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  • Emily Dickinson Fleshing Out a New Word
  • Roseanne Hoefel (bio)

The Bible is an antique Volume—Written by faded MenAt the suggestion of Holy Spectres—


From an early age, Dickinson claimed she did "not respect doctrines" (qtd. in Sewall, A Biography 19). In fact, one of the main reasons she dropped out of Mt. Holyoke was her rebellion against its evangelical fervor. In a letter to Abiah Root before she left there, she wrote, "There is a great deal of religious interest here and many are flocking to the ark of safety. I have not yet given up to the claims of Christ, but trust I am not entirely thoughtless on so important and serious a subject" (qtd. in Sewall, A Biography 383). In 1850, one of the many revivals that swept New England during that decade caused her father to convert, to which she replied, "I am standing alone in rebellion" (Sewall 66). Soon after, by the age of thirty to be sure, Dickinson stopped going to church as well.

For these reasons and many others, Dickinson sought to write her own discourse, in part as a bible of poetry that could and would establish some semblance of equilibrium. Implicit in the word equilibrium is equal status, which Dickinson was denied but determined to obtain. She realized that requisite to equity was the inclusion of women, which was not achievable through the principle of love based on exclusion. One of her most consistent [End Page 54] metaphors for the exclusionary paternal-as-patriarchal is religion—for Dickinson, a male-created institution.

Given her geographical and sociocultural position, it is not surprising that, in her desire to transform the exclusive nature of religion and religious institutions into a more inclusive philosophy, Dickinson would look first to Christianity. Nor is it surprising, given her affinity for verbal expression, that Dickinson would begin with the Logos, the Word made Flesh—that is, Jesus Christ. She wanted, like Christ—who is the Logos, the Son of the Father, the bearer of a new Word, Law, and Testament—to possess direct access to the language and laws of the Father. This was an interim step to creating a discourse and laws of her own, based as they would be on a principle of inclusion. She would accomplish this substitution and transformation by first subverting the dominant laws of her culture and time, which had been founded upon exclusion.

By daringly subverting and revising exclusionary patriarchal theology, Dickinson also rejects in advance the complicity between phallocentrism and logocentrism (that is, phallogocentrism). The latter erects a Lacanian paternal logos and privileges the phallus as signifier, thus placing transcendent authority and reference points of truth and reason in "man." As such, it virtually excludes women. As I will show, Dickinson's poetic references to Christ, and more particularly her Queen of Calvary poems, demonstrate (1) her critique of and move beyond phallogocentrism and (2) her positing of and move toward a more inclusive discourse.

Especially in her (Empress of) Calvary poems, Dickinson offers a look at her philosophy and ideas about a woman's relationship to Christianity. This paper will illustrate that, as the "Queen" or "Empress" of Calvary, Dickinson assumes the role of Christ/Son/Logos. She encourages us freely to imagine a space beyond a constraining phallogocentric tradition that excludes the feminine in human thought and emotion as well as in imaginations of the divine. As I will argue, Dickinson replaces the heritage of exclusion with a discourse founded upon conceptualizing love based on inclusion. Such conceptualization necessitates a New Word—that is, a new discourse: one based on ideas in relation, not solely in the binary opposition inherent in dualistic thought patterns and certainly not in the exclusion upon which dichotomies thrive.

As David Porter suggests, the controlling desire in poems #1-#300 [End Page 55] seems to be fulfillment; the main theme, aspiration (20-21, 35). For instance, in #193, Dickinson alludes to the Christian tradition, suggesting that—after she ascends (perhaps as Christ did)—heaven will explain why there is earthly suffering and whether or not the reward is worth the price of anguish:

I shall know why—when Time...


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