I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson

Posted on: 25th January 2013  |
Author: Kristin LeMay
Publication details: Paraclete Press, 2013 304 pages
ISBN: 978-1-61261-163-1
Category: Faith and culture
Tags: book, poetry, USA, Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson is one of those poets to whom readers always come via an editor. Her poetic output (1,775 poems) is such that only the most leisured or love-struck readers would ever attempt to read through her Complete Poems.[1] Instead, we approach her via the guidance of someone who has stepped further ahead than us: at best, an editor who knows and loves both the poems and the context, social as well as literary, which gave them life; and at worst, those commercial editors who paste lines from her poems onto coffee cups or cute, flowery notebooks. Kristin LeMay’s book puts her in the better company. I Told My Soul to Sing is a spiritual autobiography that shares with its readers her relationship with Dickinson’s poems, and is a sensitive introduction to some of the little known (because less anthologised or selected) poems.

Much has been written about Dickinson’s life and most of it is conjecture. The facts as they survive are few: born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts; secluded from the world on her own volition from her mid-twenties; died with only a handful of poems published in 1886. The rest of her poems were found hidden in drawers after her death. Such mystery, combined with the attraction of her poetic genius, is an open door to that particular breed of speculative biographers (was Dickinson mad? abused? heart-broken? gay?) who swarm over the artefacts of the famous dead. LeMay is not one of these. Generations of sensitive American teenagers who had to consume Dickinson as meat for their examinations might appreciate LeMay’s concern early on in her book to reclaim Dickinson from her role as the reclusive priestess of American literature; such appreciation may come less readily to non-American readers. LeMay’s project is a deeply personal one: she aims to share her insights, rather than to colonise any unclaimed piece of Dickinson with a scholarly flag. Her Dickinson (or Emily, as she calls her) is a rebel, rogue and spiritual guide.

This is not, then, a scholarly book, something that LeMay states at the outset. LeMay is a young academic in Ohio, trained at the Harvard Divinity School, a bilingual theologian.[2] A scholarly book was surely a possibility. Instead we have what I suspect many young academics yearn to produce – a personal record that recaptures the excitement that led them to their subject in the first place, linguistically and formally far removed from the rules and expectations of academia. Her book takes 25 of Dickinson’s poems and offers meditations based on a close reading of each, interspersed with Dickinson’s letters, and LeMay’s own spiritual experiences. Grouped thematically (‘Belief’, ‘Prayer’, ‘Mortality’, ‘Immortality’ and ‘Beauty’), each reflection on a poem follows a similar arc: the exposition of a spiritual crux or difficulty, which the chosen poem illuminates.

I knew only one of the chosen poems, and none of the letters, some of which are astonishing. Her letters to friends who were in mourning (often written on the day of their loved one’s death) reveal just how unusual Dickinson was, in the intensity of her feeling, her willingness to share this regardless of propriety and, of course, the ecstasy she found in the English language. Being loved by Emily Dickinson would rarely have been dull.

[Emily] wrote to Higginson, in mourning for his wife: ‘let Redemption find you –, as it surely will – Love is it’s own rescue, for we – at our supremest, are but it’s trembling Emblems –.’ (p.60)

This is not the kind of approach you would expect, or hope, to find advocated in a how-to pastoral handbook.

In its hybridity – a non-scholarly book written by a scholar – LeMay’s book sometimes frustrates, and I was left wishing that she had shared as much of her knowledge as she does of her intuition and emotional life. A copy of one of Dickinson’s letters is shown to illustrate her handwriting, but without a transcription of the words it is impossible to read. We are given a sketch of the theological context of Dickinson’s time, but not enough for us to decide for ourselves what she might have meant by ‘I cannot pray’, a central claim that LeMay latches onto. A more academic book would have, for example, described the contemporary prayer practices, the connotations of the word ‘prayer’ at that time, contextualized Dickinson’s tendency towards melodrama and posturing. A similar issue comes earlier in the book, where LeMay interprets Dickinson’s diary entries about her reluctance to ‘convert’ along with the revival movements, as protecting ‘that most precious sense of self’ (p.23); her evidence is that the language of ‘yielding’ ‘giving myself away’, ‘giving up’ to Christ, is the language of defeat and surrender. Ultimately with poetry, all we have are our personal readings and LeMay explicitly states that self-sharing is her intention; but for someone writing for an audience that is likely to include first-time readers of Dickinson, her personalised approach creates something of a hermetic, even dogmatic, seal around the poems.

The highlights of the book come when LeMay does share her learning. One example: the reading of the poem beginning, ‘Perhaps you think me stooping’. Not much in a first reading of the poem had interested me. But as LeMay discusses the etymology of ‘condescension’ and its links to kenosis (self-emptying), and draws out the link that the poem makes to the metallurgical process of ‘annealing’ (‘love annealed of love’), we are led to an image of the incarnation: God melting Himself down in the heat of love to become reformed as man on earth. This is great stuff – knowledge and data mixed with insight and imagination, which informs and enriches not only our reading of the poem, but our way of understanding God.

