Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet and nature mystic. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with strong community ties, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Considered an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her penchant for white clothing and her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.
While Dickinson was a prolific private poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time. Dickinson’s poems are unique for the era in which she wrote; they contain short lines, typically lack titles, and often use slant rhyme as well as unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Many of her poems deal with themes of death and immortality, two recurring topics in letters to her friends.
Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson’s writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Dickinson’s younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson’s work became apparent. Her first collection of poetry was published in 1890 by personal acquaintances Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, both of whom heavily edited the content. A complete and mostly unaltered collection of her poetry became available for the first time in 1955 when scholar Thomas H. Johnson published The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Despite some unfavorable reviews and some skepticism during the late 19th and early 20th century about Dickinson’s literary prowess, Dickinson is now almost universally considered to be one of the most important American poets.
On the surface what seems a blatant rebellion against the Christian reforms sweeping New England in the 19th Century could be misinterpreted as a lack of spiritual inclination. If we look beneath even a single veneer we will undoubtedly find true spirituality at the heart of her endeavour; far from snubbing God, but simply insisting on no less than a first-hand experience of Him.
The poet shunned religious doctrine, but did she shun religion? Certainly not as a whole, and even then it may be merely a matter of syntax. The words ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ may at times be used interchangeably, and at others a fine distinction must be made. Charles Anderson chooses to make no distinction, using the word ‘religion’ in its broadest, and perhaps most primal sense:
“The final direction of her poetry, and the pressures that created it, can only be described as religious, using that word in its ‘dimension of depth.’”
Emily inherited the Puritan traits of austerity, simplicity, and practicality, as well as an astute observation of the inner self, but her communication with her higher Self was much more informal than her God-fearing forefathers would have dared. The daughter of the ‘Squire’ of Amherst, she came from a line of gritty, stalwart pioneers, carrying what was almost considered the blue blood of America. Her family was far from poor, but she did not lead a lavish life, for the Puritans abhorred luxury and waste (even a waste of words, which trait the poet may have done well to inherit). She accepted the Puritan ideals of being ‘called’ or ‘chosen’ by God, and fully embraced the merits of transcending desire, but not the concept of being inherently sinful:
“While the Clergyman tells Father and Vinnie that ‘this Corruptible shall put on Incorruption’ it has already done so and they go defrauded.”
She had faith in her own divinity, so perhaps she was yet more certain of God than her peers. She did not claim to fully understand Him, or even to have perennial faith in all His Ways – her poetry bears a continuing strain of doubt – but she certainly did not fear Him. The inner freedom this afforded her – rare for a woman of her time – brought her to the point of being almost cheeky in her familiarity and certainty. This confidence fed her poetry sumptuously, and gave it the well-known child-like quality. To her, truth was in nature. In that beauty she could see and feel God directly:
“Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome –
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice –
I just wear my Wings –
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton – sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman –
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –
I’m going, all along.”
Emily did actually attend church regularly, sometimes traveling to hear some of the rousing and charismatic preachers who stamped their mark on that era. She was often moved by these sermons, perhaps as compelled by the speaker’s delivery and the construction of words as the message within them. But this was not enough to entice her to succumb to the fierce religious revival. One by one her friends received an inner calling and were ‘saved,’ officially accepting Christianity. Members of her close-knit family eventually followed suit, including her strong-willed father, and finally her brother, Austin, perhaps her closest ally. Emily would not commit to something she could not sincerely feel, even under the unthinkable social pressure that surrounded her.
Until the age of 30 she continued going to church, although she was excluded from certain meetings and services open only to those who had been ‘saved’. She became increasingly reclusive throughout her 30s. It is tempting to see her seclusion as further evidence of spiritual asceticism. Her spiritual path was certainly intensely lonely in such a social climate, but she craved aloneness more and more, and seclusion somehow formed a symbiotic relationship with her art. Increasingly her art became an expression of her spirituality.
“You’ll know it as you know ‘tis Noon–
As you do the sun–
It was with these words that she described a transformative experience of Self Realisation. Her change of consciousness could be likened to a conversion, but not the kind of conversion her Calvinist community were hoping for. Despite relentless pressure from her family and fellow townspeople, she stubbornly resisted organised Christianity while having a continuous mystical communion with what she liked to call ‘Eternity’, a concept beyond the associations of the word ‘God’. Hers was a conversion to the world of the spirit by Nature Herself, action through the faculty of intuition. This is a notion she held in common with the Transcendentalists, in these of her poems:
“By intuition, Mighty Things
Assert themselves – and not by terms –
“I”m Midnight” – need the Midnight say –
“I”m Sunrise” – Need the Majesty?
Omnipotence – had not a Tongue –
His lisp – is lightning – and the sun –
His Conversation– with Sea –
“How shall you know”?
Consult your eye!
Transcendentalism was a philosophic and literary movement that flourished in New England as a reaction against 18th century rationalism, the sceptical philosophy of Locke, and the confining religious orthodoxy of New England Calvinism. Its beliefs were idealistic, mystical, eclectic and individualistic, shaped by the ideas of Plato, Plotinus, as well as the teaching of Confucious, the Sufis, the writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhists and Swedenburg. Transcendentalism had at its fundamental base a monism holding to the unity of the world and God and the immanence of God in the world. Because of this indwelling of divinity, everything in the world is a microcosm containing within itself all the laws and the meaning of existence. Likewise the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and latently contains all that the world contains. Man may fulfill his divine potentialities either through rapt mystical state, in which the divine is infused into the human, or through coming into contact with the truth, beauty, and goodness embodied in nature and originating in the Over-Soul. Thus occurs the correspondence between the tangible world and the human mind, and the identity of moral and physical laws. Through belief in the divine authority of the soul’s intuitions and impulses, based on the identification of the individual soul with God, there developed the doctrine of self reliance and individualism, the disregard of external authority, tradition, and logical demonstration, and the absolute optimism of the movement”. The most important literary expression of transcendentalism is considered to lie in Thoreau’s “Walden” and in the works of Emerson. Others in the movement were A.M. Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott. German transcendentalism (Goethe, Richter, Novalis) influenced Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. The greatness of these figures and the universal respect for their ideas has led to the use of the word ‘transcendental’ by business organisations masquerading as spiritual paths.
