Dickinson devoted a great amount of her work to exploring the relationship between an individual and a Judeo-Christian God. Many poems describe a protracted rebellion against the God whom she deemed scornful and indifferent to human suffering, a divine being perpetually committed to subjugating human identity. In a sense, she was a religious poet. Unlike other religious poets, who inevitably saw themselves as subordinate to God, Dickinson rejected this premise in her poetry. She was dissatisfied with the notion that the poet can engage with God only insofar as God ordains the poet as his instrument, and she challenged God’s dominion throughout her life, refusing to submit to his divine will at the cost of her self. Perhaps her most fiery challenge comes in “Mine by the Right of the White Election!” (528), in which the speaker roars in revolt against God, claiming the earth and heavens for herself or himself.
Elsewhere, Dickinson’s poetry criticizes God not by speaking out directly against him, but by detailing the suffering he causes and his various affronts to an individual’s sense of self. Though the speaker of “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1129) never mentions God, the poem refers obliquely to his suppression of the apostle Paul in the last two lines. Here, the speaker describes how unmitigated truth (in the form of light) causes blindness. In the Bible (Acts 9:4), God decides to enlighten Paul by making him blind and then healing him on the condition that thenceforth Paul becomes “a chosen vessel” of God, performing his will. The speaker recoils from this instance of God’s juggernaut-like domination of Paul in this poem but follows the poem’s advice and tells the truth “slant,” or indirectly, rather than censuring God directly. In another instance of implicit criticism, Dickinson portrays God as a murderous hunter of man in “My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun” (754), in which Death goes about gleefully executing people for his divine master. These poems are among the hundreds of verses in which Dickinson portrays God as aloof, cruel, invasive, insensitive, or vindictive.
In her work, Dickinson asserts the importance of the self, a theme closely related to Dickinson’s censure of God. As Dickinson understood it, the mere act of speaking or writing is an affirmation of the will, and the call of the poet, in particular, is the call to explore and express the self to others. For Dickinson, the “self” entails an understanding of identity according to the way it systematizes its perceptions of the world, forms its goals and values, and comes to judgments regarding what it perceives.
Nearly all Dickinson’s speakers behave according to the primacy of the self, despite the efforts of others to intrude on them. Indeed, the self is never more apparent in Dickinson’s poetry than when the speaker brandishes it against some potentially violating force. In “They shut me up in Prose—” (613), the speaker taunts her captives, who have imprisoned her body but not her mind, which remains free and roaming. Because God most often plays the role of culprit as an omnipotent being, he can and does impose compromising conditions upon individuals according to his whim in Dickinson’s work. Against this power, the self is essentially defined. The individual is subject to any amount of suffering, but so long as he or she remains a sovereign self, he or she still has that which separates him or her from other animate and inanimate beings.
Though Dickinson sequestered herself in Amherst for most of her life, she was quite attuned to the modern trends of thought that circulated throughout Europe and North America. Perhaps the most important of these was Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, published in 1859. Besides the tidal wave it unleashed in the scientific community, evolution throttled the notion of a world created by God’s grand design. For Dickinson, who renounced obedience to God through the steps of her own mental evolution, this development only reinforced the opposition to the belief in a transcendent and divine design in an increasingly secularized world.
Dickinson began to see language and the word, which were formerly part of God’s domain, as the province of the poet. The duty of the poet was to re-create, through words, a sense of the world as a place in which objects have an essential and almost mythic relationship to each other. Dickinson’s poems often link abstract entities to physical things in an attempt to embrace or create an integral design in the world. This act is most apparent in her poems of definition, such as “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—” (254) or “Hope is a subtle Glutton” (1547). In these poems, Dickinson employs metaphors that assign physical qualities to the abstract feeling of “hope” in order to flesh out the nature of the word and what it means to human consciousness.
In a letter to a friend, Dickinson once wrote: ‘Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be haunted.” The first part of the sentence implies that the natural world is replete with mystery and false signs, which deceive humankind as to the purpose of things in nature as well as to God’s purpose in the creation of nature. The sentence’s second part reveals the poet’s role. The poet does not exist merely to render aspects of nature, but rather to ascertain the character of God’s power in the world.
