A journey through faith and doubt
with America’s greatest poet

Many readers think that Emily Dickinson rejected religion and wanted nothing to do with God. And yet her poetry and life tell a deeper story. Looking closely at twenty-five rare and resonant poems, this intimate portrait reveals how Dickinson occasionally believed, thoughtfully doubted, and in her divine wrestling, met God. In chapters on belief, prayer, mortality, immortality, and beauty, Kristin LeMay uncovers the riches of Dickinson’s spiritual life and tells of her own search for God between the lines of the poems Dickinson called “hymns.”

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From the Introduction

Emily Dickinson was a rebel in matters of religion. She gleefully would have added “infidel,” “gypsy,” and “rogue.” She bragged that she was “one of the lingering bad ones,” often “surly – and muggy – and cross,” “quite vain,” “wicked,” occasionally “a Pagan,” “one of those brands almost consumed,” and long since “past ‘Correction in Righteousness.’” Evidently, she also possessed a sly taste for self-deprecation and irony. On loftier days she’d go so far as to name herself “Eve, alias Mrs. Adam,” “Simon Peter,” even “Barabbas.”

Now, you’ve probably seen that famous picture of Emily Dickinson, which stares out from the cover of nearly every book relating to her, including this one: Emily the waif, slim and pale, looking about as bold as a limp piece of lace. Forget that sepia color scheme. She was a redhead. Forget too whatever rumors you might have heard about her broken heart, her melancholy, her obsession with death. While we’re at it, please purge from your memory those polite lines of her poetry that get reprinted on magnets and coffee mugs, foremost among them: “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” and “If I can stop one Heart from breaking / I shall not live in vain,” as well as “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –” and “This is my letter to the World / That never wrote to Me –.” Return to sender. We need to start fresh.

Let’s start, as the biographies do, with her family tree. If we were to trace Emily Dickinson’s spiritual lineage along the Tree of Knowledge, we’d find her forefathers and mothers poised on the craggy limbs, where the crows stand and—let’s be fair—where the songbirds build their nests. There’d be Saul, persecutor turned proselytizer, high in the upper branches, and skeptic Thomas would balance on a wobbly, low bough. Jacob, who sparred with angels and tricked everyone he could, would grip the trunk of this family tree. At its root we’d find Eve, reputed another redhead, who hid from God once her own rebellious tastes had blossomed. And it’s possible that Lucifer—brightest star in the firmament, first rebel against God—might flicker an instant over the scene, before disappearing with the dawn. Emily asks, “was not temptation the first zest?” To this crowd of doubters, fighters, and faithful infidels Emily Dickinson belongs.

This is not the family in which most scholars or biographers would place the poet they call “Dickinson”—but this book is neither scholarly study nor biography. Although I build gratefully upon such work, I take a more personal tack. In these pages, I call her Emily, because this book tells of two intertwining lives, Emily’s and mine, and shares how her poems have led me toward the God she both jabbed at and sought. Through her very struggles with religion, Emily has become for me a sort of unlikely patron saint, and we don’t call the saints by their last names.

I am also a redhead. While not much of a rebel, I do struggle with religion. If I were to chart my spiritual path over the last decade, it would look more like an EKG than a slow and steady climb toward grace. Grace, Emily dismisses with a shrug as “unmerited remembrance – ‘Grace’ – the saints would call it. Careless girls like me, cannot testify.” I’m careless, too, and sympathize. Take, for instance, my spotty record with church: I’ve floated in and out of Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran, nondenominational Christian, and Episcopal congregations, but the only church I haven’t left is, typically enough, the single one that I can never truly join: a community of monks. Given these spiritual shortcomings, I’ve come to love Emily for exactly those qualities that might appear to disqualify her for sainthood: impiety, inconsistency, irreverence. Saint Emily, patron of all who wrestle with God.

