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Dickinson, Blake, and the Hymnbooks of Hell

From: The Emily Dickinson Journal
Volume 20, Number 2, 2011
pp. 33-56 | 10.1353/edj.2011.0013



Many early critics found affinities between William Blake and Emily Dickinson in their radical disruption of poetic language, their penchant for gnomic utterance, and their cryptic imagery that hinted at a complex private mythology, all of which contributed to a view of Blake and Dickinson as mystics or poet-prophets with a message accessible only to initiates. Later twentieth-century scholarship, however, turned toward a closer investigation of the cultural milieu in which Dickinson and Blake produced their poetry—in particular, their relationship to the Protestant hymn tradition exemplified by Isaac Watts. Scholars have examined the ways in which Dickinson and Blake individually appropriated this tradition only to subvert it, but none has undertaken a synoptic examination of works in which both writers perform this subversion. Since there is no evidence of Dickinson having read Blake, the point of inquiry into the relationship between his writings and hers is to examine the ways in which their common sources—the Protestant hymnodists—inform both their poetics and their social consciences. Setting texts by Blake and Dickinson alongside those of Watts allows for an assessment of congruences and divergences in the ways in which these poems and their authors challenge the theological, educational, and stylistic hegemonies the hymn tradition advanced.

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