Emily Dickinson - Can Language Lead to God?

Emily Dickinson’s poetry presents a longing in language that asks and reaches for God through the power of the natural imagination. The divine is cast ambivalently as both ineffable and out of reach and as present throughout the natural world in different poems. This search is also played across Dickinson’s attitude to formal religion as her ‘faith’ and search for experience of God is set against a negative attitude towards organised religion that produces a more naturalistic than organised source of faith and spirituality for Dickinson. Wendy Barker correctly identifies the sense we find in much of Dickinson’s poetry – ‘she not only preserves her Self through the imagination, but she also manages to triumph with a rare ecstasy’. However, we can explore Dickinson’s poetry as both imaginatively ‘ecstatic’ and dark, Barker misses Dickinson’s questioning of her own imaginative project.

Emily Dickinson’s poems ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ and ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ both deal primarily with god and religion and exemplify the division in Dickinson’s search for god as two different forms of spiritual knowledge are advocated. The poems are brought together through form as well as content - the structure of the two poems is identical: they each have twelve lines in exactly the same configuration and both are split into the three stanzas of four lines each. This creates a physical echo on page that adds a dimension of connectivity beyond the shared themes. In ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ Dickenson looks at religion in the natural world around us, and defines herself as separate from the great mass of normal worshippers; in ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ she deals with religion after death, adhering much more closely to orthodox religious doctrine. Heaven and salvation are therefore caught between the poems as religious orthodoxy in ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ leads to an opposed conclusion to the natural theology of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’, in which poetry, language and nature can produce an experience of God.

In ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ Dickinson appears to locate her relationship with God in nature and poetry:

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.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches,—a noted clergyman,—
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I ’m going all along!

Here Dickinson places religion as primary through a repeated lexical set - ‘chorister’, ‘god’ ‘Sabbath’. She appears to relate to god through nature – his creation. She speaks of having ‘an orchard for a dome’ and ‘a bobolink for a chorister’. She seems to speak almost of the natural world as her church, her place of worship. She claims that in this church ‘God preaches’, suggesting that her method of worship allows a closer connection to the almighty than traditional church-goers can attain. There is also a clear reversal of religious doctrine present here as Dickinson sets out an individuated ‘I’ that meets ‘some keep the Sabbath going to church’ as general expression with an individual and personal claim that ‘I keep it staying at home’. There is an implicit distinction here between Dickinson and the collective ‘some’ of society and common forms of worship. Instead of a purely Christian perspective this seems more natural as public form is rejected in favour of private meaning and Dickinson appears to forge or express a personal method of worship definitionally removed from public rites yet still tied into the religious language of Christianity.

The final lines of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ acts as a response to the earlier poem:

Why — do they shut Me out of Heaven?
Did I sing — too loud?
But — I can say a little ‘Minor’
Timid as a Bird!

Wouldn't the Angels try me —
Just — once — more —
Just — see — if I troubled them —
But don't — shut the door!

Oh, if I — were the Gentleman
In the ‘White Robe’ —
And they — were the little Hand — that knocked —
Could — I — forbid?

‘Why do they shut me out of heaven’ is reversed into ‘so I’m going all along’ as both realisation of the location of God for Dickinson and as claiming of personal power over her relationship with God as the passive ‘they shut me out’ becomes a positive ‘I am’ and the decision shifts from of collective other ‘they’ to the first person ‘I’. The final lines of ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ seem to imply that heaven is not somewhere to ‘get to at last’, but rather that it is present here on earth, obtainable through communion with God in the natural world. This idea parallels ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’s opening, since it is talking of attempting to get into heaven and being ‘shut out’. This suggest a God-fearing aspect that in reflected in the different strands of natural imagery as what is cast as a positive ‘orchard for a dome’ in ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ becomes a ‘timid’ negative of a ‘bird’ through the effect of organised religion in ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’. Dickinson almost seems to beg with the line ‘But don’t – shut the door!’, coming across as any ordinary believer, who was faced with the possibility of being denied entry to heaven, might well appear. ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ also speaks of ‘Angels’ and ‘the Gentleman in the white robe’, both of which betray a more orthodox Christian understanding of life after death. The divided theologies of the two poems lead to contrasting uses of language as a series of negatives deny heaven in ordinary Christian terms in ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ even as a transcendent view of nature moves heaven from an ineffable noetic realm to a part of nature.

