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Emily Dickinson and the Unknown God

Of American poets taught regularly in secondary education, the two most ill-served are Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson. Students are typically introduced to these poets through their most-anthologized poems, the majority of which are chosen in part for their accessibility–technically fluid and not too daunting conceptually–but also for a sort of charmingness, albeit in both cases of a slightly dark and eccentric kind.

The best-known and most-taught of their poems present the personae of these two quintessentially American poets as, respectively, a wise, avuncular, white-haired lover of New England country life and its rugged solitudes, and as the whimsical and ladylike recluse spinster, the belle of Amherst, prone to occasional morbidity but mostly concerned to express her delight in bees, flowers, sunsets, and assurances of Eternity.

This image of Frost is not unsettled by acquaintance with his much-anthologized poems “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Birches.” Nor is this caricature of Emily Dickinson undermined by her poems “I taste a liquor never brewed,” “I like to see it lap the miles,” “A narrow fellow in the grass,” “A bird came down the walk,” “I never saw a moor,” nor even by “Because I could not stop for death” or “I heard a fly buzz when I died” or “There’s a certain slant of light.”

But a truly broad and penetrating familiarity with the works of these two poets subverts fairly radically the benign portraits sketched above. Frost and Dickinson both, in fact, are, in the fullness of their work, extremely difficult poets and of unusual depth. Both are exceptional as poets of spiritual struggle and are experts of the uncanny and inexplicable. Both radiate an anxious isolation; both are obsessed with death and tragedy; and both of them are, without question, intimates of agony.

Frost, upon close examination, turns out as well to be surprisingly devious with a slight sadistic streak and not infrequently nihilistic. And Dickinson, the focus of this chapter, is revealed by her approximately 1,800 poems and poetic fragments to be, despite her unquestionable experiences of joy, loving identification with natural creatures, and illuminative transcendence, more typically and generally a poet of doubt, loneliness, longing, inward struggle, fury, alienation, dread, and depression–a master, as Harold Bloom puts it, “of every negative affect.”1

Also, contrary to her popular image, she is among the most cognitively demanding poets America has produced. And finally, she is a brilliant poetic explicator of what it means to live in the anxious openness of the “tension” of the metaxy–that is, in the unrestful, inescapable, and irresolvable tension of existence In-Between world and transcendence, time and eternity, ignorance and knowledge, despair and faith, hope and fulfillment.2

As a prelude to exploring the way Dickinson’s artistic corpus constitutes an unusually faithful, extended testimony to the In-Between, or metaxic, condition of human existence, we might briefly consider why a more accurate understanding of the character of Dickinson’s poetry and outlook, and, more important, an appreciation of her greatness as a poet, are not more common.

First, there was the long delay in the initial coming to light of her achievement, due to her life of intense privacy, to the withholding of her poems (no more than ten of which were published during her lifetime)3 and to their first being published–beginning in 1890, four years after her death–in small or incomplete editions, with the poems edited, punctuationally modified, and even linguistically altered, to suit conventional tastes.

It was not until the 1950s and 1960s that the full scope of her accomplishment and her original versions became well known and that she entered the mainstream teaching canon and anthologies. And only the last few decades have shown a careful critical devotion to repairing the changes inflicted by her early editors, to the compiling of folio and variora editions, and to making publicly available her work as she wrote and preserved it.

Originality in Both Expression and Thought

Second, there is her poetic originality. Although her forms and meters are often familiar or even commonplace–especially the hymnal stanza form that she employs so frequently in her work–her poetic voice is utterly unique, and, once encountered, is instantly recognizable in its peculiarities of diction, concision, and metaphoric invention. Harold Bloom, however prone to hyperbole, does not overstate in remarking that “[l]iterary originality achieves scandalous dimensions in Dickinson . . . .”4

Third, Dickinson’s literary originality, however impressive, is in service of an even greater gift: what Bloom calls her “cognitive originality.” Cognitive originality is the capacity for, and the realized expression of, thinking that breaks new ground. It is the discovery or invention of previously unthought interpretations and meanings, the forging of new imaginative and ideational connections.

Of Dickinson’s cognitive originality, it is nearly impossible to gain the measure. Again to quote the enthusiastic Bloom, with whom in this matter I once more agree:

“Except for Shakespeare, Dickinson manifests more cognitive originality than any other Western poet since Dante . . . . Dickinson rethought everything for herself . . . .  No commonplace survives her appropriation. [Further, she] can think more lucidly and feel more fully than any of her readers, and she is very aware of her superiority . . . . [Indeed, we] confront, at the height of her powers, the best mind to appear among Western poets in nearly four centuries.”5

Bloom is not alone in this assessment. Dickinson’s most admired biographer, Richard B. Sewall, also asserted that her creative use of the English language matched that of Shakespeare, and he compared the exuberantly “reckless” invention of her writing with that of the author of the Book of Job.6

Why, one might ask, is this extraordinary appraisal not more widely known? One answer is that few people read beyond the anthologized poems, and those who make the attempt often find it difficult to keep up with Dickinson’s flashes of insight and audacities of expression. She is a poet, as Robert Weisbuch writes, “who will not stop thinking” and who, in fact, frequently thinks harder and more deeply than we wish her to. Thus it is that, as Clark Griffith writes, in the popularizing anthologies Dickinson’s worst poetry is often “confounded with her best,” her work persistently being misappreciated and “misread for the simple reason that her intelligence is slighted.”7

And fourth, we must take into account that Dickinson was a woman. Most citizens in the republic of letters have simply not been prepared to accept that it is a woman who, at the height of her powers, confronts us with “the best mind . . . among Western poets” since Shakespeare. Now, let us point out right away that neither literary power nor intellectual brilliance are invariably employed in serving an accurate explication of the truths of existence. Both literary and cognitive originality may, alas, provide us only with stunningly detailed accounts of “second realities,” to use the term for ideological fantasies that Voegelin borrows from the Austrian novelists Robert Musil and Heimito von Doderer.8

But in Emily Dickinson’s case, intellectual, emotional, and imaginative power is indeed matched by a severe honesty and perspicacious openness to reality. Her poems consistently explore and articulate genuine truths about the human situation in the cosmos; about the intricacies of consciousness and the ongoing constitution of “self”; about the facts, surprises, and mysteries of the natural world; about the central importance and yet ultimate impotence of language; and about our human relationship to the mystery of divine transcendence. Thus, it is not surprising to find in Dickinson’s work a recurrent emphasis on the fact that human beings are, first and last, passionate questioners and unsatisfiable yearners for a certainty and fulfillment that remain unavailable to us in this lifetime. In this regard, her poetry repeatedly echoes Voegelin’s analyses of consciousness and existence.

Existence as Longing

For Dickinson, as for Voegelin, to be human is to be “the Question”–the questioning tension toward that divine ground of reality that is the origin, deepest identity, and ultimate concern of each of us–in the enacting of which, as long as we live, “there is no answer,” finally, “other than the [comprehending] Mystery as it becomes luminous in the acts of questioning.”9 We might say that for both Dickinson and Voegelin existence is essentially a desire, a longing–and Dickinson could well be described as “the poet of longing” par excellence. One critic has indeed described her complete oeuvre as “a dramatization of a philosophy of desire.”10

Taking Dickinson’s desire, then, as normative desire, faithful to the truths of existence, let us examine, now, some of the evidence for Dickinson being a preeminent witness to the metaxic, or “in-between,” structure of existence, using Voegelin’s philosophy as our analytic touchstone. The essential experience of human existence, writes Voegelin, is that of the “In-Between”:

“the metaxy of Plato, which is neither time nor eternity . . . . [And] let us recall [that in the human] experience of the tensions between the poles of time and eternity, neither does eternal being become an object in time, nor is temporal being transposed into eternity. We remain in the ‘In-Between,’ in a temporal flow of experience in which eternity is nevertheless present . . . [Human existence is thus] a disturbing movement in the In-Between of ignorance and knowledge, of time and timelessness, of imperfection and perfection, of hope and fulfillment, and ultimately of life and death.”12

To reveal the parallel between this description and Dickinson’s poetic vision of existence, let us begin with some verses that indicate her affirmation that eternal reality is no “object in time”–is no external “place” or “thing”–but rather a reality revealed through the experience of divine presence in consciousness, which illuminates the “temporal flow of experience” as the in- between of time and timelessness. She writes:

The Blunder is in estimate

Eternity is there

We say as of a Station

Meanwhile he is so near


He joins me in my Ramble

Divides abode with me

No Friend have I that so persists

As this Eternity


This image of Eternity “dividing his abode” with Dickinson–being present, that is, as the divine partner who dwells with, and indeed co-constitutes, herself–is not an isolated trope in her work.

Her sense of the intimate ontological interpenetration of her finite human longing and the divine presence who both establishes and draws forth that longing is concisely conveyed in the following short poem, which in its second stanza suggests how any intellectual analysis of this paradoxical intersection of time and timelessness must, for someone attentive to her lived experience of existence in the metaxy, appear no more than an artificial linguistic container:

He was my host – he was my guest,

I never to this day

If I invited him could tell,

Or he invited me.


So infinite our intercourse

So intimate, indeed,

Analysis as capsule seemed

To keeper of the seed.


More penetratingly still, from a poem in which the word awe in the first line denotes Jehovah, and in which the word residence in the third line refers both to the divine Beyond and to the human soul:

No man saw awe, nor to his house

Admitted he a man

Though by his awful residence

Has human nature been.

