Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx by Gary Sloan (August 2001)

“That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them–is a wish that would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan.” (letter of 1878 to Catherine Sweetser)

“Knew I how to pray, to intercede for your [broken] Foot were intuitive–but I am but a Pagan.” (letter of 1885 to Helen Hunt Jackson)

When Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) died, she was virtually unknown to the public. Only seven of her poems had been published, several without permission, and they attracted little notice. Today, she is widely hailed as one of the greatest American poets, perhaps the greatest. Her poems are staple cargo in junior high, high school, and college literature courses. Never married, she spent almost her entire life in the capacious family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was an influential political figure–lawyer, judge, legislator, first citizen. In her later years, she rarely left the house or entertained guests. She communicated mainly by notes and letters. She habitually wore white. Her sequestered lifestyle earned her the epithet Queen Recluse. Few people, then or even now, know she was also Queen Pagan. She died a barbed foe of Chrstianity.

“All men say ‘What’ to me,” she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson,[i] an eminent litterateur and dutiful correspondent. The phraseology–eccentric, pixie, and oblique–is vintage Dickinson. She meant people were baffled by her, even though, she protested, she couldn’t fathom why. Since Higginson–now, through the fiendish vagaries of fortune, branded a doltish mentor oblivious to her genius–would later describe her as his “partially cracked poetess at Amherst” (L570), she had picked a dubious confidant. Recounting his first meeting with her twenty years before, Higginson in a posthumous tribute wrote: “She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview” (L476). And, perhaps, in a lifetime.

Dickinson’s enigmatic nature shrouds her evolution from Christian manqu? to pagan. She had histrionic propensities that obscure the line between her true beliefs and those she feigned. Intermittently in her 1,775 poems and approximately 1,100 extant letters (many poems accompanied the letters), she struck poses and adopted personas. “When I state myself as the Representative of my verse,” she told Higginson, “it does not mean me–but a supposed person” (L412). In early professions of impiety, she had a penchant for hyperbole and self-dramatization that render her claims hard to evaluate. Later, an authentic infidel, she accommodated orthodox sensibilities. Long after she had chucked belief in a hereafter, she continued to quote promissory biblical verses to assure bereaved relatives and neighbors they would be reunited with their deceased loved ones. When she was herself bereaved, she accepted the ministrations of clergymen. She even solicited platitudes on immortality, plucking “at a twig of evidence” (P501).

In the late 1850s (she was born in 1830), she began couching her thoughts in a cryptic style that muffled her heterodoxy. “Tell all the truth,” she advised, “but tell it slant” (P1129). Occasionally, she was too oblique–some might say cunning–to be scrutable. “The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always,” said Richard Sewall, her biographer. “She seems almost willfully to have seen to that” (S668).

From an early age, the seeds of heresy lay dormant in her. As an adolescent, she had a willful streak that bridled under compulsion. Immensely intelligent and observant, she kept her own counsel. “How,” she marveled, “do people live without any thoughts. How do they get the strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” (L474). Her mother she classed with the mindless (L404). She never joined the family church because she couldn’t testify to any visitation of the Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. She stopped attending in her late twenties. She stopped attending in her late twenties because she couldn’t testify to any visitation of the Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. At fifteen, after one of the revivals that periodically convulsed Amherst, she wrote her friend Abiah Root: “I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever” (L27).

Her disinclination to swap this world for the next one waxed ever stronger: “The world allured me & in an unguarded moment I listened to her siren voice. From that moment I seemed to lose interest in heavenly things. Friends reasoned with me & told me of the danger I was in. I felt my danger & was alarmed, but I had rambled too far to return & ever since my heart has been growing harder” (L30-31).

Anon, the siren world had lured her to the precipice: “I do not feel I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die” (L38).

