Emily Dickinson Essay

Pages: 4 (1505 words)  ·  Style: APA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Mythology - Religion

Emily Dickinson was one of the most varied, lyrical, and enigmatic poets of her time. During a time when American literature was itself varied and enigmatic, this is quite an achievement. One of the most fascinating themes in Dickinson's poetry is religion. It is significant that critics appear to have a very wide-ranging view of what the poet is in fact attempting to say with her religious poetry. Some have her negating belief altogether, while others ascribe to her a deep, although somewhat wounded, faith. Emily Dickinson's religious poetry is all these things; some of her poetry addresses the religious theme from the viewpoint of the devotee; others describe her faith in little more but herself and humanity; her most interesting and poignant poetry is probably those works in which she is wounded by God's apparent silence and distance. All these types of poems addresses an aspect of faith that is familiar to believers and to humanity as a whole. This is one of the main reasons why her poetry continues to be revered, despite its complex nature -- it addresses the human condition. In the case of her religious poetry specifically, it addresses human faith in all its aspects.

According to David Yezzi (1996), Emily Dickinson's religious and spiritual work particularly lends itself to enigma. Indeed, it appears that few critics are in agreement on the underlying spirituality, or lack thereof, the inspired her religious poetry. Yezzi notes that critics range over a wide spectrum, from believing that Dickinson had no faith at all, to those who believe that she was indeed not only deeply, but also formally religious. The latter appears substantiated by letters Dickinson wrote at an early age, as cited by Yezzi. These letters appear to indicate that the young Emily experienced a particular religious bliss when her faith was deepest. Yezzi also notes however that this faith soon gave way to doubt as she grew up. Such doubt was often the culprit in her more negative religious poetry. Thus, the ambiguity and contradiction often found in her poems are ascribed not so much to faithlessness as it is to a lack of religious conviction brought about by maturity and experience. Two of her poems particularly address the cruelty of Dickinson's absent or at the very least uncaring God. She begins one poem with the lines "Of course -- I prayed -- /And did God Care?" The "Of course" at the beginning appears to implicate the poet's habit of prayer -- the habit of a religious woman. However, regardless of how persistently she does pray, the God she seeks simply does not respond and wounds her so badly that she wishes for the ignorance of innocence. In this, I am somewhat inclined to agree with Yezzi in the assessment that doubt is also a type of faith. Emily Dickinson's type of doubt is not faithless. Instead, it is the doubt of the faithful with a lifelong experience of divine silence and absence.

This idea is substantiated by William Franke (2008), who addresses Dickinson's "negative theology," or what he calls her "apophatic discourse." Instead of a positive affirmation of faith, Dickinson reverses her religious conviction and instead believes negatively. Franke then shows Emily Dickinson's poetry as demonstrating her non-traditional spirituality. While not being religious in the traditional sense, the poet does demonstrate a deep sense of spirituality in her poetry. Indeed, her spirituality is inseparable from many of her poems. Themes such as death and immortality frequently occur. According to Franke, Dickinson also often addresses the mystery of the spiritual world, in some sense both recognizing and echoing the divine silence that so wounds her. In more rapturous poetry, for example, she says: "To tell the Beauty would decrease / To state the spell demean." If this is interpreted in conjunction with here more negative views on religion, as echoed by the above-mentioned work addressing God's silence, one might draw a parallel between Dickinson's human silence and the divine silence. When reading the poems in conjunction, it may be a wild but logical leap to suggest that, in her less unhappy moments, Dickinson recognizes that both God and his words are unknowable and therefore silent to human ears, but not necessarily absent. This interpretation demonstrates the wild diversity with which Dickinson's poetry might be interpreted. It is little wonder then that there is so much diversion in the works of various critics.

While Magdalena Zapedowska (2006), explores Emily Dickinson's Calvinist roots, she does so as a means of explicating the poet's recognition that this faith is inadequate to address her individual spiritual experience, as well as the collective spirituality of her contemporaries. This dichotomy between spirituality and religion

Zapedowska views this dichotomy as the inspiration for some of Dickinson's most intense poetry. The dichotomy that Dickinson sees in the world around her also manifests in her own heart. She is indeed religious, and more so spiritual, but she finds that her tendency towards spirituality leads her to a religion and a God that fail to meet her needs. Hence her exploration into related subjects concerning eternity and death. Her frequent personification of death -- referring to it as "he" and giving it a human form -- could for example be an attempt to know the God that is unreachable via a vehicle that is known to humanity. Death is the path towards the God who cannot be known in life. The unfathomable depth of God is an idea strongly promoted by the Calvinism of the time. Indeed, the doctrine of the unknown is also frequently addressed in her poetry, as in the words: "I know that He exists. / Somewhere -- in silence-- / He has hid his rare life / From our gross eyes." For Emily Dickinson, the Calvinist God is far from personal. He is hidden, divine, separate and superior to humanity. Her desire to know him can only be fulfilled in death. According to Zapedowska (2006), the opening phrase, "I know that He exists" is one of the discourse types in Calvinist religion. God's existence is professed as knowledge, although the adult Emily also understands that there is absolutely no tangible proof of this existence. Yet her desire to know and explore divine nature persists.

In addressing Dickinson's religious paradigms, and the many contradictions in and among these, Jay Ladin (2006) cites a poem that encompasses both Dickinson's dismay at the distance of God and her excitement at the prospect of becoming more familiar with him. She begins the poem with the words "It was too late for Man-- / But early, yet, for God -- ." In these lines, God and humanity are juxtaposed according to their power. God is omnipotent; for him, nothing is every too late. Human beings on the other hand are often at the mercy of the elements and the world that sustains them or is destroyed without a single concern for humanity. However, the poem holds a sense of hope -- when the earth betrays its inhabitants, God provides not only salvation and bliss, but also, finally, a sense of companionship: "How excellent the Heaven -- /When Earth -- cannot be had-- / How hospitable--then -- the face / Of our Old Neighbor -- God -- ." The phrase "Old Neighbor" is much more familiar than Dickinson's view of a God whose name she hardly dares to mention. It is a familiarity that will only become real after death. In this, the "Earth" in the poem can be seen as representing either individual or collective human existence, while "Heaven" represents eternity. When humanity arrives in Heaven, God becomes much more "hospitable" than he can be to individuals who are still living. The poem therefore appears to suggest hope in terms of finally knowing God.

The above-mentioned critics make… [END OF PREVIEW]

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