If Dickinson’s relationships to God through religion are explored in ‘Why - do they shut me out of Heaven?’ and ‘Some keep the Sabbath going to church’ then we can extend this relationship to identify the reaching for the spiritual in Dickinson’s poetry. ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ presents a search for an eternal perspective beyond death and mortal life. The poem forms a hymn-like undertaking where the poet sets out to move past death through language and emerge with a new perspective. ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ builds a dissonant vision of an afterlife that the narrator was not prepared for and experiences emptily.

‘Because I could not stop for Death’ invites the reader and narrator into a date with death as ‘just ourselves’ puts the selves of reader and narrator in the carriage. The reader is pulled into the carriage with language so as to be shown the empty afterlife that awaits the narrator. In the final stanza the perspective changes as the fact that the narrator has been dead for years is revealed retroactively creating the double point of view of both living and dead:

Since then – 'tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses' Heads
Were toward Eternity –

This double perspective changes the tone of the poem: what seems to be a relatively calm story of the narrator’s death is revealed to be an unsettling retelling of the past where death is relived not defeated and the experience of the eternal feels hollow.

The poem forms the sound of the horses in ‘Because I could not stop for Death’ as interchanging eight beat then six beat lines mirror hoof beats. The unevenness of the lines builds in a dissonance however. The eight beats become the narrator’s perception of time whilst the six beats undercut it from Death’s perspective. The narrator was not ready for Death, they ‘could not stop’, and so their lines are two beats longer. The unpreparedness for death is what leads to the emptiness of the end: the poem contains only two rhyming couplets, there is an off feeling as the narrator rides towards a death she has romanticised as a gentleman caller and is unprepared to face.

‘Because I could not stop for Death’ is an inversion of a hymn as its regular meter and occasional rhymes call back to the form but the content subverts it. The carriage holds ‘just ourselves and Immortality’ – Immortality is set between the narrator and Death but is avoided through the narrator’s entirely non-spiritual approach so that instead of leading towards a triumph over death the poem acts as an anti-hymn where the afterlife in question feels eternally hollow.

‘Because I could not stop for death’ becomes the failed product of spiritual longing – acting as warning and proof of preoccupation. In Dickinson’s poem life is passed over as school, labour in the fields and the setting of a sun. The afterlife of Dickinson’s narrator is not a triumph over death but hollow forever: the only hint at something better being the introduction of Immortality between Death and the narrator, hinting that one spiritually prepared for Death may find a better afterlife. This suggestion is carried out in ‘This World is not Conclusion’ that moves from the same spiritual hunger in Dickinson to arrive at death as conclusion ironically placed in the first line as life is syntactically ended with a full stop even as the form mirrors the content by continuing the poetic search for spirituality, therefore denying death as conclusion to life or formal end to poem. In a reversal of the eternally trapped point of view that ends ‘Because I would not stop for death’ Dickinson begins ‘This World is not Conclusion’ in sub specie aeternitatis:

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond -
Invisible, as Music -
But positive, as Sound –

‘Music’ and ‘sound’ as poetic diction and experience are set above typical forms of knowing as ‘philosophy’, ‘riddle’, ‘sagacity’ and ‘scholars’ are dismissed in a reversed call and response that places the ending inside of us:

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit -
Strong Hallelujahs roll -
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –

The reduction of ‘faith’ to ‘gesture’ continues Dickinson’s dismissal of the church and her strong spirituality as the ‘hallelujahs’ are cast as ‘narcotics’ that cannot impact her longing for the divine through ‘her soul’. Conclusion and beginning seem inverted as the answer to the nibbles appears to be the opening claim – ‘This World is not Conclusion’. However, the spiritual search for God is left unable to move beyond belief here as poetry provides an expression of a ‘species […} beyond’ that is mysterious and lost in ‘it’ – even as the poetry reaches a divine perspective it loses hold of it.

If we can identify a spiritual impulse in Emily Dickinson’s poetry then we can identify her poetic project as an attempt to read God through language as an expression of spiritual longing. This spiritual longing is divided between her impulse towards God and her dislike of organised religion: the world becomes a reflection of God in a personal natural theology even as Dickinson strives to realise higher knowledge. Her poetry appears caught between fear and love of the divinity she perceives as she both warns and searches, runs from and towards, spiritual consciousness. In this way Dickinson’s longing is always held ambivalently, as if even she isn’t sure whether the attempt to reach God through language should succeed or fail:

It might be easier
To fail with land in sight,
Than gain my blue peninsula
To perish of delight.

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