Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society, Autumn 1991—Volume 4:2
Grace in the Arts:
Jesus and Emily:
The Biblical Roots of
Emily Dickinson's Poetry
Arthur L. Farstad*
The above poem, #1052, from the 1,775 poems in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson,3 is typical of this writer. It is short, it is clever, it capitalizes nouns as if the language were German rather than English, and, like many (but definitely not most) of the author's poems, it has a religious touch (God and Heaven).
This article proposes to show that yet another great writer owes at least part of her genius with words and serious thinking about life and death to her conservative Protestant heritage with its deep biblical roots.
II. The Career of Emily Dickinson
Outwardly, Dickinson's life seems most uneventful. Born in Amherst, Massachussetts in 1830, she lived her life in her father's house in Amherst and died unmarried in Amherst in 1886. Inwardly, there was, as expressed in her extremely original poetry, a whole universe of observation, speculation, and expression of nature (a specialty), humanity, religion, and death (her frequent obsession).
Her "public" career, highly restricted though it was, began on April 15, 1862, when Emily was 31 years old. On that day a former "free church" pastor,4 Thomas Wentworth Higginson, opened one of several letters in response to his article in the Atlantic Monthly and to "his 'Letter to a Young Contributor,' practical advice for those wishing to break into print."5 He was open-minded, interested in women's issues, and women writers especially.
All of the four poems she enclosed showed that she was far more than a mere novice at writing poetry. One of the four was the now popular #318 (Emily used no titles; the numbers are editorial and for convenience):
I'll tell you how the Sun rose—
A Ribbon at a time—
The Steeples swam in Amethyst—
The news, like Squirrels, ran—
The Hills untied their Bonnets—
Then I said softly to myself—
"That must have been the Sun"!
But how he set—I know not—
There seemed a purple stile
That little Yellow boys and girls
Were climbing all the while—
Till when they reached the other side,
A Dominie6 in Gray—
Put gently up the evening Bars—
And led the flock away—
Higginson couldn't quite classify Emily's work—it didn't fit traditional forms—but he had sensitivity enough to ask what she liked to read, who her friends were, how old she was, and, most important—for more poems. He wasn't quite sure she was actually writing poetry; he wrote that her work was "remarkable, though odd… too delicate—not strong enough to publish."7
Since Dickinson has become one of the best-loved North American poets in history, Higginson was clearly wrong on the last point. Perhaps he can be partly excused since she was very much ahead of her time.
Three decades later, and five years after her death, the ex-pastor recalled his early correspondence with Miss Dickinson:8
The impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius was as distinct on my mind at the first reading of these four poems as it is now, after thirty years of further knowledge; and with it came the problem never yet solved, what place ought to be assigned in literature to what is so remarkable, yet so elusive of criticism.9
Dickinson agreed that "to publish" was "foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin." She speaks of "My Barefoot-Rank" (being unrecognized) as "better," and, whimsically, of "the approbation of my Dog."10
Though the poet often sent her poems to friends in letters, only after her death was the full extent of her writing discovered. Forty-nine packets of poetry, written in ink on folded sheets loosely held together by loops threaded through the "spine," were found by her sister Lavinia.
Lavinia persuaded an Amherst professor's wife, Mabel Loomis Todd, who enlisted Higginson's help, to prepare a first volume of 115 poems for publication.
Higginson felt the public wasn't quite ready yet for Emily's unusual "meters," punctuation, and other idiosyncrasies:
Colonel Higginson was apprehensive about the willingness of the public to accept the poems as they stood. Therefore in preparing copy for the printer he undertook to smooth rhymes, regularize the meter, delete provincialisms, and substitute "sensible" metaphors. Thus "folks" became "those," "heft" became "weight," and occasionally line arrangement was altered.11
Roberts Brothers of Boston published the first slender volume of Dickinson's work, Poems by Emily Dickinson, and it was a significant literary event of the year 1890. Samuel G. Ward, a Transcendentalist writer, responded as follows:
I am, with all the world, intensely interested in Emily Dickinson. No wonder six editions have been sold, every copy, I should think to a New Englander. She may become world famous, or she may never get out of New England. She is the quintessence of that element we all have who are of the Puritan descent pur sang ["pure blood"]. We came to this country to think our own thoughts with nobody to hinder.12
The public wanted more—and more. Fortunately, fewer and fewer changes were made in her work by "editors." Sometimes, however, manuscripts varied within several "editions" of her own (unique) handwriting.
III. Dickinson's Religious Experience
Emily's Family Roots
Emily Dickinson had a strong Puritan heritage, her family tracing to "the Great Migration" to New England of 1630 (not the radical Separatists of 1620).
Though of very good stock, highly literate, and descended from those who experienced "the Great Awakening" of 1740 under Jonathan Edwards, Emily just couldn't seem to accept the evangelistic doctrines that swept her town and the famous college located there:
The revival spirit, calling for deep individual soul-searching, confession of sin, and repentance, was very much alive in Emily Dickinson's time and caused her anguish. No fewer than eight revivals swept Amherst, college and town, during her formative years, roughly between 1840 and 1862. She could never see herself as a sinner in the hands of an angry God. She could never testify, as so many of her pious friends did, to that direct visitation of the Spirit which was essential to membership in the church. If she never became a "christian" (more often than not, she spelled the word with a small "c"), if her unique calling took her far from the ways of orthodoxy, it still was the Puritan in her that made her feel that the burden of proof was on her, and that the burden was a mighty one [italics supplied].13
Emily's Bible Knowledge
There was no shortage of copies of God's Word in the family in which Emily grew up. The Dickinson Collection at Harvard contains nineteen Bibles.14 (And this was long before the multiplication of translations and "Study Bibles"!) Her father, Edward Dickinson, read a chapter a day. The Bible was also read from the pulpit and at family prayers.
The following excerpt, though extensive, is crucial to the thesis of our article and should prove of interest both to Bible-lovers and poetry-lovers. The italics are mine:
Emily's copy, inscribed to her, is an 1843 edition of the King James Version; so we can assume she had one of her own at least by the time she was twelve. How much she read it in the early years is a matter of conjecture; she certainly heard it a great deal. By whatever process, it was in and through her consciousness like no other book. When she told Higginson in the spring of 1862 that she had, for prose, "Mr. Ruskin—Sir Thomas Browne—and the Revelations," she gave an utterly inadequate notion of her knowledge and use of it. The extraordinary range of the Biblical allusions in her letters and poems shows how arbitrary her selection here of Revelation is, although admittedly the "Gem chapter" (XXI) was a favorite, and in one of the few moments when we can actually catch her in the act of reading the Bible, she is deep in Revelation… But in the length and breadth of her letters and poems very few books of the Bible are not represented in some way, by word, phrase, reference, or allusion. She was saturated with it and could apparently summon it to her aid at will. She began early. At fourteen she wrote Abiah Root that she thought she could "keep house very comfortably" if she knew how to cook but admitted that her situation was a little like "faith without works, which you know we are told is dead" [James 2:26]. She apologized (we recall) for her pedantry: "Excuse my quoting from the Scripture, dear Abiah, for it was so handy in this case I couldn't get along very well without it." Next year, again to Abiah, she rolled together Matthew 13:15 and Ecclesiastes 12:6, with delightful imprecision, in a brand-new Dickinson Version: "'When our eyes are dull of seeing & our ears of hearing, when the silver cord is loosed & the golden bowl broken'"—an indication perhaps that, so far, she was doing more listening than reading, that she heard the great phrases ringing in her ears rather than saw them in print before her eyes. (Her freedom with the text is characteristic of a lifelong habit. Her quotations are seldom exact.)15
Although from an artistic and personal viewpoint Emily originally found God's Word "arid," in the mid-1860's she wrote to Joseph Lyman:
Some years after we saw each other last I fell to reading the Old & New Testament. I had known it as an arid book but looking I saw how infinitely wise & merry it is.
Anybody that knows grammar must admit the surpassing splendor & force of its speech, but the fathomless gulfs of meaning—those words which He spoke to those most necessary to him, hints about some celestial reunion—yearning for a oneness—has any one fathomed that sea? I know those to whom those words are very near & necessary, I wish they were more so to me, for I see them shedding a serenity quite wonderful & blessed. They are great bars of sunlight in many a shady heart.16
The longing for faith's assurance shows up clearly in the sad words, "I wish they were more so to me."
Miss Dickinson did not like doctrine. Her excellent biographer, Richard B. Sewall, writes: "Although perhaps the most religious person in town, she had stopped going to church by the time she was thirty."17 Nevertheless, though she never joined the church, she still imbibed a great deal of the Christian heritage:
Scorn doctrines as she would, she all but polled the preachers, or any older, wiser person she thought could help her, for their ideas on immortality. "The Clergyman says I shall see my Father," she said. She scorned the doctrines she did not like; and if the assurance of the preacher never seems to have convinced her, it was the Christian dispensation that gave form and meaning—ponder it and question it as she would—to her life [emphasis supplied]. She lived, it seems, in a state of wonder and hope: "I wonder how long we shall wonder," she wrote, "how early we shall know." But it was the Bible and her Christian heritage that gave her the questions to wonder about and the destiny to hope for.18
The part of "theology" that Emily could relate to best was Christology. Though not in a fully orthodox sense, she did have a certain love for Jesus.
Probably her reading of Revelation, certain psalms, the Song of Songs, The Imitation of Christ, and who knows what else, brought forth the beautiful heavenly bridegroom poem (#817):
Given in Marriage unto Thee
Oh thou Celestial Host—
Bride of the Father and the Son
Bride of the Holy Ghost.
