SPIRITUALITY TODAYConnie Doyle:
Autumn 1989, Vol.41 No. 3, pp. 226-241.
'Experiment in Green':
Emily Dickinson's Search for Faith
As shown in her poems, Dickinson's spiritual journey led her from naive nature-mysticism through disappointment, to a sacramental approach to God and further discouragement, culminating in a mature attitude of faithful unknowing.
Connie M. Doyle holds three degrees in English, including a Ph.D. from Kent State University where she wrote her dissertation on Emily Dickinson. Having been a teacher of English for over 20 years, Dr. Doyle now writes full-time.
EMILY DICKINSON, widely regarded as one of America's premier poets of the nineteenth century, is in many ways a poet more of our time than of her own. In both style and content, her verse was, "revolutionary" in her day. Her carefully crafted, often cryptic and elliptical poems voice a deep concern with life's most profound questions, many of them centered upon matters of faith: What is the nature of God? What do I believe? Why am I beset by so much doubt? What is the meaning of my doubt? These are questions growing out of what we often ascribe to "a modern sensibility."
Emily Dickinson was modern in that she dared to question "the faith of her fathers" -- the rather complacent orthodox tradition of the isolated, conservative community of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she spent her days (1830-1886). She was unable to emulate her neighbors' easy acceptance of the patterns of traditional faith inherited from their Puritan forebears even though she was marked by the Christian ethic, the Biblical traditions preached from the pulpit, the cadences of the hymns sung in church, and the Puritan habit of self-scrutiny. These things not unexpectedly became part of the fabric of her poetry.
What is surprising is the intensity of the "rebellion" which poured from this frail, reclusive woman's pen. She did not, however, completely cast aside the tenets of faith accepted by her family and community. Her revolt was more subtle and more complex, colored as it was by doubt about her own doubt. If she questioned the nature of God, she also questioned the legitimacy of her skepticism. In writing about faith, she could be, by turns, puckish, irreverent, defiant, resentful, wry, and anguished. Throughout the body of her work, some 1,775 recorded poems, she appears to be testing a variety of stances.
Indeed, one might say that Emily Dickinson embarked upon a lifelong journey which was her search for a new creed, a new "faith" of some sort to take the place of the Connecticut Valley Congregationalism which she could not accept. The record of her search -- her poetry -- invites, perhaps even compels, the modern reader to abandon his or her own religious complacency and confront the essential question: How firm is my own faith? Would our answer echo the lines Dickinson wrote in 1877: "How brittle are the Piers/On which our Faith doth tread?" (1433).(1)
Dickinson's expression that the underpinnings of her faith were rather tottery began appearing in her letters at age fifteen. A letter penned to her friend Abiah Root records how profoundly discomfited she was by community pressure to have the conversion experience which was expected in the revival atmosphere prevailing in Amherst at the time (1845). "I was almost persuaded to become a Christian;" she writes, but then admits to backsliding. "One by one my old habits returned to me and I cared less for religion than ever .... I am continually putting off becoming a christian. Evil voices lisp in my ear."(2)
The next year, when Emily was attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, she was subjected to Founder Mary Lyon's somewhat coercive policy of categorizing each girl according to her spiritual status: a professing Christian, a person "with hope;" or one "without hope." Not surprisingly, Emily fell into the third category and became a target for Miss Lyon's program of reclaiming the "lost." Again, she wrote to Abiah of her unregeneracy. "I am not happy, and regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian. It is not now too late,. . . but it is hard for me to give up the world" (L-35).
These early experiences established a pattern which dominated Dickinson's thinking and art for the rest of her life. She could not embrace conventional religion, but neither could she cast off its influence. It filled her poems, dictating the form and rhythm of the verses, providing her with a vocabulary, furnishing her with imagery, and giving her a point of view. She explored the Puritan ethos from her unique perspective, daring to question the fundamental tenets her family, friends and community embraced without the doubt she herself felt. With a temerity remarkable for a retiring New England maid of her day, Dickinson forged her way through a thicket of human and theological questions about life, death, God, immortality, love, and nature.
Most of all, she sought to know and understand God, and the avenue she chose was the world of nature. All her life, she was attuned to the rhythms of the natural world and was known in Amherst for her fine gardening skills. But her interest in the phenomenal world went beyond what could be observed; it reflected her obsession with what lay "beyond;" her desire to bridge the gulf between humanity and God.