For Dickinson, however, the characterizing of God’s power proved to be complicated since she often abstained from using the established religious symbols for things in nature. This abstention is most evident in Dickinson’s poem about a snake, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (986), in which Dickinson refrains from the easy reference to Satan in Eden. Indeed, in many of her nature poems, such as “A Bird came down the Walk” (328), Dickinson ultimately insists on depicting nature as unapologetically incomprehensible, and thus haunted.
Dickinson’s speakers are numerous and varied, but each exhibits a similar voice, or distinctive tone and style. Poets create speakers to literally speak their poems; while these speakers might share traits with their creators or might be based on real historical figures, ultimately they are fictional entities distinct from their writers. Frequently, Dickinson employs the first person, which lends her poems the immediacy of a dialogue between two people, the speaker and the reader. She sometimes aligns multiple speakers in one poem with the use of the plural personal pronoun we. The first-person singular and plural allow Dickinson to write about specific experiences in the world: her speakers convey distinct, subjective emotions and individual thoughts rather than objective, concrete truths. Readers are thus invited to compare their experiences, emotions, and thoughts with those expressed in Dickinson’s lyrics. By emphasizing the subjectivity, or individuality, of experience, Dickinson rails against those educational and religious institutions that attempt to limit individual knowledge and experience.
For Dickinson, seeing is a form of individual power. Sight requires that the seer have the authority to associate with the world around her or him in meaningful ways and the sovereignty to act based on what she or he believes exists as opposed to what another entity dictates. In this sense, sight becomes an important expression of the self, and consequently the speakers in Dickinson’s poems value it highly. The horror that the speaker of “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” (465) experiences is attributable to her loss of eyesight in the moments leading up to her death. The final utterance, “I could not see to see” (16), points to the fact that the last gasp of life, and thus of selfhood, is concentrated on the desire to “see” more than anything else. In this poem, sight and self are so synonymous that the end of one (blindness) translates into the end of the other (death).
In other poems, sight and self seem literally fused, a connection that Dickinson toys with by playing on the sonic similarity of the words I and eye. This wordplay abounds in Dickinson’s body of work. It is used especially effectively in the third stanza of “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), in which the speaker declares that she knows the soul, or the self. She commands the soul to choose one person from a great number of people and then “close the lids” of attention. In this poem, the “I” that is the soul has eyelike properties: closing the lids, an act that would prevent seeing, is tantamount to cutting off the “I” from the rest of society.
Feet enter Dickinson’s poems self-referentially, since the words foot and feet denote poetic terms as well as body parts. In poetry, “feet” are the groups of syllables in a line that form a metrical unit. Dickinson’s mention of feet in her poems generally serves the dual task of describing functioning body parts and commenting on poetry itself. Thus, when the speaker of “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (986) remembers himself a “Barefoot” boy (11), he indirectly alludes to a time when his sense of poetry was not fully formed. Likewise, when the speaker of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” (341) notes that feet are going around in his head while he is going mad, he points to the fact that his ability to make poetry is compromised.
In Dickinson’s poems, stones represent immutability and finality: unlike flowers or the light of day, stones remain essentially unchanged. The speaker in “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (216) imagines the dead lying unaffected by the breezes of nature—and of life. After the speaker chooses her soul in “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), she shuts her eyes “Like Stone—” (12), firmly closing herself off from sensory perception or society. A stone becomes an object of envy in “How happy is the little Stone” (1510), a poem in which the speaker longs for the rootless independence of a stone bumping along, free from human cares.
Dickinson uses the symbol of birds rather flexibly. In “A Bird came down the Walk” (328), the bird becomes an emblem of the unyielding mystery of nature, while in “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” (254), the bird becomes a personification of hope. Elsewhere, Dickinson links birds to poets, whose job is to sing whether or not people hear. In “Split—the Lark—and you’ll find the Music” (861), Dickinson compares the sounds of birds to the lyrical sounds of poetry; the poem concludes by asking rhetorically whether its listeners now understand the truths produced by both birds and poetry. Like nature, symbolized by the bird, art produces soothing, truthful sounds.