Emily Dickinson

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).

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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.”

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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 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.

Comments

  1. Emily U says:

    I love Emily Dickinson – a vast and lively treasury of verse indeed. And your selections are wonderful, especially 1545. I agree, more Psalms and less Leviticus would have been nice.

    The Dickinson poem I return to a lot is the well-loved 314, “Hope” is the thing with feathers. Although hope isn’t mentioned as a spiritual gift in 1 Corinthians 12, I think of it as one, and in this poem it is a gift (never – in Extremity, it asked a crumb – of me). 314 is meaningful to me personally because faith as a gift of the spirit is something I lack. Hope, I can’t seem to get rid of.

  2. Pitch-Perfect. There are so many Emily Dickinson poems that have been meaningful to me at different times for so many reasons. “It dropp’d so low in my regard” is the basis of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s “Lusterware,” one of Mormondom’s greatest devotional essays. “I like a look of agaony because I know it’s true” got me through a very rough point in my life. “There is a certain slant of light” basically describes the state of my faith right now. Very few works of scripture have been as meaniingful to me as the Collected Works of Emily Dickinson. Thank you for this.

  3. Beautiful. Thank you, Jason.

  4. My favorite religious-themed poem of hers (currently) is 258 “There’s a certain Slant of light.” I like it because the tone is so complex — reverent, joyful, sad, full of awe, sorrowful, pensive and sublime. It captures an interaction between the mortal and the divine that is uneasy. It reminds me of Paul’s “through a glass darkly” and of Elijah’s hearing “the still small voice” and Job’s hearing the “voice out of the whirlwind” and Jacob wrestling with an angel and getting injured (heavenly hurt). Because it’s set in winter and in the afternoon, it has the feel of midlife / latelife (and I’m in my 50s). It reminds me of recent GC talks about doubt and faith being more intermingled than most suppose. Now that I am in midlife, I am more drawn to complexity and ambiguity about my faith, about my understanding of the divine, about my ability to transcend, about seeing a lot of gray when I used to demand crispness, allegories with clear good guys and bad guys, 100% guarantees, etc. And I like this poem precisely because it’s a bit beyond my grasp. I go sit inside of it and meditate. The tone and imagery feed me even if I don’t 100% get it. The nature symbols seem to testify in a way that remind me of Jesus asking us to “consider the lilies of the field.” For me language that seeks to describe / connect to the divine (and not just scriptures) is kinda like the temple. (If it’s not too blasphemous for me to say that). Poetry particularly can serve as dedicated space, set apart from the pragmatics of the world. It’s a place that I don’t have to spend 2.5 hours driving and another hour to get into the Celestial room. I can have a certain slant of light — or certain hymns and scriptures — as a place where the mundane and the sacred connect in awkward and complex ways. (Hey, my bishop: If you are reading this, I still try to get to the actual building, too.) The tone reminds me of the mixed feelings I get more often not when in the Celestial room (or the pew or in personal prayer). I might see light coming through stain glassed windows where I am yearning to connect but not quite getting answers in a clear voice, but there is an awe, reverence and beauty and a beautiful confusion just in the intention of God reaching for me and me reaching back. (Is this too long? sorry)

  5. Jason K. says:

    Karen: what a beautiful account of the way that poems can serve as sacred spaces. They certainly do that for me!

  6. 553 is so powerful.

  7. Kim S Colton says:

    There’s a certain irony in an internet agoraphobe coming out to comment on Emily Dickinson. Nonetheless, I need to thanks Jason for including Dickinson in this project.

    Dickinson offers my favorite definitions and discussions of faith. In the spring of 1882, she wrote to Judge Otis P. Lord, “On subjects of which we know nothing . . . we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an Hour, which keeps Believing nimble” (Letter No. 750). This is her rubric for nurturing a lively faith and comports with my favorite images from #501: “Faith slips–and laughs, and rallies– / Blushes, if any see.” I also love #313 and its final image: “‘Faith’ bleats–to understand.” But for today, let me share #564:

    My period had come for Prayer–
    No other Art–would do–
    My Tactics missed a rudiment–
    Creator–was it you?

    God grows above–so those who pray
    Horizons–must ascend–
    And so I stepped upon the North
    To see this Curious Friend–

    His House was not –no sign had He–
    By Chimney–nor by Door
    Could I infer his Residence–
    Vast Prairies of Air

    Unbroken by a Settler–
    Were all that I could see–
    Infinitude–Had’st Thou no Face
    That I might look on Thee?

    The Silence condescended
    Creation stopped–for Me–
    But awed beyond my errand–
    I worshipped–did not “pray”–

    The whole of her “faith oeuvre” teaches that her poetic project is rooted, like Mormonism, in the New England tradition of conversion narrative. She doubts only because she believes, and she points out that we are awed beyond our errands when Silence condescends and Creation stops.

  8. It dropped so low in my regard
    I heard it hit the ground,
    And go to pieces on the stones
    At bottom of my mind;

    Yet blamed the fate that fractured, less
    Than I reviled myself
    For entertaining plated wares
    Upon my silver shelf.