EVOLVING ATTITUDES: NATURE MYSTICISM
Tracing the poet's concern with nature reveals that Dickinson's view was not static; indeed, it evolved rather rapidly from a quasi-mystical approach to a symbolic or "sacramental" view to a skeptical one. The evolution took place over a lifetime, but the years between 1860 and 1870 were key, a period during which she experienced a profound spiritual upheaval.
The earliest -- and shortest -- stage (from about 1858 to 186061) involved a quasi-mystical approach, characterized by her deep yearning for a metaphysical experience in which the eternal in humanity is united with the divine in nature. She saw Nature as a resource through which one might come to know the Deity. This was a view she came by naturally -- through Puritan orthodoxy which had taught what the Psalmist had written: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19:1). The universe, created and ordered by God, reflected the divine mind and will. Human beings might learn of God not only through the Word of God but also through the Book of Nature.
Dickinson, however, took this a step further than the Puritans had. In this early period, she thought of Nature as a mode for transcending the limitations of physical reality and ascending to the timeless, the eternal. Influenced perhaps by the mysticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson as expressed in his essay, Nature, Dickinson looked to the natural world because it seemed to have the peculiar power of awakening mystical-like moods. She also seemed to be fully aware of the "peril" of taking such an unorthodox stance. Using her principal metaphor of the sea to stand for the unknown and eternity, Dickinson wrote to Abiah Root in 1850: "The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea -- I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!" (L-39).
Indeed, it was almost as if Dickinson felt compelled to roam the border area between the temporal and the eternal, hoping to transcend the artificial divisions of this world and achieve union with the One. And Nature became the key. Through its agency, she thought a person might achieve a mystical union with the deity, losing oneself in the divine spirit immanent in the natural world. Spiritual renewal and divinity are then available here and now if one learns to tap the wellspring of Nature. But to embrace such a view, one has to throw over the Christian concepts of sin, grace, forgiveness, and justification. From the perspective of traditional religion, the poet was indeed sailing into "dangerous waters" in flirting with such an idea.
During this early period, she may have done no more than "flirt;" but she clearly yearned for a mystical experience and even, on occasion, wrote as if she had attained it. Poem 122 shows how deeply Nature could stir the poet, and the language ,she uses -- references to light, ecstasy, wonder, grace -- is typical of a mystic:A something in a summer's DayInterestingly, Dickinson combines in this one poem both the language of the "old" religion (solemnizes, grace, veil) and the language of mysticism, her new "religion;" (transcending ecstasy, transporting bright, shimmering) as she tries to articulate a sense of the ineffable "something" in Nature. As is typical of mystics, the poet struggles with the difficulty of expressing what is fundamentally inexpressible -- all at a time in life when her poetic expression was still in its formative stages. She had thus taken upon herself a doubly challenging task: developing her craft while also attempting to give ineffable experience verbal expression. Recognizing the difficulty, she wrote that other artists had also failed: "These are the Visions flitted Guido -- / Titian -- never told -- / Domenichino dropped his pencil -- / Paralyzed with Gold -" (291).
As slow her flambeaux burn away
Which solemnizes me.
A something in a summer's noon
A depth -- an Azure -- a perfume --
And still within a summer's night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see --
Then veil my too inspecting face
Lest such a subtle -- shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me --
Other poems similarly confront the difficulty of interpreting a vision that defies description in words (ironic indeed for a poet!). The rarity of the mystical experience is the focus of this next poem:The Soul's Superior instantsIt is a moment of supreme transcendence which Dickinson describes here: the soul ascends to a remote height outside both time and place. Awareness of self is obliterated ("This Mortal Abolition"), the poet echoing Emerson's own description in Nature of becoming "nothing" as "all mean egotism vanishes." It is clear that she is describing an inward apprehension of the Spirit, a sense that is not transmitted through normal channels of communication. It is a "superior" instant because eternity has imparted a rare glimpse of "the Colossal sustance of Immortality."
Occur to Her -- alone --
When friend -- and Earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn --
Or She -- Herself -- ascended
To too remote a Height
For lower Recognition
Than her Omnipotent --
This Mortal Abolition
Is seldom -- but as fair
As Apparition -- subject
To Autocratic Air
To favorites -- a few --
Of the Colossal substance
Of Immortality (306)
Dickinson acknowledges, despite such "superior instants," that a veil separates God and man. Yet, in many poems and letters, she implicitly expresses the view that the veil appears thinnest in Nature. Light from the world beyond seems at times to shine through the natural objects of this world. Behind the appearance of natural things the invisible eternal waits, and she yearned to "look farther on;" as she wrote in this next verse:Our lives are SwissHere, Italy, symbol of eternity, is veiled by the mountains, by temporal limitations. They have a "siren" quality because they tempt and lure the finite mind to contemplate the infinite, and the poem seems to suggest that one must be alert to the "odd" moment when the Alps "neglect their Curtains" and one can "look farther on!"
So still -- so Cool --
Till some odd afternoon
The Alps neglect their
Curtains And we look farther on!
Italy stands on the other side!
While like a guard between --
The solemn Alps --
The siren Alps
Forever intervene! (80)
In a series of early poems (18, 65, 122, 137, 155, 211, 214, 324, 383), Emily Dickinson reiterates her sense of the eternal shining through the images of the natural world so often that one is tempted to conclude that she had replaced orthodoxy with a kind of natural religion. "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 -- " she wrote in Poem 324.
Yet, these poems came to be balanced by her growing conviction that the veil between man and God cannot be penetrated. The experience of the divine is at best fragile and tenuous. In one poem she complains of the fleeting nature of such experiences: "Did Our Best Moment last -- / 'Twould supersede Heaven." Unfortunately, however, such "Best Moments" don't last, and she concludes on a note of disillusion:A Grant of the Divine -Left with a sense of loss and emptiness, she seems to question the value of such a "heavenly moment" because it is so transient.
That Certain as it Comes -
Withdraws -- and leaves the dazzled Soul
In her unfurnished Rooms. (393)
TOWARDS A SACRAMENTAL VIEW
Contributing to Dickinson's disenchantment with this mystical view was her awareness of the dark side of Nature, something which a keen observer like herself could scarcely ignore. Commenting upon the congenital foot problem of a friend's infant son, Emily observed, "To assault so minute a creature seems to me malign, unworthy of Nature -- but the frost is no respecter of persons" (L-227). She found this fierce and destructive element in Nature all but impossible to reconcile with a mystical view. Nature was not always benign, as she observed in Poem 314: "Nature -- sometimes sears a Sapling -- /Sometimes scalps a Tree."
She recorded her sense that she might be chasing after chimeras in these lines of 1864:I find myself still softly searchingThus admitting her waywardness, Dickinson retreated from mysticism to explore a less dangerous path: Nature as symbol, Nature as hieroglyph. God, having written His designs in the natural world, could be discovered in part by reading its symbols. Thus, in embracing what can be termed a "sacramental view," she was retreating, moving back toward a more traditional approach to finding God.
For my Delinquent palaces --
And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven -- (959)
In 1862, Dickinson posed this question which was central to her concern about Nature during the years 1862-1866: "Infinitude -- Hads't Thou no Face/That I might look on Thee?" (564). In part, she answered her own question in an observation she made in a letter to Thomas W. Higginson in early 1863: "I was `thinking, today -, as I noticed, that the 'Supernatural,' was only the Natural disclosed" (L-280).
If Nature constitutes a vast symbol by which God informs us of His plan, then studying its forms might disclose something of the Infinite Being even if it couldn't provide a means of direct contact. This became the basis for the poet's revised reading of Nature. A number of poems of this period reveal that she regarded Nature as being invested with symbolic and sacred meaning, indeed, that it could be the symbolic instrument of spirit, capable of conveying grace and assurance of spiritual regeneration.
Her poems about the cycles of the seasons (birth-death-rebirth) best illustrate her symbolic view. They seem to posit her conviction that if one participates in Nature's "rituals," then one may be able to read one's own destiny in them. In the next poem about Indian Summer, the poet's use of the language of conventional ritual conveys her hope that this "natural" sacrament will impart to her an assurance of immortality:These are the days when Birds come back --The final six lines convey the idea that this illusory summer (Indian Summer) is more than just a ceremony of remembrance of summer, more than just a brief recapitulation of summer's warmth and color. The poet acknowledges that Indian Summer is a "fraud," a "mistake" that must give way to the relentless march of time. The falling leaves and seeds bear witness to the change of season, but the "ranks of seeds" also carry the promise of rebirth in the spring. Her reference to them is pivotal in the -poem, for the mood shifts in line ten, becoming reverential. She then asks permission to join in the ritual and claim its promise by partaking of the "immortal wine." It is clear that the poet hopes that Nature as Sacrament will convey the assurance of immortality, the special grace she seeks. What is more, she comes in the guise of a child, as if in obedience to Christ's admonition that we must "become as little children" in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.
