The Individual’s Struggle with God

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.

The Assertion of the Self

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.

Read about the related theme of the beauty of the individual in the poetry of Walt Whitman.

The Power of Words and Poetry

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.

Read about the related theme of the heroic nature of the poet in the poetry of Percy Shelley.

Nature as a “Haunted House”

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.

Read about a contrasting thematic view of nature and God in the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins.