How Emily Dickinson’s Spiritual Views Shocked Readers

Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost, two iconic American poets, are often introduced to students through their most accessible and charming poems. Frost is depicted as a wise lover of New England’s country life, while Dickinson is portrayed as a whimsical recluse with a fascination for nature. However, a deep dive into their works reveals a different narrative. Both Frost and Dickinson are poets of spiritual struggle, exploring the uncanny and inexplicable aspects of life. They radiate an anxious isolation and are obsessed with death and tragedy.

Upon closer examination, Frost’s poems reveal a surprising deviousness and occasional nihilism. Meanwhile, Dickinson’s approximately 1,800 poems and fragments paint a picture of doubt, loneliness, longing, inward struggle, fury, alienation, dread, and depression. She explores every negative affect with mastery. Contrary to her popular image, Dickinson is one of America’s most intellectually demanding poets. She expounds brilliantly on the tension of existence, living in the inescapable space between world and transcendence, time and eternity, ignorance and knowledge, despair and faith, hope and fulfillment.

Understanding Dickinson’s true nature as a poet has been challenging for a few reasons. First, her intense privacy delayed the recognition of her talent. Only a handful of her poems were published during her lifetime, and the first complete editions were published posthumously, with alterations to suit conventional tastes. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that her full scope of work became known. Second, while her poetic forms may seem familiar, Dickinson’s voice is unique, instantly recognizable in its peculiarities of diction, concision, and metaphoric invention.

However, it is her cognitive originality that truly sets Dickinson apart. She breaks new ground in her thinking, discovering and expressing interpretations and meanings that were previously unthought of. Her cognitive originality is beyond measure, placing her in the company of Shakespeare and Dante. Dickinson thinks and feels with unparalleled lucidity, fully aware of her superiority over her readers.

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Despite her extraordinary accomplishments, Dickinson remains relatively unknown beyond her anthologized poems. Few readers venture into her complete works, finding it challenging to keep up with her flashes of insight and audacious expressions. Many anthologies misrepresent her, confounding her worst poetry with her best. Additionally, as a woman, Dickinson faced further obstacles in gaining recognition. The idea that a woman could possess the best mind among Western poets since Shakespeare was difficult for many to accept.

However, Dickinson’s literary and cognitive originality are not mere exercises in imagination. Her poems explore genuine truths about human existence, consciousness, the natural world, the limitations of language, and our relationship with divine transcendence. She emphasizes the passionate questioning and insatiable yearning for certainty and fulfillment that define our humanity. In this aspect, her poetry echoes the analyses of consciousness and existence put forth by scholars like Voegelin.

In conclusion, Emily Dickinson’s view of spirituality shocked readers due to the stark contrast between her popular image and the complexities of her poetry. Her exploration of doubt, struggle, and the tension of existence sets her apart as a uniquely gifted and intellectually demanding poet. Understanding her greatness and appreciating her work requires delving deeper into her complete body of work, beyond the confines of anthologies.

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