Emily Dickinson
As Mystic



By

Norman D. Livergood



     Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was a mystic Colossus who lived her external life among mental and spiritual Lilliputians. 1  If we try to understand her from reading any of the numerous, uncomprehending biographies, her worldly life seems somewhat uneventful and prosaic.

      This is doubtless why biographers and "Dickinson scholars" have found it necessary to manufacture much more bizarre interpretations of this mystic poet:
  • A crazed poetess:
    Emily Dickinson suffered a "psychotic" breakdown and her poems "portray faithfully the terror of a mind collapsing under pressures that exceed its endurance."
    John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson

  • A psychically imbalanced visionary:
    According to a Jungian literary analyst, she was a "visionary artist who compensated for collective psychic imbalance through an archetypal vision of another possibility."
    Clifton Snider, "A Druidic Difference"

  • A disguised Calvinist:
    "To understand Emily Dickinson, it is necessary to be familiar with the spiritual Calvinist tradition of belief in a psychological crisis of conversion from the Egypt of worldly bondage across the wilderness to the promised land.
    David R. Williams, "This Consciousness That is Aware: Emily Dickinson in the Wilderness of the Mind"
     Having recently read a number of her biographies, I was struck by the different impression one gets from that of reading her poems themselves. If readers come to Emily Dickinson's poems with an open mind, I believe they will find her to be a mystic in the tradition of Plato, Rumi, Emerson, and Blake.


        Much Madness is divinest Sense--
        To a discerning Eye--
        Much Sense --the starkest Madness-- 

Emily Dickinson

      "The secret of madness is the supreme strength of the mind:
      Go mad with love, if sanity is what you want to find."

Rumi


     According to Plato, the search for wisdom (philosophia)--which includes poetry as well as philosophy--is the actual practice of learning to leave the body and live in the soul, the spiritual body. Emily while attending Mt. Holyoke In his Phaedo, he speaks of the search of wisdom (philosophia) as dying to the outer life and attaining inner union with the One.

     Emily Dickinson evolved into a mystic of the first order, the most important part of her life being the realm of inner spiritual experience. In her disclosure of this interior life through her poems, she sounds more like Rumi than any other poet with whom I'm familiar.

    "Who looks out with my eyes? What is the soul?
    I cannot stop asking.
    If I could taste one sip of an answer,
    I could break out of this prison for drunks.
    I didn't come here of my own accord, and I can't leave that way.
    Whoever brought me here will have to take me home."
    Rumi

     Undiscerning literary critics seem to enjoy commiserating with Emily Dickinson for what they imagine to have been her great disappointments in life:
  • That she was never published

  • That she suffered from unrequited love

  • That she was forced by circumstances to live the life of a hermit
     Anyone who reads her poems with any comprehension, realizes that she deliberately chose the life she lead, creating an inner spiritual existence far richer than mere fame, romantic love, or popularity. I suggest that if you succumb to the presumptuous temptation to feel sorry for Emily Dickinson, you try to write just one poem of her calibre. The wealth of her poetic gift would have been an overwhelming spiritual fortune for any person.


    The Soul selects her own Society -
    Then - shuts the Door -
    To her Divine Majority -
    Present no more -

    Unmoved - she notes the Chariots - pausing -
    At her low Gate -
    Unmoved - an Emperor be kneeling
    Upon her Mat -

    I've known her - from an ample nation -
    Choose One -
    Then - close the Valves of her attention -
    Like Stone -


     Harold Bloom is correct in saying that "Dickinson is a very difficult poet; even her best critics tend to underestimate just how subtle and complex a body of work ensued from her immense cognitive originality. She thought through not less than everything for herself." She created her own style of poetry--as all great poets do.

Emerson      One of Emily's closest friends, Benjamin Franklin Newton, energetically encouraged her to pursue her poetry, sending Emily the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Newton's encouragement of Emily's inner spiritual life was doubtless a profound influence. She wrote of him:

"Mr. Newton became to me a gentle, yet grave Preceptor, teaching me what to read, what authors to admire, what was most grand and beautiful in nature, and that sublimer lesson, a faith in things unseen, and in a life again, nobler, and much more blessed. . ."
     Emily Dickinson read avidly, was thoroughly familiar with the Bible and Shakespeare and had read Greek and Roman classics (including Plato) in translation. She read all the leading American and English authors of her time: Thoreau, Hawthorne, the Brontes and the Brownings, Keats, Ruskin, Tennyson, and George Eliot, one of her favorites. She appears to have found inspiration for her special style of inner spiritual poetry in two lesser authors: Horace Bushnell and Edwards A. Park.

     In his essay "The Poet," Emerson reminds us that the poet "is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later."

    The Soul's Superior instants
    Occur to Her - alone -
    When friend - and Earth's occasion
    Have infinite withdrawn -

    Or She - Herself - ascended
    To too remote a Height
    For lower Recognition
    Than Her Omnipotent -

    This Mortal Abolition
    Is seldom - but as fair
    As Apparition - subject
    To Autocratic Air -

    Eternity's disclosure
    To favorites - a few -
    Of the Colossal substance
    Of Immortality


     Emily's life of inner spiritual experience as revealed through her poetry, seems strange to us because we spend so little time in contemplation and meditation, giving ourselves to a myriad of external distractions. We are so unfamiliar with higher mysticism that to some of us it seems literally deranged; hence the absurd attribution of "nervous breakdown" to Emily Dickinson.

     In an observation on Emerson, Henry James helps us understand that a life of contemplation was more the norm in Emily's day.
"The doctrine of the supremacy of the individual to himself, of his originality and, as regards his own character, unique quality, must have had a great charm for people living in a society in which introspection, thanks to the want of other entertainment, played almost the part of a social resource. . . There was . . . much relish for the utterances of a writer who would help one to take a picturesque view of one's internal possibilities, and to find in the landscape of the soul all sorts of fine sunrise and moonlight effects."
     Conrad Aiken clearly misunderstands Emily Dickinson when he claims that we are "perhaps justified in considering her the most perfect flower of New England Transcendentalism." 2  She cannot be typified with a tag such as Transcendentalist or Puritan or any other. She was her own person and her own distinct type of poet.

     It helps to understand her by recognizing that she was a part of a larger American Renaissance.

THE AMERICAN RENAISSANCE

A Selected List of Writers, Artists, and Composers

      This list focuses not only on those creative artists working within the actual time frame of the American Renaissance, but also those whose art was a direct outgrowth of the European Renaissance and Transcendentalist thought.

Major Figures Dates Activity Major Work

William Cullen Bryant

1794-1878

Poet

A FOREST HYMN

Bronson Alcott

1799-1888

Educator, Reformer

Temple School

CONCORD DAYS

TABLE TALK

George Ripley

1802-1880

Religious Reformer

founder Brook Farm

ed. THE HARBINGER

Ralph Waldo Emerson

1803-1882

Philosopher, Poet,

ESSAYS

WOODNOTES

Elizabeth Peabody

1804-1894

Feminist, Educator

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne

1804-1864

Author

SCARLET LETTER

HOUSE OF SEVEN GABLES

MOSSES FROM AN OLD MANSE

Henry W. Longfellow

1807-1882

Poet

POEMS ON SLAVERY

EVANGELINE

COURTSHIP OF MILES STANDISH

John G. Whittier

1807-1892

Poet, Abolitionist

HOME BALLADS, POEMS, & LYRICS

VOICES OF FREEDOM

Edgar Allan Poe

1809-1849

Poet, Author, Journalist

THE RAVEN

ULALUME

THE MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE

THE BLACK CAT

Margaret Fuller

1810-1850

Feminist, Journalist,

Literary Critic

WOMEN IN THE 19TH C.
ed./essays THE DIAL

W.H. Channing

1810-1884

Christian Socialist

Brook Farm

ed. THE SPIRIT OF THE AGE

Theodore Parker

1810-1860

Unitarian & Congregationalist Reformer

LETTERS TOUCHING THE MATTER OF SLAVERY

Harriet Beecher Stowe

1811-1896

Novelist, Reformer

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN

Walt Whitman

1813-1892

Poet

LEAVES OF GRASS

Jones Very

1813-1880

Poet, Mystic

POEMS & ESSAYS

Henry Ward Beecher

1813-1887

Congregationalist Minister, Reformer

SERMONS

Henry David Thoreau

1817-1862

Essayist, Naturalist, Philosopher, Poet

WALDEN

CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE

MAINE WOODS

JOURNALS

W. Ellery Channing

1818-1901

Biographer, Poet

THOREAU, THE POET-NATURALIST

THE WANDERER

THE WOODMAN

Julia Ward Howe

1819-1910

Poet, Reformer

SEX & EDUCATION

THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC

Herman Melville

1819-1891

Author

MOBY DICK

BILLY BUDD

BARTLEBY THE SCRIVENER

Hudson River School

1825-1850

Romantic Landscape Painters

KINDRED SPIRITS (Cole)

