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Emily Dickinson Poetry and Religion

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Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. She is one of the most renowned poets of the nineteenth century. (Pollak, 2004) Emily Dickinson was the second born infant of Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross, her brother Austin was the eldest sibling, and her sister Lavinia, was the youngest sibling. The Dickinson’s were an intellectual, erudite and a comfortable but not extremely wealthy family. The Dickinson family’s class position gave them the option of being endlessly protective toward all their children. Emily occupied the position of perpetual daughter, until, in her forty-third year, her father died. Had she been left fatherless at an earlier age, clearly her ability to engage in renunciation as a positive choice would have been more limited. (Wells, 1959)

 Emily was an outstanding student; she studied for a year in Mount Holyoke College formerly known as South Hadley Female Seminary. There were various presumptions as to why she only studied for a year; some of them stated that she was ill or homesick and some say that she repudiated to take a vow in public concerning her belief in Christ or Church. (Pittenger, 2006) Emily Dickinson’s feelings of religious insecurity intensified as she grew older. In her poem “Who were ‘the Father and the Son”, she is almost bitter in reproaching God for not having made His nature clear when she was a child. As the years pass, she becomes increasingly more resentful of the ever-present anxiety of religious uncertainty, expressing this resentment in her poetry. The poem clearly expresses the distress Emily Dickinson suffered from the instability of her religious faith. Her great desire to be saved was at odds with her inability to accept conversion; the Puritan insistence on man’s dependency conflicted with the transcendental concept of his self-sufficiency.

Her feelings on immortality ranged from acceptance, to doubt, to denial. (Anderson, 1960) Dickinson’s excavations of the psyche disclose emotional patterns as complex as Puritan conversion with its requisite phases of sanctification, justification, and grace. The war between God and Satan is transmuted into opposing forces of life and death, Eros and agape. In her poem “This Consciousness that is aware” (822), consciousness replaces Christ and self-awareness supersedes salvation. Critics have traditionally focused on Dickinson as a religious poet and have failed to see that, for her, temporal life is not extended after death but becomes an adventure. No longer framed by a divine plan, the drama of the poet focuses on what happens between birth and death, not on the ultimate destiny of heaven or hell. (Johnson, 1960)

In the rest of Dickinson’s adult life, which was dramatically punctuated by the Civil War and the changes brought to an increasingly developed college community, there was an increasing withdrawal from community life to a life lived within the confines of her father’s house. Yet, the years 1858-1865 represent her greatest output. By spring 1862, she had written three hundred poems. The Victorian World demonstrates the marked ways in which the important economic and political events of this period, the war, industrialization, and the women’s movement permeated her thinking and appear throughout her poetry. Even as she withdrew physically, she kept up her correspondence, a controlled measure of participation. She left her home again only twice, for eye treatments in Boston, in 1864 and 1865, during which time she stayed with the Norcross cousins. After these trips, she never left Amherst. (Wells, 1959)

Emily Dickinson never married, but her life was full of intense emotion and deep attachments to friends and family. For Dickinson, intimacy, not conversion, was the sacred tie; friendship superseded salvation, and the pleasures of companionship were more important to her than the promise of eternal life. Dickinson’s version of sanctification was the privilege to choose her own friends, as her well-known poem The Soul Selects Her Own Society (303) she highlights the point that a persons life does not only revolve around ones friends or the society in which a person lives in,  there is always more to a persons existence in this world. When read in the context of her religious struggle and fierce resolution to remain committed to this life instead of the next, the imperial and imperious metaphor of the queenly soul to describe her own consciousness takes on greater resonance. Not even her sister Lavinia’s conversion swayed Emily Dickinson’s resolute independence. (Anderson, 1960)

Although her youthful romantic love for Bowles was not reciprocated, she ultimately received Otis Lord’s rapturous attention. Through her painful struggle with Bowles and Higginson, she learned not to project her strength onto men and reclaimed her energy for her work. Remaining single in a society that placed enormous burdens on wives, Dickinson was able to concentrate on writing poetry. (Lynda, 2007)

