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The Portrayal of Heaven in Dickinson's Poetry

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Emily Dickinson never became a member of the church although she lived in a typical New England Puritan community all her life. The well-known lines, “Some – keep the Sabbath – going to church – / I – keep it – staying at Home -” (P-236 [B]; J-324),1 suggest her defiance against the existing church and Christianity of her time in particular. And her manner of calling the Deity by such terms as “Burglar,” “Banker” (P-39; J-49), and “a jealous God” (P-1752; J-1719) clearly discloses her antagonism against the Christian God. In fact, she insistently rejected being baptized even when her family members and intimate friends at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary had chosen to bow in faith before the Christian Lord. It is no exaggeration to say that Dickinson tried to deviate from the orthodox religious belief prevalent in the society she lived in.

Nevertheless, Dickinson was an avid reader of the Bible, and as Fordyce R. Bennett states in the preface to A Reference Guide to the Bible in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, “Dickinson found story and situation, syntax, symbolism and imagery, inspiration, and much more in the King James Bible” (xi). That is to say, no matter how much she felt uncomfortable among the Christian circle of the New England community of her day, she endeavored to “keep the Sabbath” (P-236 [B]; J-324) in her own way through the most reliable source, the Christian Scripture, which came to her hands quite easily.

The purpose of this paper, then, is to discuss Dickinson’s poetry with reference to the Bible especially, the Book of Revelation. One of her poems poses a question: “To that etherial throng / Have not each one of us the right / To stealthily belong” (P-1639; J-1596). To find an answer to this kind of question, nothing would have given more insight than the Book of Revelation: it literally reveals the “etherial” world. And Dickinson herself knew the answer was to be found in the Bible, as she answered, “For Prose–Mr Ruskin–Sir Thomas Browne–and the Revelations” (L-261)2 when asked by Thomas W. Higginson what her favorite books were. Of course, there were many other prose writings which she could have mentioned, but she dared to select these three as the sources of her inspiration. Needless to say, the three were exclusively special for her. Therefore, by referring to the picture of heaven in the Book of Revelation, I will consider how Dickinson’s poetry delineates one of the most important and sometimes enigmatic Christian doctrines, the idea of heaven.

The following poem furnishes us with appropriate materials for discussion:

I went to Heaven –

‘Twas a small Town –

Lit – with a Ruby –

Lathed – with Down –

Stiller – than the fields

At the full Dew –

Beautiful – as Pictures –

No Man drew –

People – like the Moth –

Of Mechlin – frames –

Duties – of Gossamer –

And Eider – names –

Almost – contented –

I – could be –

‘Mong such unique

Society – (P-577 [B]; J-374)

Written in about 1862, one of the anni mirabiles (most productive years) of Dickinson’s life, this poem portrays a really mirabile visu spectacle of the heavenly kingdom in earthly images as John sees heaven in terms of earthly material images of jewels and treasures. In the poet’s highly-colored imagery, heaven is “a small Town” like her birthplace, Amherst, Massachusetts. What illuminates the town is “a Ruby,” the birthstone of July, which reminds us of summer or of the meridian of life. She tells us, in one of her letters, “my only sketch, profile, of Heaven is a large, blue sky, bluer and larger than the biggest I have ever seen in June [. . .]” (L-185), wherein she compares the kingdom of God to the sky in summer. We can safely say that she associates heaven with the scenery of summer on earth.

But at the same time, Dickinson herself knows very well: “Of Paradise’ existence / All we know / Is the uncertain certainty – ” (P-1421; J-1411). “No Man” can draw the “Beautiful” picture of the town no matter how it may resemble Amherst in summertime. “Heaven” is after all a place that each person’s mind creates. Accordingly, she applies herself diligently to the description of heaven and coordinates the lines by startling images as “People – like the Moth – / Of Mechline – frames – .” The moth-like inhabitants’ “Duties” are as thin as the web of a spider whereas people are burdened with obligation in this world; their names are lightweight like eiderdown though everyone clings to them in earthly life. Here in Dickinson’s sketch of heaven, we cannot see any images of heavy loads that overgrow on earth. All the light-footed unrestricted inhabitants subsist as they wish, without bothering themselves with fame, rank, or social standing. The poet tries to evince, in short, that the life of people in God’s heaven is completely a novelty for the living. And being confident of her own ingenuity in depicting the mystic region nobody has even seen, she finally “regard[s] herself,” to borrow Jane Donahue Eberwein’s phrase, “as an especially promising candidate for heaven” (263).

What has to be noticed further, however, is that the earthly images in the poem are actually derived from John’s delineation of heaven that we find in the Book of Revelation. So far as chapter twenty-one of the Revelation is concerned, there is an agreement among the critics that Dickinson loved it, calling it a “Gem Chapter” (Sewall 347; Wolff 288). The Bible has a passage concerning heaven as follows:

And [the angel] that talked with me had a golden reed to measure the city, [. . .] the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breath: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal [. . .]. And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass. And the foundations of the wall of the city were garnished with all manner of precious stones. (Rev. 21.15-19)3

The cube city with “twelve thousand furlong” (about two thousand two hundred kilometers) sides is not “a small town”; in this respect, the narrator of Poem 577 is wrong. But if we remember the phrase from the Bible, “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3.8), we can immediately understand that God’s scale is different from that of human beings; and that even a seemingly large city could be “small” in the celestial dimension. And the town in Dickinson’s poem emblemized by “a Ruby” obviously echoes the heavenly structures ornamented with the “jasper” and “all manner of precious stones” even though the Book of Revelation does not mention specifically “a Ruby.” Dickinson’s close reading of the “Gem Chapter” drove her to write the poem.

Also, in addition to the “Gem Chapter,” some other parts of the Revelation have an influence upon the contents of the poem. To take a few examples, the notion of heaven cannot become “Pictures” easily because “what the Spirit saith” about the afterlife is apprehensible only to “[him] that hath an ear” (Rev. 2.11). And the “People” enfolded in moth-like clothes with “Mechlin” and given “Eider – names – ” remind us of the whitness and its meaning illustrated in the Bible:

Thou hast a few names even in Sardis which have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with me in white: for they are worthy. He that overcometh, the same shall be clothed in white raiment; and I will not blot out his name out of the book of life, but I will confess his name before my Father, and before his angels. (Rev. 3.4-5)

The poet believes that she would be able to live in the world where “People” are dressed in white and where their names are stately announced before God. In this sense, Poem 577 narrating the people’s life in the New Jerusalem is Dickinson’s version of the Book of Revelation. When she declares, “I – could be – / ‘Mong such unique / Society – ,” she is assured of her readiness to join the saints in heaven, being “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white” (Rev. 19.8).

Indeed Dickinson’s relationship to whiteness is worthy of further examination. She began to wear only white clothes in around 1861 in her secluded life and never changed the unique style until her death, as one of her acquaintances, Mabel Loomis Todd, reports: “His [i.e. Austin’s] sister Emily is called in Amherst ‘the myth.’ She has not been out of her house for fifteen years [. . .] . She wears always white [. . .]” (Sewall 217). Opinions are divergent on the reason why she chose such clothes. From a feminist perspective, Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar contend that “white was in the nineteenth century a distinctively female color” (615) and that Dickinson “escape[d] her culture’s strictures by ironically imposing [white clothes] on herself” (621); according to a biographer, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, it was “a visible sign of perpetual mourning” after her father’s death (507). Still, as we noted in the discussion of Poem 577, Dickinson strongly yearned for the Kingdom of God, where chosen people are always clothed in white. It is likely that her white dress demonstrated an unmistakable clue on the part of the poet: she was certain that she would become a member of heaven. The first stanza of Poem 307 (J-271) gives authenticity to this point:

A solemn thing – it was – I said –

A Woman – white – to be –

And wear – if God should count me fit –

Her blameless mystery –

With “a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” (Rev. 7.9), the poet in white garments stands before God, purified from earthly impurities.

Dickinson’s early poem states in a perplexed manner: “There are that resting, rise. / Can I expound the skies? / How still the Riddle lies!” (P-68; J-89). But as we have observed, she successfully enlarges visionary pictures of “the skies” in her own words. Beth Maclay Doriani points out very aptly that “[Dickinson’s] poems call their readers to consider what lies beyond the visible world” (94). We, human beings, are not allowed to solve “the Riddle” as regards heaven while we are alive; instead we are allowed to envision heaven in the form of painting, of music, or of poetry. Dickinson also studded her own lines with the visionary images of heaven discovered as the consequence of her persistent quest for afterlife and her meticulous reading of the Book of Revelation. And the readers with the similar kind of speculation about heaven are attracted to her poetry–even at the beginning of the twenty-first century, as she lets them in her vision of heaven.

Notes

1. Dickinson’s poems are basically reprinted in accordance with Franklin’s three-volume variorum edition, The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Subsequent citations from these volumes appear parenthetically as the letter “P,” followed by the each number. Also, the numbers given to the poems in Johnson’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson are indicated after the letter “J” for reference.

2. Dickinson’s letters are taken from The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Subsequent references to this edition are cited parenthetically in the text as the capital letter “L,” identified by the numbers.

3. All scriptural quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible, the version that Dickinson knew.

Works Cited

Bennett, Fordyce R. A Reference Guide to the Bible in Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Lanham: Scarecrow, 1997.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin. Variorum ed. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1998.

—. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1958.

Doriani, Beth Maclay. Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1996.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1985.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. 2 vols. 1974. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1980.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. 1986. Reading: Addison, 1988.

Works Consulted

Capps, Jack L. Emily Dickinson’s Reading 1836-1886. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1966.

Dickinson, Emily. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ed. Thomas H. Johnson. 3 vols. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard UP, 1955.

McIntosh, James. Nimble Believing: Dickinson and the Unknown. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2000.

Mounce, Robert H. The Book of Revelation. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998.

Rosenbaum, S. P., ed. A Concordance to the Poems of Emily Dickinson. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.

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