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Religion in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Emily Dickinson was a famous American 19th-century poet born on December 10, 1830, in New England to a Puritan family that had lived in Massachusetts since the 17th century. Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer and politician, who for a long time resided in the House of Representatives and the State Senate, and was a US Congressman. Despite the strict Puritanical customs of the family, Dickinson was familiar with modern literature. The family friend Benjamin Franklin Newton introduced her to poetry, in particular, Wordsworth and Emerson. Still, Dickinson’s poems have no analogs to her contemporary poetry.

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The theme of the Christian faith has always been present in the work of Emily Dickinson, although her attitude towards religion and God is ambiguous. In the poems and letters of the poet, one can trace doubts about the ideals imposed on her by their Puritanical upbringing. Moreover, she constantly attempts to independently figure out what is the attitude of God to his creation. Gilpin (2014) also states that the influence of Puritanism surrounded Dickinson not only in religious practices and literature but also in the social context of her immediate environment. In reality, the poet, indeed, did not attend church and even ridiculed overly devout townspeople. However, Puritanism did not fail to exert a significant influence on her worldview. This paper seeks to explore and explain the complex relationship Emily Dickinson had with religion – and how it influenced her work.

Dickinson was brought up in a Puritanical spirit, having deeply learned from childhood the concepts of sin, guilt, and atonement that have grown in New England generation after generation, starting with the early settlers. Biblical imagery occupies an exclusive place in her poetry, but it never bears signs of illustrative reminiscence. Behind it, the reader always feels the spontaneity and depth of her own experience, naturally expressing itself in the language of Scripture, full of living means for Dickinson. Her poems are usually devoted to the nature of her native places or some imperceptible everyday occurrences. However, there is always a second dimension to them – a philosophical reflection on the soul, the universe, beauty, death, and immortality. Each small detail of the description of nature, conveyed with the greatest possible reliability and accuracy, acquires a special meaning and weight, participating in that endless dispute of faith and doubt.

Dickinson truly did not accept religion unconditionally, and she suffered from her inability to understand and accept the dogmas of faith that seemed crucial to her family. She called herself stubborn in her rebellion against religious dogmas, and alone in her fight. Ackmann (2020) stated that she disliked most of the people and found social chatter exhausting. The independence of the poet in matters of faith is evidenced, for example, by the fact that several years before her seclusion, she refuses to attend church. Later, in a letter to Elizabeth, Holland, Dickinson even allows herself to doubt the superiority of heavenly paradise over earthly life. Dickinson also stated that she did not like doctrines, and this was especially true for the Puritan doctrine of the innate sinfulness of a person. The poet has a separate poem in which she ridicules the other’s devotion to visiting church:

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;

I keep it staying at home,

With a bobolink for a chorister,

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And an orchard for a dome. (Dickinson “Some keep the Sabbath going to church…”; Hennessy 2014, 384).

The poem has a mocking tone to it, a resounding, concise rhythm that bounces higher and higher until it reaches the peak in the last two lines:

So instead of getting to heaven at last,

I’m going all along! (Dickinson “Some keep the Sabbath going to church…”; Hennessy 2014, 384).

In Dickinson’s poetry, the line between the mundane and the divine was often erased altogether. The living temple for her is nature, which replaces the church for the poet. Still, she also accepts God as the Creator and expresses a firm belief that he truly exists. This ambiguity of opinion can be easily traced in Dickinson’s poetry. Perhaps, it was her Puritan views that had influenced the ever-changing tone of her poems – a very characteristic trait of Dickinson. The life of Puritans can be represented as a pendulum – constantly switching between over-encompassing joy and devastating sadness. In some ways, a Puritan view of life was a dialogue between the soul and God. It is worth noticing that Dickinson’s “dialogues”, represented by her poetry, were significantly less respectful towards the Creator than they were supposed to be, with her upbringing. However, her numerous poems addressed to the God or the Soul demonstrate the importance of this inner communication, albeit one-sided, for the poet.

Many of Dickinson’s poems also contain the motive of death and immortality, and the same plots permeate her letters to friends. Death for Emily Dickinson is inextricably linked with eternity and, paradoxically, is a guide to immortality in itself. Qiao (2019) states that “Dickinson sends the message that Death is Eternity” (159). The poet speaks of the unconditional immortality of the soul and the insignificance of everything connected with the body.

Because I could not stop for Death,

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He kindly stopped for me;

The carriage held but just ourselves

And Immortality. (Dickinson “Because I could not stop for Death…”; Hennessy 2014, 388).

In Dickinson’s poetry, Death appears in various guises, but it is so organic that, in general, it carries neither ominous nor desperate tones – it is natural, like life itself. The images of death presented in Dickinson’s poems are distinguished by their versatility and an extraordinary interpretation of natural processes. The poetess is not at all categorical in her metaphorical definitions. They resonate with all facets of a person’s earthly life, as well as with the existence of eternal life and a higher power. Dickinson considers not only life but also death to be a multifaceted phenomenon. Life and death in her work are different sides of a single being, guided by God and Nature.

Conclusion

Emily Dickinson’s relationship to religion and God was highly ambiguous. Perhaps, if Dickinson had followers – “apostles”, her poetry in itself could become a religion. Carefully crafted symbiosis of seemingly completely contradictory systems – puritanism and transcendentalism – in combination with the creative genius of the poet gave rise to truly unique ideological principles. Emily Dickinson lived in the ideal time for a poet: the once firmly established Calvinist tradition was on the decline, opening up new, albeit sometimes frightening, possibilities. Many of Dickinson’s poems are imbued with an optimistic hope for eternal life. Perhaps the hope for the immortality of the soul served as consolation to Dickinson, who often lost family and friends. The poems that imply the poet’s absolute disbelief in resurrection and eternal life are relatively rare. This allows one to talk about the predominance of an optimistic view of the prospects of human existence in her works. Finally, Dickinson, indeed, believed in the great power of true feeling, capable of conquering everything, including death.

Works Cited

Ackmann, Martha. These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson. WW Norton Co, 2020.

Gilpin, W. Clark. Religion Around Emily Dickinson. Penn State University Press, 2014.

Hennessy, David. Classics of American Literature: Volume One. Broward College, 2014.

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Qiao, Yang. “Thematic Interpretation of ‘Because I Could Not Stop for Death’ by Emily Dickinson.” 2019 International Conference on Humanities, Cultures, Arts and Design (ICHCAD 2019), 2019, pp. 158–160.

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