None of Emily Dickinson's readers has met the woman who lived and died in Amherst, Massachusetts more than a century ago, yet most of those same readers feel as if they know her closely. Her reclusive life made understanding her quite difficult. However, taking a close look at her verses, one can learn a great deal about this remarkable woman. The poetry of Emily Dickinson delves deep into her mind, exposing her personal experiences and their influence on her thoughts about religion, love, and death. By examining her life some, and reading her poetry in a certain light, one can see an obvious autobiographical connection.
All the beliefs and emotions Emily Dickinson wrote about were based, in one way or another, on the same aspect of her upbringing, which was religion. During her childhood, life in Amherst was based strongly upon religion and Puritan values. The distinctive Puritan virtues of simplicity, austerity, hard work, and denial of flesh, were ever-present disciplines in Emily's life (Sewall 22).
Despite her stubborn denials to be labeled, she was very much of a "New Englander". Cynthia Griffen Wolff, author of Emily Dickinson, points out that Emily "knew every line of the Bible intimately, quoted from it extensively, and referred to it many more times than she referred to any other work... yet in this regard she was not unusual by Amherst's standards" (72). The most prominent figure of religious virtues in her life was her father, Edward Dickinson. Reading the Bible to his children and speaking in town of religious ethics were daily events in his life. At home, he tried to raise his children in the rigorous religion of their ancestors, however his methods appeared quite harsh. People who knew the Dickinsons referred to Edward as a "severe, latter-day Puritan, a power-minded tyrant...", and his home was often depicted as a "gloomy prison" (Sewall 8). In fact, Emily's fear and awe of him seemed to dominate her life. Although he read aloud from his Bible, conducted prayer service in his home daily, and he educated his children in a strict Puritan way, he himself was not quite a believer. He delayed conversion until well into middle age, "...displayed no mark of singular devotion, defined his vocation in terms of business, and was not inclined to explore the mysteries of the Divinity" (Wolff 125) It is possible that the paradox of faith which tore Emily's mind could have had its roots in her father's own doubts.
No quandary in life presented Emily Dickinson with such wrenching choices as the demand for conversion. Her doubts tempted her to rebel against God, but her needs drove her toward faith in Him. Neither stance could overcome the other, and neither could be reconciled. Emotionally, she lacked a direction of beliefs, however there was one thing she was sure of - God existed. "Reason convinced her that there must be such a Being as God; and as to God's existence she seems never to have wavered" (Wolff 84). Believing that He was there only gave her something solid to forsake. In a letter to her friend once she wrote, "...and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless..." (Sewall 375). However, it was only when she had achieved complete poetic independence that she could confidently write in open defiance of God: I reckon - when I count at all -
First - Poets - Then the Sun
Then Summer - Then the Heaven of God -
And then - the List is done -
But, looking back - the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole -
The Others look a needless Show -
So I write - Poets - All -...
...And if the Further Heaven -
Be beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them -
It is too difficult a Grace -
To justify the Dream - (Sewall 355)
On several occasions, Emily went as far as calling herself a pagan. The bitterness with which the comment was made may have been aroused by the same feeling as in the line "Of Course - I Prayed - / And did God Care?" of one of her poems. Unable to accept Heaven, she was left only with this brief world, which, without Heaven, seemed somewhat of a dreadful place to her. She wrote in a letter once a prayer for forgiveness for trying to enjoy life too much. "Knew I how to pray," she wrote, "to intercede for your Foot were intuitive, but I am a Pagan" (Sewall 590), and then the poem:
Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven -
For what, he is presumed to know -
The Crime, from us, is hidden -
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven
These religious doubts she harbored in her mind and so often expressed led her to be seen as having renounced her faith and, most often, replaced it with a belief in her own powers, especially those employed in her art. Charles Anderson wrote that "...her pained sense of estrangement from the religion of her fathers lingered to the end, but so did the integrity that gave her courage to go her own way, to continue her search for Heaven through poetry rather than through a theology she could not accept." (Bloom 35) Eventually she did find Heaven, and she accepted it with open arms. She is said to have discovered herself "elected to receive the grace of God". The relationship with God she wrote of was much like a relationship of two people. For that reason, many of her poems read as religious can also be seen as poems of love. An example of one is this poem:
My River runs to thee -
Blue Sea! Wilt welcome me?
My River waits reply -
Oh Sea - look graciously -
I'll fetch thee Brooks
From spotted nooks -
Say - Sea - Take Me!
One could interpret this poem as her need to be accepted by God, as well as a love poem expressing her yearning for human companionship. This yearning, along with other forms of love poems, is shown a countless number of times in her works.
Emily Dickinson's love poetry follows a similar pattern, one that is both peculiar and frustrating. She brings together lovers, perfectly matched and deeply in love. They are not unhappy, yet they are never allowed to be together by some higher power. "The same poetry that postulates marriage as the ideal also accepts as a given that this marriage can never take place" (Wolff 387) Emily could have written love poetry celebrating the strength of a happy marriage or even examining the difficulties of achieving that perfect union, but, for the most part, she did not. Separation was too much a part of her real-life relationships for her not to acknowledge it. For various reasons, the major friendships and passionate relationships of her life "...confirmed her deepest conviction: where passion is concerned, there must be separation" (Wolff 411). No poem captures this paradox more powerfully than this poem of loss:
I cannot live with You -
It would be Life -
And Life is over there -
Behind the Shelf...
