Emily Dickinson: Pagan Sphinx

Gary Sloan

That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them—is a wish that would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan.

—Letter to Catherine Sweetser, 1878

When Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) died, she was virtually unknown to the public. Only seven of her poems had been published, a few without permission, and they attracted little notice. Today, she is commonly hailed as America’s greatest poet. Her poems are staple cargo in junior high, high school, and college curricula. Never married, she spent most of her life in the capacious family home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Her father was an influential lawyer, judge, legislator, and first citizen. From about the age of thirty on, she rarely left the house or entertained guests. She communicated with visitors by notes and habitually dressed in white. Her sequestered lifestyle earned her the epithet “Queen Recluse.”

“All men say ‘What?’ to me,” she told Thomas Wentworth Higginson, an eminent litterateur and dutiful correspondent. The phraseology—eccentric, pixieish, and oblique—is vintage Dickinson. She meant that people were baffled by her even though, she protested, she couldn’t fathom why. In a posthumous tribute to his “partially cracked poetess at Amherst,” Higginson spoke of their first meeting twenty years before: “She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview.” Or, some would say, a lifetime.

Dickinson’s enigmatic manner shrouds her evolution from Christian manqué to pagan. She often couched her heresies in a cryptic style that muffled heterodoxy. “Tell all the truth,” she advised, “but tell it slant.” Sometimes, she was too oblique—some might say cunning—to be understood. “The whole truth about Emily Dickinson will elude us always,” said Richard Sewall, her biographer. “She seems almost willfully to have seen to that.”

Her histrionic propensities obscure the line between her true beliefs and those she feigned. Intermittently in her 1,775 poems and 1,100 extant letters, she struck poses and adopted personas. She also accommodated the sensibilities of orthodox acquaintances. Long after she had abandoned belief in a hereafter, she continued to assure bereaved relatives and neighbors they would be reunited with their departed loved ones.

From an early age, the seeds of heresy lay dormant in her. As an adolescent, she displayed a froward streak that bridled under compulsion. Immensely intelligent and observant, she kept her own counsel. “How,” she marveled, “do people live without thoughts? How do they get the strength to put on their clothes in the morning?” She never joined the family church because she couldn’t testify to any visitation of the Holy Spirit, the ticket for membership. In her mid-twenties, she stopped attending. At fifteen, following one of the revivals that periodically convulsed Amherst, she confided to her friend Abiah Root: “I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly. But I soon forgot my morning prayer or else it was irksome to me. One by one my old habits returned and I cared less for religion than ever.” Soon, the siren world lured her to the precipice: “I do not feel I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die.”

Odious words from a fifteen-year-old catechized at the First Church in Amherst, a Congregationalist assembly. There, ministers blazoned hell in all its lurid specificity as the wages of sin. For years, sermons on the Day of Doom spooked Dickinson. She told Elizabeth Holland, an enduring friend and wife of a popular author: “The minister today preached about death and judgment, and what would become of those who behaved improperly—and somehow it scared me. He preached such an awful sermon I didn’t think I should ever see you again until the Judgment Day. The subject of perdition seemed to please him somehow.” The Hollands embraced a “creedless, churchless, ministerless Christianity” and an avuncular, “sunshiny” God. Their friendship helped Dickinson slough off lingering anxieties about the fire that never quenches. Hell, she would later write, “defies typography.”

At Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, where she spent two terms after graduation from Amherst Academy in 1847, proselytism was rampant. Thrice weekly, the founder of the school exhorted the students in plenary assembly. Guest sermons abounded. “Many,” wrote Dickinson, “are flocking to the ark of safety.” She was one of the laggards. On the basis of self-inventories, students at Holyoke were classified as Christians, Hopers, or No-Hopers. Dickinson left as she came, a No-Hoper.

Within a few years, her break with orthodoxy was irreparable. She had embarked on a quest for truth unfettered by doctrinal constraints and herd prescriptions. Like Herman Melville in Moby Dick, she forsook the safe port of conventionalism for “landlessness”—deep, earnest, independent musings. The perilous inner odyssey exhilarated her: “The shore is safer,” she told Abiah Root, “but I love to buffet the sea—I can count the bitter wrecks in these waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger!” Where others saw insanity, Dickinson saw profundity:

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

‘Tis the Majority
In this, as All, prevail—
Assent—and you are sane—
Demur—you’re straightway
And handled with a Chain—

For Dickinson, it was divinest sense to demur at Christian nonsense. She twitted the glitzy New Jerusalem vouchsafed to the elect. It was an interminable Sunday where “recess never comes.” Even the saints didn’t quite believe in the “Heaven further on”—despite opiate assurances from the pulpit: “Narcotics cannot still the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul.”

