Emily Dickinson was amply familiar with Thomas à Kempis’s religious manual The Imitation of Christ, and she owned a copy that was abundantly underlined. The Imitation’s shift from dogma to practice, its prescription of a set of behaviors, and its underlined guiding principles allowed Dickinson to conceptualize a poetics of spirituality that reconciled creative and spiritual aspirations. Engaging with Angela Conrad’s comparison of Dickinson with medieval mystical women writers, this study departs from Conrad’s stance that Dickinson searched for the experience of the self’s dissolution characteristic of these mystics. Religious experience being inseparable from her poetics, Dickinson sought to disclose the transcendental depth of the human being’s experiential potential and of nature. The poet conceptualizes this viewpoint through an interpretation of the Imitation. À Kempis envisions the spiritual life as a praxis of living that aspires to imitate Christ’s perfection. In Dickinson’s work, however, this praxis seeks to activate poetry’s ability to reveal the infinity of the finite being. Christ becomes fundamental in her pursuit, but not as a figure of perfection; rather, he stands for the unfathomable depth of the finite. To imitate Christ is to be attuned to this depth. À Kempis helps Dickinson articulate the fraught relationship between being worldly and spiritual, allowing her to conceive the meaning of “world” in a two-fold manner: there is the world of society and that of metaphor. Poetry can remain in the world, but not be worldly, if it reveals the infinity of immanence: the mystery of the finite being epitomized in the figure of Christ.


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pp. 57-82
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