December 24-31, 1862: Winter

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness. It is part of her extensive seasonal imagery, which we will explore through her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry. This is also the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

This week’s focus is Winter, inspired by this season of endings, of dormancy and darkness, and also of the holidays of lights— Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Diwali—with their candles, oil lamps, evergreens and messages of peace despite contemporary contamination by consumerism. It was heartening to hear several stories in the media calling for “giftless” holidays or giving the gift of presence and intimacy or homemade gifts. It’s a good time to think of renewing our commitments to making and nourishing connections and building bridges not walls.

Dickinson calls winter the “Finland of the Year” (J1696), and it is part of her extensive seasonal imagery. As we will see in our explorations of her attitudes in letters and the symbolism in her poetry, winter signals cold, deprivation, isolation and death. But it also suggests purity through the important images of whiteness, clarity, strength, independence and perseverance. As critic L. Edwin Folsom commented,

Winter, for Emily Dickinson, was a primary source of her realism.

Winter is also the time in which we lay up the seeds and resources for next year’s resurgence. For those of us in the north, it signals the end of the year and also the return of the light after the Winter Solstice. Thus, it is fitting that this is the last post in this year-long project of immersing ourselves in Dickinson’s world for the eventful year of 1862/2018. We will reflect on the year’s process and also look forward to new beginnings in the buried roots of wonder.

“Strong and Healthy as a Northern Breeze”

Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1

Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.
Union engineers built the pontoon bridges at Franklin Crossing where Gen. Franklin spent two days crossing with the left wing of the Union army for the Battle of Fredericksburg.

“Public attention has been turned from the auxiliary situation for some days by an attempt of the majority of the Senate to force a reconstruction of the cabinet for the sake of dropping out Mr. Seward, which was temporarily successful, but terminated in the return of the secretaries to their previous positions. The first shock of the Fredericksburg disaster [the battle fought Dec 11-15] has been overcome, and since it is seen that the losses were less than at first supposed, that the army is not demoralized by the failure, and since Gen. Burnside assumes the whole responsibility of the experiment, hope begins to be entertained that the winter campaign in Virginia has not been terminated by it, and that some means of reaching Richmond may be discovered more hopeful than dashing our gallant army in places against impregnable fortifications.

Success of Physical Culture at Amherst College, page 2
“We are glad to receive from time to time favorable accounts of the working of the gymnastic system which has been adopted by the trustees of Amherst College. During the term, and indeed during the year, the health of the students has been remarkably uniform. Not a single case of fever has occurred in college during the year. Of 178 students who were present during the fall term, only five were at any time on the sick list for more than two days.”

Late from China and Japan: Russia sending troops to China—The Revolution in Japan, page 5
“It was rumored that a large body of Russian troops were coming from the Amoor to aid the Chinese government in the recapture of Ningpoo, and to put down the rebellion. James’ Herald of November says the revolution in Japan is complete. The tycoon [“taikun” or great commander] has been stripped of nearly all his special privileges.”

Books, Authors and Arts, page 7
“Of the remaining poems of [Bayard Taylor’s new volume], “Passing the Sirens” is the best. It is as strong and healthy as a northern breeze, and too full of life and power to be anything less than an offspring, most classically disguised, of personal experience. We trust the volume may find many appreciative readers, and that abundant room may be made for the author in the high place which belongs to him as an American poet.”

Original Poetry: Dying for Love, [by William Walsh (1662-1708) English poet and friend of Alexander Pope] page 7

William Walsh,
Atlantic Monthly,
December 1862

The Fossil Man, page 670 [by C. L. Brace (1826-1890), an American social reformer]
“What a mysterious and subtile pleasure there is in groping back through the early twilight of human history! The mind thirsts and longs so to know the Beginning: who and what manner of men those were who laid the first foundations of all that is now upon the earth: of what intellectual power, of what degree of civilization, of what race and country. We wonder how the fathers of mankind lived, what habitations they dwelt in, what instruments or tools they employed, what crops they tilled, what garments they wore. We catch eagerly at any traces that may remain of their faiths and beliefs and superstitions; and we fancy, as we gain a clearer insight into them, that we are approaching more nearly to the mysterious Source of all life in the soul.”

Harper’s Monthly, December 1862

Editor’s Easy Chair, page 134

"Titania and Bottom," 1790, artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825)

“The letter of Garibaldi to the British nation contrasts strangely in the purity of its appeal to the loftiest principle with the apparent character and conduct of the people to whom it is addressed. Yet the contrast is between the heroic faith of Garibaldi and the hesitating, treacherous timidity of the British Government, and not between the instinct of the Italian fils du people and that of the people of England. When you hear the high appeal, breathed in passionate music, it is impossible not to think of Titania and Bottom [from Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act IV.1. An angry King Oberon casts a spell on Queen Titania, so that she falls madly in love with Bottom, a weaver who has been given the head of an ass.] When you turn from English history, or the London newspaper of today, to listen to that clear Southern voice intoning the principles and ideas which it is the glory of men to have uttered centuries ago, it is almost if you have heard that voice itself out of history, vague, remote, illusive.”

“Better than a Summer”

“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883
“The Puritan Governor interrupting the Christmas Sports,” by Howard Pyle c. 1883

The last week in December was likely a cold and perhaps dreary time in the Dickinson household. The earliest New England Puritans were not keen on Christmas, which they claimed had no scriptural foundation and was celebrated in Old England by carnival-like activities they found reprehensible. They outlawed Christmas, but by the mid-eighteenth century, it had become a popular holiday in the US embraced by Congregational Churches as a time for formal observance. The December 27, 1862 issue of the Republican reported:

Here at home we see the usual demonstrations on the part of the whole people for a spirited and bona fide celebration of the holiday rites,

but we have no idea how the family of the Homestead spent the holiday, if at all.

Dickinson’s letters from this time indicate that she was preoccupied with Samuel Bowles’s return from Europe in mid-November, and her imagery in those letters sheds light on her broader attitude towards winter. After his return, Bowles visited the Homestead, but Dickinson refused to come down and see him, and sent this note instead:

Dear friend
I cannot see you. You will not less believe me. That you return to us alive, is better than a Summer. And more to hear your voice below, than News of any Bird.
      Emily. (L276)

In a longer letter sent at the same time, Dickinson explained that,

Because I did not see you, Vinnie and Austin, upbraided me – They did not know I gave my part that they might have the more.

The rest of the letter is elliptical and ends on a note of shared suffering and renunciation with these two lines:

Let others – show this Surry's Grace -

Myself – assist his Cross. (L277)

Dickinson’s description of Bowles’s safe return as “better than a Summer” places it within her seasonal symbolism where she measures it against her favorite season of the fullest sun, light, warmth, life, even eternity. Evoking related symbolism in other letters, Dickinson associates winter with death, as in this (melo)dramatic outburst to the Hollands in November 1858:

I can't stay any longer in a world of death. Austin is ill of fever. I buried my garden last week – our man, Dick, lost a little girl through the scarlet fever. I thought perhaps that you were dead, and not knowing the sexton's address, interrogate the daisies. Ah! dainty – dainty Death! Ah! democratic Death! Grasping the proudest zinnia from my purple garden, – then deep to his bosom calling the serf's child!

Say, is he everywhere? Where shall I hide my things? Who is alive? The woods are dead. Is Mrs. H. alive? Annie and Katie – are they below, or received to nowhere? (L195)

Later in her life, Dickinson will reverse this symbolism, suggesting that it is death that brings winter no matter what season it is, as in this description of her mother’s death from 1882:

She slipped from our fingers like a flake, and is now part of the drift called “the infinite.” (L785)

In her classic study of Dickinson’s imagery, Rebecca Patterson saved the last chapter for an explication of the symbolism of “The Cardinal Points,” which Barton Levi St. Armand expanded into what he calls “Dickinson’s mystic day.” Patterson argues that Dickinson learned the power of symbolism from Emerson, who asked in his great essay Nature (1836)

is there no intent of an analogy between man’s life and the seasons? And do the seasons gain no grandeur or pathos from that analogy?

Patterson finds that Dickinson

was in fact a naïve symbolist who … used this symbolism like a second language, or a species of shorthand

but often diverged from Emerson’s ideas. For her, “North” and “northern” and its equivalents like “Arctic” and “Polar” are associated with night, specifically midnight, winter and elements like sleet, snow, frost, glaciers, freezing, icicles, darkness, blindness, death, and the color white

as an arbitrary (cultural) identification of chastity or virginity.

As we discussed in our earlier post on White, these cultural associations are hardly “arbitrary” at all.

In many symbol systems, including Dickinson’s, the north and winter have some positive attributes and are associated with masculinity, maturation, power, hardihood, independence, female virtue, and faithfulness. Patterson suspects Dickinson absorbed these ideas from the writings of John Ruskin, a prominent English art critic, which, in a letter from April of this year, she told Higginson she was reading.

Amherst in Winter (no date)
Amherst in Winter (no date)

In several of his works, Ruskin praises northern superiority, which flourishes in the cold and, like the hemlock trees surrounding the Homestead, is strengthened by the deprivations of winter. Not surprisingly, given her skepticism, the north is where Dickinson locates her God, but it is also the regions associated with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost. In several poems, she refers to winter and “snow” as a “Prank,” a joke God or Nature plays on humans (see “The tint I cannot take” (F696, J627) and “These are the days that Reindeer Love” (F 1705, J1696).

Finally, to bring this back to Dickinson’s relationship to Bowles, Patterson traces a set of poems and letters she wrote to him in 1861-63 beginning with “Title divine in mine” (F194 , J1027) in which Patterson surmises that “snow” refers to sexual purity and the martyrdom of renunciation. We might contest this biographical reading with its symbolic “shorthand” as reductive, though Patterson concedes:

These poems of northern cold and darkness always imply their opposites.

We have only to think of the “White Heat” of creativity that also characterizes this period in Dickinson’s life.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


(the last!) Reflection
Ivy Schweitzer

It has been a year of unmitigated creative fun and revelations for me as I blogged every week of Dickinson’s life and writing in 1862!

I recognize how lucky I am to have had the luxury of spending a year with one poet who so richly deserves and repays our closest attention. To be able to read extensively and deeply in the biographical materials has been essential. And to dip into the newspapers and periodicals Dickinson most likely read on a daily basis has sharpened my sense of the issues surrounding her, in the air and on people’s lips and minds. And not only the substance of the news, but its form: the large, packed pages of print, sometimes broken by a tiny square of poetry; reports of grisly war next to fluff pieces reinforcing Victorian sex-gender conventions about “the perfect girl,” “How husbands should act,” “How wives should act,” and so on. Serious news next to the latest in fashion, and in periodicals, now-famous writers published without by-lines.

Another absolute revelation was engaging people to reflect on the weekly posts and the range and depth of passion for Dickinson this unearthed. From the amazing 7th graders at the Crossroads Academy in Lyme, New Hampshire, to a poet and translator living and working under life-threatening conditions in Iraq, a translator of Dickinson in Germany wresting with diction choices, scholars and poets, friends and those who volunteered to reflect whom I had not even met—Dickinson continues to be a comfort and confidante to so many readers around the world and across time.

While the project didn’t manage to include every poem Franklin dated to 1862, it included a good many from “around” that year and some that don’t often get anthologized or discussed. But then, this project reinforced for me the folly of getting too hung up on dates and dating. Dickinson’s canon is a floating, morphing, wonderfully organic landscape that benefits from less strictures and determinations rather than more.

If we can let go of our need to “know,” to figure out the riddles or fill in the omitted center, or “understand” and, thus, pin down and lock in, then the poems have the leeway to work their magic on us more thoroughly. If I had to choose one major take-away from my year with Dickinson’s poetry, it would be:

ask questions rather than assert. Open up meanings rather than close them down. Bring a humility to our reading of the poetry

—a recommendation academics have a hard time embracing. But as the Crossroaders titled their thank you note to me:

Crossroads Thank you, front cover
Crossroads Thank you, front cover

“In Poetry is Possibility.”

Though fun, it was not always an easy year and I was sometimes daunted by how the research and writing on a weekly basis expanded to fit the time. In November, I presented the project to Martha Nell Smith’s class on Dickinson and Whitman at University of Maryland, and one of her students asked me: what gives you the energy to go on every week? Without thinking, I replied: Every week there is a surprise, sometimes many surprises, which sometimes, for me —a Dickinson dilettante—rose to the level of a discovery.

Crossroads Thank you, inside
Crossroads Thank you, inside

A few other take-aways I would pass on:

The letters. There is some wonderful scholarship on Dickinson’s letters but they are not read frequently enough as aesthetic texts in their own right alongside the poetry. And perhaps they require a different, and new, methodology of textual reading. But read them we should be doing on a par with the poetry.

Speaker and Gender. I tried to honor Dickinson’s assertion in her letter to Higginson that her poetic speakers are “representative persons” rather than autobiographical, but then struggled with the presumption that her speakers are necessarily female or feminine or gendered at all! I loved the group of poems we found where Dickinson speaks not just in a masculine voice, but as a boy–a very particularly gendered and located voice. And her use of the plurals they and them for singular subjects or the arresting themself. I found myself often reaching for a non-gendered pronoun with which to refer to Dickinson’s speakers. This is an area that needs so much more work and innovative thought.

The World. Finally, the extent and richness of the world Dickinson occupied and evoked. Reading in the Springfield Republican for July about the discovery of the Swift-Tuttle comet, I wondered if I could find poems that might touch on that event and was amazed to find a whole cluster of poems on Astronomy. Or the cluster of bloody poems on what fellow poet John Greenleaf Whittier called “the battle autumn of 1862.” We are still discovering the many ways that Dickinson engaged with her world and turned it into poetry.

Crossroads Thank you, back cover
Crossroads Thank you, back cover

But this is not the end. Or rather, as Peter Schumann, founder of Bread and Puppet Theater and a big fan of Dickinson, implies in his calendar for December: in ending are beginnings. We will probably run the blog again this coming year, so if you have missed any posts, you will be able to catch up. And look for White Heat 1862 in another guise (an ebook) in the coming years.

It has been an honor to share this project with you. Profoundest thanks to my students who worked to make this dream a reality, to my web designer and other tech wizards who lent their expertise, to my family who put up with my incessant monologues on things Dickinsonian, and to all the users, participants and fans who dared to “see a soul at the White Heat.”

Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018
Bread and Puppet Calendar, December 2018

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.

Folsom, L. Edwin. “‘The Souls That Snow’: Winter in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson.” American Literature 47. 3 (Nov., 1975): 361-376, 376.

Atlantic Monthly, December 1862
Harper's Monthly, December 1862
Springfield Republican, December 27, 1862

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Nature. Complete Works.

Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 182-83, 185.

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September 24-30, 1862: Religion

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, some of which we will examine.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Anna Morrison

This week we dip into the vast topic of Dickinson and religion, an exploration that is long overdue in an immersion into her life in 1862. In an earlier post in March exploring Fascicle 18, we focused on the theme of Resurrection in that gathering of poems and linked it to the Dickinson family mourning the death of Frazar Stearns, the young son of the President of Amherst College and friend of Austin Dickinson, who died at the battle of New Bern.

Likewise, this week’s exploration of religion is framed by news on September 17, 1862, of the horrific battle of Antietam, which the Springfield Republican reported as “the largest and most destructive battle of the whole war”– to date. Even after two more years of fighting, historians call this battle the “bloodiest day” in American history: 23,100 casualties. It also changed the course of the war and our history: on September 22, President Lincoln capitalized on the South’s retreat across the Potomac and issued “The Emancipation Proclamation.”

  Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as

Between two farm fields in Sharpsburg, Md., there was a sunken road, which Confederates used as a rifle pit until they were overrun by federal troops. The road has since been known as "Bloody Lane."
Library of Congress

The deadliness of the Civil War is an important context for thinking about Dickinson and the consolations (or not) of religion, but there is so much more to explore in Dickinson’s complex attitudes towards and use of religious imagery. Most accounts of her early life report that she grew up in

a Calvinist household [and] attended religious services with her family at the village meetinghouse, Amherst’s First Congregational Church, [ and that ] Congregationalism was the predominant denomination of early New England.

But what doctrines did she hear preached and what did her family, who had all “converted” by 1850 during the frequent religious revivals that swept through Amherst, actually believe? Dickinson is notable for her refusal to convert but her poetry remains saturated with religious ideas, questions and images, many of which we will examine.

“Pray for the Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Entire Nation”

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The largest and most destructive battle of the whole war occurred at Antietam Creek, Maryland, on Wednesday last. Not less than a hundred thousand men were engaged on each side; the contest was kept up throughout the day, and at night no less than twenty thousand men had fallen on the field, killed and wounded. The advantage was on our side; we had driven back both wings of the rebel army and held position of the field, and their losses were obviously much greater than our own.”

