[SOUNDINGS LXVI, 3, 1983]
By DAVID R. WILLIAMS
EMILY DICKINSON, a lonely heir of the Puritans’ call to conversion in the wilderness of the mind, spun endless circles around infinity transfixed by the abyss at the center. “This is to die sensibly; to die and know it,” preached Jonathan Edwards. “We read in Scripture of the blackness of darkness; this is it, this is the very thing.” Not fire, not torture, not eternal nothingness, but consciousness of endless consciousness alone was the terror of the pit. To be alone, without body, without perception, forever and forever, fully awake, facing “in lonely place/ That awful stranger Consciousness‑”this was the threat of immortality. “Looking at death,” Emily Dickinson knew, “is dying.”1
John Cody has argued that Emily Dickinson suffered a “psychotic” breakdown and that her poems “portray faithfully the terror of a mind collapsing under pressures that exceed its endurance.”2 This may be so. It is hard to read her letters and poems and deny that she did suffer a traumatic emotional experience of some kind or that her behavior was, at best, eccentric. But whatever the exact nature of this experience, whatever the causes, however analyzed in whatever discipline, Emily Dickinson would have understood it within the context provided by her intensely anachronistic Calvinist culture. It is her poetry that is important to us, and if her poetry is her response to her experience, neither Freud, nor Jung, nor Sappho can provide the primary approach for our understanding of what she wrote. To understand Emily Dickinson, it is necessary to be familiar with the spiritual Calvinist tradition of belief in a psychological crisis of conversion from the Egypt of worldly bondage across the wilderness to the promised land.
There was from the first settling of New England a consistent tradition of imagery in which the crossing of the Children of Israel into the wilderness was compared typologically to the crucifixion of Christ. The Calvinists used this tradition to symbolize their insistence that all human beings cross into the ever‑present wilderness of depraved consciousness and there experience what can only be called madness. Despite other well‑documented doctrinal and cultural changes, the heirs of the original Puritans continued to believe, for many generations, that this conversion experience had to occur before there could be any hope of achieving salvation in the typologically prefigured land of Canaan.
Emily Dickinson was the first New England writer in whom this wilderness tradition, though dominant, remained hidden. It is not just that she hid in her home and never published; these were but outward manifestations of her spiritual seclusion. It was her Calvinist spirituality that she kept hidden. Even critics for whom her private life is an open book have not appreciated the extent to which Emily Dickinson’s poetry was a personal response to what she believed to be a conversion crisis. She was no dogmatist; the Calvinist theology is never made explicit.
Nevertheless, the psychological crisis of conversion, still the heart of nineteenth‑century Amherst’s Calvinist piety, is the key to Dickinson’s poetry. Its themes are there: consistently, forcefully, elegantly, everywhere.3
That Amherst, Massachusetts, in the middle of the nineteenth century, remained a rigidly Calvinist community, and that the Dickinson family was a pillar of that community, are facts that do not need to be proven. It is enough to recall that Amherst College had been founded in order to save orthodox Calvinism from the Unitarian heresy and that Edward Dickinson, Emily’s grandfather, had been one of its founders. She was, as Thomas Johnson said, “nourished” by the “russet base” of her Puritan past.4
But there still remains confusion regarding Emily Dickinson’s relationship to her ancestral religion. Richard Sewall has said that her “whole career may be regarded as a sustained, if muted rebellion, against this very inheritance.” More recently, Karl Keller has stated that she more than left the church, “she stood against, stood up to it:” Albert Gelpi has advanced the position that she was essentially a “Romantic Poet” liberated from her Puritan past by the refreshing winds of Emersonian Transcendentalism.5
Much of this sort of interpretation results both from a misunderstanding of what it meant to be a Calvinist in New England as well as from an inability to distinguish between the evangelical orthodoxy of the 1850s and the spiritual Calvinism preached by men like Edwards, Stoddard, and Hooker. Emily Dickinson was in rebellion, not against her ancestral religion, not against Calvinism, but against the sterile and superficial faith of her more immediate culture. If she revolted against the church, it was in the name, not of Emerson, but of Christ. And her doing so put her in the mainstream of the true Calvinist wilderness tradition.
The debate centers on the story of Dickinson’s refusal, once, to stand up and confess Christianity when she attended Miss Lyon’s Seminary at Mount Holyoke in 1847. Although sometimes interpreted as a youthful rebellion against religion, the evidence indicates that she refused to conform not because she did not believe, but because she believed too well. According to the one good account of this incident, she did not reject Christ; she simply refused to lie and claim a sincere desire for Christ when she knew the mystic promise had not yet been made hers.
To illustrate the independence and honesty of her convictions, Miss Lyon, during a time of religious interest in the school, asked all those who wanted to be Christians to rise. The wording of the request was not such as Emily could accede to and she remained seated‑the only one who did not rise. In relating the incident to me, she said, “They thought it queer I didn’t rise”‑adding with a twinkle in her eye, “I thought a lie would be queerer.6
This alone might be considered ambiguous evidence. But placed next to the letters she wrote during this period, it becomes obvious that her rebellion was in the tradition of the seventeenth‑century minister, Jonathan Mitchell, who refused to accept “seemings” in place of the real thing, and of those faithful Christians who were “too scrupulous” to own the halfway covenant.7
In 1846, as the revival at Mount Holyoke was just beginning, Dickinson revealed to her friend, Abiah Root, that she had briefly believed herself one of the saved but that she had been mistaken:
I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly‑and I can say that I never before enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever. I have longed to hear from you‑to know what decision you have made. I hope you are a Christian for I feel that it is impossible for anyone to be happy without a treasure in heaven. I feel that I shall never be happy without I love Christ.8
Her desire to believe remained sincere, but the lesson of this false conversion stayed with her, for she feared that she might “again be deceived and I dared not trust myself.” Years later, still unwilling to trust herself, she remembered her youthful error and blamed, not fate, but herself “for entertaining Plated Wares/Upon my Silver Shelf‑” (J‑747).
At home in Amherst, in 1850, Dickinson again was caught up in a revival and again her attitude was one, not of derision but of hopeful expectation. “How strange is this sanctification, that works such a marvellous change,” she wrote admiringly to Jane Humphrey. But at the same time she had to admit that the change had not affected her, that she was “standing alone in rebellion and growing very careless.” It should not be imagined that the term “rebellion” had the positive connotations it carries today. If Emily Dickinson was a rebel, it was not by choice but by an unwelcome fate. The “still small voice,” she continued,
certainly comes from God‑and I think to receive it is blessed‑not that I know it from me, but from those on whom change has passed . . . . You must pray when the rest are sleeping, that the hand may be held to me, and I may be led away.9
Emily Dickinson despaired that she was not destined for salvation. Her carnal spirit enjoyed the world too much. Her head believed, but her heart did not seem able to grieve the acknowledged danger. She was not boasting but confessing when she wrote:
The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea‑I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger! You are learning control and firmness. Christ Jesus will love you more. I’m afraid he don’t love me any!’°
Although willing intellectually to acknowledge the desirability of Canaan, Dickinson had to confess that the danger of the wilderness, of the sea, had a greater claim on her emotions. Preferring wilderness to the pretense of salvation, holding out‑even at the risk of damnation‑for true feeling, may have kept her from membership in the Amherst church, but it placed her in the center of the wilderness strain of Calvinism.
Her refusal to profess a false salvation was considered “queer.” The irony of her stance was not lost on her and she was able to observe the situation with humor, if only to mail her anguish. Of her family, she said, “They are religious, except me, and address an Eclipse, every morning‑whom they call their ‘Father.'”” The “sun” of her God in “Eclipse,” twice passed over and barely touched by the Holy Spirit, she believed herself lost in the waste:
I never lost as much but twice
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!
Reimbursed my store‑
I am poor once more! (J‑49)
Dickinson believed that she was without Christ and that her loved ones at least believed themselves to be in Canaan. For that, she was the better Calvinist and they the latitudinarian heretics.
It was not until years later that “Christ” did visit Emily Dickinson. It was then, in 1861, that she underwent the mental breakdown that John Cody analyzed, an event that stood out in her memory as the climactic moment of revelation. It was on a particular “Day,” one that felt “Centuries” long, that “I first surmised the Horses Heads/Were toward Eternity‑” (J‑712). As William Sherwood has written, this was the “conversion that both her inclinations and her traditions had prepared her for. . . ” 12
The developments that led to this traumatic event, for whatever reason, began years earlier. In 1846, when Dickinson was just sixteen, she wrote to Abiah that she was “alone with God, and my mind is filled with many solemn thoughts which crowd themselves upon me with irresistible force.” “I feel,” she continued, “that I am sailing upon the brink of an awful precipice, from which I cannot escape and over which I fear my tiny boat will soon glide if I do not receive help from above.” In 1854 she wrote to Susan Gilbert about the ordeal of going alone to church and being frightened by a “phantom.” The symptoms of paranoia are all but unmistakable:
I’m just from meeting, Susie, and as I sorely feared, my `life’ was made a `victim: I walked‑Iran‑I turned precarious corners‑One moment I was not‑then soared aloft like phoenix, soon as the foe was by‑and then anticipating an enemy again, my soiled and drooping plumage might have been seen emerging from just behind a fence, vainly endeavoring to fly once more from hence.
She also expressed her growing fears and her yearning for some “New Land” to her friend, Mrs. J.G. Holland: “I often wish I was a grass, or a toddling daisy, whom all these problems of the dust might no more terrify.” “Pardon my sanity,” she pleaded, “in a world insane, and love me . . . .”13
In 1858 the tone of her letters began to change dramatically. No longer coherent and flowing, they became cryptic, mysterious, choppy, and superficially disordered. They also dealt more and more with her growing concern for her mental stability. For instance, in 1859, she wrote to Catherine Turner:
Insanity to the sane seems so unnecessary‑but I am only one, and they are `four and forty’ . . . . I am pleasantly located in the deep sea, but love will row you out if her hands are strong, and don’t wait till I land, for I’m going ashore on the other side
The image of the sea, as used here, reappears constantly in Dickinson’s writing. As it had been for the Old Testament prophets, as it had been for Puritan New England from the first coming over, as it continued to be for writers like Melville, the sea was an image of a state of mind beyond the borders of waking consciousness, of the wilderness within the soul. Like the wilderness that the children of Israel crossed, the sea was a type of that subconscious realm of terror that had to be crossed before there could be true salvation. It is clear that Dickinson imagined herself already floating away from “reality” into a space beyond ordinary frames of reference. When a friend’s child died at birth, Dickinson wrote to her, “We don’t know how dark it is, but if you are at sea, perhaps when we say that we are there, you won’t be as afraid.” She knew, even then in 1860, that she was not one of the “Majority” but was sailing into “Madness” and would be considered “dangerous‑/ And handled with a Chain‑” (J435). And then she sailed over the edge.14
It is not possible to date exactly the moment of Emily Dickinson’s crisis. But that something happened, and that she remembered it happening on a particular day, is clear from her poetry. According to Cody, this “terrible sundering of the personality’s connection with reality” is probably the “most terrifying” experience that a person can undergo. There is a “dread of impending loss of control” followed by an apocalyptic break.15 Dickinson poetically depicts this event as a steady drumming that breaks through the thin covering that holds sanity over the pit:
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading‑treading‑till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum
Kept beating‑beating‑till I thought
My Mind was going numb
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space‑began to toll,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing‑then (J‑280)
Here, in a nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic form, are the classic Calvinist images of the crisis of conversion as they apply to the sinner first awakened to the terrors of the wrath of God. Here is the beating on the mind like Christ knocking on the door to the heart, here is the breaking of the rotten plank over the pit of hell as worldly sense perception rots and consciousness plunges into subconsciousness, here is the complete surrender of finite being to God’s sovereignty, here is the loneliness of the lost sinner who cannot hear the heavenly music, and here is the complete destruction of reason. The central image of human consciousness suspended over the pit of hell is a striking and unmistakable aspect of Dickinson’s poetry:
A Pit‑but Heaven over it
And Heaven beside, and Heaven abroad,
And yet a Pit
With Heaven over it.
To stir would be to slip
To look would be to drop‑ …. (J‑1712)
That this pit is of the mind is made clear when Dickinson says, “The depth is all my thought‑.” And in another poem, she reveals her understanding that the terror of the pit is in what today is called the subconscious, repressed, silent, but waiting:
Its Hour with itself
The Spirit never shows.
What Terror would enthrall the Street
Could Countenance disclose
The Subterranean Freight
The Cellars of the Soul
Thank God the loudest Place he made
Is licensed to be still. (J‑1225)
The day of revelation was a day of madness, a plunge into total depravity, an experience so powerful that ever after she recalled it with awe, and named it:
The first Day’s Night had come
And grateful that a thing
So terrible‑had been endured
I told my soul to sing
She said her Strings were snapt
Her Bow‑to Atoms blown
And so to mend her‑gave me work
Until another Morn
And then ‑a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face
Until it blocked my eyes
My Brain‑begun to laugh
I mumbled‑like a fool
And tho’ ’tis Years ago‑that Day
My Brain keeps giggling‑still.
And Something’s odd‑within‑
That person that I was
And this One‑do not feel the same
Could it be Madness‑this? (J-410)
What we see here is the same confusion that had sent others, like the mystic poet Jones Very, briefly to McLeans. By the middle of the nineteenth century, evangelical Christianity had forgotten the profoundly disturbing reality of the conversion experience. But there was enough of the ancient spirit left, at least in the Dickinson house, for her to wonder, Was she mad? or was she being ravished by the Holy Spirit? And how could one know? When is “madness” a disease? And when is it a form of religious vision?
