity.
The force of the poem turns on the “slow idolatry” of the last line. As the absolute has done away with the relative, the speaker must “adjust,” not end, her idolatrous attitude. Her compulsion to worship remains the same even as her understanding of the object of it changes. … She was fascinated by the way we might comprehend the notion of an absolute, what we need to make it seem real to us and the mistakes that might arise from this need.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Divinity School Address.” 1838. RWE.org.
Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 16-17, 20-21.
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" –
My Reason – Life –
I had not had – but for
'Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom's
Merry, and nought, and gay,
and numb –
Than this smart Misery.
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XVI, Fascicle -13 (part), Houghton Library – (88d). Includes 14 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in Saturday Review of Literature, 5 (9 March 1929), 751, and Further Poems (1929), 44, as two stanzas of six and nine lines.
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 25 in the 13th place about summer 1863. The poem begins in iambic tetrameter with discernible rhyme (Care/air) but soon disintegrates into free verse, just as the universe of the speaker falls apart at the realization of the futility of prayer and the existence but indifference of God. Biographer Richard Sewall said of this poem:
She never made a starker statement of a deprived existence.
The poem begins with an angry outburst in response to a comforting friend or advisor, who asks if the speaker has prayed about their doubts and struggles. As Sharon Leiter notes, Jesus himself promised that God would respond to sincere prayer: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find …” (Matthew 7:7-8). Dickinson wrote several other poems about the inefficacy of prayer, “At least – to pray–is left–is left–” (F377, J344) in which the speaker cannot locate God and “Prayer is the little implement / Through which Men reach / Where Presence – is denied them” (F623, J437) . Emily Seelbinder notes that Dickinson’s letters support this view. As early as 1853 she wrote to her friends the Hollands that the promise that prayers would be answered “‘twas only a blunder of Matthew’s” (L133). Thirty years later she repeated this feeling in a criticism of her mercurial friend Maria Whitney:
You are like God. We pray to Him and He answers ‘No.” Then we pray to Him to rescind the “no,” and He don’t answer at all, yet “Seek and ye shall find” is the boon of faith. (L830).
In the face of this failure of prayer and loss of faith, the speaker wishes, in the last lines of the poem, that she had never been born. In her rage, she parrots the words of the Bible: “better Charity” she says, “To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb,” a resonant image of the reduction to one’s tiny basic element. Better, she says, to be “Merry, and nought, and gay, and numb”– numbness being a state Dickinson’s speakers frequently experience in the face of extreme pain or shock – than to experience a “smart Misery.” The pun here on the pain of consciousness and an intelligence that perceives only divine indifference drives home the speaker’s feeling of bleakness.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 154-55.
Oberhaus, Dorothy. “ ‘Engine againt th’ Almightie’: Emily Dickinson and Prayer.” ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance 32 (1986): 153-72.
Seelbinder, Emily. “Religion.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 237.
Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 501.
God is a distant – stately Lover –
Woos, as He states us -
by His Son –
Verily, a Vicarious Courtship –
"Miles", and "Priscilla," were
such an One –
But, lest the Soul – like
Choose the Envoy – and spurn
the 'Groom –
Vouches, with hyperbolic
"Miles", and "John Alden" +are Synonyme –
Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Poems: Packet XXVIII, Fascicle 29-6. Includes 20 poems, written in ink, dated ca. 1862. Houghton Library – (150b,c) 'Twas warm – at first – like Us -, J519, Fr614; God is distant – stately Lover -, J357, Fr615. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA. First published in the Christian Register, 70 (2 April 1891), 212, with the revision adopted.
EDA goes on to comment:
The indignant response to this publication, an advance release for Poems (1891), led Mabel Todd to leave the poem out of the volume. Correspondence relating to this appearance is in Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades (1945), 124-25. Unaware that the poem had been published in the Christian Register, Martha Bianchi included it in Further Poems (1929), 198, as a nine-line stanza, with a note stating, “First four lines only before published in a paper by her niece” (unidentified). Because the appearance in FP (1929) also elicited criticism, Bianchi omitted the poem from the collections she issued thereafter. It was next published in Bingham, Ancestors' Brocades (1945), 124, from a transcript of A (a tr134, 134a).
Dickinson copied this poem into Fascicle 29 in the 6th position around the second half of 1863. It is written in lines of 9 and 8 syllables rhyming loosely abcb. Helen Vendler describes its “waltz-rhythm” as part of Dickinson’s “playfully blasphemous … joke on the Incarnation, which she crosses with the courtship of Miles Standish.” Perhaps Dickinson conceived the parallel when she read the 1858 poem by Longfellow titled “The Courtship of Miles Standish.” Vendler also repeats the history of the poem's publication, that when it appeared first “rather incredibly” in the Unitarian weekly, Christian Register in April 1891, its irreverence elicited protests from readers so that Mabel Todd dropped from the 1891 Poems and it didn’t appear again until 1945 in Ancestors’ Brocades.
In his popular poem, Longfellow dramatized an incident from early New England history, concerning Miles Standish (1584-1656), an English officer hired by the English Pilgrims, who had taken refuge in Leiden, Netherlands, from religious persecution against Dissenters mounted by the Church of England. Standish became the military adviser for the Pilgrims' new settlement in Plymouth Plantation on the North American coast. As Longfellow’s poem depicts it, Standish deputed his clerk John Alden to woo Priscilla Mullins for him, not realizing that Alden harbored a secret love for her. She famously replied to the vicarious suit with the words: “Why don’t you speak for yourself, John?” Dickinson's poem represents God the Father as Standish, sending his son Christ as Alden to “woo” the souls of humanity.
As Vendler notes, there are many comic effects in this poem: the extra syllable tacked on to the odd-numbered lines through the use of “feminine” rhymes: Lover, Courtship, archness, Synonyme; the “gloomy remoteness of God” who is described as “stately” and stand-offish and also “states” when talking to humanity; depicting divine salvation as ordinary “wooing” and “Courtship; the “rash familiarity” of the use of the men's first names for God and Christ; the use of “Verily” through which “the poet ascribes to herself a (fanciful) scriptural authority;” and finally God’s “hyperbolic archness” in having it both ways, since, he declares that “ ‘Miles’, and ‘John Alden’ were Synonyme.” The use of this last word, Vendler argues, translates the comedy into a third realm, “the linguistic plane of the word.”
Priscilla ended up choosing John Alden—the man of writing, not the man of military action – just as Dickinson often finds Christ a more sympathetic figure than God the Father. But Christ is also her model for human suffering and her own sacrifices, a victim like herself of a cagey God who covers all the options.
Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts on File, 2007, 82-83.
Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2010, 269-71.
Freedman, Linda. Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 99, 120.
Johnson, Greg. Emily Dickinson: Perception and the Poet’s Quest. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1985.