Shocking words from a fifteen-year-old catechized at the First Church in Amherst, a Congregationalist assembly. There, ministers blazoned hell in all its lurid specificity as the wages of sin. For years, sermons on the Day of Doom spooked Dickinson. At twenty-three, she wrote Elizabeth Holland, an enduring friend and wife of a popular author: “The minister today preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those who behaved improperly–and somehow it scared me. He preached such an awful sermon I didn’t think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day. The subject of perdition seemed to please him somehow” (L309). The Hollands embraced a “creedless, churchless, ministerless christianity” and an avuncular, “sunshiny” God (S600; L713). Their friendship helped Emily slough off lingering anxieties about the fire that never quenches. Hell, she would later write, “defies typography” (P929).

At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she spent two terms after she graduated from Amherst Academy in 1847, proselytism was rampant. Thrice weekly, the founder of the school, Mary Lyon, exhorted the students in plenary assembly. Once a week, she counseled them in groups. Guest sermons abounded. “Many,” wrote Dickinson, “are flocking to the ark of safety” (L60). She wasn’t among them. On the basis of self-inventories, students at Holyoke were classified as Christians, Hopers, or No-Hopers (S361). Dickinson left as she came, a No-Hoper.

After she returned to Amherst in the summer of 1848, she sporadically rued her lapsed state, albeit her sincerity is hard to gauge. In letters to pious schoolmates, she descanted on her intractable naughtiness: “I am one of the lingering bad ones, and so do I slink away, and pause, and ponder, and ponder, and pause, and do work without knowing why–not surely for this brief world, and more sure it is not for heaven–and I ask what this message [of Christ] means” (L98-99). She was a menace to the innocent: “You are out of the way of temptation and out of the way of the tempter–I didn’t mean to make you wicked–but I was–and am–and shall be–and I was with you so much that I couldn’t help contaminate” (L83).

She simulated the forlorn heroine in a mawkish tearjerker: “What shall we do my darling, when trial grows more, and more, when the dim, lone light expires, and it’s dark, so very dark, and we wander, and know not where, and cannot get out of the forest–whose is the hand to help us, and to lead, and forever guide us?” (L98). In the next breath, she segues into an impish identification with the archfiend: “Where do you think I’ve strayed and from what new errand returned. I have come from ‘to and fro, and walking up and down’ the same place that Satan hailed from when God asked where he’d been” (L99).

By the mid-1850s, her break with orthodoxy was irreparable. She had embarked on a quest for truth unfettered by doctrinal constraints and herd prescriptions. Like Herman Melville, she forsook the safe port of conventionalism for “landlessness”–deep, earnest, independent, risky musings. The perilous odyssey exhilarated her: “You are nipping in the bud fancies which I let blossom,” she wrote Abiah. “The shore is safer, but I love to buffet the sea–I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!” (L104). To her pious friends, that way madness lay. To Dickinson, salvation:

Much Madness is divinest Sense– 
To a discerning Eye– 
Much Sense–the starkest Madness– 
‘Tis the Majority 
In this, as All, prevail– 
Assent–and you are sane– 
Demur–you’re straightway dangerous– 
And handled with a Chain– (P435)

As her paganism ripened, she demurred at Christian nonsense.

She twitted the glitzy New Jerusalem vouchsafed to the elect. It was a thronged “Corporation” devoid of privacy (L374), an interminable Sunday where “recess never comes” (P413). Worse, the voyeuristic proprietor never traveled or slept: “If God could make a visit / Or ever took a Nap / So not to see us–but they say / Himself a telescope / Perennial beholds us” (P413). Even the saints didn’t quite believe in the “Heaven further on”–despite opiate assurances from the pulpit: “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul” (P501).

Everlasting bliss was an oxymoron. Happiness lay in the chase, not the catch: “To possess is past the instant / We achieve the Joy– / Immortality contented / Were anomaly” (P1036). Dickinson had never been keen on eternity. At fifteen, she wrote Abiah: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you. I often get to thinking of it and it seems so dark to me that I almost wish there was no Eternity. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death would be a relief to so endless a state of existence” (L28). Ecstasy fed on evanescence: “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet” (P1741).