Other Betrothal shall dissolve—
Wedlock of Will, decay—
Only the Keeper of this Ring
The Gospel in a nutshell, John 3:16, would seem to have inspired the first stanza of #573:
The Test of Love—is Death—
Our Lord—"so loved"—it saith—
What Largest Lover—hath—
God's love to humanity is pictured in the terms of Longfellow's "The Courtship of Miles Standish" in #357:19
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 fair "Priscilla"
Choose the Envoy—and spurn the Groom—
Vouches, with hyperbolic archness—
"Miles", and "John Alden" were Synonym—
Emily and the Revival Meetings
Most people associate "revivals" with the Southern U.S., emotional denominations, and a fair amount of noise. The New England revivals of Emily's youth were more intellectual, but nonetheless fervent and evangelical. The sixteen-year-old New Englander feared she might be too moved by them, though once she felt she had "found" her Savior. In a letter of January 31, 1846 that is almost entirely devoted to religion, Emily confessed she had not become a Christian in the Amherst revival of the winter of 1845:
She has seen "many who felt there was nothing in religion… melted at once," and it has been "really wonderful to see how near heaven came to sinful mortals." Once, for a short time, "she had known this beatific state herself, when "I felt I had found my savior [sic]." "I never enjoyed," she wrote, "such perfect peace and happiness." But "I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever." At Abiah's recent announcement that she was close to conversion, Emily "shed many tears." She herself longs to follow after: "I feel that I shall never be happy without I love Christ" But midway through the letter she makes a striking admission, a real bit of self-discovery. Putting aside the revival rhetoric, she seems to be speaking in her own voice (even to the misspelling):
Perhaps you will not beleive [sic] it Dear A. but I attended none of the meetings last winter. I felt that I was so easily excited that I might again be deceived and I dared not trust myself [emphasis supplied].20
After her friend Abiah became a Christian, their correspondence became less frequent.
The "gospel" she heard demanded total commitment before one could be saved, judging from these selections from letters to Abiab in 1854:
"I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die. Pray for me Dear A. that I may yet enter into the kingdom, that there may be room left for me in the shining courts above [emphasis supplied].21
A Free Grace Christian wonders what response Emily would have had to a clear, "non-Lordship Salvation" appeal based on grace alone, apart from performance or works.
From Mount Holyoke, a year and a half later, Emily writes:
There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important & serious a subject [emphasis supplied].22
IV. Christian Motifs in Dickinson's Poetry
In spite of her apparent fear of receiving Christ as Savior and Lord and of not being able to be totally committed or absolutely surrendered,23 Emily identified with Christ in His sufferings more and more as she went through life. The last few lines of #561 (about 1862) illustrate this:
A piercing Comfort it affords
In passing Calvary—
To note the fashions—of the Cross—
And how they're mostly worn—
Still fascinated to presume
That Some—are like My Own—
In the year that the Civil War broke out Emily penned the following appealing poem (at least to Christians):
Savior! I've no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?
Nor, for myself, I came so far—
That were the little load—
I brought thee the imperial Heart
I had not strength to hold—
The Heart I carried in my own—
Till mine too heavy grew—
Yet—strangest—heavier since it went—
Is it too large for you?
During the first full year of the War (1862), perhaps fearing that the threatened draft would take away her beloved brother Austin, Emily wrote the following "prayer":
At least—to pray—is left—is left—
Oh Jesus—in the Air—
I know not which thy chamber is—
Thou settest Earthquake in the South—
And Maelstrom, in the Sea—
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth—
Hast thou no Arm for Me?
The "Earthquake in the South" may well refer to the then recent secession of the Confederate States of America and the bloody war that ensued.
I felt that this poem seemed rather irreverent, but sharing it with a literary-minded Christian friend, was pleased to see that he interpreted it in a much sincerer light.24
Many of Dickinson's finest poems describe nature in unique and charming ways. Some of these also are painted with a brush dipped in biblical colors. We have space for only a few:
Where Ships of Purple—gently toss—
On Seas of Daffodil—
And then—the Wharf is still!
Blazing in Gold and quenching in Purple
Leaping like Leopards to the Sky
Then at the feet of the old Horizon
Laying her spotted Face to die
Stooping as low as the Otter's Window
Touching the Roof and tinting the Barn
Kissing her Bonnet to the Meadow
And the Juggler of Day is gone
So has a Daisy vanished
From the fields today—
So tiptoed many a slipper
To Paradise away—
Oozed so in crimson bubbles
Day's departing tide—
Are ye then with God?
No ladder needs the bird but skies
To situate its wings,
Nor any leader's grim baton
Arraigns it as it sings.