. . .


Thus we know of eternal being, of “Paradise,” only because divine presence condescends to “bisect” our worldly consciousness, inducing our longing for the divine mystery:

Of Paradise’ existence

All we know

Is the uncertain certainty –

But it’s vicinity, infer,

By it’s Bisecting Messenger –


Paradise, Eternity, Immortality, Heaven, and God are all terms that serve Dickinson as references to what Voegelin calls the “pole of timelessness” experienced in the in-between of conscious existence. Both writers make clear that although we may identify and name this timeless reality, we never experience it as a “separate” being apart from “the temporal flow of experience” that is consciousness–and to uncritically imagine it after the manner of a spatiotemporal object (that is, as a “place,” or a “thing”) is to delusionally misconstrue it.

We know of “eternal being,” of transcendence, as the ground of existence and of nature only by virtue of the fact that human consciousness is experienced and understood as being co-constituted by temporal and eternal reality, as being an ontological “in-between” where time and timelessness interpenetrate in an experiential unity. If logic rebels against this notion of time and eternity intersecting in consciousness as “paradoxical,” still it is confirmed as a fact through proper attention to, and close consideration of the meaning of, the “tension” of conscious existence.

The Sensorium of Transcendence

Again and again in Dickinson’s poetry, we encounter her evocations of pre­cisely the experience of consciousness as a worldly “locale” where eternal being both is immediately present (and so promises “immortality”) and where it an­nounces its utter and radical transcendence. So, on the one hand, she avers:

The only news I know

Is Bulletins all Day

From Immortality.

. . .



The Infinite a sudden Guest

Has been assumed to be –

But how can that stupendous come

which never went away?


Thus the immediacy of divine presence. On the other hand, as “Immortality” and “The Infinite” are symbols for a divine beyond–a dimension of timeless meaning transcending anything we can experience or know in consciousness–she makes clear in many poems that we can never truly claim to possess or know it from within our situation in the “in-between:”

. . .

Immortality contented

Were Anomaly –



. . .

If end I gained

It ends beyond

Indefinite disclosed –

. . .


With the paradox of metaxic consciousness–the ontological simultane­ity of the immediacy of divine presence in consciousness together with its nonpossessable, unknowable, radically transcendent character–being con­stant in Dickinson’s awareness, it is not surprising that longing suffused with doubt is ever-present in her poetry.

A glance at her biography shows that the seeds of this outlook were sown early. The time of her youth in Massachu­setts was the time of the Second Great Awakening, and the Congregationalist community within which she received her religious formation, with its Calvinist theology, was swept by a series of revivals during the first twenty years of her life.

A Divine-Centered Life Without Dogma

But Dickinson soon responded with skepticism and aversion. When pressed, at age seventeen, she refused to become a professing Christian. She dismissed the doctrines of original sin, hell and damnation, and election. She became the only adult member of her family who remained aloof from church membership and never took communion.15 Her poetry often reveals a smiling contempt for those who presume assurance of salvation and elec­tion, who embrace the mysteries of Christian faith as settled facts, and who take God as definitively revealed in Scripture and doctrine.

Nevertheless, and crucially, hers was from early years and throughout her life a profoundly re­ligious temperament. Her sensitivity toward, and openness to, the mystery of divine presence dominated her life and work. She could not ignore her expe­rienced participation in transcendence and recognized the longing for deeper and ultimate communion with the divine ground of being as the central hu­man orientation. Thus in her poetry we find her constantly relying, to express her religious insights and intimations, on the language of the only religious tradition she knew–the language of covenant, heaven, immortality, paradise, seal, promise, ordinance, Jesus, Gethsemane, Eden, crucifixion, spirit, grace, and God–but with a difference.

She uses them to explore and explain her own clear-eyed quest of what it means to live in the in-between of the tension to­ward the divine mystery, with all of its doubts, unanswerable questions, strug­gles for faith, and dark nights of the soul. Richard Wilbur puts the matter of Dickinson’s use of traditional Christian language elegantly:

“At some point Emily Dickinson sent her whole Calvinist vocabulary into exile, telling it not to come back until it would subserve her own sense of things . . . . [I] n her poems those great words are not merely being themselves; they have been adopted, for expressive purposes; they have been taken personally, and therefore redefined.”16

In other words, Dickinson found in her own consciousness those experiences, insights, and passions for which the great religious language could be used as evocative symbols, and then, in using them as she did in her poems, she per­sonalized and revitalized them, making them transparent for her own spiri­tual experiences, at whatever cost of destabilizing their commonplace usages within what was to her an unconvincing religious institutional context.

As to that institutional context: we hear Dickinson’s clear rejection of the so-called Christianity of her religious community in a number of poems. In one, it is scorned as childishly naive:

I’m ceded – I’ve stopped being Their’s –

The name They dropped opon my face

With water, in the country church

Is finished using, now,

And They can put it with my Dolls,

My childhood, and the string of spools,

I’ve finished threading – too –

. . .


Another seems to link her own skepticism to a broader decline of genuine Christian faith, in a tone reminiscent of Matthew Arnold, or even Nietzsche:

Those – dying then,

Knew where they went –

They went to God’s Right Hand –

That Hand is amputated now

And God cannot be found –
. . .


A few poems on this subject are more expansive, rehearsing Dickinson’s young efforts to believe, her subsequent feeling of betrayal, and her anger in the wake of her intellectual and emotional dismissal of the platitudinous God of comfortable assurances, the revealed God deemed so readily available to congregants at prayer.17 In “I meant to have but modest needs,” the full drama of betrayal unfolds:

I meant to have but modest needs –

Such as Content – and Heaven –

Within my income – these could lie

And Life and I – keep even –


But since the last – included both –

It would suffice my Prayer

But just for one – to stipulate –

And Grace would grant the Pair –


And so – opon this wise – I prayed –

Great Spirit – Give to me

A Heaven not so large as Your’s,

But large enough – for me –


A Smile suffused Jehovah’s face –

The Cherubim – withdrew –

Grave Saints stole out to look at me –

And showed their dimples – too –


I left the Place – with all my might –

I threw my Prayer away

The Quiet Ages picked it up –

And Judgment – twinkled – too –

That one so honest – be extant –

To take the Tale for true –

That “Whatsoever Ye shall ask –

Itself be given You” –


But I, grown shrewder – scan the Skies

With a suspicious Air -As Children – s

windled for the first –

All Swindlers – be – infer –


Noteworthy here are the facts that a human “Life” does require, in its longing, a “Heaven” for its proper counterbalance, to “keep even”; that nothing of the sort is assured, no matter how intense and sincere the longing; that the smiles, dimples, and twinkling of, respectively, God, the saints, and a semianthropo­morphized Judgment Day, are not emblems of tender affection but conde­scending amusement at the petitioner’s naivete; and that the final emphasis is on a general suspicion of all religious presumption.

The Constant Questioner

Again, however, this suspicion is not a denial of the divine mystery. It is the acknowledgment that the human condition, first and last, is that of being a questioner–a questioner who, as Voegelin puts it, would “deform his human­ity” through uncritically accepting answers and “refusing to [continually] ask the questions” concerning fulfillment of our yearnings for communion with the divine mystery that, if we are existentially honest, we cannot ignore, how­ever difficult it may be to hold onto religious faith regarding our ultimate re­lationship to it.18

Thus Dickinson repeatedly, in her work, begins by affirming the reality of the transcendent pole of the metaxy but then proceeds to ex­plore the actual human relationship to it, which is that of, in her own words, “uncertain certainty” (1421).19 We find a concise example of this trajectory in “I know that He exists:”

I know that He exists.

Somewhere – in silence –

He has hid his rare life

From our gross eyes.


’Tis an instant’s play –

’Tis a fond Ambush –

Just to make Bliss

Earn her own surprise!


But – should the play

Prove piercing earnest –

Should the glee – glaze –

In Death’s – stiff – stare –


Would not the fun

Look too expensive!

Would not the jest –

Have crawled too far!


In this poem of encompassing spiritual possibilities, we traverse the entire human pathway that runs between St. Thomas Aquinas’s assertion that it is in the natural capacity of human reason to know that God is real to Macbeth’s horrifying vision of life as a cruel and pointless joke.20 But, of course, the latter possibility is posed in the subjunctive. The final word, for Dickinson, is al­ways recognition of the unknowable–of the basic mystery of human-divine relations, a mystery whose denial would, in Voegelin’s words, conceptually “destroy the In-Between structure of man’s humanity.”21

Who is the God from Whom She Yearns?

In light of poems such as the foregoing and Dickinson’s rejection of her Chris­tian community, to whom or what is she referring, we might ask, when she writes of “God,” which appears so regularly in her poetry along with its (for her) equivalent symbols of “Eternity,” “the Infinite,” “Heaven,” and “Para­dise”? By her own estimation, who is the “God” she constantly yearns for, feels the presence of, and doubts the ultimate outcome of her relationship to?

We have seen that he is not the “revealed” God of Christian Scripture, doc­trine, and dogma as understood by her religious community–even though she relies almost exclusively on biblical and Christian symbols to express her spiritual experiences and insights. She rejects the notion that the divine mystery has been “revealed” in this sense: that is, that the essential nature, person, and plans of God are known to us; that we know that He has saved or “elected” some people and damned others; that we know there exist a “heaven” and “hell” for souls in an assured afterlife; that original sin and our involvement in it, and God’s redemption of our sinful souls through Christ’s Crucifixion and Resurrection, are known facts whose meanings are sufficiently understood; and that we know God hears and cares about our every prayer, opening to us whenever we “knock.” For Dickinson, to assume she knows such things would belie her soul’s knowledge of itself–specifically, of its doubt-filled, mysterious, and fragile relationship with the eternal dimension of be­ing she experiences in the immediacy of her consciousness.

To employ Voegelin’s term again, she knows herself to be “the Question” about the divine ground of her existence; while the God of church and Scrip­ture is presented to her as a revealed set of answers, rather than as the Mys­tery that her questioning steadily illuminates. Dickinson’s poems tell us that the more she questions, seeks to understand, and “knocks,” the more unre­vealed the divine ground in fact shows itself to be. “The God who emerges from [her] poems,” Richard Wilbur summarizes, “is a God who does not an­swer, an unrevealed God whom one cannot confidently approach through . . . doctrine.” 22

Her God is real but, in the last analysis, both hidden and silent. Thus biblical figures and events such as Adam in Eden, Elijah and his chariot-borne ascension to heaven, and even Jesus and the Crucifixion, along with theologically developed concepts such as the Trinity and Judgment Day serve Dickinson always as symbols and signposts, not as historical information or as definitive answers to spiritual questions. They may provide settled comfort for the more credulous, but not for her.

She cannot help but remain conscious of her state of mere “supposition” regarding matters human-divine, wheth­er pertaining to the promise of an afterlife in heaven, or to saints and angels, or to God Himself:

Their Hight in Heaven comforts not –

Their Glory – nought to me –

’Twas best imperfect – as it was –

I’m finite -I cant see –


The House of Supposition –

The Glimmering Frontier that

Skirts the Acres of Perhaps –

To me – shows insecure –
. . .


She likewise expresses skepticism, which she couches as ignorance, regarding the doctrines of sin and redemption:

Of God we ask one favor, that we may be forgiven –

For what, he is presumed to know –

The Crime, from us, is hidden –

. . .


. . .

Is heaven an Exchequer?

They speak of what we owe –

But that negotiation

I’m not a Party to –


Traditional Prayer Did Not Satisfy

Her poems that treat of “prayer” also usually reflect Dickinson’s rejection of the “revealed God” of her Congregationalist familiars and her skeptical attitude about traditional “Christian” teachings. A number of these express amused condescension toward those who take the direct efficacy of prayer for granted and who seem oblivious to the inscrutability of divine will– perhaps, she indicates, because they have never experienced the existential upheaval of divine presence.

Prayer is the little implement

Through which Men reach

Where Presence – is denied them –

They fling their Speech


By means of it – in God’s Ear –

If then He hear –

This sums the Apparatus

Comprised in Prayer –


Most telling here are 1) the suggestion that typical religious supplicants are dull to the true intimacy of human-divine communication (“They fling their Speech”); 2) the depiction of prayer in terms of machinery (“implement,” “apparatus”) and calculation (“sums,” “comprised”), and thus as lacking the passion and longing essential to genuine spiritual encounter; and 3), the meant-to-shock “If” of line six (“If then He hear”), which at once contra­dicts scriptural assurances about God’s all-knowing concern and expresses Dickinson’s doubt not about the fact but about the details and outcome of human-divine relationship.

One should hasten to add, however, that such poems do not mean Dick­inson herself never seriously prayed. They may portray the usual Christian attitude toward prayer as simple-minded, but they also quite obviously re­flect Dickinson’s own experiences of prayerful effort; her resentment at be­ing “swindled” by common or institutional assurances about God and prayer; and her conclusion that it is mere fantasy to believe in prayer as a device of petition that will be answered in some obvious way. (Recall the autobiograph­ical tale in the previously quoted “I meant to have but modest needs”.)

Divine Presence Without Formal Prayer

Bearing these factors in mind, we find that one poem on prayer deserves special attention: “My period had come for prayer.” Its first sixteen lines pres­ent the familiar drama of doubt; then a concluding quatrain not only sounds a new note–it announces a personal epiphany:

. . .

The Silence condescended –

Creation stopped – for me –

But awed beyond my errand –

I worshipped – did not “pray”-


Suddenly the “Silence” does condescend, in its way, to address her (though only as “Silence,” of course).

“Creation stop[s]” for her; that is, she undergoes a Parmenidean moment of revelation, in which for an instant and for her temporal things are transparent for the unmoving divine ground of being. This produces an experience of awe “beyond [her] errand,” that is, beyond anything she had been intending to achieve through “prayer”; and it prompts a spontaneous “worship” of her Creator, a genuine and humble kneeling of the soul, quite other than the “instrumental” act of prayer.