Pluckier than Pascal, Emily wagered on this life: “I cannot help esteem / The ‘Bird within the Hand’ / Superior to the one / The ‘Bush’ may yield me / Or may not / Too late to choose again” (P1012). Besides, “Who has not found the heaven below / Will fail of it above” (P1544). Eternity was “obtained in time” not as an infinite temporal progression, but in moments of heightened sensibility to life (P800). The soul, she guessed, is inseparable from the body: “The Spirit lurks within the Flesh / Like Tides within the Sea / That make the Water live, estranged / What would the Either be?” (P1576).

The Christian God she treated with sarcasm, contempt, indignation, and amusement. Her parents, she told Higginson, “address an Eclipse every morning, whom they call their ‘Father'” (L404). The Eclipse was also Papa Above (P61), the gentleman in the air (L217), the little God with Epaulettes (L880), a small Deity (P694), our old neighbor (P623), and–now paraphrasing–a conceited tyrant (P1317), vindictive dunce (P267), thievish scofflaw (P116), lethal intruder (P1462), homicidal burglar (P49), cold assassin (P1624), and sadistic inquisitor (P536).

As in a Kafka novel, the Inquisitor arraigns us for an unspecified offense: “The Crime, from us, is hidden,” though “he is presumed to know” (P1601). In an indiscreet moment, he made us wicked, but we must sue him for pardon: “‘Heavenly Father’–take to thee / The supreme iniquity / Fashioned by thy candid Hand / In a moment contraband– / Though to trust us seem to us / More respectful–‘We are Dust’– / We apologize to thee for thine own Duplicity” (P1461).

In letters to intimates, Dickinson routinely zinged the duplicitous Papa: “Vinnie [her sister] rocks her Garden and moans that God won’t help her. I suppose he is too busy getting angry with the Wicked every day” (L582). “God’s little Blond Blessing we have long deemed you, and hope his so-called ‘Will’ will not compel him to revoke you” (L633). “Why,” she mused to Mabel Loomis Todd, who edited a posthumous collection of her poems, “should we censure Othello [for the jealous murder of Desdemona] when the Criterion Lover says, ‘Thou shalt have no other Gods before Me’?” (L889). After President Garfield’s abortive battle for life, she wrote her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross: “When we think of his lone effort to live and its bleak reward, the mind turns to the myth ‘for His mercy endureth forever,’ with confiding revulsion” (L711).

Her attitude toward Jesus was mixed. As risen Savior, he was a fickle suitor who pledged his troth then hightailed it: “Within thy Grave! / Oh no, but on some other flight– / Thou only camest to mankind / To rend it with Good night” (P1552). While he gallivanted through the heavens, his followers mourned his sham demise: “Some Arrows slay but whom they strike– / But this slew all but him– / Who so appareled his Escape– / Too trackless for a Tomb” (P1565). Despite promises, he received no callers: “At least to pray is left–is left / Oh Jesus–in the Air–I know not which thy chamber is– / I’m knocking everywhere” (P502).

As Son of Jehovah, he was a pretentious bore. As Son of Sorrow, our compatriot: “When he tells us about his Father, we distrust him. When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with grief,’ we listen, for that also is an acquaintance of our own” (L837). The Crucifixal Clef was a universal key though only one crucifixion was memorialized: “One Crucifixion is recorded–only– / How many be / Is not affirmed of Mathematics / Or History– / One Calvary–exhibited to Stranger– / As many be / As persons–or Peninsulas” (P553). Gethsemane was “a province in the Being’s Center”–Dickinson, the Empress of Calvary, one of its habitu?s.

When the Amherst sphinx styled herself a pagan, she meant she didn’t believe in the biblical God. What sort of deity, if any, she did believe in is hard to pinpoint. Her tracks crisscross.

