The Poetry of Atheism: Emily Dickinson Celebrates International Blasphemy Day
Oops, it’s 2:56AM here in Taiwan and I was just reminded that September 30th is International Blasphemy Day. Luckily, since most of the world is half a day behind, I still have time. I decided to celebrate by dusting off this post about Emily Dickinson I’ve been meaning to publish for about a year.
It vexes me to see Christians and other religious people quote Emily Dickinson’s Poetry in support of their faith, when she spent so much time, irony and wit mocking her religious contemporaries with blasphemous poetry. She refused evangelical conversion point-blank, and denied Christianity in favor of a naturalistic (Pagan) spirituality. Some may claim that she is not “an Atheist” but rather deeply devote – but this trespasses over her very cutting criticisms and mockery of Jesus and the Christian God, whom she saw as a cruel tyrant. There is also a tendency in literature studies to avoid the straight-forward anti-religious tone of the poems and interpret Dickinson’s poetry more imaginatively.
Dickinson is actually pretty easy to understand and appreciate – unless you disagree with her. Then suddenly she becomes “cryptic” and “mysterious” and “difficult”. Giant edifices of literary theory have been constructed around the idea that Emily is hiding something, or lying somehow. (Incidentally, Emily was a migraine sufferer, and some of her most interesting poems are simply descriptions of migraine symptoms – the pulsating lights, the abrasiveness of light and noise, the flickering and fluttering… as I’ve argued in a paper I’m publishing soon.)
Anyway, Happy International Blasphemy Day.
For those who can relish Emily’s honest refutation of Christianity, here are a few of my favorite anti-Christian poems:
“I had not minded – Walls…” (398)
I had not minded – Walls -
Were Universe – one Rock -
And far I heard his silver Call
The other side the Block -
I’d tunnel – till my Groove
Pushed sudden thro’ to his -
Then my face take her Recompense -
The looking in his Eyes -
But ’tis a single Hair -
A filament – a law -
A Cobweb – wove in Adamant -
A Battlement – of Straw -
A limit like the Veil
Unto the Lady’s face -
But every Mesh – a Citadel -
And Dragons – in the Crease -
MEANING: Dickinson hears the “silver call” of Jesus/religion and “tunneled” through religion to find the truth of it, but when she got through, she found it was just a single hair, a filament, a cobweb – which had been turned into a commanding law (an adamant). It was a battlement of straw (no substance, no support). It was weak and thin, like the veil of a lady’s face, but at the same time harsh, violent and ready for battle – full of citadels and dragons.
“The Bible is an antique Volume…” (1545)
The Bible is an antique Volume –
Written by faded men
At the suggestion of Holy Spectres –
Subjects — Bethlehem –
Eden — the ancient Homestead –
Satan — the Brigadier –
Judas — the Great Defaulter –
David — the Troubador –
Sin — a distinguished Precipice
Others must resist –
Boys that “believe” are very lonesome –
Other Boys are “lost” –
Had but the Tale a warbling Teller –
All the Boys would come –
Orpheus’ Sermon captivated –
It did not condemn –
MEANING: Emily begins by appreciating the Bible as a standard literary text with common characters and roles, before concluding that boys are either “lonesome or lost.” She criticizes Christianity for using punishment and fear to force allegiance rather than to invite and entreat through song or pleasure.
“Of God we ask one favor…” (1601)
Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven –
For what, he is presumed to know –
The Crime, from us, is hidden –
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.
MEANING: Dickinson uses the term “magic” to denigrate the idea that this life is a prison (a punishment for a crime that was can’t remember or understand). Using “magic” equates this belief system to superstition. She notes how happiness “competes with Heaven” – implying God doesn’t want or allow us to be happy (this is less true in modern Christianity, which often practices epicurean/Dionysian revelry – including sex, alcoholic abandon – without it interfering in their spiritual status).
“To lose one’s faith surpasses” (119)
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished, — faith cannot.
Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being’s beggary.
MEANING: faith is difficult to maintain; if you “annihilate a single clause” (or look into the matter logically and rationally, or ask questions of your faith) the whole thing will come apart. Once your belief leaves you, you cannot get it back.
I MEANT to have but modest needs (39)
Such as content, and heaven;
Within my income these could lie,
And life and I keep even.
But since the last included both, 5
It would suffice my prayer
But just for one to stipulate,
And grace would grant the pair.
And so, upon this wise I prayed,—
Great Spirit, give to me 10
A heaven not so large as yours,
But large enough for me.
A smile suffused Jehovah’s face;
The cherubim withdrew;
Grave saints stole out to look at me, 15
And showed their dimples, too.
I left the place with all my might,—
My prayer away I threw;
The quiet ages picked it up,
And Judgment twinkled, too, 20
That one so honest be extant
As take the tale for true
That “Whatsoever you shall ask,
Itself be given you.”
But I, grown shrewder, scan the skies 25
With a suspicious air,—
As children, swindled for the first,
All swindlers be, infer.
MEANING: When she was younger, Dickinson – having faith and believing the gospel – asked for miracles (a heaven, large enough for her). She had thought that “Ask and it shall be given to you” was literal truth – so she tried it out; but everybody laughed at her (Jehovah, the cherubim). Later she grew shrewder, suspicious of religion. She concludes that all children are “swindled”.
He preached upon “breadth” till it argued him narrow,—(1207)
The broad are too broad to define:
And of “truth” until it proclaimed him a liar,—
The truth never flaunted a sign.
Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As gold the pyrites would shun.
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a man!
PRAYER is the little implement
Through which men reach
Where presence is denied them.
They fling their speech
By means of it in God’s ear;
If then He hear,
This sums the apparatus
Comprised in prayer.
MEANING: This is a criticism of preachers who go on and on about the certainties of their faith: I love her description of prayer as “flinging speech where presence is denied them.” (If there is a God, he’s already made all his choices and he already knows everything. What’s the point of prayer? Do we think this is a democracy? God doesn’t need our input-prayer is just shouting at Him to change his mind, which is impossible for him to do, being perfect.)
Safe in their alabaster chambers, (124)
Untouched by morning and untouched by noon,
Sleep the meek members of the resurrection,
Rafter of satin, and roof of stone. Light laughs the breeze in her castle of sunshine;
Babbles the bee in a stolid ear;
Pipe the sweet birds in ignorant cadence,–
Ah, what sagacity perished here!
Grand go the years in the crescent above them;
Worlds scoop their arcs, and firmaments row,
Diadems drop and Doges surrender,
Soundless as dots on a disk of snow.
MEANING: The futility of life, of fancy burial, of human ambition. The universe goes on, nature overcomes all, wise rulers in tombs decompose. “Doges” were former rulers of Venice=countries lose wars. But life goes on…
GOING to heaven! (42)
I don’t know when,
Pray do not ask me how,—
Indeed, I ’m too astonished
To think of answering you!
Going to heaven!—
How dim it sounds!
And yet it will be done
As sure as flocks go home at night
Unto the shepherd’s arm!
Perhaps you ’re going too!
If you should get there first,
Save just a little place for me
Close to the two I lost!
The smallest “robe” will fit me,
And just a bit of “crown”;
For you know we do not mind our dress
When we are going home.
I’m glad I don’t believe it,
For it would stop my breath,
And I ’d like to look a little more
At such a curious earth!
I am glad they did believe it
Whom I have never found
Since the mighty autumn afternoon
I left them in the ground.
MEANING: She’s mocking all the people who are certain of their own salvation, and their precise descriptions of the afterlife, and are all excited to get there. She clearly doesn’t believe it, and is much more impressed with this life rather than the next.
Conclusion: Emily Dickinson strikes me very much like Camus’ character in The Stranger. Facing death for murder, a preacher comes to save him, and he yells, “leave me alone! I don’t have much time left, I want to focus on this life, not the next!” (Or something like that, I’m paraphrasing and it’s been awhile since I’ve read it.) A common mistake is to take each of her poems separately and tug out a stand-alone meaning. In this way the body of work Emily produced can mean anything to anybody. But taken at face value, and read collectively, Emily’s anti-organized religion stance and outspoken blasphemy is clear.
Derek Murphy is a writer and artist from Oregon, currently working on his PhD thesis on revolutionary literature while traveling the globe. He writes about comparative religion, popular culture and literary theory. If you’d like to hear about his upcoming projects or books, you can follow him on Twitter, join the Facebook page, or subscribe by RSS.