We are reminded, here, of the deeply mysterious ending of the drama of Job’s struggle to under­stand God in the Book of Job. Job’s final and true wisdom consists of accepting the order of Creation–including the fact of earthly suffering, the distressing problem of human iniquity, and the ultimate value of human existence–as mysteries beyond human comprehension, but still divinely and properly or­dained (Job 38:1-42:3). Job no longer petitions, nor does he expect humanly intelligible answers to such mysteries. Instead, he humbly worships the Mys­tery of God that is their source.

Allowing that Emily Dickinson did not find her own “God” in the God of Christian Scripture and doctrine, and given the extent to which Dickinson is associated with intensely sympathetic poems about bees, birds, trees, flowers, sunrises, and other phenomena of nature, we might ask, at this point, wheth­er the divine reality of whom she constantly writes is not understood by her as a God revealed to her essentially through her experiences of Nature.

The question, however, must be answered in the negative. The natural world was for Dickinson a perennial source of beauty, delight, and inspiration but not a place where she found “God” to be revealed. Nature was for her, as she put it, a “homeless home” (1603)25; and she did not, Richard Wilbur writes, see in it “any revelation of divine purpose.”26 In fact, Dickinson’s poems often reflect the fact that the more she lovingly attended to the natural world, the more sharply she felt its distinctness from “God”:

“Heaven” – is what I cannot reach!

The Apple on the Tree –

Provided it do hopeless – hang –

That – “Heaven” is – to Me!

. . .


For a poem summarizing Dickinson’s attitude to Nature, we might well choose the subtle “Further in summer than the birds”–a work that for this very reason has received a fair share of critical attention.

Further in Summer than the Birds –

Pathetic from the Grass –

A minor Nation celebrates

It’s unobtrusive Mass.

No Ordinance be seen –

So gradual the Grace

A gentle Custom it becomes –

Enlarging Loneliness –

Antiquest felt at Noon –

When August burning low

Arise this spectral Canticle

Repose to typify –

Remit as yet no Grace –

No furrow on the Glow,

But a Druidic Difference

Enhances Nature now –


What is most obvious about the poem is its use of religious language–“Mass,” “Ordinance,” “Grace,” the “burning low” (of candles), “Canticle,” “Druidic” (and, just possibly, as a pun, “gradual”).

Alienation From the Natural World

Less obvious is that it is a poem es­sentially about death (“Repose”)–the death of nature and by extension hu­man death–with a symbolic power that derives from a congeries of images pertaining to a Mass for the dying.27 The “minor Nation” celebrating its (un­seen, but overheard) “Mass” is the world of crickets and other insects hid­den in the grass, whose trilling and chirping in the latter part of summer is, unbeknownst to them but fully felt by the poet, a “Canticle” of death (and thus doubly “spectral”: presently invisible and anticipatorily ghostly). As long as the “Grace” of the “Canticle” continues, summer is still present–there is as yet “No furrow on the Glow” of sunlit days–but autumn, decay, and the eventual death of nature in winter are nevertheless what is being “celebrated” in this Mass.

How does this “Canticle” affect the poet? It “Enlarg[es her] Loneliness” of soul. Correspondingly, the external world of Nature is “enhanced” by a “Druidic Difference”–this latter representing the most ancient, the most antique (“Antiquest”) of religious sensibilities, from a Christian point of view. The poet thus finds herself drawn by this “unobtrusive Mass” into a deep feeling of solitude, one that both feels ancient and also imbues Nature with a pagan at­mosphere of sacrifice and death.28 In sum, while Nature remains a domain of spiritual significance–it is, after all, the Creation, a temporal and perishing world shot through with the mystery of eternal meaning–it is finally a world of decay and death, a haunting mystery of beauty, singing of its own per­ishing.

Almost all critics agree that, although there is much to discuss, too, concerning its comforting language of “Grace,” “gentle,” “Noon,” “Glow,” and “Enhances,” this complex poem most essentially expresses with quiet power Dickinson’s sense of alienation from the natural world. No, it is not in Nature, but rather–as her poems tell us repeatedly–in the immediacy of her consciousness, in the mind alone, that Dickinson direct­ly encounters the divine mystery, the timeless pole of existence. Only there transpire the meeting and the longing, the recognition of both the intimacy and the utter transcendence of divine reality, the transports of experienced divine presence and the subsequent pain of abandonment.

