Emily Dickinson’s World View: The Life of a Monastic
Emily Dickinson is probably the most famous American poet of the nineteenth century. Her poems focus on a number of topics including death, philosophy of life, immortality, riddles, birds, flowers, sunsets, people, and many others. She left manuscripts—little bundles of poems called “fascicles”—totaling 1775 poems, and three volumes of letters.
Dickinson’s active mind and mystical intuition led her to pen some of the most brilliant poetry ever written, full of insight and well-crafted. Her poem, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky —,” demonstrates a deep understanding of the nature of the human mind in its relationship to God.
This poem dramatizes a spiritual truth: the human brain is the seat of ultimate wisdom. In yoga philosophy, the highest center of consciousness is the “thousand-petaled lotus” in the brain. The lotus is a flower, of course, used as a metaphor for the functioning of the opening of the center of consciousness during God-union.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda explains, “The seventh center, the ‘thousand-petaled lotus’ in the brain, is the throne of the Infinite Consciousness. In the state of divine illumination, the yogi is said to perceive Brahma or God the Creator as Padmaja, ‘the One born of the lotus’.”
It is not likely that Emily Dickinson studied any form of yoga, nor is it likely she was even acquainted with the Bhagavad Gita, which was just being introduced in America during her lifetime.
A contemporary of Dickinson’s, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, had studied Eastern philosophy, including the Gita, and he had some knowledge of the Vedas. But Dickinson’s awareness came from pure intuition on her part.
Emily Dickinson lived a life that resembled a monastic: indeed she has been nicknamed the “Nun of Amherst.” Her life has been described as reclusive, even hermit-like. Dickinson used her time to study scripture, and she became well-versed in Judeo-Christian biblical lore and concepts.
As a child and young adult, Dickinson attended church with her family. In later life, she decided to cloister herself in order to fulfill the development of her mystical powers and her close attention to the details of nature including birds, flowers, and the transitioning of the seasons.
The poet also closely observed the visitors to her father’s home; although she seldom met with them face to face.
During her monastic period of life, Dickinson began to contemplate the important questions about the purpose of life and how we should live and worship. Her poem, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —,” celebrates the belief held by “the nun of Amherst” that merely by staying home and worshipping, she could go to heaven all along instead of waiting.
In this poem the speaker makes God’s creations, not man’s, the instruments of worship—a bird serves the position of the choir director, and fruit trees serve as the roof of her church.
This worshiper wears her metaphorical “wings” instead of a church sanctioned garment. And the most impressive part of this speaker’s “church service” is that God is doing the preaching, delivering a short sermon, which delivers the worshiper more time to meditate instead of merely listening for learned words delivered by an ordinary clergyman.
Dickinson was also interested in what happened to the soul after death. Whenever she heard of a death, she was very interested to hear what the person said or did while dying.
As Dickinson’s little nephew Gilbert lay dying, she heard him uttering words that to her seemed to indicate that the boy’s soul was a being escorted from its physical casing by angels.
Dickinson’s study of death and dying led her to believe in immortality, a topic often referred to as her flood subject. Her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death -,” represents her conclusion about dying.
The speaker in this drama portrays death as a gentleman caller who arrives as if to take a lady out for the evening. Notice that the journey symbolizes the idea of one’s life passing before one’s gaze at death. But the final cemetery scene is quickly passed over, and the conflation of time resembles a dream, as the speaker claims she is still riding with the “Horses’ Heads” “toward Eternity.”
Dickinson believed in immortality more surely than the other conventionally religious members of her generation did. She studied, contemplated, and no doubt, her intensity led to meditation on God. Her insights into life and immortality cannot be explained any other way.
Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father’s home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.
Regardless of Emily’s personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.
New England Family
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.
Emily’s New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily’s father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.
Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.
After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily’s early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.
As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.”
Reclusiveness and Religion
In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father’s community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.
Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily’s poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family’s and compatriots’ intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.
Emily’s reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church”:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.
God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I’m going, all along.
Very few of Emily’s poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily’s room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily’s brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.
Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily’s poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had “corrected” for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily’s mystically brilliant talent.