Dickinson had never been keen on immortality. At fifteen, she wrote Abiah: “Does not Eternity appear dreadful to you. To think that we must forever live and never cease to be. It seems as if Death would be a relief to so endless a state of existence.” Bliss was predicated on transience: “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet.” Wiser than Pascal, Dickinson wagered on this life: “I cannot help esteem / The ‘Bird within the Hand’ / Superior to the one / The ‘Bush’ may yield me.” Eternity was “obtained in time” not as an infinite temporal progression but in moments of heightened sensibility to life.

The biblical God she treated with sarcasm, contempt, indignation, and amusement. Her parents, she told Higginson, “address an Eclipse every morning, whom they call their ‘Father.’” The Eclipse, as limned in her poems, was also Papa Above, a gentleman in the air, a little god with epaulettes, an old neighbor, a conceited tyrant, vindictive dunce, thievish scofflaw, lethal intruder, peeping Tom, homicidal burglar, heartless assassin, sadistic inquisitor. More despot than father, the Inquisitor made us wicked, but we must sue him for pardon:

Heavenly Father—take to thee
The supreme iniquity
Fashioned by thy candid Hand
In a moment contraband—
Though to trust us seem to us
More respectful—‘We are Dust’—
We apol
ogize to thee for thine own

After President James Garfield’s heroic but abortive battle for life, Dickinson wrote her cousins Louise and Frances Norcross: “When we think of his lone effort to live and its bleak reward, the mind turns to the myth ‘for His mercy endureth forever,’ with confiding revulsion.”

Dickinson was ambivalent about Jesus. As risen Savior, he was a fickle suitor who pledged his troth then absconded:

Within thy Grave!
Oh no, but on some other flight—
Thou only camest to mankind
To rend it with Good night.

Despite promises, the Savior was inaccessible:

At least to pray is left—is left
Oh Jesus—in the Air—
I know not which thy chamber is—
I’m knocking everywhere.

As Son of Jehovah, Jesus was a pretentious bore. As Son of Sorrow, he was our compatriot. “When he tells us about his Father,” Dickinson told a friend, “we distrust him. When he shows us his [heavenly] Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with grief,’ we listen, for that also is an acquaintance of our own.”

In proclaiming herself a pagan, Dickinson in effect renounced belief in the Christian God. What sort of deity, if any, she did believe in remains an object of speculation. According to Richard Sewall, in “her own personal theology, the World and Man and God were all but coordinate.” In one poem, she assimilates God to human thought:

The Brain is just the weight
of God
For heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound.

“The Supernatural,” she elsewhere wrote, “is only the Natural disclosed.” Omnipotence is life itself:

To be alive—is Power—
Existence in itself
Without a further function—
Omnipotence Enough.

My guess is that Dickinson died an agnostic. She preferred mystery to certitude, flexible to calcified belief. “Faith is Doubt,” she told her sister-in-law. “On subjects of which we know nothing, we both believe and disbelieve a hundred times an hour, which keeps believing nimble.” Vacillation galvanized her spirit:

Sweet Skepticism of the Heart
That knows and does not know
And tosses like a Fleet of Balm
Affronted by the snow.

In a figurative sense, Dickinson was a polytheist. She worshiped Nature, Love, Truth, Beauty, and Poetry—in indeterminate order. “If we love Flowers,” she wrote, “are we not ‘born again’ every day?” Any human face she loved “would put out Jesus.” To Beauty, she lifted her prayers:

Have mercy on me
But if I expire today
Let it be in sight of thee.

The “Word made flesh,” she averred in wry sacrilege, is poetry that “breathes distinctly” and “has not the power to die.” The Amherst sphinx thus pegged her own poetry.

Further Reading

  • Johnson, T.H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1960.
  • Johnson, T.H. and T. Ward, eds. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 3 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1958.
  • Loving, J. Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
  • Sewall, R.B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. New York: Farrar, 1974.


Gary Sloan

Gary Sloan is a retired English professor in Ruston, Louisiana.

That no Flake of [snow] fall on you or them—is a wish that would be a Prayer, were Emily not a Pagan. —Letter to Catherine Sweetser, 1878 When Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) died, she was virtually unknown to the public. Only seven of her poems had been published, a few without permission, and they attracted little …

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