Christian Women Called to Prayer, page 1
“At a meeting of several hundred women of various denominations, a circular was adopted to the women of the United States, suggesting to them to form circles of prayer throughout the land, and to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire nation; for the president and his councilors; for the officers of the army and navy; for our soldiers and seamen; for their families; for ministers of the Gospel, and for the oppressed of our land; and agreeing to observe Monday of every week as a day of especial prayer, assembling at 10 a.m. and at 8 p.m.; each service to occupy two hours.”

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)
Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

A Fair Estimate of President Lincoln, page 6
“Now that some of those who aided in electing President Lincoln are making a strenuous effort to destroy confidence in him, an occasional word in his favor is only fair. The Washington correspondent of the New York Commercial Advertiser makes the following estimate of the present, and we believe that impartial history will decide that it is not overdrawn:—

His shoulders are fully square and strong enough to bear all the cares of state that may fall to his lot; and he can therefore stand cheerfully erect under the assaults of open enemies and pretended friends. His program is prepared to the end, and he will carry it out, to the very letter.

The Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Another Proclamation, page 2
“President Lincoln has issued another proclamation of no small importance, and that is eliciting considerable discussion. It is the proclamation suspending the right of habeas corpus. It is contended on one hand that the government is about to restrict free speech and erect a tyranny by which to govern the loyal states. Freedom of political action is to be prohibited and summary arrests and imprisonments are to be the order henceforth. On the other hand, it is said that the new proclamation is not intended to inaugurate any new system of espionage and arrest, but to restrain and refine the operation of a system already in use.”

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

A Complaint of Friends, p. 359 by M. A. Dodge [Mary Abigail Dodge (1833-1896) wrote under the name Gail Hamilton; she was one of the first female political correspondents in Washington, DC known for writing essays that were particularly harsh on men.]

“Doubtless friendship has its advantages and its pleasures; doubtless hostility has its isolations and its revenges: still, if called upon to choose once for all between friends and foes, I think, on the whole, I should cast my vote for foes. Twenty enemies will not do you the mischief of one friend. Enemies you always know where to find. They are in fair and square perpetual hostility, and you keep your armor on and your sentinels posted; but with friends you are inveigled into a false security, and, before you know it, your honor, your modesty, your delicacy are scudding before the gales.”

Harper’s Monthly, September 1862

The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II“My whole life is covered with thorns.”
The Christ Child Bearing the Cross – Cornelis Galle II: “My whole life is covered with thorns.”

Saint Luke’s Hospital, page 504
“The walls of this beautiful [hospital] were hung with charming pictures, such as a child would care to look at again and again. And chief among these was a copy of the well-known picture, more significant to me than any rosy Cherub of Raphael or Dead Christ of Rubens. It represents the Holy Child bearing on his baby shoulder the cross, held fast with dimpled hands; at his feet the crown of thorns and the blood-stained nails; and in his great, pathetic eyes awful shadows of Gethsemane and Cavalry. The Holy Child seemed to lift up a standard in the midst of these little cross-bearers, and to be leading and sustaining them upward and onward to victory.”

“I do not Feel that I could Give up all for Christ”

Dickinson’s religious upbringing is well documented, though scholars differ on how this upbringing influenced her thinking and writing. The Dickinsons traced their ancestry to Nathaniel and Anna Dickinson, who came over with John Winthrop on the Arbella in 1630 in order to establish a Puritan commonwealth in North America. They were Protestants, who rejected the Catholic Church and the authority of the Pope, and Congregationalists, who believed each congregation should govern itself independently. They were called “Puritans,” somewhat derisively, because they wanted to further purify the Church of England, which had undergone Protestant reformation under Elizabeth I. But they soon moved to the colony of Connecticut under the more liberal leadership of Thomas Hooker, and then to Hadley in the Connecticut River Valley, an area that bred some very famous Puritan leaders: Solomon Stoddard (a reformer) and his grandson, the famous philosopher and “last of the Puritans,” Jonathan Edwards.

The early Puritans held to the principles formulated at the Synod of Dort in 1618, a meeting of Protestant theologians to settle the controversy over Arminianism, the belief that humans could prepare for divine grace. In what is quaintly known as the TULIP theology, the Synod rejected Arminianism and affirmed the following doctrines:

Total Depravity: since the Fall, humanity is depraved and lacks the means to salvation
Unconditional election (predestination): Despite total depravity, God has elected some people for eternal glory; the rest are condemned to eternal damnation
Limited Atonement: Christ’s sacrifice on the cross made possible the divine election of specific people predestined to salvation by God’s unknowable plan
Irresistible Grace: For the elect, God’s grace is inevitable and irreversible even for the sinner
Perseverance of the Saints: The elect, or “Saints,” persevere as individuals or groups.

