- Emily Dickinson and the Religious Imagination
Ever since Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson designated a section of the 1890 Poems by Emily Dickinson “Time and Eternity” and readers responded by speculating on the author’s degree of Christian orthodoxy, her poems have sparked interest in Dickinson’s religious concerns. Much of that discussion has focused on the revivalist evangelical culture of the Connecticut Valley, on Romanticism’s countervailing influence, and on Dickinson’s friendships with both believers and skeptics. Now Linda Freedman enters into this critical conversation by largely dissociating issues of religious culture from biography. Her goal is to advance “a way of reading the allusive complexity of Dickinson’s work that recognises we do not need to decide whether or not she believed in God to understand the way in which religion fed her imagination and her sense of poetic purpose” (2). Freedman takes a broadly inclusive view of the religious culture that shaped Dickinson’s poetics, drawing classical mythology, Shakespeare, Milton, and George Eliot into her discussion along with Jonathan Edwards, Charles Wadsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, David Friedrich Strauss, and even twentieth-century theologians – notably Jürgen Moltmann. With regard to Dickinson’s understanding of her own creative role, Freedman draws upon recent manuscript scholarship to recognize the provisional, open-ended character of this writing and the poet’s tendency to engage her readers in the poem’s unfolding. The book’s thesis holds that “there is a vital relationship between Dickinson’s ideas about poetry and her ideas about religion which encourages [End Page 120] a critical flexibility between literature and theology,” a “reciprocally informing relationship” (3).
Freedman includes disparate sources of stimuli to Dickinson’s religious imagination (even magic and demonology), but she structures this book around key events or patterns in the life of Jesus – always considering biblical narratives in ways that illumine their fructifying influence on the poet’s sense of artistic possibility. Incarnation proves a richly revealing topic when considered in light of Dickinson’s concern with embodiment. Baptism (both the baptism of Jesus by John and the ritual of initiation in Christian churches) raises issues of naming, role-playing, and adoption of personae. Transfiguration brings to mind encounters with light but also with the obscuring veil. Jesus’s travels, especially his final journey toward Jerusalem, relate to quest narratives. The Gethsemane experience and crucifixion open awareness of sacrifice, much as resurrection strengthens hope of aesthetic as well as spiritual renewal. From these themes, Freedman draws four major tropes of Emily Dickinson’s poetry: body, mediation, journey, and gesture.
Although Freedman tries to situate the poet in New England religious culture, she tends to blur distinctions between Puritanism and the beliefs and practices of Connecticut Valley Congregationalists during Dickinson’s lifetime, and she often applies the term “Puritan” anachronistically. A case can be made, however, that Dickinson’s gift for zeroing in on the essence of a topic that engaged her imagination showed itself in attentiveness to key moments of revelation that link all Christian traditions. Incarnation, for example, posed problems for the notoriously Christmas-scorning Puritans, but Freedman makes a strong case for the empowering influence of this doctrine on Dickinson’s poetry.
A merit of this book lies in Freedman’s choices of poems and passages from letters to illustrate Dickinson’s theologically and literarily informed responses to Christological themes – often placed in comparative context. The reader benefits from illuminating readings of “Me from Myself - to banish - ” (Fr709) in terms of poetic duality, of “I would not paint - a picture - ” (Fr348) as an example of Nietzschean tension between Dionysian and Apollonian forces, and of “Unto like Story - Trouble has enticed me - ” (Fr300) with Joan of Arc suggested as persona. In some cases, Freedman engages in conversation with such critics as Judith Farr and Suzanne Juhasz regarding interpretation of poems, and at other times she draws connections between Dickinson’s treatment of a topic and those she could have found through reading A Winter’s Tale, Paradise Lost, The Scarlet Letter, or one of Charles Wadsworth’s sermons. [End...