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  • The Daoist Dickinson1
  • John Leonard (bio)

The well-known American poet Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) in many ways can be seen as an experiential Daoist. Without ever having had any contact with Daoist thought or practice, her poetry accords with various aspects of Daoist thinking, as represented in works such as the Daode jing or the Zhuangzi—none of which had been translated into English in a complete or accurate form during her lifetime.

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The following presents a reading of Dickinson that stresses her heterodoxy in the world of 19th-century Christian New England. It shows her work as providing one of the most powerful and poetic English-language treatments of a sense of the world and the transcendent as being inextricably intertwined and reveals how she expresses the ancient sense of “being in the world” that Daoism stresses and modernity has done its best to extirpate (along with the world).

Dickinson and Christianity

In an early poem, Dickinson considers all the infant mortality in nature, which earlier in the 19th century had contributed to Darwin’s formulation of natural selection. She writes of “Sparrows, unnoticed by the Father—/ Lambs for whom time had not a fold” (Johnson 1975, 141). These are very bold words because they directly contradict two important passages in the Gospels: Matthew (10:29) and Luke (12:6) for the sparrows; John (10:14) for the Good Shepherd. But Dickinson is bold, in another poem (Johnson 1975, 348) she describes herself as “the Queen of Calvary” and in yet another (1975, 301) she dismisses the usual Christian solace for suffering:

I reason, that in Heaven—Somehow, it will be even—Some new Equation, given—But, what of that?

Then again, she aligns herself with witchcraft, which, bearing in mind the New England Witch Trials of the 17th century, was no metaphor to be used flippantly, even two hundred years later:

Witchcraft was hung, in HistoryBut History and IFind all the Witchcraft that we needAround us, every Day—

(Johnson 1975, 1583)

In another poem, she wrote: [End Page 177]

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—I keep it staying at Home—With Bobolink for a Chorister—And an orchard, for a Dome—

(1975, 324)

All these poems tend to support the idea of a well-informed Dickinson treading the outer edges of Christianity without too much regard for whether she passed beyond. I think that she also wrote many poems when an alternative is pretty plainly set out and that this alternative is very similar to Daoist thinking.

Daoist Ideas

One example appears in a famous poem, where she explicitly echoes the Daoist emphasis on emptiness as a precondition for being in accord with the Way:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?Are you—Nobody—Too?Then there’s a pair of us?Don’t tell! they’d advertise—you know!

How dreary—to be—Somebody!How public—like a Frog—To tell one’s name—the livelong June—To an admiring Bog!

(Johnson 1975, 288)

Most of her poems, as one can see from the appearance of the text, are highly eccentric: punctuated erratically with dashes and often containing equally erratic capitalization—which usually creates no problem in understanding them when read out loud. Poets, and I take this from my own practice as a poet as well as knowledge of other poets’ practices, tend to write first drafts which are very like Dickinson’s, and later turn these into more finished products. As far as I know, Emily Dickinson is unique among major poets in English in leaving her manuscripts in this state, not taking them further. The reason she did this is that she had [End Page 178] hardly any prospect of publication and did little to solicit it. But I would compare her practice to what the Zhuangzi calls “impromptu words [which] pour forth every day and harmonize within the framework of nature” (ch. 27; Mair 1994): their inspiration is so vital.

To return to Dickinson’s poems demonstrating a similarity with Daoist ideas: earlier than the frog poem she had written a poem which perfectly...


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