Religious Aspects: in Emily Dickinson Poetry

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      Dickinson's attitude towards religion and spiritual matters is poetic rather than philosophical. A note of mysticism runs throughout the poetry of Emily Dickinson. Though Dickinson is not a pure mystic poet because she combines realism with mysticism in her poetry. She constantly scrutinizes the religious concepts of her times with all the aesthetics at her command. In her writings eternity, immortality, heaven, and paradise are not words which she makes fine distinction. She deals with the problems of Death, Immortality, Eternity. Heaven, God and Body-Soul from a critical and not a superstitious perspective. Dickinson is a liberal religious thinker whose approach to religion is anti-traditional.

Dickinson is not a pure mystic poet because she combines realism with mysticism in her poetry. She constantly scrutinizes the religious concepts of her times with all the aesthetic at her command. In her writings eternity, immortality, heaven, paradise are not words which she makes fine distinction.
Religious Aspects


      Eternity is a state of existence without beginning or end. Eternity is the final goal of the spiritual quest. The events that comprise experience make the path to eternity. The metaphor of journey is omnipresent' Past the houses- past the headlands - / Into deep Eternity. The road to paradise is plain:

Our journey had advanced-
Our feet were almost come
To that odd Fork in Being's Road-
Eternity-by Term-

      For Dickinson, the location of eternity cannot be clearly pinpointed: "Is Heaven a Place-a Sky-a Tree?/.....Where Omni presence -?" Poems that search for eternity incarnate a conceptual tension between here (known) and there (unknown).


      Dickinson has always been doubtful about the Christian concept of after-life The Christian concept of after-life fails to convince Dickinson. A happy Christian heaven, the security of life after death, can be neither forgotten nor accepted Dickinson's attitude towards after-life is thus ambivalent. She claims that the idea of life after death is a figment of man's imagination. The poem 'The World Is Not A Conclusion' shows that faith in after-life lacks any conclusive evidence proof. Being a matter of personal faith and belief, it cannot be established on a rational level. It cannot be perceived by senses but only intuitively felt by its devoted follower.

Denial of Divine Love:

      For Dickinson, the denial of divine love is unbearable. The greatest pain comes with the withdrawal of divine love, the withdrawal of apparent favor. 'If I'm lost- now- presents the misery of one welcomed within heaven's gates only to be banished when the 'Saviour's face' turns away from her- leaving her a bewildered, despairing exile. Such losses proved devastating in their revelation of a hostile universe governed by a God capable of love but choosing to reject.


      Dickinson deals with the problem of death from a spiritual angle in her death poems. The imminent contingency of death struck her as life's most fascinating feature, as the source of adventure. She is deeply involved with the fact of death which amounts to obsession in this case. Dickinson exhibited a distinctive fascination with death scenes, graveyards, and mourning in her most brilliant creations. Death as circumference dominated her thoughts. Death presented itself as a barrier, a closed door in Dickinson's poetry. The individual does not die by his own choice; Death makes the decision when to overpower its victim.


      Dickinson personifies the abstract idea of immortality, that is, having an existence beyond normal life span. 'Death holds the horses' reigns and drives the carriage in the poem 'Because I could not stop for Death'

      Dickinson is always double-minded about the exact nature of immortality. She has often expressed her doubts about the Christian concept of immortality. For a Woman so intently concerned with death, immortality overcame the fear of annihilation. It mitigated the fear of dying.

      Dickinson believed in immortality but wondered how to imagine or articulate it in human terms. No sensate imagery, no concrete representation, could do anything but cheapen immortality. Promised bliss failed to atone for absolute earthly anguish and the inevitability of loss.


      She is highly critical of the Christian notion of heaven which is based on imagination only. In the poem 'Is Heaven a Physician', Dickinson compares heaven to a doctor which amounts to the devaluation of the sublime institution of heaven. Heaven has no definite location or geography Heaven is the ongoing process of living on this earth; it is not an abstraction, otherworldly to be experienced hereafter. For Dickinson, Paradise is superfluous. The real Heaven is not above but below on earth. Dickinson is never fascinated by heaven: 'So instead of getting to Heaven, at last-/I'm going, all along'. In conventional religion, the Kingdom of Heaven could only be realized by strict observance of the rules of religion, by piety, good works and faith. heaven is the final goal of the Puritan religion. It can only be attained after death. In Emily Dickinson's belief, heaven is all around her; therefore, she does not need the road/way suggested by orthodox Christians.


      Dickinson adopts diverse attitudes to God in her poems. She often challenges the orthodox view of God. Dickinson adopts diverse attitudes to God in her poems. She visualizes God in Nature and all His natural creations. She sees God in the red glow on the hill in the morning: Al Circumstances are the Frame/In which His Face is set. God is the Supreme architect of unrivaled evergreen buildings. God behaves like a dragon rather than a friend. Man can never understand God because of His incomprehensive mysterious nature.

      Emily Dickinson adopts varied attitudes to God in her poems, though almost always ironic in her letters. In one of her poems, she identifies herself with Christ;

Jesus! thy crucifix!
Enable to Guess
The smaller size!
Jesus ! thy second face
Mind thee in Paradise
Of ours

      Dickinson criticizes God and calls Him revengeful, untrustworthy, and uncommunicative. Not only was He jealous; He was cruel and indifferent to human pain She criticizes God for His duplicity because He punishes the sinners who are His own creations. In a mood of anger, the poet blames God for being hostile to the sufferings of man and mankind.

