Of Belief and Longing: A Study of Emily Dickinson
“Heaven—is what I cannot reach,” wrote Emily Dickinson in one of her many poems. Again and again, we see the same theme in her works. Her time period was one that emphasized the need for women to play a role as specified by the teachings of the Bible. Emily Dickinson’s poetry reflects her deep desire to know God, but not in the way that everyone around her wants her to; she fears the limiting effects Christianity would have on her life and writes of these fears and desires in a way that leaves readers wanting more.
No doubt, her early life spurred the questioning and confusion we see in her poems. Dickinson grew up in a wealthy and affluent household in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she was raised to be a devout and humble Christian woman. Her father, Edward Dickinson, tried to keep her away from any book learning that would taint her Christian education and values. However, this may have spurred a rebellious streak that led her to question those beliefs that her family held dear. The idea of the docile, domestic life that her parents had promised would be her future prompted her withdrawal from society. Aside from doctor visits, Dickinson never left her father’s house and refused most visitors (Meyer). Alone in her room or wandering the gardens, Dickinson’s mind must have been ripe with ideas and her pen must have flown across the page to jot them down on whatever scraps of paper she could get her hands on.
The poem “‘Heaven’ –is what I cannot reach!” by Dickinson is one of frustration and perhaps longing for a “heaven.” She begins the poem with an allusion to Tantalus, the man who was punished by low-hanging fruit and water that were just out of reach (ll. 2-3). That Heaven is just out of reach for her may be an indirect reference to being unable to understand or grasp the concept of heaven, or that she is so close to achieving her personal heaven, but she cannot seem to get to it. Because she went against the religious teachings of her parents, Dickinson may feel that Heaven will be refused to her. Her use of em-dashes throughout the poem is rather confusing, though I believe that she uses them in place of commas. “The Color, on the Cruising Cloud” could refer to the beautiful colors that sometimes reflect off clouds affected by sunlight, ephemeral and unreachable (Meyer l. 5). Dickinson can see heaven but is unable to reach it. The “land” she seeks is “interdicted,” forbidden to her (Meyer l. 6). Her happiness is hindered by her family’s and society’s need for her to conform to her womanly duties. Her sense of individualism shudders away from anything that would limit her ability to grow both intellectually and spiritually. Dickinson strives for “Paradise,” but it seems to be mocking her with a “credulous — decoy” and she is spurned by “the Conjuror” — perhaps God (Meyer ll. 8-12)? The “Conjurer” may even be her father, who “conjured” her to life and so disdains her lack of interest in conforming to society’s whims. So, not only is she unable to reach her heaven, but she also feels mocked by the Powers That Be, including her own father.
Academics who have read her works are convinced that her views about God and Christianity were both painful and bitter. Scott Pett, a student at Georgia State University, wrote extensively about the religious connotations present in Dickinson’s “‘Heaven’ –is what I cannot reach!” In his thesis, he notes: The link between “Heaven” (in quotations) and Paradise (without quotations) is the ability of the speaker to locate them – the difference being her ability to experience only one of them. The first requires the speaker to “reach” beyond her grasp, meaning the Heaven of religious institutions, being unattainable, is no Heaven at all. The idea that Dickinson felt the Christian version of Heaven was unattainable may explain why she eschewed the traditional views of God and the practices surrounding the religion. A professor of English at Brooklyn College neatly summarizes this point: Though she came close to being converted once, she never felt God’s call, a lack which caused her considerable disquiet and pain: “Tis a dangerous moment for any one when the meaning goes out of things and Life stands straight–and punctual–and yet no signal [from God] comes.” Her attitude toward God in her poems ranges from friendliness to anger and bitterness, and He is at times indifferent, at other times cruel. (Melani) Dickinson searches for heaven, for God. Her friends and family all had the wonderful experience of having a relationship with the Almighty, but it never happened for her. Confusion and bitterness must have raged through her as she watched others achieve what she could not. The cruel God that mocks and spurns her desire to know Him fuels her poetry. Pett noticed that “Heaven takes one of two forms in Dickinson’s poems and letters, though she often uses the same word to describe each: Heaven as place and Heaven as idea or experience.” Dickinson is able to take full advantage of the ambiguity of the term in her poems, refusing to clarify within them which one she means, and perhaps making the poem all the richer for it.
