Emily Dickinson

MLP

MLP

Mormon Lectionary Project

Emily Dickinson

Isaiah 6:5-8 (NRSV)Psalm 111:7-10 (Common Worship psalter); John 3:16 (KJV)1 Cor. 13:9 (NRSV); 2 Nephi 2:103 Nephi 8D&C 93:23-27

The Collect: Beloved God, who revealedst thy love for Emily Dickinson in the midst of her wrestlings with thee, and who hast now made that love known to us through her verse: grant that we also, in our strivings, may find thy love for us revealed in thy Son through the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This post will be less biographical than is usual for this series. After all, Emily Dickinson pretty much affords the quintessential case for the idea that biography doesn’t tell the whole story, for out of her superficially quiet life burst a vast and lively treasury of verse. Accordingly, this post eschews narrative in favor of putting Dickinson’s poems tactically into conversation with scripture both ancient and modern. It will be terse and epigrammatic, leaving readers to develop connections further in the comments (and to suggest other of her poems that resonate with Mormonism).

 ***

168

If the foolish, call them “flowers” —
Need the wiser, tell?
If the Savants “Classify” them
It is just as well!

Those who read the “Revelations”
Must not criticize
Those who read the same Edition —
With beclouded Eyes!

Could we stand with that Old “Moses” —
“Canaan” denied —
Scan like him, the stately landscape
On the other side —

Doubtless, we should deem superfluous
Many Sciences,
Not pursued by learned Angels
In scholastic skies!

Low amid that glad Belles lettres
Grant that we may stand,
Stars, amid profound Galaxies
At that grand “Right hand”!

Dickinson grapples here with problems of truth and perception, taking seriously Paul’s idea that “we know only in part” and lingering there without pressing on to the moment of consummation when we will see face to face and know as we are known. She enjoins charity from those who can say they know toward those who admit they cannot, but remain committed to a belief in that other side, where we will have “knowledge of things as they are, as they were, and as they are to come.”

***

553

One Crucifixion is recorded — only —
How many be
Is not affirmed of Mathematics —
Or History —

One Calvary — exhibited to Stranger —
As many be
As persons — or Peninsulas —
Gethsemane —

Is but a Province — in the Being’s Centre —
Judea —
For Journey — or Crusade’s Achieving —
Too near —

Our Lord — indeed — made Compound Witness —
And yet —
There’s newer — nearer Crucifixion
Than That —

In referring to the way that people other than Christ can be quietly crucified without any record being made, Dickinson’s poem reveals a new possibility opened up by the Book of Mormon, for its witness of the crucifixion is a tale of mass suffering, both for the dying and the living.

***

573

The Test of Love — is Death —
Our Lord — “so loved” — it saith —
What Largest Lover — hath —
Another — doth —

If smaller Patience — be —
Through less Infinity —
If Bravo, sometimes swerve —
Through fainter Nerve —

Accept its Most —
And overlook — the Dust —
Last — Least —
The Cross’ — Request —

If God’s love consists in giving his only begotten Son, Dickinson calls us, with our “smaller Patience” and “less Infinity,” to work out how we, too, will “answer the ends of the atonement.”

***

780

The Truth — is stirless —
Other force — may be presumed to move —
This — then — is best for confidence —
When oldest Cedars swerve —

And Oaks untwist their fists —
And Mountains — feeble — lean —
How excellent a Body, that
Stands without a Bone —

How vigorous a Force
That holds without a Prop —
Truth stays Herself — and every man
That trusts Her — boldly up —

In an echo of D&C 93, Dickinson invokes a Truth that encompasses all time. The steadiness of this truth that will stand forever becomes sublime in a way that surpasses the usual images of cedars, oaks, and mountains. Understanding the overwhelming awe induced by this sublimity gives new heft to the Psalmist’s idea that “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”

***

1545

The Bible is an antique Volume —
Written by faded Men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres —
Subjects — Bethlehem —
Eden — the ancient Homestead —
Satan — the Brigadier —
Judas — the Great Defaulter —
David — the Troubadour —
Sin — a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist —
Boys that “believe” are very lonesome —
Other Boys are “lost” —
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller —
All the Boys would come —
Orpheus’ Sermon captivated —
It did not condemn —

The idea that scripture is the imperfect product of imperfect humans is quite at home in Mormonism, given the protestations of both Mormon and Moroni. Still, the idea is much older, for Isaiah found himself a man of unclean lips. The cleansing coal cuts the prophet off from humanity, though: “Boys that ‘believe’ are very lonesome.” This is why we also need poets—warbling tellers—like Emily Dickinson, who sing their sermons and do not condemn.

For the music, here are Aaron Copland’s “8 Poems of Emily Dickinson”:

I quote from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Boston: Little, Brown, 1960). The number for each poem links to a manuscript image in the Emily Dickinson Archive.

The inspiration for including Emily Dickinson in the MLP comes from Lauren F. Winner, Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis (New York: HarperOne, 2012), 165-67. I’ve also drawn on Winner’s discussion of Dickinson on pp. 99-101. I cannot recommend her book highly enough.

Comments

  1. Rechabite says:

    A literary critic once described Dickinson as demonstrating “a faith that doubts as fervently as it believes.” I would call her Saint Emily of the Struggle, Shot through with Inexplicable Powerful Fleeting Joy.

    1021
    Far from Love the Heavenly Father
    Leads the Chosen Child,
    Oftener through Realm of Briar
    Than the Meadow mild.

    Oftener by the Claw of Dragon
    Than the Hand of Friend
    Guides the Little One predestined
    To the Native Land.

  2. Jason K. says:

    That’s a beautiful description of her, Rechabite, and a great poem. Thanks for sharing!

  3. I love this! Dickinson and Hopkins are my favorite poets, both focused heavily on religious themes, though very different from each other.

    This is one of my favorite Emily poems, both because of its beauty and hope and because of how its themes and imagery echo Mormon ideas (the necessity of sorrow/darkness in order to experience joy/light, this world being a type and shadow of the spiritual/next world, secular philosophy being present but worshipful in the face of supernatural realities, and the veil imagery in the last stanza):

    The feet of people walking home
    With gayer sandals go—
    The Crocus—til she rises
    The Vassal of the snow—
    The lips at Hallelujah
    Long years of practise bore
    Til bye and bye these Bargemen
    Walked singing on the shore.

    Pearls are the Diver’s farthings
    Extorted from the Sea—
    Pinions—the Seraph’s wagon
    Pedestrian once—as we—
    Night is the morning’s Canvas
    Larceny—legacy—
    Death, but our rapt attention
    To Immortality.

    My figures fail to tell me
    How far the Village lies—
    Whose peasants are the Angels—
    Whose Cantons dot the skies—
    My Classics veil their faces—
    My faith that Dark adores—
    Which from its solemn abbeys
    Such resurrection pours.

  4. Jason K. says:

    Thank you, Marie! I also love Hopkins, so I’ve just added him to our lectionary. His death date is 8 June, so expect to see some love for Hopkins here in a few weeks!

    Keep the poems coming, everyone. My life needs this stuff, and I’m sure that many others do as well.

  5. Kim S Colton says:

    My favorite Dickinsonian description of faith: She wrote to Dr. and Mrs. Holland (Letters #138), “I believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour — which keeps believing nimble.”

    The following two poems illustrate beautifully for me the Mormon ideas that Marie articulated above.

    313
    I should have been too glad, I see —
    Too lifted — for the scant degree
    Of Life’s penurious Round —
    My little Circuit would have shamed
    This new Circumference — have blamed —
    The homelier time behind.

    I should have been too saved — I see —
    Too rescued — Fear too dim to me
    That I could spell the Prayer
    I knew so perfect — yesterday —
    That Scalding One — Sabachthani —
    Recited fluent — here —

    Earth would have been too much — I see —
    And Heaven — not enough for me —
    I should have had the Joy
    Without the Fear — to justify —
    The Palm — without the Calvary —
    So Savior — Crucify —
    Defeat — whets Victory — they say —
    The Reefs — in old Gethsemane —
    Endear the Coast — beyond!
    ‘Tis Beggars — Banquets — can define —
    ‘Tis Parching — vitalizes Wine —
    “Faith” bleats — to understand!

    1544
    Who has not found the Heaven — below —
    Will fail of it above —
    For Angels rent the House next ours,
    Wherever we remove —

    Thanks for including Emily Dickinson in this project.

  6. Jason K. says:

    Marvelous! The quote about keeping faith nimble is so perfect. Winner uses it in one of her brief meditations, which are eminently worth reading. More poems, please!

  7. I love those, Kim. It’s wonderful reading a poet who is both profound and prolific, because you know there will always be new beauty to discover. And I’m looking forward to Hopkins! Such great spiritual sensitivity set in a unique and vibrant style.

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