One way in which Emily Dickinson tried to express her own perception of her experience was by writing it out in poetry. In 1862, she wrote to Thomas Higginson, “I had a terror‑since September ‑I could tell to none‑and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground‑because I am afraid.” At the time of her crisis, her strings “snapt,” she could not sing, but in the “Quartz contentment” (J‑341) that followed, she found her voice. 16
The full conversion experience always had two aspects, crucifixion and resurrection, the wilderness and Canaan, and these often came together. The destruction of the self that was the crucifixion removed the blinders of self‑love and made possible a sight of Christ in the same blinding flash with which it damned the Old Adam to hell. With the ego removed, it suddenly became possible to glimpse, if only like Moses in passing, the not‑self. And all that is not the self is Eternity. The vision was thus one of resurrection as well as damnation. The death of the self made possible the vision of Eternal life. The glory, however, was not immediately as apparent as the fear, and sometimes it had to be spelled out:
One Year Ago‑Jots what?
God‑spell the word ! I‑can’t
Was’t Grace? Not that‑
Was’t Glory? That‑will do‑
Moreover, this Glory was, once again, a specific experience, that came only once and therefore had to be drunk of deeply and fully:
I tasted ‑careless‑then
I did not know the Wine
Came once a World‑Did you? (J‑296)
It was thus a sudden once‑in‑a‑lifetime experience of Glory, of “Wine,” as well as madness. The effort to describe this apparently contradictory state produced some of Dickinson’s finest poetry:
A Wounded Deer‑leaps highest
I’ve heard the Hunter tell—
Tis but the Ecstasy of death –
And then the Brake is still! (J‑165)
The conjunction of ecstasy and despair, of resurrection and of crucifixion, often served her as the subject of poetic imagery. But when Dickinson wrote the line, “Much Madness is divinest Sense” (J‑435), she was trying to get beyond metaphor and symbol and to say directly that what people call madness is in fact the only way to heaven.
Dickinson also made wide use of traditional Scriptural imagery. Her poetry is saturated with the language of Scripture, particularly of the Old Testament. “The Smitten Rock that gushes!” (J‑165) is a direct reference to the typological symbol of Christ that followed the Children of Israel through the wilderness. Whether recalling her one experience of Christ or waiting patiently for His return, she repeatedly compared herself to Moses looking from Pisgah to the promised land:
Could we stand with that old ‘Moses’—
Scan like him the stately landscape
On the other side
Like Moses, she had been allowed a sight of Christ, from a distance, but had been denied entrance into Canaan. And as had
Moses on Mount Sinai, she believed she had seen the face of God, if only in passing:
“Am not consumed,” Old Moses wrote,
“Yet saw him face to face‑”
That very physiognomy
I am convinced was this. (J‑1753)
At times, such a sight was deemed sufficient: “What would I give to see his face?/ I’d give‑I’d give my life‑of course‑” (J‑247). At other times, “One hour‑of her Sovereign’s face” was not enough. She complained that Moses suffered worse than Stephen or Paul, “For these‑were only put to death‑”while Moses was given a “tantalizing” sight of Canaan “Without the entering‑” (J‑597). The sight of Christ from the desert was not enough. She wanted the full experience of damnation and salvation. Because of this the combined image of Christ as the Bridegroom in the wilderness appears again and again in her poetry. This, as it had always been in the Christian mystical tradition, was where the divine nuptials would take place:
With Thee in the Desert
With Thee in the thirst
With Thee in the Tamarind wood
Leopard breathes at last! (J‑209)
The image appears repeatedly. There is an “Awe,” she wrote, “that men, must slake in wilderness” (J‑525). Her sojourn through the world was a sojourn “through Desert or the Wilderness” (J‑711). The experience of the sight of the “Son” of God from deep in the wilderness of madness was the hinge of her existence. Although the experience did not recur, and even the memory of it lost its original intensity, the brilliance of that flash changed everything:
Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But light a newer wilderness
My wilderness has made- (J‑123)
The loss of sanity was a loss of control of sense perception; it was a fading back from the world into the chaos of undifferentiated consciousness: “I clutched at sounds‑/ I groped at shapes‑/ . . ./ I felt the wilderness roll back . . . .” (J‑430) described the unfolding of the inner wilderness before her. But there was always the image of Christ in the wilderness making the ordeal bearable:
No wilderness‑can be
Where this attendeth me
No Desert Noon
No fear of frost to come
Haunt the perennial bloom
But Certain June! (J‑195)
