By: Harmony Moura Burk

When I was a little girl living in Brazil, my mom took me and some visiting family friends to a cathedral in São Paulo. We weren’t Catholic–I come from a strictly Prostestant background–but the cathedral was still a high point on the trip. At the time, of course, I didn’t fully understand all the nuances of religion, theology, and politics involved in that building. I did, however, understand that I was walking into something significant. There was something aesthetically powerful as the building loomed overhead, the chorus of voices in Mass echoed throughout the massive room, and the painted statues and stained glass displays gazed Something that amazed my tiny little mind. 

“There is a Certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft 

Of Cathedral Tunes –”

Emily Dickinson (#320 “There is a Certain Slant of Light”)

Christianity and art have been intertwined since its beginning. The Bible contains entire books worth of poetry in the Psalms and the Song of Songs; the rise of lyrical recitation expands these poetics into the church, which are often filled with detailed architecture and stained glass displays. Growing up in church, I was exposed to religiously powerful forms of poetry and art for as long as I can remember.. The presence of God, the church, and the faith shaped my life. As an English and Philosophy major, however, I also recognize poetic elements within the church as professions of faith and humanity. It is to this end that I will turn to the works of the Belle of Amherst, Emily Dickinson.

“Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –”

Dickinson grew up in a highly religious setting. Her life was shaped by Calvinist ideas, which were supplemented by the Puritan culture of 19th-century Massachusetts and Dickinson’s close connections to her local church and her religious family. Most of her poetry, however, contains both solemn and sarcastic depictions of traditional faith. Dickinson writes of oppressive cathedral bells and a traditional God who does not respond to her prayers, yet also speaks of a quiet Sabbath spent at home where God himself preaches to her and her garden-congregation in her poem “Some Keep the Sabbath by Going to Church” (#236). In the middle of all this, in a letter sent to her friend and mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson described God as an “eclipse” worshiped by her family, echoing sentiments of detachment and alienation from the faith of those around her and traditional expectations brought about by the church. 

“None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –”

It is difficult to know what Dickinson’s actual religious belief system was, or how she approached God and the church, particularly when we think about the ambivalence of poetic speakers. Still, an understanding of what Dickinson believed isn’t necessary to appreciate the religious aesthetics present within her poems, nor is it essential to grasp the way her poetry continues to resound with her readers on a spiritual level centuries after her death. To this end, I will turn to a few of the most prominent examples of these themes.

This World is not conclusion (#373)

This World is not Conclusion.

A Species stands beyond – 

Invisible, as Music –

But positive, as Sound –

It beckons, and it baffles – 

Philosophy, dont know – 

And through a Riddle, at the last – 

Sagacity, must go –

To guess it, puzzles scholars –

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of Generations

And Crucifixion, shown –

Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies – 

Blushes, if any see – 

Plucks at a twig of Evidence – 

And asks a Vane, the way – 

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –

Strong Hallelujahs roll – 

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –

This poem begins and ends with the notion of a restless spirit. The first line is a statement of the afterlife–one in which the invisible species exists beyond the reach of Philosophy and Sagacity. There is an acknowledgement of the ways in which we try to understand the world beyond death and, ultimately, return to the hope that there is something better than the world we live in now. The faith described here isn’t centered around mainstream Christianity or any other religion—it is one that “slips – and laughs – and rallies -” before the contempt of generations and the crucifixion. Dickinson demonstrates faith as small–plucking at a mere twig of evidence before it moves on–reproducing some of the internalized questions of doubt and personal reassurance in a way that recalls the biblical “faith as small as a mustard seed” capable of moving mountains. The last four lines of the poem have an even stronger contention–despite the gestures of the pulpit and the strength of hallelujahs, Dickinson refers to them as mere “narcotics” (a word which evokes the idea of substances used to induce drowsiness, stupor or insensibility.) which, for all their strength, cannot still the restlessness which “nibbles at the soul.” It is a poem of faith, and doubt, and the recollection of religion in the face of empty institutions and meaningless gestures. 

I Dwell in Possibility (#466)

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

It is Dickinson’s acceptance of uncertainty and ambiguity which drives the poem many scholars consider to be her poetic manifesto. Dickinson’s manuscripts are filled with edits and variant words, replicating a weird 19th century version of a “choose your own adventure” game wrought with strange symbols, confusing handwriting, and a meter which allows you to sing almost any of her poems along to the Pokemon theme song (seriously, try it.) To understand Dickinson we must also dwell in Possibility–not in what was, or is, but in what might be. It is in the space of potential, just before action has been taken, that Possibility thrives. Furthermore, potentiality is contrasted to prose. The implication leans itself towards an interpretation that the speaker’s dwelling is, in fact, poetry itself. Poems, after all, aren’t bound to a single form like prose is. They can break apart in stanzas and punctuation; they can be scattered about the page; even the poetry manuscripts left behind by Dickinson exist in the realm of potentiality, containing alternative words and cryptic handwriting. 

           The “roof” described here is, notably, “everlasting,” existing despite death itself. The immortality she gained, though not literal (a zombie Emily Dickinson running around Massachusetts would be fun though, she’d probably love the idea), is nevertheless real through her poems. By dwelling in everlasting possibility and “spreading wide […] narrow Hands/To gather Paradise,” Dickinson achieved an everlasting status. This world was not her conclusion, but merely her beginning. The echoes of using her hands (aka her writing) to capture Paradise itself are full of religious overtones, as if Dickinson is aware that by capturing the spiritual experience in her poetry she taps into something far beyond the physical, mortal world. Something heavenly, full of possibility and creativity until the end of time.  Dickinson often plays with notions of immortality; this poem takes that concept and directly ties it to the work she produces, acting as a vivid explanation of how the “everlasting roof” of Possibility from which poetry arises serves as Dickinson’s bridge to heavenly Paradise and eternal recognition. As a result, poetry and Possibility become her prayer and crucifixion. 

