None of Emily Dickinson's readers has met the woman who lived and died in Amherst, Massachusetts more than a century ago, yet most of those same readers feel as if they know her closely. Her reclusive life made understanding her quite difficult. However, taking a close look at her verses, one can learn a great deal about this remarkable woman. The poetry of Emily Dickinson delves deep into her mind, exposing her personal experiences and their influence on her thoughts about religion, love, and death. By examining her life some, and reading her poetry in a certain light, one can see an obvious autobiographical connection.
All the beliefs and emotions Emily Dickinson wrote about were based, in one way or another, on the same aspect of her upbringing, which was religion. During her childhood, life in Amherst was based strongly upon religion and Puritan values. The distinctive Puritan virtues of simplicity, austerity, hard work, and denial of flesh, were ever-present disciplines in Emily's life (Sewall 22). Despite her stubborn denials to be labeled, she was very much of a "New Englander". Cynthia Griffen Wolff, author of Emily Dickinson, points out that Emily "knew every line of the Bible intimately, quoted from it extensively, and referred to it many more times than she referred to any other work... yet in this regard she was not unusual by Amherst's standards" (72). The most prominent figure of religious virtues in her life was her father, Edward Dickinson. Reading the Bible to his children and speaking in town of religious ethics were daily events in his life. At home, he tried to raise his children in the rigorous religion of their ancestors, however his methods appeared quite harsh. People who knew the Dickinsons referred to Edward as a "severe, latter- day Puritan, a power-minded tyrant...", and his home was often depicted as a " gloomy prison" (Sewall 8). In fact, Emily's fear and awe of him seemed to dominate her life. Although he read aloud from his Bible, conducted prayer service in his home daily, and he educated his children in a strict Puritan way, he himself was not quite a believer. He delayed conversion until well into middle age, "...displayed no mark of singular devotion, defined his vocation in terms of business, and was not inclined to explore the mysteries of the Divinity" (Wolff 125) It is possible that the paradox of faith which tore Emily's mind could have had its roots in her father's own doubts.
No quandary in life presented Emily Dickinson with such wrenching choices as the demand for conversion. Her doubts tempted her to rebel against God, but her needs drove her toward faith in Him. Neither stance could overcome the other, and neither could be reconciled. Emotionally, she lacked a direction of beliefs, however there was one thing she was sure of - God existed. "Reason convinced her that there must be such a Being as God; and as to God's existence she seems never to have wavered" (Wolff 84). Believing that He was there only gave her something solid to forsake. In a letter to her friend once she wrote, " ...and I am standing alone in rebellion, and growing very careless..." (Sewall 375). However, it was only when she had achieved complete poetic independence that she could confidently write in open defiance of God:
I reckon - when I count at all -
First - Poets - Then the Sun
Then Summer - Then the Heaven of God -
And then - the List is done -
But, looking back - the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole -
The Others look a needless Show -
So I write - Poets - All -...
...And if the Further Heaven -
Be beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them -
It is too difficult a Grace -
To justify the Dream - (Sewall 355)
On several occasions, Emily went as far as calling herself a pagan. The bitterness with which the comment was made may...