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  • “A little East of Jordan”: Human-Divine Encounter in Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible
  • Richard S. Ellis* (bio)

The Hebrew Bible and Dickinson wrestle with the same enigma: with what artifices can language portray the unportrayable confrontation of the human and the Divine? Their solutions are strikingly similar. Both articulate the human-Divine encounter in language riddled with paradox, wordplay, and shifts of perspective fluctuating, at times almost instantaneously, between hierarchy and intimacy, transcendence and immanence, abstraction and sensation — all of which have the effect of creating multiple, often contradictory interpretations.

Such similarities in theme and language use are facets of an intimate relationship between the Hebrew Bible and Dickinson that extends much deeper. As we will see in the context of Dickinson’s poem, “A little East of Jordan” (Fr145B), which treats Jacob’s encounter with the unknown adversary at Peniel, reading Dickinson through the lens of the Hebrew Bible gives insights not readily available through the usual lens of the King James Version. These insights illuminate the rest of her work and highlight her profound perception of the relationship between humanity and God, revealing numerous features shared with the Hebrew Bible.

The greatest hidden text in Western civilization, the Hebrew Bible is known intimately through translation, but it is not widely known in its original form. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the Hebrew language is used as the perfect medium to express a multifaceted vision of the human-Divine encounter. Literary techniques such as paradox and wordplay are natural outflows of the structure of this language and have important parallels in Dickinson’s poetry. Appreciating such artistry in the Hebrew Bible leads to a much deeper understanding of Dickinson.

Jacob’s encounter with the unknown adversary at Peniel offers both a narrative emblem for these techniques and a concrete point for comparison [End Page 36] between Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible. Although Dickinson wrote only one poem (Fr145B) that names Jacob explicitly, Cynthia Griffin Wolff has pointed out that Dickinson identified closely with him, viewing the struggle at Peniel as an archetype of the poet’s struggle to wrest meaning from a chaotic, unpredictable universe (151–159). 1 The congruences between the Hebrew Bible and Dickinson’s poetry will be suggestively broadened when we consider parallels between their publication and interpretation history.

Wrestling with the Angel — Art

Dickinson’s poetic career was bracketed by references to Jacob’s encounter at Peniel. Poem Fr145B was recorded in a fascicle about early 1860 (Dickinson, Poems, ed. Franklin 186), while a letter written to Thomas Wentworth Higginson in spring 1886 soon before her death concludes with a characteristic misquotation of Genesis 32:26 (KJV): 2 “Audacity of Bliss, said Jacob to the Angel ‘I will not let thee go except I bless thee’ - Pugilist and Poet, Jacob was correct -“ (L1042). 3 The same misquotation also appears in a letter of mid-March of that year (L1035).

The Bible was the book that, more than any other, helped make Dickinson a poet (McIntosh, ch. 3). However, her stance toward it was necessarily complicated, even paradoxical. According to the belief system of her day, the Bible was written in an authoritative and transparent language faithfully mirroring spiritual reality. “This notion of language depended on the inherent ‘truth’ of the word; no word could be ambiguous or ironic and still manifest the essential truth of God” (Miller 145). As a poet, Dickinson committed the supreme act of linguistic defiance by flipping that belief upside down. Like the Hebrew Bible, her poetry relies on the use of paradox, wordplay, and multiplicity of perspective as the most effective artifices for manifesting the essential truth about the human-Divine relationship.

Hierarchy versus intimacy, transcendence versus immanence: the grand dichotomies of the religious experience. However, any tendency to label aspects of the Divine encounter in terms of such neat, mutually exclusive categories is thwarted by the poet. In her work, the human-Divine relationship is articulated, not as a fixed body of dogma, but as a verb, a field of force, a gymnastic somersaulting that never rests. Like the unknown adversary encountered by Jacob at Peniel, God can be encountered at any moment and in any place in an...

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pp. 36-58
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