When she died after a short illness in 1886, she had written almost two thousand poems. She had instructed Lavinia to burn all her papers, but Lavinia followed her wishes only in regard to the letters she had saved. She was amazed at the amount her sister had written and, though she herself had no interest in poetry, she had great faith in Emily’s ability. Stubbornly, persistently, she cajoled, threatened, and prodded people until, feeling unable to do the actual work herself, she managed to convince Mabel Loomis Todd to look at them. Mabel Loomis Todd looked at the poems and became convinced of their worth. It was she, modern, attractive, young, energetic, and sophisticated, who finally persuaded Thomas Wentworth Higginson to publish at least a small edition, and finally to give them the publication that they deserved. (Pittenger, 2006)

Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters:

Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters discuss the cultivation of her female self in terms of her search for autonomy and meaningful work and her thirst for education

Emily Dickinson did not rely on conventional religious way of life to arbitrate her skills and sentiments; then again, this does not denote that independence approached to her without difficulty. (Merriman, 2006) On countless occasions she experienced severe nervousness, vulnerability, and irritation, but regardless of how bewildered or despondent she turned out to be, Emily did not restrain her present uncertainties and aggravation with the comforting guarantee of deliverance, matrimony, or a devoted tyro poet. She discarded these reassuring customs, opposed to male power or influence, and struggled without help with her complicated and differing sentiments and feelings. Finally, she did not accept God, priest, and prospective spouse, therefore dedicating her life to her poems.

Even though Emily Dickinson was not a stanch believer of God and Christ and but still she wrote a few poems in which she spoke of or wrote about the supernatural being (God), along with her longing to go to paradise after her demise. One of the most overtly religious poems ever written by Emily Dickinson is “Tie the Strings to my Life, My Lord”, dating from about 1861. In it she openly announces that she is seeking a religious life and renouncing her former ways. The Puritan preoccupation with religion again mirrors its effect on the poet. Unable to accept orthodox methods, she sought a personal relationship with God, seeking acceptance through private channels. In this particular poem she uses the image of a coach-and-horses to indicate the departure of the “poetic I” from the life she used to live. (Johnson, 1960)

 In another poem “Papa Above” each and every theme and deed symbolizes a facet of religious conviction. In her poem she states her craving to have a position in paradise after her death.  Emily portrays herself as a mouse or a rat to symbolize her deprived spiritual rank. She coveted to go to paradise as she could relax there in tranquility for eternity. Emily Dickinson was not very pious, like every body else in this world she made a lot of mistakes in her life.  Nonetheless, the poet did not wish for those mistakes to prevent her, or other individuals from attaining paradise. (Johnson, 1960) However in her other poem ‘Heaven’–is what I cannot reach,” she tells the entire human race that it’s not easy to reach heaven, a person has do good deeds after which he/she can go to heaven. Emily Dickinson’s idea of heaven is difficult to get to, as stated in her poem it is like an apple on a very high tree where she cannot reach. On one hand, Dickinson sees heaven as a commonplace which is concealed by the various objects on another hand she says that it is concealed by objects hence it is difficult to reach. In reference to herself and the entire human race she pronounces that, going to heaven is something, which every human being desires but it is something which they can never accomplish. (Anderson, 1960)

Although Dickinson’s verses comprise of the essence of the contemporary responsiveness, with the consciousness of transience and apprehension, it furthermore summarizes the Puritan task. Utilizing the expressions, plots, and descriptions from the Bible, she counterfeited a mental picture exclusively hers of the earth as paradise in which natural world and amity were blessed. Dickinson’s pensive poetry portrays her courage and the significance of God’s creation. (Pollak, 2004)  Emily Dickinson formed an ecumenical in which an individual’s affection substitutes the supernatural beings dedication, elation is analogous with elegance, realization reinstates the spirit, and associates build the society of saints where according to the poet the environment or the natural world is like paradise, a persons habitat is paradise and knowledge comes together as talent which in turn makes the probability of everlasting existence.

Emily Dickinson trusted her antinomian impulses, but her proving ground was not the community forum or the wide expanse of the Mississippi River and its surrounding woods but the mysterious labyrinth of her psyche within is so wild a place. (Johnson, 1955) Unlike those traditional women who provided solace and moral stability for their world-weary husbands compromised by the complex demands of an expanding marketplace, Emily Dickinson remained at home to pursue her own interests and priorities. The underscoring of the pun on the word “selfish” indicates that her unusual life was a measure of her autonomy and determination rather than renunciation or denial: hers was a private rebellion in the service of her poetry, not an exercise in self-effacement.

