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Over the past few decades, a considerable number of comments have been made on the idea of eternity in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The following are several examples: Robert Weisbuch’s Emily Dickinson’s Poetry (1975), Jane Donahue Eberwein’s Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation (1985), Dorothy Huff Oberhaus’ Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning (1995), and James McIntosh’s Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown (2000). However, opinions vary as to how Dickinson explored the question regarding eternity; much ink has still been spent on the issue. This paper, therefore, provides another discussion of the idea of eternity depicted in Dickinson’s poetry. I will discuss the issue by considering how her poems describe the process through which the poet finally reaches the belief in eternity-overcoming the feud between Christianity and scientific knowledge and that between Romanticism and existentialism.
As a beginning, let us look closely at one of the poems in which Dickinson gives a detailed account of a deathbed scene: The last Night that She lived
It was a Common Night
Except the Dying-this to Us
Made Nature different
We noticed smallest things-
Things overlooked before
By this great light upon our Minds
As We went out and in
Between Her final Room
And Rooms where Those to be alive
Tomorrow were, a Blame
That Others could exist
While She must finish quite
A Jealousy for Her arose
So nearly infinite– (P-1100)
It is presumed that Dickinson wrote this piece of verse in circa 1886. In May of that year, Laura Dickey, the wife of Frank W. of Michigan, died at the parents’ home in Amherst. Although there is no document which shows that Dickinson was with the woman at her death, the event might have inspired the poet to write this poem. Whatever the fount of inducement, she sets down, in this narrative, a profound moment of death and its impact on the living, whereby she couches her belief and doubt in the next world.
Though it is a “Common Night” when the woman dies, the speaker says, there is something unnatural in the air, because what people usually disregard or avoid is emphasized (“Italicized”) by death (“great light”). The moment of death is a “Compound Vision” (P-906) for Dickinson. While, on the one hand, the dying woman steps forward to the presence of God, on the other hand, the living go in and out of “Her final Room” vigorously. In the meantime, two differing emotions-“a Blame” and “a Jealousy”-seize the speaker: she is filled with anger against the absurdity of death which snatches away the woman alone to the “Undiscovered Country” (L-752); at the same time, she is envious of the woman’s fate in that the dying woman can now go through the great adventure and see the world beyond death.
So far, the speaker observes the dying from a Christian viewpoint: the jealousy for the woman represents a belief in Paradise and eternal life affirmed in the Bible. She wants to share with the departed the opportunity to get a glimpse of afterlife which is intangible to the living. Nevertheless, it is only the woman lying on the bed that can exceed the limit of this world. The speaker cannot puzzle out the enigma of death. Here, anti-religious knowledge begins to raise its head within the speaker, or the poet. When writing to T. W. Higginson, Dickinson states that “My business is Circumference-” (L-268); and according to the interpretation by Eberwein, “circumference, for Emily Dickinson, is death” (164). Then, the inability to find the sense of death indicates the nonsuccess in her own business. As far as she adheres to the Christian idea, death remains a mystery. Hence the poet averts her eyes from Christianity so that she can accomplish her assignment, which gives the poem a sudden alteration in its tone:
She mentioned, and forgot-
Then lightly as a Reed
Bent to the Water, struggled scarce-
Consented, and was dead-
And We-We place the Hair-
And drew the Head erect-
And then an awful leisure was
Belief to regulate- (P-1100)
The woman, on the brink of death, attempts to utter a word, in vain. She just struggles feebly against “a reaper whose name is Death” (L-185) as if she were a defenseless reed standing against the current which tries to wash it away. In a well-known poem, “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-” (P-465), a fly ruins the crucial moment of the speaker’s death with its buzz. But there appears, at the woman’s deathbed, no hindrance like the fly; instead she yields to death with great ease, just leaving her body behind her. What the attendants including the speaker must do now is to fix her hair, to set up her head-and to “regulate” their religious faith. Christians are trained to watch for signs of salvation at the point of death to search for an evidence that angels come down to take a newcomer to the Paradise. Yet people cannot perceive any providential signal in the woman’s submitting to death. As a result, they are agitated, and a scientific view begins to conquer their minds. These baffled people require, for the moment, “an awful leisure” for their recovery of unshakable belief.
