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Belonging and Emily Dickinson

Dickinson’s eccentric individualism has many probable causes. She was recognised as a bright clever young girl but clearly rebelled against authority including her strict austere father, her emotionally cold mother and a rigid Calvinistic religion. Though she professed a deep love and respect for her father, she wrote:  “his heart was pure and terrible” .  In another letter she hopes her brother will not “stiffen up like her father but remain a human being”.   

Emily’s family and the State of Massachusetts followed the Puritan traditions and were swung into the piety of the Calvinists who believed all men were evil and only a few would be “saved” by being “born again” through a confession of faith. Emily rebels against this evangelical approach as Lyndall Gordon points out:

At this time Massachusetts was the scene of a religious revival opposed to the inroads of science. Emily, who had chosen mostly science courses, makes her ­allegiance clear:

"Faith" is a fine invention

When Gentlemen can see –

But Microscopes are prudent

In an Emergency.

When Miss Lyon pressed her students to be "saved", nearly all succumbed. Emily did not. On 16 May, she owned, "I have neglected the one thing needful when all were obtaining it." It seemed that other girls desired only to be good. "How I wish I could say that with sincerity, but I fear I never can." When Miss Lyon consigned her to the lowest of three categories – the saved, the hopeful and a remnant of about 30 no-hopers – she still held out.

Lyndall Gordon: Lives Like Loaded Guns

Her father withdrew her from the school before the year ended, generally considered because of ill health, but it may have been her rebellious nature and non-compliance.

Perhaps it was this act of self assertion – rebellion that provoked her unorthodoxy or non-conformism to conventional wisdom. Emily was left with a sense of exclusion from the established religion, and these sentiments inform much of her poetry. There is frequent reference to “being shut out of heaven”. Yet despite this rejection of the orthodox religion, there is much in her poetry which reveals a profoundly religious temperament. For Emily religious experience was not a simple intellectual statement of belief; it could be more accurately reflected in the beauty of nature, and the experiences of ecstatic joy.

"Friday I tasted life. It was a vast morsel.

 A Circus passed the house—

still I feel the red in my mind though the drums are out.

The Lawn is full of south and the odors tangle,

and I hear to-day for the first time the river in the tree. "

Emily’s communion was with nature; she was imbued with a sense of unity and identification of all its manifestations. 

On the flip side much of her poetry is imbued with morbid obsessions with death.  There are many possible reasons for this. A close 15 year old friend died when Emily was only 13, her bedroom window overlooked a cemetery where she would have viewed various funeral processions, the wanton slaughter of thousands of young men during the American Civil War must have had a profound effect on her and there is evidence that the sudden death of her father caused her pain.

Some commentators report that she was shy and socially uneasy with strangers.

Lyndall Gordon presents compelling evidence that another reason for her withdrawal and rejection of marriage is that she was suffering from epilepsy.

What made me think of epilepsy more than any other form of evidence was really the secrecy of it. She uses the word 'tell', 'shall I tell', 'to tell or not to tell', over and over in poems, that word 'tell' resonates, and she also calls her what she called 'sickness', she also calls it 'it', as though she can't spit it out, though here and there in her poems she talks about fits, 'I'll fit for you'. I think that epilepsy was an illness that carried a stigma until fairly recently, certainly in the 19th century and before but well into the 20th century as well, certain American states passed laws against marriage.

Lyndall Gordon RN Radio interview with Ramona Koval:

In her essay “Longing and Belonging: Emily Dickinson’s poetics of distance,” Dr Elizabeth  McMahon focuses on the paradoxical relationship in Dickinson’s poetry between longing and belonging. She points out the two phrases that defined Dickinson at her death: “Called back” that was carved on her tombstone and “At home”, which described her occupation, are contradictory and describe the tension in her poetry between estrangement and belonging. As McMahon writes:

The understanding of death as a process of being ‘called back’ implies that lived experience is a period of transience and expatriation. Accordingly, the human subject in this schema is always an émigré, whose experience of self and others, place and time, is of an intensity of distance. This distance is experienced as absence, insufficiency and inadequacy but it is also a space of desire: of seeking and anticipation, the distance between recognition of the desired object and its (impossible) attainment. It is death that enables the bridging of distance as the conduit for the expatriate’s return to the ‘ancient homestead’. (p.74)

Certainly, her life enacts a very deliberate and dramatic approach to the question of belonging versus isolation: she chose isolation. For much of her adult life she lived in seclusion with only her family for company, albeit with the rare visit from an outsider which she prized and anticipated keenly, and indeed she retreated more and more into the confines of her bedroom.

The soul selects her own society,

Then shuts the door;

On her divine majority

Obtrude no more

Unmoved, she notes the chariot’s pausing

At her own gate;

Unmoved an emperor is kneeling

Upon her mat.

I’ve known her from an ample nation

Choose one;

Then close the valves of her attention

Like stone.

She wrote in isolation and shared her poetry only with the very few, in particular Thomas Higginson whom she chose as her mentor.

Dickinson’s poetry – in its startling originality as well as in the recurring sense of yearning and unrequited hope – is a representation of isolation. There is the repeated sense of the individual alone in the face of the big questions of humanity (not least of which is death). At the same time, her focus on these big questions of humanity is unifying. That is, we are united in the face of hunger, passion, loneliness and death. We are isolated and yet conjoined by the simple fact of our shared humanity. That is the paradox of Dickinson’s poetry, echoed by the stylistic paradox of simplicity and complexity.

I’m Nobody!   Who are you?

Are you – Nobody – Too?

Then there’s a pair of us!

Don’t tell!  They’d banish us – you know!

How dreary to be Somebody!

How public – like a frog –

To tell your name – the livelong June-

To an admiring Bog!

The poems appear baffling at first reading - riddles or enigmas that need to be solved.  Try reading them aloud to yourself (they are like hymns)  and eventually you will make some sense out of them.  


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