Fairly tough stuff and seemingly obscure, but we will see elements of these doctrines in Dickinson's work. The one key innovation of the New England Puritans, an extreme attempt at “purity” which earned them their mocking epithet, was their desire to restrict church members to those they deemed were “elected” (or predestined to Heaven), who then became what they called “visible saints”– people who made a creditable public confession of faith.

Although Jonathan Edwards tried to hold the line against reform, by the 1830s, this austere belief system had softened into something more genteel, though its basic outlines and dispositions remained, especially in rural areas like Amherst, MA. Edwards’ grandson, Timothy Dwight, a Congregational minister and president of Yale, stressed Christianity’s social usefulness and moral improvement of the self. Similarly, in his speech on the dedication of Amherst College in 1820, Noah Webster echoed the millennial and imperial imagery of his Puritan forebears, casting the College's purpose as similar to the work of

the apostles themselves, in extending and establishing the Redeemer’s empire—the empire of truth. … to aid in the important work of raising the human race from ignorance and debasement; to enlighten their minds; to exalt their character; and to teach them the way to happiness and glory.

As Roger Lundin observes, Protestant evangelicalism adopted the secular idea of progress to create the republican ideal we now identify as “Whig”:

a means of securing the social order for divinely appointed ends … the ideal faith for men of the rising professional class in the early nineteenth-century New England village.

First Congregational Church in Amherst
First Congregational Church in Amherst

Dickinson's father Edward  epitomized this ideal, subscribing to the conservative social and gender ideologies of rationalism, responsibility and order that went along with it, and imposed his beliefs on his family. Not only did they attend services at the First Congregational Church in Amherst, hearing sermons on faith and salvation (which Dickinson commented on profusely in her letters) and singing hymns (which influenced her poetic form), but he led them in daily family prayers and Bible readings (the Bible being a crucial source of imagery for Dickinson).

Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844.  (Emily Dickinson Museum)
Emily Dickinson's bible, presented by her father Edward in 1844. (Emily Dickinson Museum)

Though a Puritan and Yankee spirit (see Richard Sewall for the distinction) pervaded rural Amherst society, in 1833 Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism as the state church, which made it dependent on revivals to populate its pews. This prompted a series of revivals that swept through the Pioneer Valley. Dickinson’s mother converted in one of these revivals in 1830 and in 1846, Dickinson corresponded with her friend Abiah Root about her struggles over “becoming a Christian.” She eventually told Abiah:

I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die (L13).

She also resisted the revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847-48. The rest of her family converted in 1850 and by the late 1850s Dickinson’s attendance at church and at the associated women’s benevolent society circles began to drop off.

Dickinson’s refusal to convert and participate in collective worship did not prevent her from absorbing and recasting many of the ideas and predispositions of early Puritanism. She thoroughly embraced the central Protestant doctrines of the importance of self-examination in solitude through writing, of requiring personal evidence of spiritual beliefs, and of having a direct, experiential relationship with God. In pursuit of these activities, she created a poetic discourse that makes ample use of technical terms such as grace, faith, election, ordinance, sacrament (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), seal, glory, spirit, crown, throne, savior, Calvary, crucifixion, resurrection, and immortality, but often layers these concepts with secular and highly personal meanings.

Some of the more extreme Puritan doctrines she thoroughly rejected: for example, the notions of original sin, fallen nature, predestination, and damnation. Richard Sewall concludes:

Confronting that tradition squarely, she appropriated its components selectively and shrewdly, revered it, but never capitulated to it.

Dickinson has also been linked to other religious traditions, like Daoism, Buddhism and Catholicism. She was also profoundly influenced by Emerson’s and Thoreau’s Transcendentalism (a reaction against Puritanism), which moved the site of religious or spiritual communion out of the church and into nature. While Protestantism has a strong tradition of what it calls “Imitatio Christi,” the believer’s identification with Christ’s life, struggles and sacrifice, Dickinson’s focus on imagery of crucifixion, especially in the 1860s, seems downright Catholic. We know that she owned a copy and read the fifteenth-century devotional book, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. Furthermore, her emphasis on the sacraments evokes a Catholic view of the physical world as profoundly enchanted and miraculous. The Protestant church reduced the sacraments to two: baptism and the Lord’s Supper and rejected the Catholic doctrine of the “Real Presence” of God for the notion of a “Spiritual Presence” apprehended through symbols.

