Her spirit rose to such a height / Her countenance it did inflate / Like one that fed on awe (Dickinson 627).
This must have been what it was like to see someone saved by Christ. Emily Dickinson would have known very well what it looked like. She came from a community where it was thought that this was a ticket to eternal life. It was also a ticket to social acceptance. Emily was very strongly pressured to accept the Congregationalist religion she had been brought up in, and in so doing, give herself to Christ. Emily never bought the ticket, however; she never converted,she was never saved.
Emily Dickinson's resistance of the pressure to convert took an amazing amount of courage. She was surrounded by religion all of her life. Pressure came from every direction. At the age of sixteen, Emily attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. The founder of this school, Mary Lyon "placed each student in one of three categories. Those who had confessed their faith were known as 'professors of faith.' Those who seemed close to doing so were known as 'hopers.' Those who showed little or no desire to convert were termed 'no-hopers'" (Steffens 28). Just the fact that the girls were divided into categories with these names and everyone knew who fit where shows what incredible pressure was put on them to convert. Social pressures are very great at that age and the no-hopers were no doubt at the bottom of the ladder. Emily did not crack, however; "she left Mount Holyoke a 'no-hoper'" (Steffens 30). She, understandably, felt a lot of turmoil over this decision. After all, all she had to do was confess her faith and she would move up to the esteemed category of professors of faith. In a letter to her friend Abiah Root very close to her departure from Mount Holyoke, Emily writes, "I regret that last term, when that golden opportunity was mine, that I did not give up and become a Christian" (Ferlazzo 30). Emily's use of the words "give up" suggests that if she had become a Christian it would not have been due to a true revelation but merely a giving in to the crushing forces that surrounded her and whispered that this was the right thing to do.
The calling towards Christianity did not only penetrate Dickinson's life in the form of people. The very tools which were used to educate her had a religious bias. For example, the Webster's Dictionary she used helped define "Glory" with the sentence, "glory refers to the visible splendor or bright cloud that overshadowed Christ at his transfiguration" (Grabher 33). Emily defines "glory" in a very different way - "Glory is that bright tragic thing / that for an instant / Means Dominion - / Warms some poor name / that never felt the Sun, / Gently replacing / In oblivion -" (#1660). This definition helps to explain where Emily got the strength to do what she felt and resist what everyone else told her to feel. She calls "glory" a bright tragic thing. She realizes that if she were to accept Christ now, it would give her the power ("Dominion") that comes with greater acceptance within society and may make her feel better for the "instant." This glory of the moment would, however, be only temporary in that it would force Dickinson to lose sight of what was true to her. She would lose sight of this truth to the "oblivion" that would come from blindly accepting the beliefs of the majority as correct and, more importantly, as her own. Emily did not believe. This she knew for sure. She was far from sure that what everyone else was telling her was true. This love of sincerity gave her the strength to resist.
A major reason Emily had a problem with accepting the Congregationalist religion was that, in choosing to accept Christ and gain eternal life, she was supposed to give up something that she loved and cherished, life on earth. In a letter to her friend, Abiah Root, Dickinson explains her conflict, "I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die" (Steffens 28). Emily clearly took this promise to Christ very seriously. She does not sincerely believe she would have kept it. She loved life too much.
Many of Dickinson's poems focus on the joy she felt for living. This joy for living is entrenched in a love of the natural world, a world that, in Dickinson's view, reveals God's presence more than man-made churches and sermons. This idea is a strong theme in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -" (153) in which Dickinson compares an orchard to a church and a sexton to a church bell. She clearly feels God in nature. She also feels contentment in nature. As she reveals in her last line, "So instead of getting to Heaven, at last - / I'm going, all along." This line personifies contentment! Contentment is Heaven on earth. She continues the idea of finding Heaven on earth throughout her entire collection. In #1408, when she writes, "The Fact that Earth is Heaven - / Whether Heaven is Heaven or not" she not only compares the joys of living to Heaven, but she also points out their certainty. Life on earth is certain, eternal life in Heaven is not. The uncertain nature of the promise of eternal life is illustrated in many of Emily's poems. One reason for which she doubts religious beliefs is that they are based on faith alone. No one in her time has ever seen or experienced anything that would prove the existence of a God or afterlife. Emily is reluctant to believe in something neither she, nor anyone else for that matter, can see. Emily writes in poem #906, "And what We saw not / We distinguish clear" referring to Jesus' death on the cross. No one of her time saw this event. Yet, so many were certain it had happened and, more importantly, were certain that because of this event, human beings could obtain forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Heaven.
