One of the major themes in my American Literature class this semester has been that of Providence and the conversion narrative – our major example being that of Mary Rowlandson, who trusts in God and sees Him as “weaning” her desires from life, family, even the skin on her own back to more fully “convert” her to a purer form of Christianity. I find the theme of trust in Providence very interesting – and perhaps a little more real – in the poems of Emily Dickinson.
Many of Dickinson’s poems have been called blasphemous by critics such as Helen Vendler. While it is true that Dickinson’s poetry does suggest that she fell often into the sin of Despair (e.g. #320 – “There’s a certain Slant of light”), the fact that religious elements are in so many of her poems, I argue, illustrates that while she struggled with faith, she did not entirely give up hope.
These are the days when Birds come back -
A very few - a Bird or two -
To take a backward look.
These are the days when skies resume
The old - old sophistries of June -
A blue and gold mistake.
Oh, fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief,
Till ranks of seeds their witness bear -
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.
Oh sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze -
Permit a child to join -
Thy sacred emblems to partake -
Thy consecrated bread to break,
Taste thine immortal wine!
In poem #122, Dickinson writes of looking back not only to the “old sophistries of June,” but also the innocence and belief of childhood. Back then she was unable to “partake” of the “consecrated bread,” but then, at least, she had stronger belief. Dickinson wishes that she could experience that longing again. She realizes that having religious fervor is much better than being able to receive Eucharist with no belief, and perhaps this is why she never took Communion (x). I quite enjoy Ashok Karra’s analysis, in which faith, like a mustard seed, has not yet been planted in the ground. However, it is floating about in the air, ready to be grasped. Perhaps Dickinson is unable to reach for faith yet, but the fact that she is staring at it with wonder and longing is much more hopeful than one who rejects it and turns away.
Perhaps it is due to her church community, which viewed Dickinson as not yet “converted,” that she questions her lack of faith with such despondency. A more accepting community, in which Dickinson’s smaller faith would have still been appreciated as faith, would have produced much different poetry, that is certain. She knows that “This world is not conclusion” (#373), but apparently, according to her church community, she is excluded from the glory of the next. Therefore, Dickinson’s “Faith slips” as she sees only empty “Gesture, from the Pulpit” where they claim that their faith is superior to hers. Their joy in the Lord only makes her stumble (#312), and so she scorns their happiness because it makes them weak – only preaching, not practicing. In fact, perhaps it is Dickinson who has had the true conversion, for her hardship gives her a strength (#861) beyond any of theirs – it is an “imperial affliction” (#320) which leads her to God. She, like Mary Rowlandson, and unlike the hypocritical people of her church, “can wade Grief – / Whole Pools of it” (#312).
On days when her despair becomes too extreme, Dickinson wishes for “[t]he privilege to die – ” (#588), thereby provoking her theme of depression throughout her otherwise lighthearted or cynical poetry. With such a lonely life, it is not hard to see why Dickinson makes God her “Inquisitor” (#588). However, Dickinson knows all too well that a person needs the pain of the “Augur” and “Carpenter” to become a properly-formed “Soul” (#729). She is “the vivid Ore” who, after being purified by her religious experiences, no longer needs “the Forge” of her Protestant church – “the designated Light [has] / Repudiate[d] the Forge – ” (#401). Therefore, even though her church has not deemed her to be “converted,” Dickinson has actually weaned her affections – or at least she claims to in her poetry, such as in #782 when she “let[s] go” of her love for a person because she knows that the “Great Progenitor” (God) will not reject her, like human beings inevitably will. The words of those of her church are merely the “Contempts – of time – ” (#830).
Interestingly, Arthur McMaster believes that Dickinson’s poetry seems to express an interest in Catholicism. The Protestant, anti-Catholic environment surrounding Dickinson could explain why she struggled so much with faith – not faith as a whole, for she did seem to believe in God, but rather, which kind of faith she should choose. McMaster believes that Catholic ideas of free will and salvation would have appealed much more to Dickinson than the predestination of her upbringing. One can see Dickinson struggling with the idea of predestination especially in #706 (“I cannot live with You”), for she is unable to wean herself of her affections to her lover (and therefore opposing #830, but who says that one cannot change one’s mind later on??). Therefore, he is one of the Elect and she knows that she is “condemned to be / Where You were not.” Sarah Klein, however, states that Catholicism was foreign to Dickinson and therefore such theories seem incorrect. Whichever is the truth, it is unquestionable that her themes of faith are Catholic in essence.
For example, in poem #124, the question is raised whether “the meek members of the Resurrection” will rise to be with their Maker, but this is because all are nothing in the sight of God. When people on the earth are nothing but “Dots, / On a Disc of Snow” to the majestic Deity, one’s high status does not matter: “Diadems – drop – / And Doges – surrender – .” Life will go on (“Grand go the Years, / In the Crescent above them – “) when a person dies – all that matters is whether he or she will awaken to be with Christ.
In #232, Dickinson wonders whether to forgive the person who “forgot” her. Her mind wanders back to her Biblical background and she remembers how Jesus forgives Peter for denying Him three times. Therefore, she must follow her Saviour’s example – “Could I do aught else – to Thee?”