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’s Work’s Essay, Research Paper

There is a life in Emily Dickinson’s poems, readers have found. Although one may not completely understand her as a legend, a writer, or as a part of literature books, she is considered one of America’s greatest poets. While unknown answers may not be revealed about her, secrets may not be told, nor any new discoveries made, evidence from books and articles showing Emily Dickinson’s experiences and hardships exists. Critic Paul J. Ferlazzo describes her writings: “Many students and casual readers of her poetry have enjoyed hearing tales about her which remind them of storybook heroines locked in castles, of beautiful maidens cruelty relegated to a life of drudgery and obscurity, of genius so great that all the world’s suppression cannot deny its flowering.” 1 Many researchers ignore the bases of her writings, her life, and her dreams.

Fascinated by many works examining the life and writings of Emily Dickinson, some may find that Dickinson’s trials at a young age are the basis of many assumptions today. The facts of her childhood and young adult life are few and simple,but the interpretations are many and complex. She was born in Amherst Massachusetts, a small farming town which had a college and a hat factory; she seldom left her home town. Even though she was claimed to be a high-spirited and active young woman, Dickinson began to withdraw from society in the 1850’s; virtually her only contact with her friends came to be made through letters.

Wendy Martin, a critic of Emily Dickinson, discusses Dickinson’s choice of seclusion: “…as a young woman, Dickinson rejected these comforting traditions, [anxiety, helplessness, anger, confusion, desperation, fears, and frustrations] resisted male authority, and wrestled alone with her complex and often contrary emotions. Finally, she rejected all masters; God, father, potential husband, and literary preceptor, to devote her life’s energy to her poetry.” 2 She gathered from many of the trials throughout her youth that no one could save her; she had to save herself. She wanted to create her own poetic craft that demonstrated her independence, and this extraordinary individuality characterizes her work and career. Ferlazzo gives some prime examples of her poetry dealing with her religious experience: “Most of her poems and letters are given a biographical reading. For instance, “Going to Heaven!” and “Some Keep the Sabbath going to church” are meant to summarize her religious opinions.” 3

Going to Heaven! Some keep the Sabbath going I don’t know when- to church:

Pray not ask me how! I keep it staying at home,

Indeed I’m too astonished With a bobolink for a To think of answering you! chorister,

Going to Heaven! And an orchard for a dome. How dim it sounds! Some keep the Sabbath in And yet it will be done surplice; As sure as the flocks go home at night I just wear my wings;

Into the Shepherd’s arm And instead of tolling the bell for church.

I’m glad I don’t believe it Our little sexton sings

For it would stop my breath- And I’d like to look a little more God preaches-a noted At such a curious Earth! clergyman-

I’m glad they did believe it And the sermon is never Whom I have never found long;

Since the mighty Autumn afternoon So instead of getting to I left them in the ground. heaven at last,

I’m going all along!

Perhaps the start of these desires to be independent began in adolescence, says W. Martin: “Strong social pressure was put on young Dickinson during her adolescence to join the church. Her refusal to commit her soul to Christ meant that she had spurned a tradition honored by her family for several generations.”4 Karl Keller, a critic, has much to say about her religious views: “Her literary experience was not a religious experience, however, but merely a momentary mythologizing, brief, tentative, fanciful, provisional, a suspension.” 5

Pressures increased as she resisted God. Several of her friends and neighbors who had been acknowledged during this time, repeatedly urged her “to accept Christ as her Savior.” The pressure put on her is evident in a letter she wrote to her close school friend Abiah Root on January 31, 1846: “I am far from being thoughtless on the subject of religion. I am continually putting off becoming a Christian. Evil voices lisp in my ear-There is yet time enough. Nine months later she confided to Abiah Root; I know not why, I that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I don’t feel I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.” 6

Ferlazzo explains Dickinson’s trials with belief and disbelief toward God by using her a poem to create better understanding: Since she permitted herself to experience the extremes of faith and of loss, her poetry records a great soul’s journey to understand its place in the universe. Dickinson’s major poetic method in dealing with religious subjects reflects the tension in her mind between belief and disbelief. She begins a poem with a strong statement of faith, proceeds to examine it, qualify it, or question it, and then ends the poem with a statement of doubt or with one that indicates her condition of suspended judgment. 7

I know that He exists. Would not the fun

Somewhere in Silence- Look too expensive! Would not the jest He has hid His rare life, Have crawled too far!