The wilderness thus served Dickinson as it had served generations of Calvinists, as a powerful symbol of the depths of mental anguish, of the terror waiting in the soul that must be faced and crossed. When Higginson’s wife died, Dickinson wrote to her mentor, “The Wilderness is new‑to you. Master, Let me lead you.”17
Although many of Dickinson’s poems use images that suggest the combination of despair and joy, others range widely from bleak anguish to the “divine intoxication” of a “liquor never brewed.” Noting this apparent lack of pattern, Albert Gelpi has explained that Dickinson “could be possessed only by the experience of the immediate moment, and so her art expressed itself in short lyrics each of which incarnated a moment.” Hence, we get no poems that try to synthesize the whole of her experience but little fragments from different parts which, taken together, do make a complete picture.18
The apparently contradictory moods of these poems have suggested to some that Dickinson’s native Calvinism was offset by Transcendentalism, that her heritage of darkness was being challenged by the new light of Romanticism. But such interpretation ignores the long tradition of Christian exultation in the joy of Christ and overlooks the regenerate Calvinist joy in nature as the Garden of Eden restored by Christ. Jonathan Edwards reveled in the beauties of nature and declared the woods, the fields, and the sky, in all their beauty, to be “emanations” of God’s joy. His student, Joseph Bellamy, in True Religion Delineated, a popular text of orthodox Calvinism, tried to describe elect perception of the natural world:
Now here is a new made creature in a new world, viewing God, and wondering at his infinite glory, looking all round, astonished at the divine perfection shining forth in all his works. He views the spacious heavens; they declare to him the glory of the Lord: He sees his wisdom and his power; he wonders and adores; he looks around upon all His works; . . .; all is genuine, natural and free, resulting from the native temper of his heart.19
Here is a passionate love of the natural world, the elect perception that Emerson had tried to reproduce. But to try to fit Bellamy into any Transcendental category would be to stretch the definition of Transcendentalism beyond any practical use.
Dickinson’s joyous poetry came out of the mystical strain of New England Calvinism that looked to the image of Christ in the wilderness as a symbol of the recreated Eden of the land of Canaan. Her reading of Emerson may well have reinforced this tradition, but Emerson did not produce it. The Transcendentalists, as Octavius Frothingham, himself a member of the Transcendental Club, said, “simply claimed for all men what Protestant Christianity claimed for its own elect.” The poem, “Mine by the Right of the White Election,” is one of the most powerful hymns of celebration in our literature, yet it is not inconsistent, given the Calvinist mind, with the madness of “The First Day’s Night . . . .” Without the loss of self, there could be no sight of Christ. Without a crossing of the wilderness, there could be no entering into the garden.20
The mental crisis of the early sixties passed, but Dickinson never fully recovered. Instead, she was left with a complex perception of herself as a second Moses waiting either to enter into the land of vision or to die. There were moments of remembered vision and there were moments of darkest despair, both of which found their way into her poetry. “Life is so rotatory,” she wrote, “that the wilderness falls to each, sometime.” The wilderness had fallen to her and she could only wait there for the call of God?21
The waiting was not serene. The paranoia that had first surrounded her remained. She withdrew into seclusion, afraid to face the world. Having tasted of the fruit of the tree of selfconsciousness, she experienced a sight of sin; her nakedness was unbearable. “I was afraid and hid myself,” she explained. When left alone in the house, she came close to panic. The terror floated just below the surface and she tried not to tempt it:
The nights turned hot, when Vinnie had gone, and 1 must keep no window raised for fear of prowling ‘booger,’ and 1 must shut my door for fear front door slide open on meat the `dead of night,’ and I must keep ‘gas’ burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it‑these gave me a snarl in the brain which don’t unravel yet, and that old nail in my breast pricked me.22
She recognized that she had wrestled with God, but unlike Jacob she had lost. She was no longer in control, but neither had she received a blessing. She still waited with fearful uncertainty for the divine event. It could be terror:
Others, can wrestle
Yours, is done
And so of woe, bleak dreaded‑come,
It sets the fright at liberty
And terror’s free
Gay, Ghastly, Holiday! (J-281)
It could be joy:
A Transport one cannot contain
May yet a transport be
Though God forbid it lift the lid
Unto its ecstasy! (J-281)
Not able like John Cotton to “wade in grace,” she tired of the waiting and even thought of suicide as a means of breaking free:
What if I say I shall not wait!
What if I burst the fleshly gate
And pass escaped‑to thee!