The poem “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church” seems rather tongue-in-cheek about other people’s ways of worshipping God. In it, Dickinson speaks of the Christian Sabbath. While “Some” go to Church, the speaker keeps the Sabbath at home in her garden, a rather unconventional place to hold a sermon (Meyer ll. 1-2). She has “a Bobolink for a Chorister– / And an Orchard, for a Dome (Meyer ll. 3-4). Instead of a choir, the speaker listens to the song of a black bird called a Bobolink. She worships God under the boughs of trees instead of under a church’s dome. Some may even suggest that the word “Dome” is a synecdoche for the Christian church as a whole. In addition to listening to the Bobolink (or perhaps still referring to the bird), the speaker has a Sexton sing, normally the bell-toller, as described in lines 7 and 8. “Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice” (Meyer l. 5). The speaker refers to the fact that churchgoers wear formal clothing, whereas she “just wear[s] [her] Wings” (Meyer l. 6). She likens herself to a bird, so by wings, one can only assume she means her everyday clothing (or perhaps Angel wings, considering the end of the poem). Another interpretation to her wings may be the commonly held belief that those who are saved are granted wings in death. In line 9, the speaker says, “God preaches, a noted Clergyman.” The tone of this line seems wry, as if people don’t normally notice. The speaker, then, prefers to listen to a message from God that isn’t spoken through the lips of a priest. Standing out in nature, listening to the birds and life all around her, the speaker gets deeper meaning. At the end of the poem in lines 11 and 12, the speaker says, “instead of getting to Heaven, at last– / I’m going, all along.” In this, the meaning is clear: where people seek to get to Heaven throughout their lives by going to Church, the speaker claims that she is already in Heaven. Dickinson’s statement that she already exists in Heaven, despite her disdain for regular Christian values and her lack of a relationship with the Lord, may be more of a defensive boast than truth.
Fear is evident in Dickinson’s “He fumbles at your Soul.” This poem seems to be one that describes the process of conversion. Though Dickinson was never converted, her friends and family must have been prime examples of what God did in their lives and how they were affected by it. According to Dickinson, God “scalps your naked Soul” when someone experiences conversion (Meyer l. 12). This brings to mind brutality and vulnerability, as if He were taking something from the convert. Also, using the word “Paws” in line thirteen does not reflect the traditional, gentle God of Christianity, but instead gives the reader an image of a beast, like a bear or wolf. The fear that surrounds these two lines shows that Dickinson may have been scared of the God that her family professed had control over the world and her life as well as her inevitable death. The simile used at the beginning of the poem suggests that God “plays” with our souls before taking them for His. Melani discusses this: “Dickinson uses the simile of a musician’s playing to describe God’s conversion technique.” This technique seems to start out slow, according to Dickinson.
Using the same simile, God acts like a pianist, who begins a song with an introduction before getting into the actual song itself. At the beginning of conversion, the person probably meets someone who has a calling from the Lord, who then entices the newcomer to join them for a prayer or a church service; an introduction to His Word. After this introduction, God starts to work through his or her life so that the person sees something or has an experience that he or she can only explain through an act of God; preparation for conversion. “He stuns you by degrees– / Prepares your brittle Nature / For the Ethereal Blow” (Meyer ll. 4-6). The “Ethereal Blow,” of course, is the spiritual blow of conversion. “God’s blows are spiritual; therefore, the blow of the (piano) hammers is ethereal. (The meaning of ethereal being used here is heavenly or celestial)” (Melani). Finally, when the soul is most pliant to His will, God takes it, providing an intense encounter with the Holy Spirit as the person is converted fully to the faith. God “Deals—One—imperial—Thunderbolt” and the soul is His at last.