By remaining single and living in her father’s house for her entire life, Dickinson created a haven in which she wrote nearly two thousand poems. (Pittenger, 2006) Emily believed in the fact that a person can go to paradise by residing in his/her habitat and natural world, both things which are created by God. The poem “Some Keep the Sabbath Going to Church” is about her unconventional outlook of how a human being ought to live his/her devout or religious life.  The majority of people in the whole of this world rejoice the Sabbath by going to the church but according to Emily Dickinson the Sabbath should be celebrated in residence and particularly with the natural world. She utilizes flamboyant terminologies, in her usage of imaginary reverberation and view. The poet conveys her sentiments concerning her admiration of the Sabbath and creates a personal type of affiliation with the holy being.

Although she has been described as an eccentric spinster the emphasis should be placed on Emily Dickinson’s courage. (Wells, 1959) In a historical period that required women, even women writers, to conform to standards of piety and purity that were inimical to the creation of enduring poetry, she created the conditions necessary for her art.

Emily Dickinson used the facade of filial obedience as a mode of rebellion, a strategy that enabled her to be outwardly deferential even though she was “incensed with anger” about her second-class citizenship as a woman. This perceptive analysis is especially helpful in understanding Dickinson’s conflicting needs for achievement and dependence especially as a young woman, but the emphasis must be placed on Dickinson’s hard-won autonomy. Not only did she have the finest room in her house but she also succeeded in gaining the support of her family, especially Lavinia (her sister), in her effort to write. Respecting her sister’s artistic gifts, Lavinia took responsibility for directing the Dickinson household.

In the tradition of protest and reform that is a basic dimension of American culture; Emily Dickinson refused to be diminished by the constraints of feminine virtue and propriety that paralyzed so many Victorian women. Emily Dickinson was a pioneer who chose the domestic as her frontier because it provided the space and freedom to write. In doing so, she subverted the tradition of true womanhood to serve her poetic mission. Paradoxically, Emily Dickinson avoided the damaging effects of passive femininity by remaining in what she described as “the never-ending authority of home”. By creating and safeguarding her privacy, she made extraordinary discoveries unusual for anyone in the nineteenth century. Not only did she pierce the mystifications of evangelical Christianity as well as the mystique of redemptive femininity, but she also achieved a resolution of the mind/body dualism that prefigures twentieth-century scientific findings. Most important, she evolved a complicated understanding of emotional dynamics that is startlingly modern.

By struggling with her conflicting feelings of self-doubt and her desire “to be great,” Dickinson experienced the extremes of despondency and exultation. Overwhelmed by fear and panic, she repeatedly fell into a psychic abyss, but she learned from these encounters with the depths of herself to discern a pattern of relationships in what threatened to be unbounded despair. Her initial forays enabled her to map points of consciousness, specific emotions, or states of mind, and after years of experience and careful observation, she recognized interconnections.

But Emily Dickinson’s poetry and especially her letters demonstrate that she deliberately avoided a system of categories that would pre-structure or limit her perceptions. Dickinson’s disjunctive states of awareness were the necessary concomitant to psychological and artistic autonomy. She was a pioneer precisely because she refused to dilute the intensity of her emotions by adopting a plan or a system of beliefs. Because she was committed to the process of living through her experience with all of its complicated ambivalences toward her family, toward nature, and even toward language itself, she sometimes experienced extraordinary discontinuities of consciousness that she accepted as part of her life.

In her poetry Dickinson eschews an epistemological system based on absolutes, preferring confusion, even chaos if necessary, in order to evolve a framework that corresponds to her actual experience. Much of Dickinson’s innovative linguistic experimentation and her frequent and unusual oxymoron’s and metonyms embody her central concern with relationship and interconnection. (Anderson, 1960) Rejecting the assumption that each experience, idea, or event must always be subordinate to another, she explored the resonance and ambiguity of opposites instead of polarity and stratified differentiation.