What if I file this mortal‑off—
See where it hurt me‑that’s enough
And wade in Liberty! (J‑277)
But most of Dickinson’s time was spent in the details of the wait. “[T]he infinite we only suppose,” she wrote, “while we see the finite.”23 Her days thus were spent kneading bread, planting flowers, and writing poetry. If she could not obtain grace herself, perhaps these could for her. She prayed for her flowers as for herself:
The Grace‑Myself‑might not obtain
Confer upon My flower
Refracted but a Coutenance—
For I‑inhabit Her- (J-707)
The wait dragged on. She could rely only on her memories and her pain to keep the truth of God’s existence alive: “God cannot discontinue Himself. This appalling truth is at times all that remains.”24 Believing terror to be evidence that God still cared, she “lived on dread” (J-770). But even prayer had its limits:
There comes an hour when begging stops,
When the long interceding lips
Perceive their prayer is vain.
‘Thou shalt not’ is a kinder sword
Than from a disappointing God
‘Disciple, call again.’ (J-1751)
Implicit in this readiness to accept God’s will was a surrender of self that had occurred as a result of the lost wrestling match. “My river runs to thee-/ Blue sea! Wilt welcome me?” (J-162). The Blue Sea was Eternity, the infinite depth of God personified by Christ. Hers was the classic position of the Christian mystic, betrothed to Christ. She was the bride waiting with her lamp lit for the arrival of her Lord. Uncertain of her worthiness, “I am ashamed – I hide – / What right have I to be a bride -“ (J-472), she also felt that she had been given God’s promise. That “Day at summer’s full” had been “sufficient troth”, that we shall rise -“…/ To that new Marriage,/ Justified – through Calvaries of Love -“ (J-322). The image out of scripture was that of Christ coming out of the wilderness leaning upon his beloved.
Given in marriage unto Thee
Oh thou celestial Host –
Bride of the Father and the Son
Bride of the Holy Ghost
Other Betrothal shall dissolve –
Wedlocks of will, decay –
Only the keeper of this Ring
Conquer Mortality – (J-817)
Those who believe that Emily Dickinson can only be understood if some secret lover’s name is revealed need to read that poem again. The attempt to find a male, or female, lover to explain that passion of Dickinson’s existence is the result of an unfamiliarity with the use New Englanders made of their rich tradition of typological symbolism.
This is not to argue that Emily Dickinson did not revere, even love, Charles Wardsworth, Samuel Bowles, or Otis Lord. But these men served simply as human types of the spiritual antitype. They were not the content; they were the symbols of more than themselves. She acknowledged her love for Otis Lord to be “idolatry,” and she rejected his proposal of marriage with a clear statement of her perception of the difference between symbol and substance: “You ask the crust, but that would doom the bread.”
In much of her poetry, the type and antitype are so close that modern readers, unused to this symbolism, did not understand as she did that the physical objects of her poetry were only types or shadows of the divine, that as Edward Taylor knew, the physical world is “slickt up in types.” As Jonathan Edwards had written, “ husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance.” This even more than her madness, her conversion, or her wilderness imagery, is what marks Emily as an heir of the wilderness tradition. She remembered that the wilderness is of he mind and that all outward objects are but projections, not of the human, but of the divine mind. The world is an allegory and the conversion of the soul from self to God is its theme.25
Dickinson wrote three mysterious letters to her “Master.” These letters never were mailed. Any attempt to discover the identity of the “Master” is futile, for even if she did have a human face in mind when she wrote the letters, it is clear whom she was really addressing:
Oh how the sailor strains, when his boat is filling – Oh how the dying tug, till the angel comes. Master – open your life wide, and take me in forever, I will never be tired – I will never be noisy when you want me to be still.