From our gross eyes

‘Tis an instant’s play. Those-dying then,

‘Tis a fond Ambush- Knew where they went-

Just to make bliss They went to God’s Right Hand-

Earn her own surprise! That hand is amputated now

And God cannot be found-

But-should the play

Prove piercing earnest-

Should the glee-glaze-

In death’s-stiff-stare

The voice that we hear in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, like the one above written in her early years, may be defiant when she challenges God or her proudness. As one critic described the poem, “The first line has the piety of heaven, the last the poison of Hell.” 8 Dickinson begins with an orthodox statement that affirms that God exists and that He hides himself from us only to tease our love. “If there is no salvation after death,” she exclaims, “a cruel joke indeed would have been played on us.” Elements are seen through a background of fear, dread, anxiety, and an effective amount of wonder causing her to create poems reflecting her emotions. “Dickinson lived in doubt without ever despairing. She did not know the final answers to the important religious questions; and, what is more, she knew she could never know them.”9 While her quest for faith was intruding, the poem above deals with this in her life.

This sense of worry about salvation after death takes many forms in every period of her life. “This doubt solidifies into an almost prosaic statement of despair.” 10 In all of her descriptions of death that her poems reveal, it is for many to wonder if she welcomed it in her life to be a solution to her problems. This excerpt in one of her poems, tells how death and sanity plays a role in her speculated mind:

I felt a Funeral in my Brain, And when they were all seated,

And Mourners to and fro A Service, like a Drum—

Kept—treading—till it seemed Kept beating—beating—till I That Sense was breaking through thought My Mind was going numb—

“Characteristically, she is both doubter and questioner, probing the mysteries of death, immorality, and eternity, appropriating biblical sources of Calvinist theology, but preferring to question on her own terms.”11 In almost six hundred poems she explored the nature of death as completely as any American ever dared. Her focus on death has been attributed to a number of rational explanations. New England Calvinism and the nineteenth-century sentimental-romantic tradition were both obsessed with death in their own way, and were apart of her background and environment.

A majority of Dickinson’s poems describe and reveal insanity. Emotions such as pain, fear, tension, and depression resulted in a decisive and some what mental disorientation or loss of the ability to perceive, reason, and function successfully within the realm of practical daily experience. There is the possibility that she herself might have fully experienced the painful departure of reality.

The many losses she experienced throughout her life may have lead her to write about death to such an enormous amount. The death of her father, mother, close neibors, and friends impacted her life to a great extent, she speculated on the subject even more as you can see through her letters and poems. Close friends such as, Sophia Holland, Leonard Humphrey, and Benjamin Newton, all of whom died before she reached maturity; and her letters from the period reveal the melancholy states produced in her by their deaths.

Two psychological interpretations have been advanced to explain her interest in death. Clark Griffith has suggested a Freudian interpretation: “Certainly Miss Dickinson would appear to process, in a rare abundance, each classic symptom of the death wish, not only the tendency to brood about death, but likewise the simultaneous fear-and-fascination which prompts the brooding must always cumilate.” 12 And in John Cody’s opinion, he enumerates the emotional sources of her preoccupation with death: “ (1) fears of abandonment; (2) projection of anger; and (3) guilt feelings toward her mother.”13 However others may describe her interest about death, we shouldn’t ignore Dickinson’s own testament’s about what was in her mind and heart. In one letter she wrote, “I sing , as the Boy does by the Burying Ground—because I am afraid” (siv). She restated this idea in one of her poems, “ I sing to use the waiting…To keep the dark away”. Surrounded by death, by darkness, writing poetry became for her an act of courage meant to affirm her fragile life. With her great creative spirit, she transformed human frailty, fear, and anxiety into the highest levels of art; and she wrote away a measure of terror by facing it squarely. In a moment of clear self-evaluation, she summarized her motive and achievement in the following poem:

