Emily Dickinson rejected the facile Christian revivals of her time and put herself on a path of deep renunciation to help her focus on an inner intuitive sense of the divine. She rejected all religious forms of the divine that abounded in her time and spent her life facing the infinite and eternal with her feet planted in the mortal. Instead she looked unflinchingly at death against the backdrop of the divine. She had many opportunities to do so between the high number of consumption victims in Amherst and the carnage of the Civil War. Her poetry became both her prayer and her path in life. It was a stark path lit by the ecstasy of experiences summed by deep penetration into the mysteries of death and existence. Often with a backdrop or moment of whimsy and humor. "I heard a fly buzz when I died." She said the only commandment she ever followed was "Consider the lilies of the field. They toil not. Neither do they spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”
At twenty she began withdrawing from the world. She stayed away from public functions. Then stayed just to her garden. Then to her house, and finally just to her room. Her father was very controlling and very afraid for her health. She had many illnesses. Went blind or nearly blind for years and went blind the last two years of her life. She probably had consumption and is believed to have died of Bright's disease, but underneath these physical and psychological reasons for withdrawal was a conscious choice to choose the life of renunciation and spiritual commitment. For most of her life she simply wore white though she often had many pockets sewn in which to keep a pencil and scraps of paper to write down her poems. She never published her poems since publishing was not the point of the writing and she rejected material success. She also was a great cultivator of flowers and spent hours in her conservatory. She sent countless letters to friends, people in need, often refurbished with her poems and flowers. She had a number of passionate loves and friendships, primarily on paper. For children, she would often lower a basket of gingerbread by a rope out her upstairs window. It was said that the death of her nephew eight year old Gilbert sent her into full retreat. In her later years she saw almost nobody. Letters were her primary contact.
Mentors and inspirational sources were Charles Wadsworth (a well known reverend and fiery thinker of the time), Emerson, Shakespeare, Jonathan Edwards (a Calvinist--but she rejected the outer forms as it was manifest in the churches and by her family and went on her own inner search), the Bible and the Dictionary.
She had little comfort in religious forms but the ecstatic was a balm. And on one level she made no distinction between terror and the joyful. All of it was connected to living. She felt intimately connected with all life. Many poems were written about flowers, flies, a snake, the woods, mountains, sunsets, the sea --all against the backdrop of the eternal. Her last written words were, "Called back." When she died her sister found a box under her bed with over a thousand poems in it. No one had known.
About her poetry, people have spent decades studying it. She left almost 2,000 poems. The scope and body of work is so vast it can be likened to the story of the blind men touching different parts of an elephant and describing what they touch as what an elephant is. Like Shakespeare, Dickinson is revisioned and reframed with each successive modern construct and trend, from psychoanalysis to purported lesbian relationships. Like Shakespeare her work is bigger than anything that can be pinned down. Two cogent analyses come from “My Emily Dickinson” by Susan Howe. According to Howe, Dickinson was inspired by Jonathan Edwards and believed that words were annexed to reality by sensation. (p. 49). In poem after poem it is the sensation which leads you in. And, “Edwards and Dickinson forced people through shock and through subtraction of the ordinary, to a new way of perceiving. Subject and object were fused at that moment, into the immediate ‘feeling’ of understanding. This re-ordering of the forward process of reading is what makes her poetry and the prose of her letters among the most original writing of her century.” (p.51)I believe that the vitality and multi-dimensionality of her poetry is rarely met in modern poetry today. Like a contemplative, her retreats gave her room to hear the non-ordinary. She used the cold steel of her life, her passion for nature, and her constant awareness that there was never any separation from the Immortal as the forge to create her work.
To me one of the last poems she wrote says it all:
The Ecstasy to guess,
Were a receipted Bliss
If Grace could talk.
I believe Grace talked to her and she listened.
And yes, I am yet another person touching the elephant.