The waiting did not continue entirely in vain. There was no return of mystic vision, but there was something else, call it light, or love, or peace; it has no exact definition.26
Jonathan Edwards anticipated Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” that this is followed by “the letting go” (J-341), and that only after these have occurred can there be a reasonable expectation of grace. “Oftentimes,” he wrote, “the first sensible change after the extremity of terrors is a calmness, an the light gradually comes in.” When her nephew Gilbert died, Dickinson wrote to Sue, “The first section of Darkness is the densest, Dear – After that, Light trembles in –.” When Higginson’s wife died, she wrote to him, “Danger is not at first, for then we are unconscious, but in the after – slower – Days – Do not try to be saved – but let Redemption find you – as it certainly will – Love is its own rescue, for we – at our supremest, are but its trembling emblems.” In both of these quotations can be seen a recognition of what Edwards called grace, the slow coming of light to the truly broken and truly faithful. The light that trickled into Emily Dickinson’s life can be named only because the darkness that terrified her can be named: “Costumeless consciousness — / That is he –“ (J-1454).27
In England in the seventeenth century, the Puritan minister John Welles has described the last moments of a dying man as his senses one by one let go leaving his mind awake, alive sliding down that long dark tunnel into “that bottomless deep of the endless wrath of almighty God.” “This is it, to die and know it,” said Edwards. And this always had been the wilderness, “that profounder site/That polar privacy/A soul admitted to itself — / Finite infinity” (J-1695). It is not death itself that gripped Dickinson’s imagination but consciousness, and since to her death meant an infinity of disembodied consciousness, that fact of death brought her to “dare in lonely Place/ That awful stranger Consciousness/ Deliberately face –“ (J-1323). The sliding back of consciousness into the wilderness at death is a theme to which she constantly returned. The mind of the dying persons watches and waits as the physical world dissolves around it: “And then the windows failed – and then/ I could not see to see –“ (J-465).28
“What is man that thou art mindful of him?” asked the Psalmist. He might as easily have asked, “What is consciousness?” This is the question that underlies true theology. This is the question that prevents otherwise healthy people from taking it all for granted. The awareness of consciousness, and of the self being conscious, is not just consciousness of the pit; it is self-consciousness screwed to its tightest. There are times as Dickinson knew when the “Mind is so near itself – it cannot see, distinctly.”29 The attempt to look oneself in the eye without a mirror, to get behind the “I” and see the “I” that is acting, this is the first step sideways into the wilderness. Once there, the soul can only chase itself in endless circles until it drops exhausted in surrender:
This consciousness that is aware
Of Neighbors and the Sun
Will be the one aware of death
And that itself alone
Is traversing the interval
And most profound experiment
Appointed unto Men –
How adequate unto itself
Its properties shall be
Itself unto itself and none
Shall make discovery.
Adventure most unto itself
The soul condemned to be –
Attended by a Single Hound
Its own identity. (J-822)
Eternal consciousness is what Dickinson meant by the word “immortality,” a word she used often. Writing to Higginson in 1868, she said, “A letter always feels to me like immortality because it is the mind alone without corporeal friend.”30 The mind alone “without corporeal friend” is the same consciousness that “will be the one aware of Death? And that itself alone/ Is traversing the interval….”
Given this perception of “immortality,” the question became, would eternity be spent alone in darkness and in pain or at one with the eternal, universal consciousness that is God? According to the Calvinists, such participation with God in eternity required a prior conversion from self-centered consciousness to a love for “universal Existence.” It required a willingness that the self be damned that the totality might prosper, a giving up of all hope for God. Such a conversion had to begin with the revelation of the self alone in the eternal void of space. Thus, Emily Dickinson described the day of her own conversion:
I touched the Universe –
And back it slid – and I alone –
A Speck upon a Ball –
Went out upon Circumference –
Beyond the dip of Bell. (J-378)
Immortality is consciousness because God is consciousness. The world, as both Edwards and Emerson affirmed, is an Ideal one; all matter is in the mind and the mind in God. The vision of Christ is thus a vision of God’s total consciousness, the highest level possible. Of Christ on the cross, Dickinson asked, “Might He know/ How conscious Consciousness‑could grow‑?” (J-622). Participation with Christ in the crucifixion is thus a parallel experience for the human convert, a brief glimpse, if only in passing, of the Not‑Me that is Eternity. Dickinson received her “One Draught of life,” and her life was the price she paid for it:
They weighed me, Dust by Dust
They balanced Film with Film,
Then handed me my Being’s worth
A single Dram of Heaven! (J‑1725)
Christ was thought to be eternally present because God’s consciousness is eternally present, holding the entire creation together in every moment of time. What human beings lack is the perception to see the presence of Christ in this creation. Christ is present, but we do not have the eyes to see Him: “Not ‘Revelation’‑’tis that waits/ But our unfurnished eyes” (J‑424). For that rare achievement of elect perception, that “Dram of Heaven” that Emily Dickinson once sipped, first there had to be a desire to discover consciousness. Then there had to be a recognition that the perceiving self is an obstruction, that the ego is not the ultimate source of consciousness but a tin God, “plated wares,” a sham. The journey leading to this discovery is an ancient story, not invented by Calvin or restricted to Christ. It is the myth of humankind.