...I could not die - with You -
For One must wait
To shut the Other's Gaze down -
You - could not -...
...Nor could I rise - with You -
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus's -
That New Grace
Her love is so strong that she compares him to Jesus, and he outshines Him, yet she cannot live with him, die with him, or rise up to Heaven with him, due to circumstances she can not help. The cause of separation, unlike her real relationships, is almost always the same. "It is a trandescendent necessity; God decrees that distance" (Wolff 412). In many of these poems, as the one above, the speaker provokes Him into that action by claiming neither to need the Divinity nor His heaven. The lover's make their own paradise. Not only does this show influence of Emily's relationships, but once again it contains hints of her religious struggle. Direct opposition of God is also set by the generosity, affection, and willingness of the lovers to treat each other as equals.
One characteristic of all the relationships that Emily created in her poems is the idea of equality. Despite superficial differences of size, age, or social power, the lover's are essentially equal, and neither wants to dominate the relationship. This is shown in these excerpts from one of her poems:
He was weak...I was weak...
...I was strong...He was strong...
...So he let me lead him in...
...So I let him lead me - Home
Emily allows women to be treated fairly, in the same way as men. On many occasions in her poems the voice of the "wife" speaks. For the most part, the "wife" speaks of the hardships of the relationships. Humorous, it is a feeling of impatience in the voice of the woman upon discovering that creating that Heaven-on-Earth is more easily said than done (Wolff 350). The wife often seeks to bring coherence to the troubles through the old-fashioned domestic qualities taught to her in order to accommodate for the lost paradise.
The love poetry of Emily Dickinson is not "...idealizing and incorporeal...", but rather it is "...ardent and filled with sexual invitation..." (Wolff 385). One poem unlike her usual writings explores her ability for passion and possibly a yearning for it:
Wild Nights - Wild Nights!
Were I with thee
Wild Nights should be
Futile - the Winds -
To a Heart in port -
Done with the Compass -
Done with the Chart!
Rowing in Eden -
Ah, the Sea!
Might I but moor - Tonight -
This gives so much evidence of Emily's capacity for passion that for a while (now passed) "...critics generally supposed that the principle reason for her art lay in some unfulfilled affair of the heart" (Wolff 385). However, her passion in poems is never fulfilled due to the same theme of separation.
This separation she writes about not only deals with love, but often with a more permanent separation, death. Death was only one more thing that Emily knew of which kept people apart. The deaths of her friends and family forced her to acknowledge the loneliness and separateness of this world. The fact of death led her to question once again "...the nature of this Being Who had authored our fate..." (Wolff 84). She found it hard to believe that she was to worship and love something who could repeatedly take away from her all the relationships that meant so much.
Emily Dickinson's preoccupation with death began when she was young and continued on throughout most of her life. She was a meditative child, sensitive and serious, and she began to puzzle over the mystery of death and new birth at a very early age. Emily Dickinson was sure that after death life on Earth was over, in all aspects. People lost all connections with previous lives, and gained a morbid equality, such as that described in this poem:
...there was a little figure plump
For every little knoll -
Busy needles, and spools of thread -
And trudging feet from school -
Playmates, and holidays, and nuts -
And visions vast and small -
Strange that the feet so precious charged
Should reach so small a goal!
"The cemetery is filled with the dead and under 'every little knoll' there lies someone who was once a little child plying its tasks and pursuing its dreams; yet all are now equally dead, equally far from life's pleasures" (Wolff 180).
The thing that frightened yet intrigued Emily the most about death was the "...gradual isolation of an increasingly helpless self moving toward the horror of the utterly unknown..." (Wolff 221). However, there was a certainty of death. It was not a certainty of what would become of one, but that death was sure to occur. When children die, many say they die "too soon" Dickinson is apt to say that the death was not too soon, and that there is never a "right time" to die. Wolff believes she would reprimand us for "...thinking ourselves to clever and strong when we elude death for a while, and even forgetting his long shadow falling across our paths..." and reminding us that "...in the end, the Angel of Death dispatches us all" (181). In 1884, Emily Dickinson experienced a "year of deaths" when five people close to her, including her mother, her nephew, and two men she felt strongly for, passed on. In was during this year that she wrote this poem which exemplified her own collapse that year:
So give me back to Death -
The Death I never feared
Except that it deprived of thee -
And now, by Life deprived,
In my own Grave I breathe
And estimate it's size -
It's size is all that Hell can guess -
And all that Heaven surmise -
This poem is about her confrontation with loss and death. Emily is "...estimating the 'size' of death - distancing it, coming to terms with it, and finding no fear in it" (Sewall 665).
The personal experiences of Emily Dickinson had a great influence on her poetry. Through her verses we can understand and relate to her much more easily. Without them, her withdrawal from society would have kept her unknown. Once she wrote:
This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me -
The simple News that Nature told -
With tender Majesty
Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see -
For love of Her - Sweet - countrymen -
Judge tenderly - of Me
It seems fairly obvious that Emily Dickinson knew that someday her poems would be found and would be used as a window into her thoughts.