I made my soul familiar—with her extremity—

That at the last, it should not be a novel Agony–

But she, and Death acquainted—

Meet tranquilly, as friends—

Salute, and pass, without a Hint—

And there, the Maser ends—

To another extreme, Dickinson can be the damp-eyed and sentimental poet in a group of poems such as “Some, too fragile for winter winds”, “On such a night or such a night”, “ She died—this was the way she died”, “Twas the old—road—through pain”, “If anybody’s friend be dead”, “Here, where the Daises fit my Head”. These poems offer the emotional maturity of Emily Dickinson, and only she can present them in a full understanding of the true nature of death. In Ferlazzo’s eyes, “…she seeks answers to final questions about existence, purpose, and destiny; in both she boldly pursues a sense of understanding wherever the answer may lead, sometimes at the expense of peace and consolation. She was painfully aware, too, that death is the secret gateway to the other side where once and for all her doubts about religious matters would either vanish or be confirmed….At certain moments, death can become for Dickinson a welcome relief from pain, thought, and instability.”14 As you can clearly see in her poems, she was always in deep thought.

For her to write such interesting lines of poetry, only her life can reveal the true meanings of each stanza. Below is a letter, written to Abiah Root after the death of her close friend Leonard Humphrey, in which holds very significant meanings beneath it. It tells of the feelings in her life at that point and time, and how the loss of a good friend contributed to her life suffering. Also how greatly affected her as a whole, causing her poetry to sound more complex, and disparate.

…it’s cool and quiet and I can forget the toil and care of the feverish day, and then I am selfish too, because I am feeling lonely; some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep-the hour of evening is sad-it was once my study hour-my master is gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I can pay the departed Humphrey.

You have stood by the grave before; I have walked the sweet summer evenings and read the names on the stones, and wondered who would come and give me the same memorial; but I never have laid my friends there, and forgot that they too must die; this is my first affliction, and indeed ‘tis hard to bare it.

Throughout the letter one can almost sense the panic, fear, and frustration that played on in her mind. “How to find a way toward her real life through these poems [and letters]? No dates, no titles, merely clues. We shall have to guess at many things. We shall step lightly through her days, her gardens, her dawns and evenings, clouds, storm and pain. And more passion than I had imagined. 15

Gradually drawing from society, and local activities, this explains more on her as a poet: “She composed over 1,000 unique lyrics dealing with religion, love, nature, wit, its delicate metrical variation, and it’s bold and startling imagery, has had great influence on

the 20th cent. poetry.” 16 Yes, of course she did influence many, and more over, impressed many authors. Even today, some use Dickinson’s poetry to encounter places that they have never been. Emily Dickinson manner of life and her way of telling about her life were symptomatic of her sense of mystery of things. Central to this mystery was the mystery of herself. “Emily Dickinson had made the momentous discovery that the

organization and the symbolic intensity of poetry relieved and channeled her pent-up feelings to a degree afforded by no other avenue open to her. In this poet, creativity and psychic disorganization came within a hair’s breadth of each other.” 17

Her poems not only record ecstatic devotion, but her sharp, skeptical independence, her doubt, and what repeatedly opens up her ecstasy—her despair. “The poems she left to the world, the best evidence we have today, are the speculations and contemplation’s, the queries and outbursts of a tough-minded, independent woman whose self-doubt and timidity’s were a mask.”18 To put more of a focus on Emily Dickinson’s inner life is to only examine her poems. Thus, one can see the true life of Dickinson. Coming to the conclusion that, loneliness, passion, and suffering are evident in Emily Dickinson’s works.



1) Ferlazzo, Paul J. Pg. 13

2) Martin, Wendy Pg. 79

3) Ferlazzo, Paul J. Pg. 19

4) Martin, Wendy Pg. 84

5) Keller, Karl Pg. 205

6) Martin, Wendy Pg. 86

7) Ferlazzo, Paul J. Pg. 32

8) Wells, Henry W. Pg. 257-258

9) Pollitt, Josephine E. Pg. 72

10) Ferlazzo, Paul J. Pg. 35

11) Faust, Langdon Lynne Pg. 164

12) Griffith, Clark Pg. 140

13) Cody, John Pg. 212

14) Ferlazzo, Paul J. Pg. 41

15) Higginson, Thomas Wentworth Pg. 444

16) The Readers Companion to American History Pg. 1

17) Cody, John Pg. 160

18) Lindburg- Seyersted, Brita Pg. 57

11) Faust, Langdon Lynne Pg. 164

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