October 08, 2014

Women of Doubt: Emily Dickinson left a poetic legacy

Want to see the other Women of Doubt in this series? Click here.

Recently, I ran across an interview with the author of The One Year Women in Christian History Devotional and was struck by the headline:

Emily Dickinson...in a book of Christian history? That's interesting to me. You see, Dickinson wrote some of the most moving doubting poetry I've ever read. I remember reading as a teen and thinking, "Wow, she knows how it feels to truly question."

So today's Woman of Doubt is Emily Dickinson.

Let's take a look.

Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Massachusetts. Throughout her life, she was reclusive, rarely leaving her own home, and accepting few visitors. 1

Dickinson was widely read, and despite not leaving her home or having visitors often, she corresponded with a wide variety of people.

While the Book of Revelations and the puritanical society she grew up in influenced her poetry, it's not entirely accurate to consider Dickinson a Christian:

Dickinson grew up during the period of New England revivalism, but refused to make the public confession of faith that would formally admit her to the church. By the time she was thirty she had stopped going to services entirely. Soon she did not leave the house at all. She stayed in, listening to inner moods and conversing with herself, in verse, about what she heard there. She sang this song according to a deeply religious melody, the hymns of that church she did not attend. As the critic Dennis Donoghue has written, "of her religious faith virtually anything may be said, with some show of evidence. She may be represented as an agnostic, a heretic, a sceptic, a Christian." She wrote to a friend about her family, "They are religious--except me--and address an Eclipse, every morning--whom they call Father." The woman doubted; that was her whole business. 2

You can see this in Dickinson's poetry. Consider this verse:

Ourselves we do inter with sweet derision.  
The channel of the dust who once achieves 
Invalidates the balm of that religion 
That doubts as fervently as it believes.

Or this one:

Those--dying then, 
Knew where they went-- 
They went to God's Right Hand-- 
That Hand is amputated now 
And God cannot be found-- 

The abdication of Belief 
Makes the Behavior small-- 
Better an ignis fatuus 
Than no illume at all--

These are poems that convey a beautiful sense of doubt.

Dickinson died in 1886, leaving behind nearly 1, 800 poems.

The author of the book above does understand that some of her inclusions are "questionable", saying:

I don’t know if I’d say any of them were daring to include. I know somewhere down the line I’m going to have someone ask, “How could you include her? She wasn’t a good example of a Christian. I don’t think she was a Christian at all,” because sometimes people of the Christian faith have difficulty accepting others who don’t believe exactly what they believe. But, as we wrote in the introduction, we tried to identify women who have been significant in Christian history, not necessarily women who were perfect or exemplary. It would have been a very short book if we only included perfect women — non-existent, actually.

But it's really quite an interesting inclusion. While there's no conclusive evidence in any direction for Dickinson, she most certainly made a unique contribution to doubt through her questioning poems.

This quote truly sums it up nicely:

Dickinson was brilliant at keeping the tension of doubt, and at generating a private religion, of art and inner life, that "doubts as fervently as it believes." 2



1 "Emily Dickinson". Poets.org <http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/emily-dickinson> 7 October, 2014

2 Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt: A History: The Great Doubts and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson (New York, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003), 425-6.

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