Dickinson’s search for answers is continued in “My Period had come for Prayer.” In it, she seeks direct communication with God, perhaps desperate for confirmation of His existence or just wanting to experience Him like the members of her family did. “His House was not – no sign had he – / By Chimney – nor by Door – / Could I infer his Residence –” (Meyer ll. 9-11). Despite her prayers, Dickinson is unable to reach Him, unable to contact Him. She searches for him, but finds nothing but “celestial barrenness,” as stated by Pett, “thereby inducing in the speaker a state of worship for the absence of God in stanza five… Worship supersedes prayer as the decisive link to the spiritual realm”: The Silence condescended – Creation stopped – for me – But awed beyond my errand – I worshipped – did not “pray” – (Meyer ll. 17-20) In finding the place that God is supposed to be but isn’t, Dickinson is awestruck rather than disappointed. In this Pett says that the final lines of the poem illustrate that being unable to communicate with God doesn’t necessarily mean a “failed religious identity.” Dickinson found her own religiosity in discovering the absence of a God she could pray to.
“I know that He exists” seems rather mocking to Christian beliefs. The first line of the poem serves as a stark contradiction to the rest. “He has hid his rare life / From our gross eyes” (Meyer ll. 3-4). So, despite saying “I know that He exists,” the speaker says that God hides Himself from his believers, perhaps noting the irony in Christians’ quest to find God; in succeeding, the believer faces Death, as stated by Michael Weitz in his analysis of the poem. The last stanza questions the mindset of the believers: Would not the fun Look too expensive! Would not the jest— Have crawled too far! (Meyer ll. 13-16) In seeking God and discovering that in order to truly know and see him one must face Death, the speaker wonders if the price would be too high. If one lived their life with only the intention to seek and know God, the speaker wonders what the point is. “With this recognition the speaker comes to view religion as an absurd and reckless game in which the prize is…[Death]” (Weitz). With this in mind, it may be that Dickinson was unable to convert to Christianity because of her skepticism of the belief system involved. The connection between God and Death is evident in this poem, and perhaps she wonders if they are one and the same.
Dickinson’s poem “‘Faith’ is a fine invention” is one that is short and to the point. Consisting of only one quatrain with an abcb rhyme scheme, the poem suggests that faith is a product of man’s whim. “Faith” is a fine invention When Gentlemen can see— But Microscopes are prudent In an Emergency. (Meyer ll. 1-4) Weitz suggests that “Dickinson pits religion against science, suggesting that science…is a more reliable lens through which to view the world.” This poem claims that faith is not as important as science, which can more easily and reliably explain things. Science helps more than faith when someone is in trouble. One cannot simply rely on faith to get them through a dangerous situation. Science is necessary.
Dickinson’s warring skepticism and longing for an experience with God is reflected in her simile-rich and ironically hymn-like poetry. The doubt she faces with every failed attempt to find God spurs her religious nonconformity. God is a distant, sometimes cruel being to Dickinson, and her pain and bitterness arising from such beliefs, coupled with her parents’ urging to be a good little Christian woman, provides for a rather interesting view on religious practices.
Dickinson, Emily. “”Heaven” –is what I cannot reach!”
Meyer, Michael. Poetry; an Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013. 315. Print.
Melani, Lilia. Emily Dickinson. February 2009. Web. 29 June 2014.
Meyer, Michael. Poetry, an Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
Pett, Scott. “Dismantling the Spatiality of Heaven in the Prayer Poems of Emily Dickinson.” 2 May 2012. Scholarworks at Georgia State University. Web. 29 June 2014.
Weitz, Michael. “Religious Faith in Four Poems by Emily Dickinson.”
Meyer, Michael. Poetry; an Introduction. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 345-348. Print.
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