Because I could not stop for Death (#479)

Because I could not stop for Death—

He kindly stopped for me—

The Carriage held but just Ourselves— 

And Immortality.

We slowly drove—He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility—

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess—in the Ring—

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain—

We passed the Setting Sun—

Or rather—He passed us—

The Dews drew quivering and chill—

For only Gossamer, my Gown—

My Tippet—only Tulle—

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground—

The Roof was scarcely visible—

The Cornice—in the Ground—

Since then—’tis Centuries—and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity—

One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, and one which shows her in all her 19th century emo glory, the notion of poetic immortality is encompassed clearly within the first few lines. As with the previous poems, there is an acceptance of mortality and uncertainty. She is, after all, going for a carriage ride with Death and putting aside her “labor and [her] leisure” for him (though if Death looks like a smooth-talking Wiz Khalifa, who can blame her?). The phrase “flirting with Death” often means playing with your own mortality and taking risks, and it seems like Dickinson references this contestation of mortality as she deliberately uses themes of death and decay in her poetry while ambitiously pining after everlasting immortality. The image of a resurrected Christ, of the conquering of death and the religious motif of being “born again” and living eternally all are present in these twenty-four lines. Dickinson is toying with the idea of directly engaging with and accepting death. The last stanza, in particular, seems to play with the notion that Dickinson will outlast a mortal lifespan—this carriage ride happened “centuries” ago. She first surmised the position toward Eternity, but that does not mean this was her only carriage ride. If anything, one might stop to wonder what happened when they did reach Eternity and Dickinson herself, accompanied by Death and Immortality, descended from the carriage. 

Publication is the Auction of the Mind of Man (#788)

Publication – is the Auction

Of the Mind of Man –

Poverty – be justifying

For so foul a thing

Possibly – but We – would rather

From Our Garret go

White – unto the White Creator –

Than invest – Our Snow –

Thought belong to Him who gave it –

Then – to Him Who bear

It’s Corporeal illustration – sell

The Royal Air –

In the Parcel – Be the Merchant

Of the Heavenly Grace –

But reduce no Human Spirit

To Disgrace of Price –

If Dickinson’s acceptance of uncertainty and Death and her incessant drive within poetic possibility earned her immortality, it seems reasonable to ask how she viewed herself attaining such immortality despite the fact that most of her poems were never published in her lifetime. Here, we have Dickinson’s manifesto against publication and commodification of the human mind. There is an outrage against selling off one’s thoughts, something “foul” and “disgrace[ful]” to Dickinson. The last three stanzas in particular, however, are a notable series of rationalizations which explain such a stance. The second stanza is a dramatic statement that death is preferable to publishing, accompanied by an acknowledgement of a Creator (and all its implications of God and divinity). The third asserts that thought belongs to this Creator, while man is merely the one who bears the “corporeal illusion” of “the Royal Air.” These lines reflect Dickinson’s religious knowledge: they are references to the creation story of Genesis, in which God grants man the breath of life and divine inspiration. This “Heavenly Grace,” as Dickinson calls it, is precious. It echoes her previous praises of poetry and the mind, framing it as something inherent to the individual and worthy of admiration–worthy, even, of turning the poet immortal. It is no wonder, then, that Dickinson opposes what she refers to as the “Auction” of the mind, let alone that she rages against the notion of mankind commodifying that which isn’t ours to sell—that divine-given breath of Thought. The last stanza, which complains of the reduction of the Human Spirit to the Disgrace of Price, is particularly impactful. One could almost frame it as Dickinson’s justification for not publishing—she is, in a way, refusing to sell out. By resisting publication, her mind and spirit are untainted. Holy. Pure. 

“When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –”

There is a modern habit to equate “spiritual” with strict religious dogma or overly dramatic youth pastor retreats. This is a mistake. Art, poetry, and contemplation resound with the soul like no other. There’s a reason why concerts and art galleries can be life-changing experiences, why we get so attached to our favorite movies and tv shows, and why we return to the same authors and poets century after century. Perhaps Dickinson was right—it is by dwelling in Possibility and everlasting ambiguity that humans thrive and use their creative imagination to expand beyond their human limitations. It’s how we got technological advancements, how we got majestic sculptures and literature that lasts ages, and how we got the cinematic masterpiece that is the Fairy Godmother singing “I Need a Hero” in Shrek 2 (you can almost imagine the executive board pouring over every possible iteration of their cartoon villain singing while the castle is raided by a giant gingerbread man). In Dickinson’s case, however, there is something more. Some deep awareness of her religious atmosphere, an acceptance of the inevitability of death and the end of all mortal things that drives her to seek more—to create something beyond herself. Strangely, in her poetic nihilism, we also find a celebration of life. If death is inevitable, if the world beyond is undetectable to human reason and philosophy, then all we can do is dwell in the Possibility of what comes after and in what exists now, living our lives in pursuit of eternity despite uncertainty. In this way, Dickinson serves as a reminder of the importance of the spiritual, that which moves and grows with us and laughs at our attempts to contain it in mere labels.

Posted by:hothouselitjournal

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