Emily Dickinson's God

by Jay Ladin

It's common for secular academics to assume that religious belief—adherence to any religious system or ideology—is fundamentally at odds with the open-minded, exploratory enterprise of critical interpretation. That was certainly my assumption two autumns ago, when, as a new member of the English Department of the women's college of an Orthodox Jewish university, I led a seminar-style exploration of Emily Dickinson's poems about God. The question of Dickinson's religious beliefs—what, if any, beliefs she held and what, if anything, her poems reveal of them—has long been a subject of debate among Dickinson scholars. As I expected, the question was of great interest to my students, who had grown up practicing a modern Orthodox form of Judaism. What I did not expect was that these young women, who knew little about poetry, less about Dickinson, and nothing about Christianity or its nineteenth-century New England manifestations, would see so clearly through the tangle of Dickinson's contradictory portrayals of God and the equally contradictory conclusions scholars have drawn from them. I had assumed that the intellectual habits promoted by traditional religious belief and humanistic inquiry are inherently at odds, that while humanism encourages the exploration of complexity and contradiction, traditional belief encourages the opposite—simplification, homogenization, retreat from the messiness of existence into the comfort of tautological projection. But rather than inhibiting their ability to engage with Dickinson's challenging texts, my students' lifelong immersion in Orthodox Judaism helped them recognize dynamics at work in Dickinson's poems about God that my secular approach had obscured.

One of the nice things about teaching is the way it transforms vexing scholarly uncertainties into signs of professorial sophistication. Rather than feeling anxious that I didn't know the answers to the questions I was raising, I felt quite pleased to introduce the subject of Dickinson's religious beliefs by informing my class that scholars had been utterly unable to agree on them. For example, while Dorothy Oberhaus has argued that Dickinson wrote "in the poetic tradition of Christian devotion," Richard Wilbur and many others since have seen Dickinson's poems as expressions of an idiosyncratic, home-made relation to religious belief—what Wilbur calls "a precarious convergence between her inner experience and her religious inheritance" (Farr 105, 54). Other readers, focusing on Dickinson's most iconoclastic texts, see Dickinson as radically challenging Christianity and indeed all religious belief. This extraordinary range of opinions as to what Dickinson believed—and the abundance of textual evidence to support each of them—has prompted many scholars to adopt what we might call an agnostic attitude toward Dickinson's beliefs. As Denis Donoghue put it, "of her religious faith virtually anything may be said. She may be represented as an agnostic, a heretic, a skeptic, a Christian" (quoted in Yezzi 20). Wary that my students might simplify Dickinson's beliefs by filtering her contradictions through the lens of their own faith, I presented Donoghue-style agnosticism as the only intellectually responsible position possible—that is, the only position that confronted the entire range of beliefs presented in Dickinson's poems. To demonstrate Dickinson's irresolvable religious contradictions, I started my students off with poems that present completely incommensurate representations of God: the amputated absentee of "Those - dying then"; the withholding parent of the poem that begins "Of Course - I prayed - / And did God Care?"; the outgrown childhood God of "I prayed, at first, a little Girl"; the faceless, dematerialized "Infinitude" of "My period had come for Prayer"; the Disneyesque savior of vermin addressed in the poem that begins "Papa above! / Regard a Mouse / O'erpowered by the Cat!" No one, I assured them, could infer a coherent idea of God from this blizzard of conflicting evidence.

My students dutifully jotted down my words, relieved no doubt that I was excusing them from at least one measure of responsibility for understanding a poet they found so difficult. Having saved them from the humanistic equivalent of Original Sin—belief in absolute interpretation—I set my students to working their way through the poems line by line. They chose to begin with "Of Course - I prayed":

Of Course - I prayed -

And did God Care?

He cared as much as on the Air

A Bird - had stamped her foot -

And cried "Give Me" -

My Reason - Life -

I had not had - but for Yourself -

'Twere better Charity

To leave me in the Atom's Tomb -

Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb -

Than this smart Misery.

At first we focused on grammar rather than theology. My students were baffled by the radical shifts in tone and perspective in the long sentence—or is it a sentence?—that begins "He cared as much as on the Air" and either concludes with “Give Me,'" or with "Life." Or, since "My Reason - Life" can be read both as the end of the thought (“Give Me' - / My Reason - Life") that begins the poem or the beginning of the thought that ends the poem, perhaps the sentence never really concludes at all. They were fascinated to discover that Dickinson uses this Moebius-strip-like syntax—an inelegant version of the technique Cristanne Miller calls "syntactical doubling"—to seamlessly shift from the melodramatic rage of the opening lines to the John Donne-like intellectual complaint of the last.

Once my students recognized that the poem represented two distinct attitudes, they began to find it easier to understand. Having themselves wrestled with God as both an inconsistent source of blessings and as the ultimate guarantor of the meaning of their lives, they found the opening lines' rage at God's refusal to respond to prayer quite familiar. For them, these lines were dramatizing a childish, egocentric relation to God, in which God is seen purely as a function of one's own needs. The end of the poem, they saw, was a more adult, intellectualized version of the same relationship. Though they weren't sure of the speaker's sincerity in stating that she would rather have been left in "the Atom's Tomb" as uncreated matter, they understood that God's unresponsiveness had provoked the speaker to question the value of consciousness.

Having identified both parts of the poems as forms of rage at God for failing to respond to prayer, my students found themselves back at the question of syntax. What, they wondered, was the relationship between these very different attitudes toward God? Why did Dickinson fudge the syntactical boundaries that would normally enable us to clearly distinguish them? Though they still couldn't figure out the sentence, they began to see that the defective syntax embodied a deeper problem: the difficulty, for the speaker and for anyone engaged in a serious practice of prayer, of separating the psychological from the theological. That is, the blurred syntax reflects the difficulty of distinguishing between subjective rage at a God who fails to personally respond to prayer, and the objective questions, such as the nature of God or the value of human existence, that Divine non-responsiveness raises. Perhaps, they speculated, the defective syntax was Dickinson's way of emphasizing the underlying similarity of these two very different theological tantrums.

I had guided my students through the syntactical issues raised by the poem, but to my astonishment, my students' discussion of its content had changed my own reading of the poem. Before our discussion, I read "Of Course - I prayed" as a deliberately incoherent critique of God. Now I saw it as a trenchant critique of an "immature" relation to God and prayer whose symptoms could range from childish rage to Metaphysical wit to a profound rejection of human existence.

I was both delighted by my students' ability to connect Dickinson's work to their personal experiences, and startled by the effectiveness of that connection. Rather than oversimplifying the complexities of the text, reading Dickinson through the lens of their religious experience had made my students more effective, subtler readers than they would have been had they adopted the humanist framework I offered them.

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Source: Cross Currents, Fall 2006, Vol. 56,  No 3.