by Alicia Ostriker

Page 1

When I was growing up our teachers told us what a shy, timid creature Emily Dickinson was, frightened of everything. This presentation colored the way many of us were taught to read her poems. They were, we thought, timid, frightened, narrow poems. But when I began reading Dickinson with an adult consciousness I realized that here was one of the most fearless poets who ever lived. What is astonishing about her mind is its courage, its ability to take risks, its absolute willingness to face and examine the most outrageously impossible possibilities, and its entire subversiveness of all convention.

Among the forms of Dickinsonian outrageousness which I find most appealing is her religion. We have been told that she derives from Puritanism, as indeed she does. Yet when, during the religious fervor the Great Awakening, all her schoolmates and every other member of her family were undergoing public conversions, the adolescent Emily held out and would not surrender herself. She felt sinful and guilty, but she held out. "They are religious, except me," she later wrote Higginson when describing her family, "and address an eclipse, every morning, whom they call their 'Father.'"

Her relationship with God, or the failure of a relationship, became an obsessive theme for Dickinson. Of course she writes impudently of churchgoing:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church -
I keep it, staying 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.

(JP 324)

A somewhat less charming poem is this one:

I asked no other thing -
No other - was denied -
I offered Being - for it -
The Mighty Merchant sneered -

Brazil? He twirled a Button -
Without a glance my way -
"But - Madam - is there nothing else -
That We can show - Today?"
(JP 621)

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