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Bible flows through Dickinson poetry

Although great poet wasn’t ‘religious,’ she was ‘spiritual’

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Emily Dickinson, a great 19th-century American poet, appeals to many 21st-century readers. Her cryptic poems were postmodern in their head-scratching originality. And she was "spiritual" without being formally "religious," to use terms currently in vogue.

A recluse and eccentric, Dickinson lived her last decades almost exclusively within her father's house and garden in Amherst, Mass. Yet she was pleasantly sociable.

She meticulously wrote out 1,789 poems, but allowed only a handful to be published during her lifetime. Two-thirds of these flowed forth during a seven-year period beginning at age 28.

Though Dickinson never claimed to love God, Cliff Edwards of Virginia Commonwealth University writes in the April issue of Bible Review magazine that her work was haunted by the scriptures. That's evident in her personal well-thumbed King James Bible, and in its influence upon her verse.

The year before her death, Dickinson wrote a friend that the Bible is "the mighty Book" that, like nature, "stills, incites, infatuates — blesses and blames in one."

The poet learned from the scriptures "the mode of juxtaposing elements of concrete things with equally fundamental ideas and feelings — grass, stone, heart, majesty, despair," said Charles Anderson of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. The poems are filled with "stolen images" from scripture, he observed, and frequently reduce "the Bible's expansive narrative to startlingly compact lyrics."

Such poems retell Jacob's wrestling with the angel, Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, God's decision to bar Moses from the Promised Land, and also David's fight with Goliath:

"I aimed my Pebble — but Myself

"Was all the one that fell —

"Was it Goliath — was too large —

"Or was myself — too small?"

In all, Edwards says, her poems and letters quote from or allude to almost every book of the Bible, particularly the Psalms, prophets, Proverbs, Gospels, Paul's epistles and a particular favorite, the Book of Revelation.

References in her letters can escape those unfamiliar with biblical language. When someone helped a needy neighbor, she wrote simply "inasmuch" to evoke Jesus in Matthew 25:40:

"Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

Another time she said "consider the lilies" was "the only commandment I ever obeyed," referring to Matthew 6:28-30 from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. When a favorite nephew died, she cited the comfort of the "Corinthian's Bugle," meaning the trumpet that will sound when the dead in Christ rise to eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:52).

The Dickinsons were loyal Congregationalists, but Emily never joined the family church and eventually stopped attending. Instead, she found the divine in nature:

"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —

"I keep it, staying at Home —

"With a Bobolink for a Chorister —

"And an Orchard, for a Dome —"

An adult brooder about immortality, death and fate, she was preoccupied with the need for hard scientific evidence:

"Faith is a fine invention

"When gentlemen can see

"But microscopes are prudent

"In an emergency"

Note: Edwards recommends the Little, Brown or Harvard University Press editions of Dickinson's poems; Harvard's edition of her letters; and "Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief" (Eerdmans) by Roger Lundin, English professor at Wheaton College in Illinois.

On the Net: Bible Review: www.bib-arch.org