A Lonely Poet
Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief
by Patrick Henry Reardon
A biography of Emily Dickinson? Hmm. Even though a number of authors had set hands to the task, I would have thought it no light labor to craft an interesting account of a decidedly odd nineteenth-century spinster who seems never to have gone anywhere or done much of anything except sit in her room for more than half a lifetime to test composing the most lines of poetry with the fewest active verbs. Personally, about all I could say to Miss Dickinson would be “Oh really, Emily, get a life.”
Nonetheless, in Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, arguably one of the best 1998 releases from Eerdmans (after, that is, David Mills’s The Pilgrim’s Guide), Professor Roger Lundin of Wheaton College took up that biographical challenge and carried it off very well. The major merit of this book, I believe, derives from Lundin’s ability to place Dickinson’s poetry within the intellectual currents of her day. The latter included a later stage of the Romantic movement and, perhaps more significantly, the strong Whig morality left over after the older New England Puritanism had, within just a few generations, strayed from its doctrinal course.
“Hers was to be a quintessentially modern world,” Lundin writes of Dickinson, “one in which inner realities outweighed the whole of the outside world.” But there is a problem here, as I see it, having to do with the meaning of the word “reality.” In classical Realist philosophy, the mind’s inner world truly is larger and more real than the outer world of the senses, by reason of the intellect’s capacity to perceive the universal “forms” of eternal truth. Because free from the vicissitudes and death attendant upon the physical realities known through the senses, these noetic forms were perceived to have more reality than the material world that pointed to them.
Such is the conviction that makes a leaf weigh more than a sack of coal in C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce and men appear as ghosts in a world in which everything was “so much solider than things in our country.” In the expression of Pavel Florensky, the mind pursuing truth thus proceeds de realibus ad realiora, “from things real to things more real.” Is this what Emily Dickinson meant?
Lundin demonstrates convincingly that it is not. A child of modern thought, Dickinson apparently did not believe that the outer world itself really had anything to say. In order to “say” anything to us, after all, the world would have to be a kind of linguistic medium employed by God—coeli enarrant gloriam Dei. If, as I think to be the case, Lundin is correct in his interpretation of her, Emily Dickinson held no such view.
Following lines of German philosophy and English-language romanticism, she did not regard the world around her as a sacrament or type of transcendent reality, but as a metaphor or deliberately chosen trope by which to endow the world with her own meaning. That “inner reality,” the world within her mind, was not a reality discovered but a “truth” created by her own imaginative powers. That is to say—nor does Lundin scruple to say it—Dickinson was in the business of creating truth. She felt herself obliged to assume this task, you see, since God had not seen fit to do so. She was forced to rely solely “On Columnar Self.”
A Lonely Task
The creation of truth strikes me as a conspicuously lonely task, and Emily Dickinson was a lonely woman. For whatever reasons (and Lundin judiciously weighs all the suggested possibilities) she gradually cut herself off from much of human discourse, so gradually that hardly anyone thought it strange that she eventually went fifteen years without leaving home.
Her isolation was more than geographical. It included also a distinct disinclination to examine or learn from history; even though she had studied the subject in school, along with Latin and Greek, she expressed no interest in anything that had ever happened before her own lifetime, becoming an extraordinary example of what Richard Weaver called “presentism.” Ironically, she attempted isolation also from the intellectual life of her own day, in the sense that she endeavored to keep her poetry immune from the contemporary comments and criticisms that would inevitably have attended its publication.
Moreover, even Dickinson’s bearing to subsequent history is most singular. She certainly intended for her poems to be available for future generations after her passing. Knowing her to be almost entirely a posthumous writer, nonetheless, later readers would not be disposed to see her standing in chronological relationship to her own times. Like the immortality that was her constant theme, her weightier inner world would thus have no beginning and no end, tending to be disembodied from the history of thought and literature. In this respect, one is grateful to say, Emily Dickinson has at last found her foil in the erudite Professor Lundin.
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“A Lonely Poet” first appeared in the May 2000 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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