Emily Dickinson has been the subject of much discussion, ever since her work began to be published, about not only her work but also her mysterious personal life. We seem intent on discovering what she thought, whom she loved, and why she did what she did—especially, why she spent so much of her life in seclusion. Her religious beliefs also remain alluringly ambiguous; while some poems suggest an adherence to the Calvinist Christianity of her time and place, many others are wildly unorthodox. Having failed to have the dramatic conversion experience expected of her, her poetry at times expresses anger or confusion toward God; at other times she seems to adore her Higher Power and his Creation.
What is not lacking from Dickinson’s poetry is a belief in God in general. What is most intriguing is her view on who God is. Sometimes, her God is benevolent, even a teacher or pastor to her. In Poem 236, she writes, “God preaches, a noted Clergyman—/ and the sermon is never long” (Dickinson, 1204) In this poem, she speaks of keeping the Sabbath at home, outdoors; she revels in the beauty of nature and the lessons her God teaches her through it. Here, God is both a benevolent Creator and a wise and eloquent teacher. In Poem 39, she speaks of crying out to God upon losing loved ones, calling God “Burglar,” Banker,” and “Father” in the same breath. “Father” is one of the most common descriptors of God in Judeo-Christian tradition, a very richly shaded metaphor that implies he is a loving progenitor, protector, provider, teacher, guide, and disciplinarian. A father is both someone to love, and someone to fear. In Dickinson’s case, her Father God is someone to turn to in time of need, a provider and caretaker. God has already sent “Angels” to “reimburse [her] store” twice before; she cries out for him to aid her again, and seems sure that her compassionate Father God will once more supply (1201).
All this is a fairly typical, orthodox, non-threatening view of God. Her use of the word “Banker” is more troubling. While she also uses this word to mean that God will help her in her time of need, “reimbursing” her loss, a banker and a father are distinctly different creatures. While a good father has the interests of his children in mind, and gives freely, a banker has his best interests in mind. A banker would expect Dickinson to pay back her loan someday. And what is it she is begging for, anyway? Mere comfort? Love? Companionship? We can’t be quite sure, but whatever it is, is likely to not be easily repaid, as her Banker God would be aware of—and maybe not care.
Her use of the word “Burglar” is startling, but perhaps not surprising. The Bible itself describes God as “like a thief in the night” (New International Version, 1 Thes 5:2). The author of 1 Thessalonians (namely the apostle Paul) would have known the Old Testament well, and referred to it; in the book of Job, Job speaks of the same event referred to by Paul, namely the “day of the Lord,” Judgment Day, and says “when daylight is gone, the murderer rises up and kills the poor and needy’ in the night he steals forth like a thief ” (Job 24:14). In the same way, Dickinson is saying that God, while at the same time still the Banker and the Father, also the one who took her loved ones from her. She is hurt and angry with her God, and yet has no choice but the rely on him for help. There are probably many Christians who feel this way; God “taking” someone is, after all, a common euphemism for death; but most would not dare talk about it, much less with Dickinson’s intensity.
Dickinson seems even bitterer about death in Poem 1668. In this poem she relates death as a random, natural occurrence, as the Frost “beheads” a “happy Flower.” But she takes no comfort in the naturalness of death—even though the death of the Flower is “accidental,” she yet describes the Frost as a “blonde Assassin.” She resents that life moves on, that “the Sun proceeds unmoved,” and that another day passes with no consideration for death, even of something—or someone—she loved. Most of all, she seems bitter at God for watching the proceedings and not only not stopping death, but being “Approving” of the whole process. Unlike Poem 39, she does not cry out to God. He is not a Father or a Banker, or even a Burglar; he is no longer personal at all (Dickinson 1221).
So, Dickinson’s belief in and relationship to God was undeniably complex. In fact, her poems argue that God himself is complex; her God is not comprehensible, he is mysterious. She says in Poem 365, “I know that He exists.” The poem at the end of this line emphasizes it, standing out against her usual unusual punctuation. This poem she starts with a concrete statement: He exists, period. No more discussion about God’s existence, she’s already figured that out. However, she goes on:
I know that He exists.
Somewhere – In silence –
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
Yes, God exists, but only “somewhere.” She gives no concrete location—no typical “in heaven” or “all around” or “within me.” He also exists “in silence.” No glorious throngs of angels singing His praise for all eternity; no giant James Earl Jones voice booming commandments from the sky; no still small voice of guidance. Just silence. In some ways, Dickinson’s God at this point would seem to be the “watchmaker God” of Deism. But somehow He remains more of a concrete being than an obscure, distant Creator God. It’s not that he doesn’t care about us, he has merely “hid his rare life,” the glory that “our gross eyes” cannot bear to see (1211).
Dickinson also makes no mention of Jesus in her poetry, only God. For her, God does appear to truly reside “somewhere,” rather than having come to Earth, died, and taken up residence inside the hearts of believers. Perhaps her experience at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary affected her view of Jesus and salvation; being constantly one of the few girls who experienced no religious awakening, no dramatic salvation experience, perhaps it is logical that she would leave behind the idea of a Savior—no great Redeemer had come for her soul. Why should she put any stock in a belief that in no way applied to her?