A very few -- a Bird or two --
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old -- old sophistries of June --
A blue and gold mistake.
Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee --
Almost they plausibility
Induces my belief.
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear --
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
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! (130)
A number of other poems express a similar hope that one can derive meaning for one's life in Nature, particularly in its rhythms and stability. In Poem 1077, Dickinson writes of the "Signs" and "rites" of Nature's House. And in another poem, the beauty of Nature is itself a metaphor for Paradise; in the glory of the natural world at its best -- at noon, at dawn, in the triumph of the birds, in the rapture of a sunset -- we witness the shadowing forth of the splendor of heaven itself:All these -- remind us of the placeFor a time, Dickinson clung to this symbolic view of Nature, seeking to decipher the meaning it held. Clearly, her motivation was strong. If God is in the world, informing and vitalizing it, what better endeavor could one engage in than to seek out ways to establish a closer relationship with Him -- "a Wiser Sympathy," as she wrote in Poem 743 -- through Nature?
That Men call "Paradise" --
Itself be fairer -- we suppose --
But how Ourself, shall be
Adorned, for a Superior Grace --
Not yet, our eyes can see -- (575)
It was especially in Nature's forms that she tried to read an assurance of immortality. The principle of rebirth and renewal she witnessed in Nature each spring she sought to apply to her own fate after death. Using the butterfly, a commonly accepted symbol of immortality, the poet struggles in this next poem for an assurance of her own destiny but reports her frustration:My Cocoon tightens -- Colors teaze --Feeling within herself "a dim capacity for Wings" and "a power of Butterfly," the poet exploits the traditional metaphor of resurrection to explore the possibility of her own metamorphosis from earthly creature to heavenly being: "I'm feeling for the Air." The grand hope of the first two stanzas for assurance of immortality, however, gives way to doubt in the final one which is weighted with words of uncertainty: "baffle," "Hint;" "cipher," "blunder," and "clue." Even so, the "at last" in the final two lines suggests an eventual resolution which is dependent upon her own determination ("I must").
I'm feeling for the Air --
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear --
A power of Butterfly must be --
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky --
So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at last
I take the clue divine -- (1099)
Still, this poem reflects the poet's growing ambivalence: her impulse to doubt clashes with her desire to believe in a symbolic reading of Nature. "I always feel a doubt/If Blossoms can be born again/When once the Art is out;" she wrote in Poem 1080. Doubt continued to be her nemesis: "Faith slips -- and laughs, and rallies -- /Blushes, if any see -- /Plucks at a twig of Evidence -- /And asks a Vane, the way -" (501).
By the late 1860s, Emily Dickinson was shifting away from the optimism of the sacramental view of Nature. More and more poems expressed the view that Nature is not necessarily the bearer of sacred meaning. She felt increasingly alienated from the natural world, coming to believe that if meaning resides in the forms she observed, she was powerless to grasp it. A poem about nature is, after all, a symbol of a symbol, an image of an image. "All Circumstances are the Frame/In which His [God's] Face is set;" she wrote in Poem 820, but ultimately, she concluded, He is "A Force illegible."
And so it was that Dickinson came up against the question she posed in an undated prose fragment: "We must travel abreast with Nature if we want to know her, but where shall be obtained the Horse -?" (PF-119). The poet could find no "horse" and thus came to regard Nature as ultimately "unknown" and "unknowable."
Increasingly, she wrote of the indifferent and destructive power of Nature which she found impossible to reconcile with a sacramental view. Death loomed larger than ever in her life, especially given the frequency with which it claimed the lives of those near and dear to her. "The Frost of Death" could not be resisted, but what was worse to the poet than its inevitability was its seeming "endorsement" by God:Apparently with no surpriseThis rather dark picture of an unfeeling and automatic natural process suggests something of how the poet views the relation between humanity and God. Death just as easily "beheads" people, and afflictions strike them while "an approving God" looks on. One recalls Dickinson's bitter remark on the affliction of a friend's child that "frost is no respecter of persons."
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at it's play --
In accidental power --
The blonde Assassin passes on --
The Sun proceeds unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God (1624)
In her poems about the harsh and naked power of Nature as she had witnessed it in storms one can see the clearest indication of her shift away from the "sacramental" view. In these verses, Nature is not a source of comfort or rapture or reassurance of immortality. Instead it wears a fearsome and sometimes savage face:The wind drew offNatural occurrences such as this led the poet to formulate questions about God. If God is the Author of creation, then what qualities of the deity are reflected in it? Yes, Nature has its beauty and serenity and majesty, but what of its terror and indifference? How can these two faces of the natural world be reconciled?
Like hungry dogs
Defeated of a bone --
Through fissures in Volcanic cloud
The yellow lightning shone --
The trees held up
Their mangled limbs
Like animals in pain --
When Nature falls upon herself
Beware an Austrian. (1694)
Though the poet struggled with these questions, she never arrived at a conclusion. The best she could do was to retreat to a modified Puritan view of the human condition as it relates to God and His creation. She saw that her early aspirations were illusory and concluded that human beings can never achieve a full understanding of God through the Book of Nature or revealed Word. Humanity is fallen, and God is wholly Other. Indeed, Dickinson had seemingly come to the sine qua non of Calvinist theology, as succinctly summed up by Perry Miller: "Behind the panorama of the world, behind the covenant and behind the Scriptures there loomed an inconceivable being about whom no man could confidently predict anything. . . ."(3)
Dickinson, however, differed from her Puritan forbearers in that she could never quite passively accept this view. She continued to struggle with it and challenge it. She was ever teased by the duality of man's position in the "limbo" between concealment and revelation. In Poem 1173, she complained "Of mansions never quite disclosed/And never quite concealed." And in another late poem (1656), she lamented how man is set adrift on the stream of time without means to steer himself and without knowledge of his destination.
Dickinson's view, then, in her late years was a tragic one. She tended to see humanity as a victim of the world and of circumstances over which it has no control. Human reason, vaunted by the Greeks, is impotent. And God "carries a circumference" in which humankind has no part; God is "impregnable to inquest" (1663).
Dickinson had sought to understand "the Astounding subjects" (God, eternity, death, immortality) by means of the only objective channel available to her -- the natural world. But when the mystical and sacramental approaches failed, she inevitably came face to face with the grim realization that Nature could not impart significant clues which would bring her to an understanding of the universe, humanity's place in it, or its fate. Nature, she concluded, can be experienced but not expounded by the finite mind. Indeed, it is sheer folly for anyone to imagine that he has grasped its meaning:A little Madness in the Spring"Nature is a stranger yet," she concluded in Poem 1400.
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown --
Who ponders this tremendous scene --
This whole Experiment of Green --
As if it were his own! (1333)
As frustrated as Emily Dickinson was, she never finally despaired. She might question with Job, "Why is light given to a man whose way is hid, and whom God had hedged in?" but neither did she yield to nihilism. Her dominant mood in the later years of her life was skepticism, and in this she was paralleling, if not mirroring, the developing "modern temper" of the late nineteenth century. She retained a teleological view of the universe, although she admitted that man's ascertainment of God's purposes is clearly limited. She had, in short, lost her innocence and come of age, as it were, as the nation had done.
In one sense, Emily Dickinson had come full circle in her spiritual odyssey. She came once again to the Puritan view that man is denied final knowledge of the Godhead -- though she could never accede to the view with humility or acquiescence. She was, at least, glad of the gift of life, though not of all its conditions:The Tunnel is not lightedOne can't help but wonder if she ever returned to her early poem to reconsider these lines of the final stanza: "I reason, that in Heaven/ Somehow, it will be even -- /Some new Equation, given -" (301).
Existence with a wall
Is better we consider
Than not exist at all -- (1652)
Had her Puritan forefathers known of her spiritual struggle, they would probably have assured her that her very yearning for knowledge of God and her search for assurance of immortality were signs that God's saving grace had already been bestowed. Perhaps in her quest, then, there is a lesson for the modern reader who has asked many of the same questions which Dickinson wrestled with. In the end, perhaps we must confront what is essentially a matter of faith, as expressed by the poet in an early poem: "I shall know why -- when Time is over -" (193).
- Emily Dickinson, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols., ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1955) 111, 993. All poems cited in this study are from this edition and hereafter will be referred to by poem number within the text.
- Emily Dickinson, The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols., ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1958) 1, 27. Hereafter, letters will be cited in the text by their numbers.
- Perry Miller, Errand into the Wilderness (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 94.
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