* * *

I admit that Emily Dickinson is an unlikely patron saint for anyone to choose. In her lifetime, the state of her soul was called into question when she staunchly refused to give the public profession of faith that marked conversion, and it was further suspected when she stopped attending church altogether. In the hundred-plus years since her poetry was published, her soul has increasingly been the subject of debate. Was she a Christian? Did she believe in God? If so, how so? If not, why not? And what did her belief consist of—if belief it was—at thirty, at forty, at fifty?

The answers readers give to these questions couldn’t be more varied. If you read around at the library or online, you’ll find a range of readers assigning Emily to every possible spot on the spiritual spectrum: reluctant Christian, ardent mystic, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist.

Emily’s spiritual life inspires so many diverse answers because her poems and letters offer such tricky evidence. Obviously, she’s not around to answer our questions, and the record we do have is both sparse and inconsistent. By turns and by moods, Emily challenges, cajoles, cudgels, and coos at the God she dubs “the Foreigner,” “that Bold Person, God,” “Itself,” “the imperceptible,” “Tyranny,” “a Mastiff,” “Old Suitor Heaven,” “Vagabond” and “Sorcerer from Genesis,” and “the Mysterious Bard,” among other more generic names, such as “the Sky,” “Might,” “Deity,” and “Omnipotence.” And this is not to mention her broad use of those more traditional names for God: Lord, Savior, Maker, Jehovah, Sovereign, Creator, Redeemer, and Almighty. God is the thirty-ninth most frequently occurring word in all her poems. As the presence of all of these names attests, she wrote amply on the subject, alternately irreverent and pious, sometimes in a single poem, even a single verse. Take the poem with the first line, “Papa above! / Regard a mouse.” It’s a prayer of sorts, spoken to the “Papa above,” but the tongue-in-cheek diction of papa and mouse keeps it from feeling particularly devout. Is she pointing out the childishness of faith through this mousy charade? Or might her playful tone hint at a true intimacy with her divine “Papa,” the way biblical scholars say Jesus’ intimacy with God is shown by his use of the Aramaic word abba, which translates more closely as “dad,” even “daddy,” than the formal “father”? You could argue the matter many ways, in this poem and many. The letters, too, leave the most significant questions up for debate: when she wrote, “Home is the definition of God,” does she reveal that God is her home or the reverse, that an earthly home is god enough for her, no other deity required? Home was also a common word she used to refer to heaven, following Jesus, who promised that in his Father’s house there would be many rooms. Emily whispered, a year before she died, “Foxes have Tenements, and remember, the Speaker was a Carpenter –.” Beautiful words, but can we lean on them to know where her home was or who she believed had built it for her?

Since Emily did not publish, she was the primary, often the sole reader she imagined for the majority of her writings, and consequently she had no need to explain her shifting moods or cryptic stances to herself. Besides, even in the case of published authors, short lyric poems are not held to the same standards of consistency and continuity as longer epic works. Whereas John Milton aimed to make a “great Argument” across the many books of Paradise Lost, to “assert Eternal Providence / And justifie the wayes of God to men,” and whereas John Calvin erected an edifice in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Donne wrote lyric poems that were lusty and devout, without striving for consistency. Short lyric poems intend only to capture the intensity of a lyric moment. If those moments lasted, there would be no need to preserve them in verse.

Emily’s correspondence isn’t much clearer when it comes to revealing her soul. Though mostly in prose (verses do creep in between the lines and amid the pages) and written for specific recipients, the letters obscure as much as they reveal. Depending on the person she addresses, Emily can sound angry, indifferent, hopeful, scornful, skeptical, teasing, or full of trust about faith. Sometimes, she’ll sound many of these ways in a single letter. In this Emily appears every bit as complex and self-contradicting as the rest of us. None of us write our personal correspondence as a summa theologica, a coherent system of belief, in which we develop a logical, ordered position. And then, of course, time tromps on, bringing with it changes, fluctuations, shifts. Across her life, Emily returned to older works and revised them—sometimes after a significant gap. It seems that her poems lived for her long past the moment of composition. In her correspondence with the publisher Thomas Niles, from Roberts Brothers in Boston, (who later was impressed enough to ask Emily for “a M.S. collection of your poems”), she had reached back twenty years to select a poem she was willing to share. Whatever one poem or letter might reveal of Emily’s thoughts at the moment of its composition, we have no guarantee that she still thought so after one year, not to mention thirty years. We also have no guarantee that she didn’t.