      God might occasionally prove kind. He might even act paternally on occasion. God was the most important person in Emily Dickinson's life. She sometimes requests God not to reject man for violating His command. She never hesitates to affirm her faith in God. Her relationship with god excelled all others in endurance and intensity. She recognizes God's irresistible force. He was awe; He was also love. Infinite and immortal, He transcended all human imagination. She was drawn to the power and safety God manifested. She reverenced God's awe. She looked upon God as father and as the fulfiller of her yearnings. God's immortality validated all others. He stood for the poet as proof of enduring love and consciousness. Dickinson always feels that there is constant rivalry between herself and God, who was snatching away from her all the near and dear ones, She feels that common sense is almost as omniscient as God. There is no simple or secure way to find God. He has been lost and there is no definite road to realizing Him.

Jesus Christ:

      To Emily Dickinson, Christ's incarnation and historical existence enriched the finite human condition. Christ's humanity and consequent vulnerability to pain provided solace to her at the time of her most intense emotional crisis in her life Jesus touched the poet as an intimate companion, sometimes even as a peer. She presented him as her gentle but persistent suitor. It was Christ's sorrow that drew Dickinson toward him in sympathetic fellowship. As a friend of the apparently friendless and as a companion in grief, Jesus drew her toward him. The crucifixion naturally impressed most deeply upon the poet the magnitude of willingly incurred divine suffering. She never gave up all for Christ, and still a devout Christian in her own way.

      Emily Dickinson considers Christ as an embodiment of self-realization through suffering and sacrifice. Christ has even overcome death which is dead for Him. She undervalues death by teasingly calling her the 'Porter of My Father's Lodge'. She praises God for His forgiveness. Christ is immortal for Emily Dickinson. Dickinson reposed all her faith in Christ: I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die'.

Body - Soul Relationship:

      Emily Dickinson analyses soul from a multiple perspectives. She visualizes it as the emotional and intellectual energy. It also constitutes the immortal part of The Self. Moreover, she also calls it spirit or conscience. It is the soul that manages the destiny of man's life. For Emily Dickinson, soul is nothing without the body. Being self-contained, she selects her society and avoid those who are not suited to her:

The Soul selects her own society-
Then-shuts the Door-
To her divine Majority-
Present no more.

      Body is the manifestation of the soul: soul is the driving power of the body. They co-exist and one cannot exist without the other and the two are the integral parts of the Being.

      There is always a conflict between the body and the soul. This causes a rift in the self in which the soul becomes desperate to leave it. This is how the self loses control over the soul which snaps its ties with it.

Critic of The Bible:

      Emily Dickinson calls the Bible 'an antique Volume' which devalues its importance as a religious book. She herself reads the Bible sometimes to discover the spiritual reality. She even did not accept Christianity formally. She has admitted that 'I read my Bible sometimes' to come to terms with reality.

Liberal Religious Thinker:

      Emily Dickinson is not a blind follower of Christianity. She believed in the Christian values of life but was quite critical of its rituals, dogmas and traditions. There is an attitude of marked ambivalence in her attitude towards Immortality After-life and God. She prefers the poetic religion to the dogmatic one. She ironically remarks that 'The Bible is and antique volume, / Written by faded Men' because it has lost all its religious value with the passage of time. Emily Dickinson believed in the religion of righteousness and meditation rather than the religion of rituals and out-dated religious ceremonies. She was particularly critical of the Puritan etiquette of the admonition. She is scared of the sermons related to death and judgment. Dickinson lived in the age of declining Christianity in which it seemed as Paganism. She was terribly afraid of religious sermons pertaining to Death and the Judgment. She found no peace of mind in such sermons and was often tired of listening. She ridiculed the orthodox religious beliefs which denounced the lite on earth. She is extremely critical of the fashionable practice of delivering lengthy sermons to sustain the interest of the listeners and to keep them seated for the greatest length of time.

Devaluation of Prayer:

      Emily Dickinson attaches no importance to prayer in the matter of religion. She has herself confessed that that she never prayed in her life. She can sing but does not pray: 'Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray'. Dickinson is more interested in aesthetic rather than religious prayer in her life.

Soul is all Inclusive:

      Soul is all inclusive: it includes both flesh and spirit, life and death, etc. It helps in the realization of cosmic oneness. It constitutes man's consciousness which possesses unlimited area of observation. It is an imperceptible power possessed by a person and stands for life. The soul can attain immortality by freeing itself from the bonds of flesh. The body becomes the soul at time of the soul's isolating itself from it.


      Emily Dickinson is a liberal mystic whose approach to mysticism is earthbound. It is free from abstraction which is the distinguishing feature of mysticism. There is the artistic blending of realism and mysticism in Dickinson's poetry. Dickinson's approach to religion/mysticism is anti-traditional and therefore revolutionary in its nature and scope. She is not a blind follower of Christianity. Dickinson believes in the religion of righteousness and mediation rather than the religion of out-dated rituals and ceremonies. Dickinson's approach to death is anti-sentimental and therefore realistic. For Dickinson, death exercises absolute control over man's life and none can defy its Authority or Will. Dickinson's attitude towards immortality is ambivalent. She rejects the Christians' concept of immortality because it is vague, illogical and unrealistic. She is equally apprehensive of the concept of after-life which is quite fictitious in its nature and scope. She ironically calls Heaven a 'house of supposition' and the Bible as an 'antique volume'. Dickinson visualizes a close relationship between the body and the soul in her religious poems.

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