According to Richard Sewall, in “her own personal theology, the World and Man and God were all but coordinate” (S67). In one place, she chides atheists as benighted souls who “Stake an entire store / Upon a Moment’s shallow Rim / While their commuted Feet / The Torrents of Eternity / Do all but inundate” (P1380). Since she equated eternity with heightened consciousness, her atheist could be anyone with straitened perception or unfurnished imagination. Elsewhere, she assimilates God to thought: “The Brain is just the weight of God / For heft them–Pound for Pound– / And they will differ–if they do– / As Syllable from Sound” (P632). She also said, “The Supernatural is only the Natural disclosed” (L424), shades of naturalism or pantheism.

She mocked anthropomorphic conceptions of deity (P1689). She sifted Omnipotence from “God the Father–and the Son”: “Omnipotence has not a Tongue– / His lisp is Lightning and the Sun” (P420). Omnipotence was also life itself: “To be alive–is Power– / Existence in itself / Without a further function– / Omnipotence Enough” (P677). She distrusted the Enlightenment claim that the orderly motions of celestial bodies “substantiate” a Designer: “If Aims impel these Astral Ones / The ones allowed to know / Know that which makes them as forgot / As Dawn forgets them now” (P1528).

Still, she did say someone “tailored the nut” and “prepared this mighty show” (P1371, 1644). One of her popular poems, a junior high favorite, reads: “I never saw a Moor– / I never saw the Sea– / Yet know I how the Heather looks / And what a Billow be. / I never spoke with God / Nor visited in Heaven– / Yet certain am I of the spot / As if the checks were given” (P1052). Since the poem was written in the 1860s, it can’t be dismissed as a spasm of pious juvenilia. Perhaps the poem was enclosed in a consolatory letter to a believer. Scholars estimate only about one-tenth of Dickinson’s letters have survived. (Dickinson kept copies of poems she sent with letters.) She may also be using “Heaven” and “God” figuratively. The “spot” might be within her. Because of her occasional pious effusions (or what seem such), coupled with her friendships with members of sundry sects, scholars have tried to lasso her into Christian Spritualism, conservative Unitarianism, liberal Unitarianism, Episcopalianism, eucharistic Presbyterianism, and “moderate” Evangelicalism.

My guess is she died an agnostic. “Faith is Doubt,” she told Susan Dickinson, her sister-in-law and beloved confidante (L912). Emily preferred mystery to certitude, spry to calcified belief: “On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble” (S462). The ceaseless vacillation galvanized her spirit: “Sweet Skepticism of the Heart / That knows and does not know / And tosses like a Fleet of Balm / Affronted by the snow” (P413).

In a way, Emily Dickinson was a polytheist. She worshiped Nature, Love, Truth, Beauty, and Words–in indeterminate order. “Those who lift their hats shall see Nature,” she said, “as devout do God” (S612). “If we love Flowers, are we not ‘born again’ every day?” (L899). Love was “the joyful little Deity / We are not scourged to serve” (L695). Any human face she loved “put out Jesus'” (P640). Truth was God’s “twin identity” (P809). To Beauty, she lifted her prayers: “Have mercy on me / But if I expire today / Let it be in sight of thee” (P1654). The “Word made flesh” was poetry that “breathes distinctly” and “has not the power to die” (P1651).

Her final letter, written to her Norcross cousins shortly before she slipped into a terminal coma, read simply: “Called back.”

Cryptic, of course.

Copyright 2001 by Gary Sloan.

A retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana, I am a frequent contributor to freethought publications. My “Mark Twain’s Secret Vendetta with God” appeared in the May 2001 issue of Freethought Today.

Freestanding secular poems by Dickinson selected by editor. Note the irreverent imagery in her poem about Indian Summer.

[i] The Letters of Emily Dickinson, vol. 2, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge: Belknap Pr. of Harvard UP, 1958, p. 415. Subsequent references to Letters are parenthetically indicated in the text by L followed by page number. Letters has three volumes, but the pagination is continuous. Two other sources are similarly cited in the text: 
S=Richard Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols., New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1974. 
P=The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Boston: Little, Brown, 1960. The number that follows P is the number Johnson gives to the poem, not a page number. Johnson? numbers are used in many anthologies.

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