Finally, in case this scenario is not complicated enough, we have to account for the likelihood that, in any given poem, Emily is using irony or impersonation, both of which she loved. She cautioned one of her most important readers—Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who would eventually help publish her poems after her death—not to draw a one-to-one parallel between the voice that speaks in the poems and the author who wrote them: “When I state myself, as Representative of the Verse – it does not mean – me – but a supposed person.” While she may simply hope to protect herself from any aspersions (some poems get pretty risqué), Emily also wanted to be clear: that seemingly transparent letter, I, does not necessarily point to her, the poet, at all.

This challenge doesn’t discourage me. Rather, I’m buoyed up by Emily’s inconsistency on the page. When I read tales of martyrs or tomes of the Church Fathers, the firm assurance of those voices makes me realize how I waver between the poles of belief and doubt. So I find Emily’s mutability consoling. For her, as for me, Christ is one day “the Stranger,” then the next, “the Savior.” She pillories God one moment as “Judgment,” prays to God the next as “Love,” and in a third mood announces: “That Hand is amputated now / And God cannot be found –.” And so it goes with me.

Despite her wavering, I do make some confident claims here about Emily’s interior life. While we will never be able to itemize, year-by-year, Emily’s deep-held religious beliefs, no reader of her poetry and letters can deny certain shifting trends in her views across her lifetime. Some ideas, like a childhood view of heaven (marble gates, shiny white-robed men and women), slip away. Other ideas grow in conviction. That the self is eternal Emily became increasingly sure. While there is room for doubt about some of the spiritual stances I claim for Emily in this book, there is also evidence that they are true.

In the pages that follow, I don’t aim to present a scholarly account of Emily Dickinson’s religious life, but rather to tell how reading Emily’s poetry and letters has infused and enriched my belief. As she has informed my religious struggles, so my struggles have illuminated aspects of her writings and life different than those the scholarly accounts stress. The portrait I etch here is intuitive as well as analytic. It comes from sensing how her images and tone shift across forty years of writing, and from watching how her poems have challenged and deepened my spiritual life, my beliefs and doubts. She proposes that “God seems much more friendly through a hearty Lens,” and for a decade she’s been my lens. Her language has inflected my spiritual landscape, and so, as I read, I reflect those images back onto the page. Our stories have intertwined through these poems, and so they do in these pages.

For certain readers, like myself, knowing what Emily believed is not solely a question of biographical interest, or a historical mystery, attractive for its uncertainty. For me, to know the resolution of Emily’s long, tumultuous relationship with God seems to promise some hope or help in my similar struggles. She knew, as I do, that “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul –.” If I could solve how (or if) Emily answered the all-important questions that troubled her, maybe it would help me to settle mine. “It comforts an instinct if another have felt it too.”

For over ten years, I have turned to her poems as others have to Scripture: for joy, for hope or peace in distress. I’ve read her poetry the way others go to Bible study, in order to challenge what I know and to know better what challenges me. I’ve even prayed her poems when I had no words of my own to offer. (That practice started by accident on a turbulent autumn day—but I’ll tell that story later.) Most importantly, I have returned again and again to Emily’s poems simply to meet anew their fellow feeling and experience their beauty. Thus I’ve accepted the invitation that Emily extends in a letter to her cousins, “Let Emily sing for you because she cannot pray,” because I, too, cannot pray and because I love her songs. Like her favorite biblical character, Jacob, Emily wrestled with God and insisted, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.” Her poems are witness to the struggle. They also show how many blessings she received. I won’t let her go until she blesses me.