As Emily Seelbinder notes in her short essay on Dickinson and Religion,

She has been claimed as both Catholic and Protestant, Calvinist and anti-Calvinist, firm believer and lifelong skeptic. She has been identified as a mystic, an antinomian, and an existentialist. Some critics argue that she rejected the religious practices of her day or at least seriously questioned them. Other counter that she was always a deeply religious person or that she gradually become one as her life progressed. Still others assert that her “religion” was poetry. … While Dickinson’s belief system may be impossible to codify, her exploration of religious subjects is rich and diverse.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Anna Morrison

I remember my father bringing home a volume of Emily Dickinson’s poems from a library book sale—or maybe it was a yard sale? He went to these regularly and returned home with books on religion and history for himself and poetry for me. He was not familiar with Dickinson, but he explained to me that he chose this book because she wrote poems like mine, by which he meant poems written predominantly in hymnal stanzas. I grew up steeped in Protestant hymns and poems, and that was naturally the first poetic form to which I was drawn, writing my own hymns before I realized that I was writing poetry and not music. It was shortly after this introduction to Dickinson that I stopped writing in hymnal stanzas (probably not a coincidence), but this poetic and spiritual upbringing is still a presence in my writing decades later.

Reading Dickinson as a young girl was a shock. I felt so attuned to the hymn that her gestures within and against that form jolted me—her emphatic dashes, her slant rhymes, her heady wielding of meter and contrary play against it. I felt her turning toward and against possibilities at every syllable (or, more accurately, at every moment—the dashes and silences marking dynamic opportunities, even without syllables). I also responded to Dickinson’s careful self-inquiry and her respect for the authenticity of doubt. Even before reading her biography, I sensed that she would consider it hypocrisy to espouse beliefs with which her soul was not wholly in accord. A few years later, this would resonate strongly with my teenage sense that heretical thought demonstrated a more attentive engagement with the divine than obedience. I argued to my father that a gentle flock follows without question, but she who shapes her own relationship to God must remain attentive to that relationship at every moment (I perhaps perceived this vigilance in Dickinson’s form before seeing it in her poems’ themes).

Some leap of time later, I approached related questions concerning autonomy, whether belief allows the self its own domain, and the pulsing connection between refuge and peril. These themes are taken up in “Hymnal Essay,” a poem/personal-essay hybrid about my own experience of that form. Dickinson is not the subject, and I want to stress that I make no claims to knowledge of her religious beliefs. However, her poetry is a touchstone, and I hope readers will feel its presence in this work.

Have a read—and a listen:

To read “Hymnal Essay,” download a PDF document.

To listen to “Hymnal Essay,” visit our Video and Media page.

Bio: Anna Morrison's poetry has appeared in journals such as BOMB, Interim, Puerto del Sol, Shampoo, and Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women. Her poems won the LUMINA and Prism Review poetry prizes and have been finalists for prizes from Omnidawn, The Iowa Review, and Ahsahta Press. Passionate about small-press publishing, she’s helped make some beautiful books as an editor for Kelsey Street Press, and currently works as an Editorial Consultant and Marketing Associate for Omnidawn Publishing. She is an MFA candidate at Saint Mary’s College of CA and lives with her partner in the Santa Cruz Mountains.


Antietam/Sharpsburg.American Battlefield Trust.

Emily Dickinson and The Church.The Emily Dickinson Museum.

Atlantic Monthly, September 1862

Hampshire Gazette, September 30, 1862

Harper's Monthly, September 1862

Springfield Republican, September 27, 1862


Gilpin, W. Clark. Religion Around Emily Dickinson. Penn State University Press, 2014.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. “New England Puritan Heritage.” Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 46-55.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Second ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004, 10-12, 49-59.

Seelbinder, Emily. “Religion and Religious Criticism.” An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Ed. Jane Donahue Eberwein. Westport, CT.: Greenwood Press, 1998, 245-46.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 19-27.

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