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The ‘Golden Fleece’
Fourth, no discovery
Fifth, no crew
Finally, no Golden Fleece
To go in search of identity and to find oneself a sham was a prerequisite for proceeding beyond to totality. One had to accept one’s own annihilation and learn to live not for self but for Being. This was what Emily Dickinson was waiting for. This is the light that slowly trembled in. To know that Eternity exists and to be able to accept that in place of self was the final revelation of grace:
Time feels so vast that were it not
For an Eternity
I fear me this Circumference
Engross my finity‑‑
To His exclusion, who prepare
By processes of Size
For the stupendous vision
Of His diameters (J‑802)
To experience the “stupendous vision” of Eternity was to participate in Eternity. The “Perished patterns murmur,” as the Children of Israel “murmured” in the wilderness against their God and perished there. But their children did enter into Canaan and claim the promised land. In the end, “Man” is left out; it is God, the totality of Being, that does alone “proceed” (J‑724). To be united to Christ thus meant to Emily Dickinson to be united forever to the consciousness that alone can “Conquer Mortality.” To deny self and to receive the vision of God was to be in covenant with God, the promise sealed. It was true liberation from the world, from the flesh, from finite consciousness. It was Heaven:
Mine‑by the Right of the White Election!
Mine‑by the Royal Seal!
Mine‑by the sign in the scarlet prison!
Mine‑here‑in vision and in Veto!
Mine‑by the grave’s repeal—
Mine‑long as Ages steal! (J‑528)
- L‑99; Jonathan Edwards, “The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable,” Representative Selections, Clarence Faust and Thomas Johnson, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962). p. 147; J‑1323; J‑281.
Hereafter, poems will be cited in the text according to the numbers of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, & (‘.o., 1960). Letters will he cited in footnotes according to the numbers of The Letters of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958).
- John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971), p. 24.
- 3One noteworthy exception to the general tendency to deal lightly with ED’s . Calvinist spirituality is William Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968). Ronald Lanyi, “‘My Faith that Dark Adores’: Calvinist Theology in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson;’ Arizona Quarterly, 32, 3, 1976, pp. 264‑78, finds evidence of ED’s belief in the five points of the Synod of Dort. Such literal dogmatic readings of ED’s Calvinism, while not wrong, tend to obscure the spiritual aspect of her poetry and do not add to our appreciation of ED as an artist.
- Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), p. 4.
- Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straits, 1974), pp. 19‑20; Karl Keller, The Only Kangaroo Among the Beauty: Emily Dickinson and America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), p. 72; Albert J. Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet (New York: Norton, 1965), pp. 60, 72.
- Clara Newman Turner, quoted in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, Jay Leyda, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 136.
- Robert Pope, The Half‑Way Covenant (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 134‑36; Cotton Mother, Magnolia Christi Americana (Hartford: S. Andrus & Sons, 1853), p. 90.
I 1. 1.‑261.
- Sherwood, Circumference, p. 138. Although recognizing that ED’s trauma was essentially a “conversion” as the Calvinists understood it, Sherwood was unable to reconcile his religious interpretation with ED’s mental instability, arguing that her experience was not “a crack‑up. . . , but a conversion. . .” (p.138). Unfortunately, too many critics, fearing the negative implications of psychological terminology, have resisted the obvious. John Cody’s words bear consideration: “If one can be induced to stare unflinchingly for a moment into the psychic hell that for a time overwhelmed her, one sees that the ‘psychotic’ are not necessarily mindless and absurd‑in fact they are far more frequently preternaturally aware of their deeper psychic processes, hypersensitive, and gentle. And . . . their mental and emotional perturbations may become the vehicle through which genius is kindled” (p. 11).
- L‑11; 1.‑154; L‑182; L‑185.
- L‑209; 1.‑216. For an example of one of the first “disordered” letters, see L‑195, written November 6, 1858.
- Cody, pp. 313‑14.
- Gelpi, p. 92.
- Jonathan Edwards, “The Excellency of Christ;” Selections, p. 373: “When we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds are the emanations of His infinite joy and benignity:’ Joseph Bellamy, “True Religion Delineated,” Works, v. I (New York: S. Dodge, 1811), p. 98.
- Octavitis B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), p. 108.
- Gelpi, p. 36. Also L‑916.
- L‑560; L‑562; Taylor, “Preparatory Meditations, Second Series,” 1,Poems, p. 83; Jonathan Edwards, “The Christian Pilgrim,” Selections, p. 131.
26.1.‑248. Other “Master” letters are L‑187 and L‑233.
- Jonathan Edwards, “A Faithful Narrative,” Works, v. 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press 1972), p. 178; L‑874; L‑522.
- John Welles, The Soules Progress to the Celestial Canaan (London: H. Shepard, 1639), p. 116; Edwards, above, fn. 1.