IN THE WOODS (Durand)

OLANA (Church)

Albert Bierstadt

1830-1920

Romantic Western Painter

THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS

Bierstadt

Emily Dickinson

1830-1886

Poet

COMPLETE POEMS & LETTERS

Louisa May Alcott

1832-1888

Author

LITTLE WOMEN

TRANSCENDENTAL WILD OATS

BEHIND A MASK

Mark Twain

1835-1910

Author, Journalist, Satirist

HUCKLEBERRY FINN

TOM SAWYER

INNOCENTS ABROAD

The Luminists

1840-1880

Romantic Landscape Painters

LAKE GEORGE (Heade)

LAKE GEORGE (Kensett)

Daniel Chester French

1850-1931

Sculptor

Lincoln Memorial

Minuteman Statue

Edward MacDowell

1860-1908

Composer

Songs + 1ST PIANO CONCERTO

Charles Ives

1874-1954

Composer

Songs + symphonies

CONCORD SONATA

Charles T. Griffes

1884-1920

Composer

Songs + PLEASURE DOME of KUBLA KHAN


     In his 1837 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Address, The American Scholar, Ralph Waldo Emerson had set the pace for poets like Emily Dickinson--as well as artists of all kinds.

"We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds. . .  A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men."

     Emily Dickinson walked on her own feet, creating the most exalted mystical poetry, revealing the journey of a great soul within an inner celestial realm.

                Alone, I cannot be -
                For Hosts - do visit me -
                Recordless Company -
                Who baffle Key -

                They have no Robes, nor Names -
                No Almanacs - no Climes -
                But general Homes
                Like Gnomes -

                Their Coming, may be known
                By Couriers within -
                Their going - is not -
                For they're never gone -


Emily at age 9



Other Emily Dickinson poems featured here.

_________

1 Lilliputians were 6 inch high fictional inhabitants of the land of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift's novel, Gulliver's Travels. While the giant-sized man named Gulliver slept, the Lilliputians tried to bind him and make him their slave.

2  "Transcendentalism was a philosophic and literary movement that flourished in New England as a reaction against 18th century rationalism, the sceptical philosophy of Locke, and the confining religious orthodoxy of New England Calvinism. Its beliefs were idealistic, mystical, eclectic and individualistic, shaped by the ideas of Plato, Plotinus, as well as the teaching of Confucious, the Sufis, the writers of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhists and Swedenburg. Transcendentalism had at its fundamental base a monism holding to the unity of the world and God and the immanence of God in the world. Because of this indwelling of divinity, everything in the world is a microcosm containing within itself all the laws and the meaning of existence. Likewise the soul of each individual is identical with the soul of the world, and latently contains all that the world contains. Man may fulfil his divine potentialities either through rapt mystical state, in which the divine is infused into the human, or through coming into contact with the truth, beauty, and goodness embodied in nature and originating in the Over-Soul. Thus occurs the correspondence between the tangible world and the human mind, and the identity of moral and physical laws. Through belief in the divine authority of the soul's intuitions and impulses, based on the identification of the individual soul with God, there developed the doctrine of self reliance and individualism, the disregard of external authority, tradition, and logical demonstration, and the absolute optimism of the movement. The most important literary expression of transcendentalism is considered to lie in Thoreau's 'Walden' and in the works of Emerson. Others in the movement were A.M. Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott, German transcendentalism (Goethe, Richter, Novalis) influenced Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. The greatness of these figures and the universal respect for their ideas has led to the use of the word 'transcendental' by business organisations masquerading as spiritual paths."
Emily Dickinson's Mystic Poetry--by Graham Brown