The implements of bliss are few—
As Jesus says of Him,
"Come unto me" the moiety
That wafts the cherubim.
When describing nature, Emily's Puritan, Protestant, and biblical roots tend to produce some of the metaphorical blossoms. The final two stanzas of #130 on "the old-old sophistries of June":
Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblems to partake—
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!
Did Emily ever respond to the Lord's knock on her door (#317)?25
He doesn't weary—
Last—at the Knocker—
And first—at the Bell.
Then—on divinest tiptoe—standing—
Might He but spy the lady's soul—
It will be ample time for—me—
Patient—upon the steps—until then—
Heart! I am knocking—low at thee.
There is always the possibility that Dickinson got saved as a young girl, but many of her poems seem to suggest the opposite. "'Consider the Lilies,"' she wrote to a friend two years before her death, was "the only Commandment I ever obeyed."26
No doubt a great exaggeration, but nature and poetry lovers can at least rejoice that this one "commandment" from our Lord's Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:28) was obeyed—and bore exquisite literary fruit.
Our final selection, "If I'm Lost" (#256)27 illustrates the tragedy of having fine Protestant roots, great biblical knowledge, and yet one day, having "the Savior's face" turn "away from you":
If I'm lost—now That I was found—
Shall still my transport be—
That once—on me—those Jasper Gates
That in my awkward—gazing—face—
The Angels—softly peered—
And touched me with their fleeces,
Almost as if they cared—
I'm banished—now—you know it—
How foreign that can be—
You'll know—Sir—when the Savior's face
Turns so—away from you—
We can't hope to reconcile human responsibility and divine sovereignty in this (or any other!) study, but I think Miss Dickinson's plight, humanly speaking, can be laid at least partly at the door of Puritan theology. Since liberals love to "bash" our North American Puritan ancestors, one hesitates to give them any more ammunition. After all, they were hard-working, Bible-loving, frugal, good, family-oriented, and (contrary to popular slander) often well-adjusted and happy people. However, there seems to be a gaping hole in their outlook which only grace could have filled up.
Did Emily ever hear a really clear Gospel presentation? One wonders. Fortunately those of us who believe in God's truly amazing grace can easily picture our poet sometime before her death resting by faith in the "Heavenly Bridegroom." If so—and only if—we can believe that "those Jasper Gates" suddenly blazed open for a very sensitive woman from Amherst, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
*Editor Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society Dallas, Texas
1Alternative reading in her mss.: "And what a Billow be."
2Alternative reading: "Checks."
3Edited by Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Little Brown and Company, n.d., 770pp.
4This should not be confused with the evangelical denominations of Northern European countries that split off from the state churches, or their North American offshoots.
5Dickinson, Poems, v.
6Dominie—A term used for a Dutch Reformed clergyman, probably chosen for its pleasant sound and to fit the meter.
7Dickinson, Poems, vi.
8Their correspondence lasted until her death.
9Dickinson, Poems, vi.
10Ibid. Emily would take her dog, Carlo, out on her nature walks. (If any reader knows Carlo's color or breed, this reviewer would be glad to learn of it.)
12Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, New One-Volume Edition (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980), 26.
14Ibid., 694, n. 18.
19"God," "Miles," and "the Groom" are the Father; "His Son," "the Envoy," and "John Alden" are Jesus. "Priscilla" is the human "Soul," perhaps even Emily herself. The last line would seem to express the essential unity of the Father and the Son.
23Ibid., 382. Sewall writes about Emily's possible experience as follows: "Just when and under what circumstances Emily had once known the peace of submission to Christ we will probably never know. But its evanescence had apparently frightened her. She had been 'easily excited' once, and she would not subject herself to the experience again—or, as she put it…'Many conversed with me seriously and affectionately and I was almost inclined to yeild [sic] to the claims of He who is greater than I.' So, she confessed to Abiah, 'I am continually putting off becoming a christian [sic]. Evil voices lisp in my ear—Later on, these 'evil voices' were to become 'syren' voices, and still later, 'beautiful tempters' whispering to her; but what she meant precisely she did not say.
24It has been my pleasure to "introduce" two evangelical friends from other English-speaking countries to our fine New England poet: a South African currently an officer in a Christian college in Johannesburg, and the Nova Scotia-bred English editor of the New King James Version of the Bible, Dr. William McDowell (the friend mentioned above). I hope this little article will win more admirers of Emily's poetic genius—much of which can be understood fully only by people "saturated" in the Bible (as she was). Sadly, her biblical knowledge may never have resulted in new birth by faith in Christ alone.
25This poem is obviously suggested by Rev 3:20. While often used as a Gospel verse (perhaps acceptable as such by application), in context Jesus is addressing Christians who had been shutting Him out of their actual lifestyle.
26Sewall, Life, 23.
27This is one of twenty-eight poems Emily started with the little word if.