An essay discussing Emily’s mysticism within the framework of the larger American Renaissance inspired by the Transcendentalist Movement can be found online here:
Much present in the poetry of Dickinson is the idea of the proximity of the Eternal in the here and now. Like other visionaries she was not content to await Judgement Day for a glimpse of Paradise but, like William Blake, knew that it was visible if the doors of perception could be cleansed.
‘Eternity’ recalls Blake’s “eternity” glimpsed ‘in a grain of sand’ and has the oceanic quality described by mystics of all ages.
“Exultation is the going
of an inland soul to the sea
Past houses – past headlands–
Into deep Eternity.”
The ‘lover’ in many of her poems is Eternity itself. There is even a sense of the individual ‘I’ consciousness dissolving into Divinity, the oceanic consciousness:
“Tis little I – could care for pearls
Who own the ample sea –
Of Periods of seas –
Unvisited of Shores Themselves the Verge of Seas to be
Eternity – is Those . . .”
In keeping with the tradition of the mystics is the idea of transcending mental processes:
“Let not Revelation by theses be detained”
Akin to the writings of the mystics and great religious teachers is the call to self knowledge:
The “Undiscovered Continent” No Settler had the Mind”
Once realised this Self is known to be limitless:
“The Brain – is wider than the sky–
For put them side by side –
The once the other will contain With ease –
and You – beside . . .”
Compare this to Muso Soseki’s Zen Buddhist perspective:
“For a person of Zen
The blue sky must
feel ashamed to be so small.”
The sense of paradox so fundamental to Zen is also ever present in Dickinson. The similarities to Dickinson’s insights despite the fact that she had direct access to Eastern wisdom is testimony to the universality of the experience of self realisation. To the Indian Yogi self realisation is the gift of an inner energy known as Kundalini which manifests itself as a cool wind. During yogic states the heat of sympathetic nervous activity subsides and the parasympathetic nervous system comes into play relaxing and refreshing the body, with a breeze or fountain like energy, so that the attention can transcend physical needs and merge with the Atman or Self. According to Dickinson the moments of At–One–ment with Nature/Self happen “when the wind is within” (Thoreau wrote of ” ecstasies begotten of the breezes”) For the yogi or realised soul the sensation of this cool energy becomes his means of being sensitive to manifestations of Truth–Beauty–Love (Keats’ tripartite Unity). Dickinson stated that she had no other means to discriminate these qualities in art.
“If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know of.”
and in one of her poems:
“Your breath has time to straighten,
Your brain to bubble cool
imperial thunder bolt
that scalps your
Interestingly the yogi also experiences concentration of the Kundalini, or cool breeze at the top of the head, during union with the Self (the unity behind Truth–Beauty–Love). The yogic experience of self realisation is a simultaneous reception of grace, poured down from celestial realms, and an upsurging, or erupting, of energy from the unconscious depths within. Dickinson referred to herself as a “volcano at home”. “On my volcano grows the grass”; there is a sense of a vast underlying power of unconscious creativity waiting to be brought forth.
A final point of comparison with the yogis of the East is Dickinson’s spiritual detachment from a world that was unready to share her vision. She spent the second half of her life as a virtual hermit, just as Indian yogis and the Desert Fathers of early Christianity (some of whom went to the extreme of meditating for years on the tops of columns) isolated themselves from the materialism they saw in human society, in order to achieve yoga.
“I dwell in possibility”, she wrote. She had little time for the gossips and church people of 19th century Amherst with its restrictive Calvinist beliefs. “The soul selects her own society and then shuts the door”, perhaps things would have been different if she had been born 100 years later. Not everyone was turned away, however, the local children were especially welcome since they were relatively uncalcified by dogma and selfishness. She wrote of her “Columnar Self”, referring to her strength in standing alone, connected perhaps to other columns by celestial vaults in the great palace of the Self.
Immortality (“the Flood Subject” as she called it) consumed Emily’s consciousness. Dwelling on death was natural in those times as illness and general hardship frequently took lives around her, her awareness heightened further by the many years spent in a house adjoining a cemetery. But dwelling on death was also almost a spiritual practice, a ‘graveyard meditation,’ a means of focus, breathing life into the concepts of Eternity, Infinity and Immortality.
“The infinite a sudden guest
Has been assumed to be,
But how can that stupendous come
Which never went away?”
What drove her consistently was that she needed truth, and at any cost. She needed to see it with her own eyes and feel it with her own heart, not grasp at it in the words of a clergyman but explain it to herself through her own words. It seems she was even ready to die for her cause:
“I died for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted in the tomb,
When one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room.
He questioned softly why I failed?
“For beauty,” I replied.
“And I for truth, -the two are one;
We brethren are,” he said.
And so, as kinsmen met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.”
Emily’s truth-seeking was a spiritual quest that governed her inner life, and naturally blossomed through her poetic works. Her own words, in a letter to a friend, succinctly claim Eternity and Immortality as her own. Perhaps they also presage the enduring spiritual appeal of her writing, far beyond the short span of her life:
“So I conclude that space & time are things of the body & have little or nothing to do with our selves. My Country is Truth.”
A selection of 32 mystic poems of Emily’s can be found here: