Emily Dickinson's World View: The Life of a Monastic
Most Famous 19th-Century American Poet
Emily Dickinson is probably the most famous American poet of the nineteenth century. Her poems focus on a number of topics including death, philosophy of life, immortality, riddles, birds, flowers, sunsets, people, and many others. She left manuscripts—little bundles of poems called “fascicles”—totaling 1775 poems, and three volumes of letters.
Dickinson's active mind and mystical intuition led her to pen some of the most brilliant poetry ever written, full of insight and well-crafted. Her poem, “The Brain — is wider than the Sky —,” demonstrates a deep understanding of the nature of the human mind in its relationship to God.
This poem dramatizes a spiritual truth: the human brain is the seat of ultimate wisdom. In yoga philosophy, the highest center of consciousness is the “thousand-petaled lotus” in the brain. The lotus is a flower, of course, used as a metaphor for the functioning of the opening of the center of consciousness during God-union.
In Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda explains, “The seventh center, the ‘thousand-petaled lotus’ in the brain, is the throne of the Infinite Consciousness. In the state of divine illumination, the yogi is said to perceive Brahma or God the Creator as Padmaja, ‘the One born of the lotus’.”
It is not likely that Emily Dickinson studied any form of yoga, nor is it likely she was even acquainted with the Bhagavad Gita, which was just being introduced in America during her lifetime.
A contemporary of Dickinson’s, the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, had studied Eastern philosophy, including the Gita, and he had some knowledge of the Vedas. But Dickinson’s awareness came from pure intuition on her part.
Reading of "The Brain — is wider than the Sky —"
Life of a Monastic
Emily Dickinson lived a life that resembled a monastic: indeed she has been nicknamed the "Nun of Amherst." Her life has been described as reclusive, even hermit-like. Dickinson used her time to study scripture, and she became well-versed in Judeo-Christian biblical lore and concepts.
As a child and young adult, Dickinson attended church with her family. In later life, she decided to cloister herself in order to fulfill the development of her mystical powers and her close attention to the details of nature including birds, flowers, and the transitioning of the seasons.
The poet also closely observed the visitors to her father's home; although she seldom met with them face to face.
During her monastic period of life, Dickinson began to contemplate the important questions about the purpose of life and how we should live and worship. Her poem, “Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —,” celebrates the belief held by “the nun of Amherst” that merely by staying home and worshipping, she could go to heaven all along instead of waiting.
In this poem the speaker makes God’s creations, not man’s, the instruments of worship—a bird serves the position of the choir director, and fruit trees serve as the roof of her church.
This worshiper wears her metaphorical “wings” instead of a church sanctioned garment. And the most impressive part of this speaker’s “church service” is that God is doing the preaching, delivering a short sermon, which delivers the worshiper more time to meditate instead of merely listening for learned words delivered by an ordinary clergyman.
Reading of "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church – "
The Soul after Death
Dickinson was also interested in what happened to the soul after death. Whenever she heard of a death, she was very interested to hear what the person said or did while dying.
As Dickinson's little nephew Gilbert lay dying, she heard him uttering words that to her seemed to indicate that the boy's soul was a being escorted from its physical casing by angels.
Dickinson's study of death and dying led her to believe in immortality, a topic often referred to as her flood subject. Her poem, “Because I could not stop for Death -,” represents her conclusion about dying.
The speaker in this drama portrays death as a gentleman caller who arrives as if to take a lady out for the evening. Notice that the journey symbolizes the idea of one’s life passing before one’s gaze at death. But the final cemetery scene is quickly passed over, and the conflation of time resembles a dream, as the speaker claims she is still riding with the “Horses’ Heads” “toward Eternity.”
Dickinson believed in immortality more surely than the other conventionally religious members of her generation did. She studied, contemplated, and no doubt, her intensity led to meditation on God. Her insights into life and immortality cannot be explained any other way.
Reading of "Because I could not stop for Death -"
Questions & Answers
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes