This post will be less biographical than is usual for the Mormon Lectionary Project. 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).
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
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.”
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 —
Is but a Province — in the Being’s Centre —
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
The Collect: Beloved God, who revealed your love for Emily Dickinson in the midst of her wrestlings with you, and who has now made that love known to us through her verse: grant that we also, in our strivings, may find your love for us revealed in your Son through the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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.