Many did claim to somehow know with certainty that their religious beliefs were true. Emily calls this assurance "Of Paradise' existence (an) . . . uncertain certainty -" in poem #1411. Emily believed it was very uncertain not only because it could not be seen but also because the events which led up to the promise of eternal life happened an eternity ago. Emily points out the great difference between the time in which she is now living and the time in which these events supposedly took place in poem #157. She writes, "It is not Hymn from pulpit read - / . . . On Time's first Afternoon!" She calls the worshipers of her day "late." With no hard and solid proof before their eyes, they are compelled to create the certainty of God's existence through churches and scriptures. Emily also writes that the Bible was "Written by faded Men" (Dickinson 644). The description of the Bible's authors as "faded Men" takes away their credibility, making them seem so distant so far in the past as to have no effect or consequence on the present.
Just as the men who wrote the Bible and the events which took place as a basis for their writing seemed very distant to Emily, Heaven also seemed very far away. She writes in one of her very early poems, "So bubble brooks in deserts / On Ears that dying lie - / . . . Hangs so distant Heaven - / To a hand below" (Dickinson 15). This is a strong comparison which illustrates how out of reach Dickinson perceived Heaven to be. She also compares it to "The Apple on the Tree - / Provided it do hopeless - hang -" (Dickinson 109). It is interesting that she compares Heaven to an apple in this line since that is the famous symbol of the knowledge of good and evil in the Bible, knowledge that took away Heaven on earth. Both of these lines infer that she does very much wish she could somehow reach Heaven. She feels this with the same intensity that someone who is dying in the desert wishes for water and as a person who jumps hopelessly for that delicious apple on the tree wishes for a bite. Heaven is so different from life on earth because it is not right in front of her every day. Earth is right there, under her feet. These uncertainties had a lot to do with Emily's ability to withstand those who wanted her to give up the earth she loved for the distant promise of Heaven.
Not only did Emily believe that the promise of eternal life was uncertain, she also believed that those around her who seemed to be so sure of it were not as certain as they claimed. As evidence for this, Dickinson wrote of the way those around her responded when someone close to them died. Their response was of grief and unhappiness. Dickinson questioned why this would be so. If those around her truly believed, absolutely without a doubt, that this person was now experiencing eternal life in paradise, why should they be so sad? Poem #947 reveals this theme. The bells are ringing. Emily reports that when she asks the reason someone replies in a "lonesome tone" that "A Soul has gone to Heaven." If the person truly believes this Emily wonders why the person would be so sad. Maybe they are just lonely and are, therefore, sad for themselves. Emily is even more direct, however, in poem #1728. She puts the faith of anyone to the test in two lines when she writes, "Is Immortality a bane / That men are so oppressed?" In other words, why do people worry so much about death if their faith is so certain. Here, unlike the previous poem, they can't be feeling lonely or sorry for themselves. At death, if what they believe is true, they will be in paradise. Yet death is still feared. This reveals that, no matter what beliefs are held in life, there is none that can take the uncertainty out of death.
As uncertain as the promise of eternal bliss may have seemed to Dickinson, many of her poems reflect on what Heaven may be like, revealing that she put a lot of thought into the possibility that it existed. In several of her poems, she even imagines herself going there. "I went to Heaven - / 'Twas as small Town - / Lit - with a Ruby - / Lathed - with Down -" (Dickinson 178). This is a beautiful image of what Heaven may be like. She seems to be writing of herself in poem #513 when she compares occurrences in nature to what Heaven may be like when one doesn't expect it. She writes that it must be "Like Flowers, that heard the news of Dews, / But never deemed the dripping prize" (Dickinson 250). In these earlier poems, Emily seems to still have a hope that Heaven exists and she will somehow find it. Dickinson's later poems about Heaven are much more harsh and negative. For example, she writes, "Immured in Heaven! / What a Cell!" (Dickinson 660). She seems very bitter about her prospects of getting into Heaven. By this point, she must feel all alone. This is when she writes, "Above Oblivion's Tide there is a Pier / And an effaceless 'Few' are lifted there -" (Dickinson 640). Emily must not consider herself one of the "Few" that will be lifted to safety since she has not given in to conversion. She often compares religious concepts to a shaky pier, not at all certain, but rather something that could collapse at any moment, plummeting her back to earth, or worse, into "Oblivion."
Emily also feels resentment towards religion because she feels that, as a child, she was lied to, especially with regard to the power of prayer. She writes, "I prayed, at first, a little Girl, / Because they told me to -" (Dickinson 281). She goes on to write, in this poem, how nice it would be if prayers came true, as she was told. Many of her poems reveal her bitterness at the fact that the prayers she was encouraged to make did not come true. This theme is especially clear in poem #476. In this poem she imagines that Jehovah and the angels must have laughed at her for actually believing her simple prayers would be heard and answered. She imagines that they are all very amused "That one so honest - be extant - / It take the Tale for true - / That 'Whatsoever Ye shall ask - Itself be given You' -" (Dickinson 229-230). This line clearly shows her resentment that she was told such a "Tale." To make matters worse, she was most likely told this by those closest to her and those she most trusted, her friends and family. She also writes in this poem of "Children" being "swindled" or stolen away into this deception. In poem #153 she writes of Christ robbing the nest. Children are innocent; they, for the most part, believe everything their parents tell them. Children, therefore, easily believe the religion which they are born into. She writes, "A Child's faith is new - / . . . Never had a Doubt - / . . . Believes all sham" (Dickinson 315). Emily sees this instilling of false, or at least very simplified, beliefs as a stealing of their young impressionable minds. Through experience, Emily has discovered that prayers are not always answered. She did not have the advantage of experience as a child and is now upset that she was given this false information by those who did.
