American Literature · Christian/Catholic · Emily Dickinson · Literature Analysis · poetry · Uncategorized

The Catholicity of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

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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.

122
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?”

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5 stars · Book Reviews · Books · Dan Vyleta · Hope in Darkness · Literature Analysis · Uncategorized

Smoke {Book Review}

 

 

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Wow. Magnificent. Oh my goodness gracious me. I was blown away by the utter magnificence of this book – I think it could even replace my beloved The Lord of the Rings as my favourite book of all time?? I don’t think I’m ever going to be able to completely process everything, but then a good book is one that captivates you every time you read, for years to come, isn’t it?

Anna’s rating: 5 stars

 

Summary

Thomas Argyle, Charlie Cooper, and Livia Naylor live in a world not unlike Dicken’s Victorian England. In fact, Dan Vyleta begins with a quote from the Master Author’s novel Dombey and Son:

“Those who study the physical sciences, and bring them to bear upon the health of Man, tell us that if the noxious particles that rise from vitiated air were palpable to the sight, we should see them lowering in a dense black cloud above such haunts, and rolling slowly on to corrupt the better portion of a town. But if the moral pestilence that rises with them … could be made discernible too, how terrible the revelation!”

(Beginning a section of a book with a quote from Dickens or Dostoevsky or Dante or one of those other great authors is my new favourite thing.)

That quote really summarizes the setting of the novel. In this world, any baser emotion, whether that be lust or anger (or even joy), causes a human being to emit Smoke. The Smoke is seen as a sign of one’s fallen state – therefore, the common people live in Smoke, the aristocracy using Smokelessness as a sign of their right to rule. (Of course, they are just able to hide their Smoke because they have the money to do so – nothing to do with morality.) The Smoke is therefore highly entangled with both religion and politics. In the boarding school which Thomas and Charlie attend, the slightest sign of Smoke brings great punishment upon the unfortunate boy whose clothes are found stained with the soot which will not disappear. However, the two boys soon begin to learn that everything they have been taught is a lie and there are deeper, darker secrets to be found in the streets of London.

Continue reading “Smoke {Book Review}”

J. R. R. Tolkien · Literature Analysis · Middle Earth · Uncategorized · Womanhood

The “Misogynist Tolkien” Lie

It drives me nuts when people whine about Tolkien “not putting enough female characters in The Lord of the Rings” and, furthermore, dare to call him a misogynist because of that.

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John and Edith Tolkien

Sorry, but J. R. R. was a male in a male-dominated world. He had one brother. His mother died when he was twelve, leaving John and his brother to be raised by a priest (another male). He attended King Edward’s School in Birmingham – a boy’s school. His priest guardian forbade him to meet or write letters to his sweetheart (and future wife) until he was twenty-one because he thought John’s schoolwork was failing. I don’t claim to be an expert about Tolkien’s life, but it doesn’t seem like he had relationships with very many women.

 

And yet, I think it’s fair to say that John admired women very much. All of his female characters are so strong – I can’t think of a single case otherwise (although I look forward to any corrections since I’ve only listened to The Silmarillion on audio book – I haven’t studied it in any depth). Just looking at The Lord of the Rings, Éowyn is a prime example, deciding to go off to war after she realizes Aragorn does not love her. She is not content to stay at home while all the men go to fight for their country. Éowyn declares, “I am no man,” proclaiming her womanhood before she kills the Lord of the Nazgul, a creature who has driven some of Tolkien’s greatest male heroes to sickness, or even death.

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Éowyn, Defender of Rohan (x)

Galadriel is more of a supporting character, but her reputation far exceeds her, leading men from far-off countries to whisper about that powerful enchantress. Arwen hardly appears in the trilogy at all, but – surprise! – you can learn much more about her in Appendix A. Arwen, like in the Peter Jackson movies, makes her own choice and decides to stay with Aragorn, even though she knows that she will live long after him and everyone else she has ever known. Gilraen, Aragorn’s mother, also plays a big role in the story of Aragorn and Arwen – she decides to leave the safety and comfort of Rivendell to live the rest of her days with her own people, the Dúnedain.

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“Mistress Lobelia” by John Howe

And there’s so many female characters that pop in from time to time! There’s Lobelia Sackville-Baggins, who goes from spoon thief to heroine, attacking one of the men who has helped take over the Shire with her umbrella. There’s Rosie Cotton, who, when Sam Gamgee returns after the Ring quest, scolds him for disappearing without a word. Ioreth, the oldest woman in the Houses of Healing, is the only person who knows where to find athelas when Aragorn requires some of this special plant to heal his friends – therefore, she is the symbol of the wisdom and learning of the people of Gondor, even though she is one of the common people.

There are many more female characters in The Silmarillion, of course. I don’t know enough about this book do an in-depth study, but I thought it might be worthwhile to mention a few notable characters. There are fourteen Valar (I think of them as demi-gods under Illúvatar [Middle Earth’s God] – I compare them to the Greek gods and goddesses in my mind). But I think the important thing to note is that there are an equal number of male and female Valar. Varda, or Elbereth Gilthoniel, is the Queen of Stars and is highly esteemed by the elves. She appears to be quite important, and I believe she is the only one of the Valar who is mentioned in The Lord of the Rings. Yavannah, the Queen of Earth and Fruits, sang the Trees of Light into being and created the ents.

Morwen, the wife of Húrin and mother of Túrin and Niënor, resists the Easterlings who take over her husband’s land and make slaves of the people. None of the Easterlings, however, dare to enter her home because they are afraid of her alleged (and nonexistent) witchcraft. Idril Celebrindal is the only person to realize the dark heart of Maeglin, an elf who works with the evil Morgoth (the Sauron before Sauron, if you wish), before he starts to work for evil. She isn’t just an excellent judge of character, but also very level-headed – she orders the construction of a tunnel out of Gondolin, thereby giving the citizens of Gondolin a way to escape the sack of the city. “She fought, alone as she was, like a tigress for all her beauty and slenderness,” says Tolkien in The Book of Lost Tales.

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Lúthien and Húan in Tol-in-Guarhoth (x)

Galadriel, of course, plays a large role in The Silmarillion, as does the famous Luthien, who was the first elven maiden to choose a human male over immortality (sorry Arwen) and helped her husband Beren steal back the Silmarils from Morgoth.

And so ends my little rant. I absolutely love Tolkien (I have since I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was nine years old), but I have gotten altogether too much negativity about him on my tumblr dash lately, thereby inspiring this post.


Anna is a university student who plans on doing her capstone English project on The Lord of the Rings. Therefore, she is planning to read said trilogy and and start research this summer. THEREFORE, you may certainly expect many more meta-like posts about Middle Earth on this blog in the very near future.