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How Poet Looked at the World

Emily Dickenson (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

What do you do when the old religious beliefs are no longer convincing, when the old doctrines seem anachronistic and no longer hold meaning for you? In her poetry Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) looks within herself and wills a new way of looking upon the world. It echoes the older one, but is boldly new.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze.

We can find this same act of will in the following poem too. Revery means dreamy thinking or imagining, especially of agreeable things. 

To make a prairie it takes clover and one bee, 
And revery.
The revery alone will do
If bees are few.

 In this poem we also hear an echo of religious sensibility - revery reminds us of reverence - but the subject of the poem is clearly our capacity to impose our own perception upon the world.

Why do we perform good deeds? Religious people will tell you because we have been so commanded. The reward for our compliance is a heavenly one. In her poem "If I Can Stop One Heart From Breaking," the poet's sole motivation for doing good is that it gives meaning to her life; without it, she would have lived in vain. There are no allusions to religion..

If I can stop one heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain 

Finally, in Christianity, hope is considered a theological virtue - the opposite of the sin of despair. Hope is the belief that God is eternally present in our lives. It is therefore our religious obligation to hope for God's beneficence even during our most difficult tribulations. How different, and how refreshing it is to think of hope more simply, as just "the thing with feathers," as the poet does in this final poem under discussion. 

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
And sweetest in the gale is heard
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chilliest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me

Emily Dickinson lived her entire life in a small New England town with deep Puritanical roots. But the doctrines of the church no longer resonated within her. Trusting in her own convictions - and with an immense gift for poetic expression - she wrote poems that one hundred fifty years after her death still resound today. 

A life in isolation, fame came posthumously  

by Carol Novis

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts where she spent most of her life until her death in 1886. She is generally described as an eccentric recluse who rarely left her room after the age of 30. However, a recent film, Wild Nights with Emily (2018), and a quirky new Apple TV 10-part series, Dickinson, show her vivacious, irreverent side and her relationship with another woman. Whether true or not, this depiction makes her life seem more relevant to readers today.

Dickinson was part of a prominent family, and after studying at Amherst Academy for seven years, and briefly at the Mount Holyoke Female Academy, she returned home. Throughout her life she was a prolific, though unrecognized, poet. On her death in 1886 her sister discovered nearly 1800 of her poems hand bound in several volumes. The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890, but it wasn't until 1955 that the first and complete edition of her poetry was published.

Dickinson's poetry was influenced by the English Metaphysical poets of the 17th century England, her reading of the Book of Revelation and her admiration of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats.

Nevertheless, her poems are unique: they contain short lines, often lack titles and use slant rhyme, unconventional capitalization and punctuation. Today she is regarded as one of America's finest poets. 

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