Emily not only sees the people around her as deceptive with regard to religion, she portrays God as deceptive as well. This is true especially in her later poems. She writes many times, especially with regard to Moses and the land of Canaan that God is tantalizing, showing us or telling us what we could have, then snatching it away. She also refers to God as being unwilling to give eternal life and happiness to any but a few. "Bliss is frugal of her Leases / Adam taught her Thrift / Bankrupt once through his excesses -" (Dickinson 503). It only took once, only two people make one mistake, and that's it, we all suffer the consequence of losing paradise on earth. Emily also blames God for creating the evil in the world. Human beings are so small and powerless in comparison to God, yet we are expected to repent for the evil that was created by God. She writes, "we apologize to thee / For thine own Duplicity -" (Dickinson 619). Dickinson also reveals in several poems that she believes we are all being deceived by God into thinking we did something terribly wrong that we need to repent for. She writes of this "hidden . . . Crime" in poem #1601. She may be speaking of the idea of original sin. Confession was probably a big part of the religion Emily grew up on since a big part of any Christian religion is the idea of forgiveness of sins. The presumption is that we are all sinners. Many times it is in the seeking of pleasure that these sins occur. She writes, "We reprimand the Happiness / That too competes with Heaven" (Dickinson 662). She may be saying here that if we allowed ourselves to feel happy and enjoy life on earth without worrying about sin and the guilt that comes with it, Heaven would lose its splendor in comparison. If everyone did this, however, religion would lose much of its power since its whole basis is the guaranteeing of a better life in Heaven. This may be why this sort of happiness is "reprimanded" by the church.
"More prudent to assault the dawn / Than merit the ethereal scorn / That effervesced from her" (Dickinson 627).
This is the way Emily ends her poem which begins with the image of one being saved by Christ. She gives this transformation no merit. A theme which is woven throughout Dickinson's poems just as strongly as her religious struggle, and very much related to it, is the theme of truth versus appearance. It is almost impossible to tell from the outside what others truly believe. It is also very difficult to tell what we ourselves truly believe. This is because the line between what one believes and what one is told he/she should believe is often blurred. This line is very easily blurred with regard to religion. Emily was born into the religion she was expected to believe. Everyone around her seemed to believe it. She was told from childhood on up that this was right. Yet, she was so concerned with being sincere to herself that she had the strength to resist. It would have been very interesting to see how many of the people who so devoutly converted and pledged themselves to Christ would have actually given up their lives had they been called. The power which overcame them and convinced them to convert was less likely the power of Christ and more likely the power of the majority. This majority might not have seemed so glamorous if early death had truly been a requirement. Acceptance is a powerful weapon. Dickinson illustrates this very well in her poem, "Much Madness is divinest Sense -" (Dickinson 209). In this poem, she writes that a majority opinion has the power to turn madness into sense. Many times popular opinions turn into facts that most don't even think about before they adopt them as their own personal beliefs. Emily thought about her religious decision a great deal. This is clearly revealed in her poetry. She seems to believe that there is a God. God is not found for Emily in giving up the earth, however. God is found in the earth. The beauty of living gives Emily more proof of God than all the religion swirling around her. This is what she knows. This is truth. Truth is divine for Emily. She writes of truth as being God's "Twin identity" (Dickinson 404). If Emily denies what she believes to be true and converts, she must give up the earth, the one place where she has found God. Giving up her true beliefs will, therefore, be the equivalent of giving up God.
Emily also sees conforming to the religious beliefs of her community as a loss of her identity. She seems frightened that she will give in. She writes, "A single Screw of Flesh / Is all that pins the Soul" (Dickinson 120) and points out that she has only two hands to hold onto her soul, whereas there are many that would like to take it and "smuggle (it from her sight) Into Eternity -" (Dickinson 121). Emily's fears are not realized, however; she does not give in. This courage comes from the knowledge that if she gives up the earth, the one thing that has proved true to her, she will die. This will not be a physical death, but rather the death of her own identity. This death will occur when she ceases to think for herself, becomes one of the crowd and gives in to the power and comfort of acceptance by putting out the "Image (that) satisfies" (Dickinson 201).
Bloom, Harold. Modern Critical Views - Emily Dickinson. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985.
Ferlazzo, Paul J. Emily Dickinson. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1976.
Grabher, Gudrum, Roland Hagenbuchle and Cristanne Miller. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1960.
Steffens, Bradley. The Importance of Emily Dickinson. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.
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