Implicit in Dickinson’s letters, as in many of her poems, is a criticism of the narrowing of consciousness, not to mention conscience, in a society dominated by excessive competition and the profit motive. During the period of rapid economic expansion in which she lived, there was extraordinary social dislocation because of the population shift to the cities. For Dickinson, being At Home meant not having to dissociate herself from her authentic responses in order to earn a living. Dickinson believed that the powers of the imagination superseded economic reality, but unlike her male counterparts, she managed to avoid what literary critic’s call the egotistical sublime, which feminist critics observe was based on social privilege and a lack of concern for women. (Merriman, 2006)

The young rebellious girl who dared to pick Satan’s flowers became a woman who felt that the blossoms of her carefully tended garden and greenhouse were emblematic of the sacredness of life on earth. Dickinson was neither a proto-hippie nor a zealous proponent of matriarchal holism, but she did believe in the importance of nurturing people and plants, and her protest against an increasingly utilitarian society foreshadows important literary and political concerns of the twentieth century. For Dickinson, the joyous pleasures of this life supplanted the terrors of hell and promises of heaven. Her habit of presenting day lilies to her visitors and of sending baskets of geraniums, Daphne’s, violets or heliotrope, sprays of wisteria or cape Jessamine, bouquets of hyacinths, primrose, or cassia carnations to her friends expressed her tenaciously held belief that she was at home in paradise. Her journey from the polarities of salvation and damnation to the cyclicity of the seasons was arduous and required unusual vision, and her reward was not the revelation of the saints but the revelation of the moment.

Transition from Puritanism to Transcendentalism beliefs:

Emily Dickinson was never a careful student of Puritan theology and was unfamiliar with many of its doctrinal and metaphysical subtleties. However, there appear to be certain general Puritan attitudes that quite likely were accepted in her-own day, and which may throw some light on her attitude toward death. Emily Dickinson was attracted to certain ideas in Transcendentalism as a reaction against the darker side of Puritanism.  Puritan thought and Transcendental thought were not, of course, in total opposition. (Wells, 1959) Both were primarily concerned with spiritual and ethical values, both were concerned with the redemption of souls, both stressed aspiration to perfection in some sense of the term. Puritan ideas, as well as Transcendentalist ones, continued to make their influence felt in her writings. Her poem, “Why-do they shut me out of Heaven?” written in 1861, deserves mention as an illustration of the anxiety caused by her belief that she had been deprived of the membership in the “elect”. This poem reveals her ability to embody thought in image. The Transcendental “bird” because she sings too loudly, cannot gain entrance to the Puritan heaven. For Puritans, humility, lowliness, and a sense of man’s dependence were (and are) incompatible with spontaneity and the self-sufficiency of the private man. The poet’s image reflects the tension generated by these poles. (Anderson, 1960)

Emily Dickinson could not fully endorse the ideas of either Puritanism or Transcendentalism, and since she found both unsatisfying, each served to highlight the other. Puritanism led her to believe that man was in a precarious position, but Transcendentalism claimed that man had unlimited capacities. Puritanism was too much a part of her, however, for the gospel of Transcendentalism to win her total allegiance. (Pollak, 2004)  Though attracted to the optimistic assertions of Transcendentalism, she continued to see man’s position in the universe as an insecure one. Thus abstract philosophy whether in the form of Puritanism or Transcendentalism, gave her no satisfactory explanation of human being’s place in the world. And it was the lack in these systems a lack made especially vivid through opposition that turned her in the direction of existentialism


 Emily Dickinson was just about unheard of as a poet throughout her existence but now she is known as one of the greatest poet and versifier of all times. She lived a reclusive and solitary life. She wrote around two thousand poems, out of which only some of them were published, without her knowing about it or they were printed incognito.

Dickinson has been criticized for snobbishness, and there is certainly a degree of exclusiveness in her poems and letters, but there is also a great deal of agony about being different, not fitting in, and especially about not being able to believe in Christ. In her poems and letters, she regards other people’s lives as infinitely easier than hers and fluctuates between envy and contempt.


Lynda Szabo


Johnson H. Thomas. Emily Dickinson: an Interpretive Biography .Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press, Belknap Press, p. 52 (1955)

Johnson H. Thomas.  Complete poems of Emily Dickinson. Little Brown Company, New York. (1960)

Pollak. R, Vivian. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. Oxford University Press, New York. p. 115- 118 (2004)

Wells, W. Henry. Introduction to Emily Dickinson. Hendricks House. New York. P 58-63 (1959)

Anderson, R. Charles. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. Holt, Rinehart and Winston. New York. p. 30- 45, 260-289 (1960)


Lynda Szabo. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. Christianity and Literature. Conference on Christianity and literature, Gale Group Volume: 56. Issue: 2 page 1 (2007)


Merriman, C. D. Emily Dickinson. The literature network, Jalic Inc. ( 2006). Retrieved from


Pittenger, R.  Short Biography of Emily Dickinson. Biography online. (2006).Retrieved from:

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