Was Emily Dickinson an Atheist?

In the December 2009-January 2010 dead tree edition of Free Inquiry (on pages 47-48), Gary Sloan, a retired English professor, did an interesting investigative piece on Emily Dickinson’s relationship to religion. I thought his conclusion quite delicious (because it mirrors my own relationship to religion, and it’s nice to see that I have someone like Dickinson on my side):

My guess is that Dickinson died an agnostic. She preferred mystery to certitude, flexibility to calcified belief. “Faith is Doubt,” she told her sister-in-law. “On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.”  Vascillation galvanized her spirit:

     Sweet  Skepticism of the Heart

     That knows and does not know

     And tosses like a Fleet of Balm

     Affronted by the snow.

Sloan also suggests that Dickinson divinized Nature, metaphorically praying to it, and taking her cue to its ontological mystery from Beauty. In this sense, Dickinson was a kin to the atheist Romantic, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who also prayed to Beauty (see here) and, of course, to John Keats (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”): 

In a figurative sense, Dickinson was a polytheist. She worshiped Nature, Love, Truth, Beauty, and Poetry—in indeterminate order. “If we love Flowers,” she wrote, “are we not ‘born again’ every day?” Any human face she loved “would put out Jesus.” To Beauty she lifted her prayers:

     Have mercy on me

     But if I expire today

     Let it be in sight of thee.

Sloan also observes that Dickinson transformed the Christian Logos in the Gospel of John into the poem on the page—the Word made flesh and dwelling among us:

The “Word made flesh,” she averred in wry sacrilege, is poetry that “breathes distinctly” and “has not the power to die.” The Amherst sphinx thus pegged her own poetry. 

As for immortality, Dickinson was with Blake (and most poets), seeing eternity in an hour. Says Sloan:

Eternity was “obtained in time” not as an infinite temporal progression but in moments of heightened sensibility to life.

And as for the biblical God, Emily’s metaphors are striking:

The biblical God she treated with sarcasm, contempt, indignation, and amusement. Her parents, she told Higginson, “address an Eclipse every morning, whom they call ‘Father.'” The Eclipse, as limned in her poems, was also Papa Above, a gentleman in the air, a little god with epaulettes, an old neighbor, a conceited tyrant, vindictive dunce, thievish scofflaw, lethal intruder, peeping Tom, homicidal burglar, heartless assassin, sadistic inquisitor.

So Emily Dickinson appears to have been a wry and agonizing agnostic. To believe or not to believe; to do or not to do; to be or not to be: these are the questions (and the spaces for poetry):

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Was Emily Dickinson an Atheist?

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