Her views on death and the afterlife could well have been informed by this belief—or lack of belief—in a Savior. Death is often more of a concrete being than her idea of God; in Poem 355 he is as concrete as Night, Fire, or Frost (1209). More notably, in Poem 479 Death “kindly stopped” for Dickinson in his carriage, and they take a cold and melancholy, but not unpleasant, ride to her grave and eternity (1214). This is another odd feature of her beliefs about the afterlife. In her poems about death, especially those in which she speaks as one of the dead, she is very concretely in her body. In poem 124, she describes the dead as meekly sleeping in their tombs, waiting on the Resurrection. They are not in heaven, traipsing about on clouds, or singing eternal praises to God. They lie in their caskets as if asleep—a sight she would have been accustomed to when attending funerals and preparing bodies for burial (1202). In Poem 448, she describes herself as dead, laying peacefully in her Tomb; her soul, or whatever she would call what her selfness is composed of, is not in Heaven or in Hell, or wandering as a ghost; it is very decidedly decaying along with her body, as is the soul of the gentleman beside her; and they talk quietly until they are decomposed under the soil and forgotten above (1214). Even more frightening visions of death are painted in Poems 340 and 591. In Poem 340, she describes the heavy, rhythmic footsteps of her Mourners. She herself is “wrecked” and “solitary;” and her death itself is described as “a Plank in Reason” breaking, and herself falling and knocking into different Worlds all the way down until she finally “Finished knowing” (1207). In Poem 591 she dies in “Stillness…like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of Storm,” and describes her death itself as the windows failing, “and then I could not see to see –” (1215)
Her seeming lack of belief in a positive afterlife in these poems, frightening as it is, is in some ways mitigated by her beliefs in Poem 236, where she keeps the Sabbath “staying at Home.” In the last lines, after describing God’s sermon, she states, “instead of getting to Heaven, at last – I’m going, all along.” Her love of Nature and of her benevolent God allows her to see the life she is given on Earth as a kind of heaven, against the Calvinistic belief that humanity and the pleasures of life in this world are utterly depraved and evil (1203-1204).
In fact, she disagrees with religion itself on principle in many of her poems. In fact, that same Poem 236, while being cute, is also rebellious—after all, she’s not going to church on a Sunday. She even describes herself as angelic; opposed to clergy who “keep the Sabbath in Surplice,” she says, “I just wear my Wings.” Her own mind, and the Nature around her—a singing Bobolink and a beautiful Orchard—beautiful but everyday wonders—sustain her in a way church religion never could.
Even more, in Poem 373, she denounces not just religious ceremony, but religion and faith themselves. While she begins with a fairly orthodox “This World is not conclusion,” she does not go on to talk about how God or Heaven or Angels are beyond this World, but a strange “Species.” This mysterious form of being is beautifully described as “Invisible, as Music – But positive, as Sound –” She says that Philosophy doesn’t know this otherworldly Being, Sagacity can only know it through a Riddle, and scholars are puzzled by it. This is all well and good, but furthermore, Faith can’t show it either. This is the direct opposite of average religious thinking, which says that the mind can’t understand God, but Faith can help us understand. Instead, Dickinson says “Faith slips – and laughs” and not only is Faith a bit silly this way, it “Plucks at a twig of Evidence – And asks a Vane, the way –” Faith, at least as understood by the religious, is a false guide—going on but the tiniest amount of real evidence and asking the way from a weathervane, which points one direction one minute but changes with the changeful wind. But that’s not all. Not only is Faith false, says Dickinson, but the “Gesture, from the Pulpit” and the “Strong Hallelujahs” that “roll.” She describes religion as “Narcotics;” and not only are they mere pain-relieving drugs, they “cannot still the Tooth that nibbles at the soul –” In other words, no amount of faith, preaching, or congregational approbation can still the longing in her soul to truly know this mysterious, divine presence (1212).
In essence, we can never be sure exactly what Emily Dickinson believed (and really, it’s difficult enough to know what we ourselves believe), but we can gather clues from her work. Dickinson sees God as a Creator, a Preacher, and a Father; but also, in times of pain, her hurt and anger cause her to see him as a cold, far-off observer who doesn’t care, or as a thief who has taken away her happiness. At the same time, she loves the Nature he created, and is suspicious of church religion, believing her supreme being is greater than anything religion can offer. And though she is saddened, deeply, by death, and afraid of it, she does not always believe it is evil; and she believes that whatever makes her, her, will persist.
While we cannot call Dickinson an orthodox Calvinist Christian as she was expected to be, there is no doubt that she felt a relationship to God and to his Creation that many Christians should envy.
Dickinson, Emily. "Poems." The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007.
Quest Study Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994.
*yes, I turned it in without a title. The next day, I turned in another paper with the same mistake. *facepalm*