The last two stanzas express, in this manner, Dickinson’s loss of faith in Christianity and in its idea about afterlife. She apparently watches the dying within the limit which scientific knowledge affords: death, here, is a mere vanishing point and there is no revelation in it. In the period when Dickinson lived, railroad, telephone, steamship, electricity-all these products of modern science and technology were introduced to New Englanders. And those inventions not only facilitated their lives but lured them into the materialism; consequently, science started to supersede the formulated Christian faith. Besides, from what Cynthia Griffin Wolff points out, “Dickinson was given more instruction in current mathematics and science than the average American schoolboy is given now” (342). It is likely that her attachment for science was much stronger than our speculation. Adrift from the belief in the Omnipotence, Dickinson came to believe only what had a proof; as a natural result, the commitment to scientific knowledge antagonized religious learning about death and afterlife. And so far as these two stanzas are concerned, abstract description of afterlife in the Scripture is regarded as unworthy: it does not disclose the true nature of death, of the afterworld-and of eternity.
Then, can “We” inclusive of the poet really adjust their faith during “an awful leisure”? The answer would be “Yes” and “No” as Dickinson mentions simply that the “leisure” is arranged after the death of the woman. Some might overcome their skepticism; others might abandon the solemn Christian view at such time. And in the case of Dickinson herself, it can be said that she continued to be both a skeptic and a believer in Christianity. The poet with a materialistic viewpoint needed the “leisure” to reconsider the Christian thought when she witnessed death; all the same, she understood satisfactorily that scientific knowledge was insufficient after all as a clue to answer the ultimate question about life and death. Dickinson’s pursuit of eternity, in other words, went to and fro between the orthodox Christian view and the scientific one upon the world after death.
Now I will shift the emphasis away from the clash between Christianity and scientific thought to that between Romanticism and existentialism. The analysis of Poem 191 provides a good starting-point:
The Skies cant keep their secret!
They tell it to the Hills-
The Hills just tell the Orchards-
And they-the Daffodils!
A bird-by chance-that goes that way-
Soft overhears the whole-
If I should bribe the little Bird-
Who knows but she would tell?
“The Skies,” that is to say, the kingdom of heaven, reveals the secret of God and angels to “the Hills”; the rolling country, to “the Orchards”; the fruit tress, to “the Daffodils.” “A bird” eavesdrops on their whispering talk, and if the speaker offers “the little Bird” a bribe, “she” will presumably tell it to her, too. In such a manner, the gist of these lines is exceedingly simple; it is clear that the poet makes no doubt about the potentiality of the interlocution between nature and human beings. Critic Hoxie Neale Fairchild exhorts:
[. . .] romanticism can most fruitfully be defined as the attempt to achieve, to retain, or to justify that emotional experience which is produced by an imaginative interfusion of real and ideal, natural and supernatural, finite and infinite, man and God. (206)
The attempt to discover the infinite within the finite, looking after the anchor for human life-this is what is called Romanticism. Then, it is obvious that Dickinson was a romantic poet. She conceived nature as God’s representative in the stanzas above; she was convinced that she could listen to the Deity directly by the agency of nature.
However, her intellect did not permit her to be satisfied with the romantic view of nature: she could not be carried away plenarily by a romantic vision. Accordingly, she made her speaker address God, to borrow Sewall’s phrase, “with a certain abstemiousness” (714):
So keep your secret-Father!
I would not-if I could,
Know what the Sapphire Fellows, do,
In your new-fashioned world! (P-191)
This concluding coda of the poem shows that the speaker has no desire to be informed of what “the Sapphire Fellows” do in the Holy City even if “Father” lets her know it voluntarily. There was no conciliation, in the poet’s philosophy, between the finite and the infinite. Therefore she disassociated her speaker from Romanticism when she was about to know, through natural phenomena, all the answers to questions about eternity. And what came to the poet’s attention now was an existential idea with regard to eternity.
The existentialist movement spread widely in European countries after the World War II; it was long after the death of Dickinson that it entered American literary world. But the philosophical movement actually originated in the nineteenth century when Soren Kierkegaard used the term “Existents-forhold,” meaning “the condition of existence” or “an existential relation.” As Kenneth Stocks supposes, it “already existed in the consciousness of Emily Dickinson’s time” (52). In his volume The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard notes that “God and man are two qualities separated by an infinite qualitative difference” (126), which is looked on as the very fundamental doctrine of existentialism. Unlike Romanticism, it affirms that there is no amicable settlement between the limited being and the unlimited one: human beings and Supreme Being are not two portions on the equivalent level but two elements in two dimensions. To sum up, existentialism is a school of philosophy which recognizes the finitude of human beings.
When we review Dickinson’s works in conformity to this definition, we can easily hit upon poems which illustrate her existential realizations. As an example, she sings:
To be alive-is Power-
Without a further function- [no stanza break]
To be alive-and Will!
‘Tis able as a God-
The Maker-of Ourselves-be what-
Such being Finitude! (P-677)
“To be alive” denotes, the poet remarks, “Power,” “Existence,” or “Omnipotence” of human beings. Even if they are just alive, the very capacity of living is all-powerful enough. Besides, when they retain “Will,” they can possess godlike competence: they are able to achieve anything as God created them. Still, their “Existence” is finite after all. However gifted they are, they are condemned to “Finitude.” Accordingly, their “Existence” is distinguished from God’s one; and only “Finitude” becomes their dominant character, or “Omnipotence.” Obviously, Dickinson approves the heterogeneity between the godhead and the nature of human beings in this poem, which acquaints us with the fact that she was involved in existential thought even unwittingly.
Indeed Dickinson’s idea was quite analogous to Kierkegaard’s ones. The following poem serves as evidence of this point:
Conscious am I in my Chamber,
Of a shapeless friend-
He doth not attest by Posture-
Nor Confirm-by Word-
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
Presence-is His furthest license-
Neither He to Me
Nor Myself to Him-by Accent-
[. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ]
Neither if He visit Other-
Do He dwell-or Nay-know I-
But Instinct esteem Him
In the introduction to The Sickness unto Death, Kierkegaard insists:
Christianly understood, [. . .] death is by no means the last of all; in fact, it is only a minor event within that which is all, an eternal life, a and, Christianly understood, there is infinitely much more hope in death than is in life [. . .]. (7)
Seemingly, Kierkegaard merely sums up a representative Christian theology. Yet the point to note is that he carries the Christian belief one step further. His exploration of the human existence uncovers that a human being cannot be given eternal life automatically after his/her bodily extinction; according to his premises, it is necessary, for the inheritance of eternal life, to assume the internal eternity consciously. The following quotation will make his view clearer. He prescribes the human existence straightforwardly:
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. (13)
It is the real way to exist, his argument suggests, that the self always relates to itself. In connection with this point, we have the explanation that “the self is the conscious synthesis of infinitude and finitude that relates itself to itself” (29). Although a human being is allowed to live during a limited time only, its existence includes “infinitude,” or the eternal within it. To put it another way, the human existence is dual. And what is immediately apparent in these extracts is that a human being has to relate the self to the duality of the existence. Only when conscious of its doubleness, a human being can be bestowed eternity.
Turning back to Poem 679, it is clear that the poet was as philosophical as Kierkegaard. At the opening lines, the speaker confesses that she is “Conscious” of a guest visiting her “Chamber.” He is invisible and silent; yet she can perceive him since “His furthest license” is “Presence.” As long as she is present, the guest is also granted to exist; as far as he keeps the “license,” she can be present. And they relate mutually with “Probity” so that they may accomplish the coexistence. The correlation between the speaker and the “shapeless friend” is, in this way, quite an amicable one. And through the staunch mutual relation, she comes to be able to infer his true colors at the closing paragraph: her “Instinct” feels that he is “Immortality.” Wolff insists “Eternity” is “a term that is coldly indifferent to the existence of both mankind and God” and that “Immortality” is connected with “the infinite life of an integral consciousness, either human or divine” (293); and she tries to clear the dissimilarity between the two terms. But The Oxford English Dictionary defines “Immortality” as “absolute eternity, having neither beginning nor end” and treats the two words as synonyms; we would rather agree with this definition here. Hence the speaker of this verse is aware of the eternal within her “Presence.”