What of the theology that she draws from the poems? The key chapters in the book are those that discuss doubt. LeMay portrays herself as something of a modern day Everywoman: the emotional peak of her teenage conversion to Christianity has been replaced by a pattern of belonging and uncertainty, doubt and insight. A straw man repeatedly totters onto the scene – ‘Religion’ as overly-dogmatic, brittle and po-faced in its certitude, shrill and judgemental in its teachings. To her side she recruits Emily:

I’ve floated in and out of Methodist, Congregational, Lutheran, nondenominational Christian, and Episcopal congregations, but the only church I haven’t left is, typically enough, the single one I can never truly join, a community of monks. Given these shortcomings, I’ve come to love Emily for exactly those qualities that might appear to disqualify her for sainthood: impiety, inconsistency, irreverence. (p.3)

But one of the many glories of Dickinson’s poems is that they are at once electrifyingly specific and bafflingly abstract. Couple this with the gaps in Dickinson’s life story, and the ground is ripe for personal projection.[3] None of this matters particularly until Dickinson is held up as spiritual guide and ‘patron saint’. Then the risk is that rather than finding God in her poems, you find a version of yourself. One of LeMay’s conclusions about doubt is that it has value as it keeps faith interesting:

Not only do sureties bore us after a time, but the reverse is also true: we yearn most for what we cannot have, long for the thing we lack. … Absent the doubt from a life of faith and you’re left with comfort, conviction, a cool untroubled pool of certainty. But still ponds stagnate and breed disease; perhaps still faiths do too. Doubt, on the other hand, like a rapid, a riptide, keeps the waters of faith churned up and on the move. (p.47)

As eloquent as this is, I find it unpersuasive. In an earlier chapter, she quotes from St. Paul, but only allows him up to ‘For now, we see through a glass, darkly’, eliding his next phrase (‘but then, face to face’). She thus alters the stress and meaning considerably. On its own, seeing through a glass darkly is wistful, slightly defeated; taken as half of the full phrase, however, the stress falls on the difference between now and then: seeing darkly is part of a trajectory towards clarity.

Doubt is a universal experience; that much is a truism. But doubt and faith are not equal in their nature: faith comes as divine gift, whereas doubt is often simply the sound made by a human brain coming to terms with what the heart already knows. To be reassured about doubt because it makes faith more exciting seems a fragile reassurance, and does not satisfy the intellect. A similar conclusion happens in the chapter on Immortality: there, LeMay is convinced of immortality by the intense love she has for her husband. Again, this feels like a reassurance based on something that is riskily transitory – what happens if that love fades? How reassuring is this to someone who does not feel such intensely emotional love?

The other temptation that comes from positioning oneself as rebel and outsider is the intoxicating tang of the tragic. Dickinson certainly postures and poses in both letters and poems. For a spiritual guide this is a questionable characteristic. Interestingly, ‘organised religion’, a phrase which has effectively had all meaning bashed out of it, does a pretty good job of puncturing romantic perceptions of oneself as alone on some wind-swept cliff of ‘spirituality’. Damian Howard SJ touches on this in his recent article on the beginning of the Year of Faith: if a vague definition of faith replaces the pilloried concept of ‘organised religion’, we find ourselves alone in the great pic’n’mix of the sky, selecting jelly beans and sherbets and whatever takes our fancy. To a personality that already feels itself separate from its peers, through its sensitivity or talents, the temptation is a strong one: ‘others can bow to the Truths of Religion because they are dull enough to do so; for me, I will remain a doubtful outsider with only my integrity as comfort’. In its various forms (the hero as outsider; the flawed detective; the iconoclastic genius; the disobedient and life-loving rebel), this persona has become axiomatic in any ‘serious’ contemporary Western literature, film or media.

I have my doubts, then, about how effective Dickinson is as a spiritual guide. LeMay sees something that I do not, and I am not persuaded that Dickinson is the best source of reassurances.[4] What has been deepened by her book is an awareness of how extraordinarily good Dickinson’s poems are, as poems. The book ends with its strongest section, on Beauty. Here LeMay writes of being ‘grasped by God’ through her experiences of beauty. Her openness to beauty, and her ability to share it with others, has been enhanced by Dickinson’s poems. This wouldn’t have been possible without LeMay’s deep and sustained engagement, and her recording of this experience in this book, for which I am grateful.

The reviewer, Nathan Koblintz, is a former member of the Thinking Faith editorial board.

[1] An interesting comparison is with Philip Larkin, the popularity of whose poetry is similar to that which Dickinson enjoys in the US. His Collected Poems is 240 pages long, the size of a midsize novel; Dickinson’s runs to 784 pages.

[2] This is her first book, but previously she has translated François Bovon’s Last Days of Jesus. She has also written with her husband Eric LeMay, about cheese.

[3] A poet who evokes a similar reaction is the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), especially in his ‘Duino Elegies’. Here it is the intimacy of his voice that addresses an unspecified ‘you’, combined with some up-for-grabs allusions, that allows so many readers and translators to see in his poems their own uniqueness reflected. Don Paterson makes the point in his versions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, that Rilke may just be too far an outlier to be thought of as representative of anyone else than himself.

[4] Neither, I suspect, would Ted Hughes, whose seven-page introduction to Dickinson in his selection of her poems is the best thing I’ve read about any poet.

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 ‘The Sermon and the Whisper’ by Nathan Koblintz

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