Judging from the above, it is quite satisfying that Dickinson penetrated, in these lines, the duality of the human existence as much as Kierkegaard did in his writings. Aware of ” shapeless friend” in her “Chamber,” in other words, in her self, she began trying to unveil the friend’s true character; she ultimately evaluated it as the eternal in the same sense Kierkegaard used. It may well be that such a discovery of the infinite aspect of the human existence let Dickinson wholly acquire the intrinsic conception of eternity.
In one of her poems, we are told:
The Blunder is in estimate
Eternity is there
We say as of a Station
Meanwhile he is so near
He joins me in my Ramble
Divides abode with me
No Friend have I that so persists
As this Eternity (P-1684)
Dickinson enunciated that eternity was already lurking in the existence before a human being is “called back” (L-1046). To return to the statement by Kierkegaard, a human being “cannot throw the eternal away once and for all, nothing is more impossible [. . .]” (17); Dickinson, too, sensed the persistence of the friend called eternity. Without a dash, the symbol of her uncertainty, this poem represents, in such a manner, her winning of the noumenon of eternity. The poet transformed, in an existentialist standpoint, her sheer wistfulness for eternity into a veritable conviction in it.
“I dwell in Possibility- / A fairer House than Prose-” (P-657) Dickinson sings softly. The mansion embracing “Possibility” was, of course, poetry. This paper has clarified how she furnished the empty house with an abstraction, eternity. Eternity is, for all human beings, one of the most intriguing subjects; innumerable writers choose it as the theme for their works. We may say there is nothing new in her poems with respect to it. Still, Dickinson’s uniqueness in the exploration is her inquiring mind affected by four different ideas: Christianity, scientific knowledge, Romanticism and existentialism. While these ideas perplexed her time after time, they titillated her immeasurably; magnetized from all sides, she exerted herself to ascertain which thought was the most reliable one to get to the core of eternity. And existentialism finally proved to be a trustworthy theory.
Dickinson once writes: “Finite-to fail, but infinite to Venture” (P-847), whereby she tries to show that we cannot surpass our limitations unless we test our possibility. This active attitude toward life well explains Dickinson’s life long search for a glimpse of eternity. As we have observed, none of Christian ideology, scientific knowledge, nor Romanticism was so appealing as to retain the poet’s zeal for them and existentialism tendered some answers for her questioning about eternity. But it is true that she was absorbed in each idea on each occasion: she attempted to pursue eternity, through the lyrics, believing that every though must have a possibility of providing a guide in her investigation. In that respect, her quest for eternity was exactly a “Venture.” She lived, in actuality, in the house decorated with “Possibility.” And when she sought for eternity in the remarkable house, the “Venture” let the poet perceive “The Torrents of Eternity / Do all but inundate-” (P-1380), wherein we can see her conclusive success in being assured of eternity in life-here and now.
Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1951.
—. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1958.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1985.
Fairchild, Hoxie Neale. Preliminaries. Religious Trends in English Poetry. Vol. New York: Columbia UP, 1949. 3-18. Rpt. as “Romantic Religion” in
Romanticism: Points of View. Ed. Robert F. Gleckner, and Gerald E. Enscoe. 2nd ed. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1974.
“Immortality.” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989.
Kierkegaard, Soren. The Sickness unto Death. Ed. And Trans. Howard Hong, and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. Trans. of Sygdommen til Doden. Copenhagen: privately printed, 1849.
Sewall, Richard J., ed. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. 1974. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994.
Stocks, Kenneth. Emily Dickinson and the Modern Consciousness. Hong Kong: Macmillan, 1988.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. 1986. Reading: Addison, 1988.
Kjaer, Niels Pastor. “The Poet of Moment: Emily Dickinson and Soren Kierkegaard.” Dickinson Studies 59 (1986): 46-9.
McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.
Oberhaus, Dorothy Huff. Emily Dickinson’s Fascicles: Method and Meaning. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1995.
Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.
Scholnick, Robert J., ed. American Literature and Science. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1992.
Weisbuch, Robert. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1975.
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