As already not­ed, Dickinson was acutely aware that the true “God” was nothing objectlike, nothing worldly, but a “beyond” of the world, and, as such, to be found only in interiority. She knew well that any truth concerning divine transcendence, in Voegelin’s phrasing, “pertains to man’s consciousness of his humanity in par­ticipatory tension toward the divine ground, and to no reality beyond this re­stricted area.”29 Thus, in a not atypical poem, she writes:

Heaven is so far of the Mind

That were the Mind dissolved –

The Site – of it – by Architect

Could not again be proved –

’Tis vast – as our Capacity –

As fair – as our idea –

To Him of adequate desire

No further ’tis, than Here –


And again:

Talk not to me of Summer Trees

The foliage of the mind

A Tabernacle is for Birds

Of no corporeal kind

And winds do go that way at noon

To their Etherial Homes

Whose Bugles call the least of us

To undepicted Realms


It is only in the mind–and in every mind (“the least of us”) propelled by “ad­equate desire”–that the “undepicted Realms” of divine transcendence are re­vealed in their tantalizing unknowability.

The Raptures of a Mystic

And, perhaps needless to say, revelation of the divine “beyond” in conscious­ness is not a matter of disinterested intellectual discernment. It is an intense drama of interiority, engaging the soul’s deepest hopes and fears. Dickinson’s own private drama of human-divine encounter was one of excruciating sensi­tivity: she suffered, it seems, just about everything a person can suffer with re­gard to feelings of divine presence and divine absence. Many poems attest to ecstasies of communion, of “transports,” that afterward fade into radiances of bittersweet remembrance. Even more report experiences of abandonment or rejection by the divine, among which ought to be included, given her un­ceasing religious sensibility, those poems that express extreme mental anguish and paralyzing terror.

To start with her experiences of bliss: Dickinson’s work leaves no doubt that at times the divine element that she knew to be co-constitutive of her consciousness made its presence felt to her with stunning intensity. She writes with gratitude of

. . .

The Moments of Dominion

That happen on the Soul

And leave it with a Discontent

Too exquisite – to tell –

. . .


This is a “Dominion” welcomed and loved; and to describe its “Moments,” as she does, as happening not “in” but “on the soul,” emphasizes the divine ini­tiative, the act of divine grace in the encounter. The meaning of such experi­ences, she reminds us, cannot be captured in words (though poetry may say as much), since they involve rapturous intercourse with a divine presence that is Mystery itself. Even the after-state lies beyond language:

. . .

It comes, without a consternation –

Dissolves – the same –

But leaves a sumptuous Destitution –

Without a Name –

. . .


Such experiences for Dickinson are all-important. They feed the soul’s na­tive hunger for “God,” thus helping it to turn away from petty concerns, from superficialities of social activity, from persons of lesser worth (recall the well- known “The soul selects her own society”), and from mere earthly goods. They induce a crucial, if indefinable, transformation:

. . .

I could not have defined the change –

Conversion of the Mind

Like Sanctifying in the Soul –

Is witnessed – not explained-


And from the perspective of her “converted” mind, Dickinson could only smile at “The Fop – the Carp – the Atheist”: those who love or pride themselves on earthly, passing things; those who complain and criticize due to an in­ability to see things from the perspective of eternity; those who deny out­right, through ignorance or resentment, the divine majesty and mystery. All of these live in a kind of unconverted obliviousness, imagining that tempo­ral world and mortal life is all, “While their commuted Feet / The Torrents of Eternity / Do all but inundate” (1420).31

Deprivation and Agony

But for reasons no psychologist or philosopher could hope to fully explain, Dickinson’s work also shows that her experiences of illuminative fulfillment were counterbalanced, indeed outbalanced, by harsh trials of emotional de­privation and mental agony. Many poems provide testimony to severe exis­tential struggles.

Some of these, concerning experiences of loss and rejection following “transports” of divine visitation, follow the pattern of the “dark nights of the soul” of Christian mystics, who depict the profound sense of desolation and abandonment that can succeed rapturous experiences of union, or commu­nion, with God. In just this vein we hear Dickinson proclaim:

If I’m lost – now-

That I was found –

Shall still my transport be –

That once – on me – those Jasper Gates

Blazed open – suddenly –

That in my awkward – gazing – face

The Angels – softly peered –

And touched me with their fleeces,

Almost as if they cared –

I’m banished – now – you know it

How foreign that can be –

You’ll know – Sir – when the Savior’s face

Turns so – away from you –


And though Dickinson sometimes, as here, describes her experiences of aban­donment by the divine in terms of God or Christ spurning her, other po­ems adopt the images of Jesus’ own agony–his crisis of doubt in the Garden, his scourging and Crucifixion–to symbolize her own sense of abandonment, doubt, and anguish, and that of persons who have suffered similarly:

. . .

Gethsemane –

Is but a Province – in the Being’s Centre –

Our Lord – indeed – made Compound Witness –

And yet –

There’s newer – nearer Crucifixion

Than That –


Still other poems, the most wrenching–and there are many of them– describe experiences in which her soul has been thrown into such darkness and fear that only the demonic images of “Goblin” and “Fiend” can do justice to what it has suffered. Dickinson is one of the few poets in the English tra­dition who has succeeded in conveying that combination of terror, despair, numbness, and fear of madness entailed in what today might be called clini­cal depression.

’Twas like a Maelstrom, with a notch,

That nearer, every Day,

Kept narrowing it’s boiling

Wheel Until the Agony

Toyed coolly with the final inch

Of your delirious Hem –

And you dropt, lost,

When something broke –

And let you from a Dream –

As if a Goblin with a Guage –

Kept measuring the Hours –

Until you felt your Second

Weigh, helpless, in his Paws –

. . .


She can describe with precision the unpredictable, uncontrollable alterna­tions of crushing depression, its blessed relief, and its dreaded return:

The Soul has Bandaged moments –

When too appalled to stir –

She feels some ghastly Fright come up

And stop to look at her –

Salute her, with long fingers –

Caress her freezing hair –

Sip, Goblin, from the very lips

The Lover – hovered – o’er –

Unworthy, that a thought so mean

Accost a Theme – so – fair –

The soul has moments of escape –

When bursting all the doors –

She dances like a Bomb, abroad,

And swings opon the Hours,

As do the Bee – delirious borne –

Long Dungeoned from his Rose –

Touch Liberty – then know no more –

But Noon, and Paradise –

The Soul’s retaken moments –

When, Felon led along,

With shackles on the plumed feet,

And staples, in the song,

The Horror welcomes her, again,

These, are not brayed of Tongue –


In this, one of her most powerful poems, God is indeed represented. He is the “Lover” who “hovered o’er”–but did not actually kiss, as did the “Goblin”– the poet’s lips; and He is “Noon, and Paradise,” two of Dickinson’s regular em­blems for ecstatic fulfillment. The happiness of release from fear and depres­sion is strikingly conveyed by her image of “bursting the doors” and “dancing like a Bomb, abroad,” where “Bomb” conveys the sense of a barely containable intensity, of almost manic joy in emotionally liberated, exultant existence.

Horror Beyond Speech

But the emphasis, of course, is on the bracketing experience either side of the joy of release, an experience much worse than a sense of God’s absence or even of his having “spurned” her. When the soul is “retaken”–when it is imprisoned again by anxiety, terror, and the leaden weight of depression, which “shackles” the feet that danced, and “staples” (painfully impales into fixity) the song that had burst spontaneously from the exultant soul–it undergoes an experience of undreamt-of “Horror.”

That horror, like the experience of divine commu­nion that is its radical opposite, is finally inexpressible; the human “Tongue,” or speech, is such a crude instrument for conveying its oppressive agony that any attempt to tell of it would be, in comparison with any adequate articula­tion of experience, no more than the equivalent of a donkey’s braying. After such horror, she ruefully notes, she truly cannot determine:

. . .

Which Anguish was the utterest – then –

To perish, or to live?


We have no evidence, and it would be far too pat, to say that Dickinson considered her mental agonies as something like a price she was required to pay for her experiences of “transport.” That formula would betray the foun­dation of her existential outlook, which we hear her affirm repeatedly: the drama of human-divine encounter entails mysteries and perplexities that it would be dishonest to deny.

What we can reasonably conclude, however, is that Dickinson often felt herself to be subject to a kind of divine capriciousness. Her “God” is a divine Creator who allows her to seek and not find; who teas­es her with “Heaven” only to spurn her (see the full text of “‘Heaven’ is what I cannot reach”); who places her in a society where she feels alienated, and in a Nature where she often feels homeless; and who abandons her to recur­rent experiences of despair and terror. And in addition we can be sure that, at least at times, she judged her “crisis” experiences to have made more acute– even if they did not establish–her awareness of divine reality. So she writes:

The Soul’s distinct connection

With immortality

Is best disclosed by

Danger Or quick Calamity –

As Lightning on a Landscape

Exhibits Sheets of Place –

Not yet suspected – but for Flash –

And Click – and Suddenness.


The Absolute Transcendent

Returning a last time to our question, then–just who or what is Emily Dick­inson’s “God”?–let us assay an answer, however incomplete it must be. Dickinson often had experiences of epiphany, or “theophany,” in which the immediacy of Divine Presence was as certain to her as the fact of her own being. And because she remained honest to herself, and spiritually dis­cerning, about those experiences, she did not deceive herself about how fleeting the moments of “visitation” were or how desolate she felt when they had passed.

In addition, she underwent experiences of dread, alienating de­pression, and fear for her sanity that she can only have interpreted as being allowed, if not ordained, by the divine author of her existence. And which­ever type of experience she wrote about, one fact is consistently brought to the fore: the ultimate divine source of the experience is magisterially “be­yond,” majestically incomprehensible.

Never does Dickinson eclipse from her awareness the absolutely transcendent mysteriousness of “God” and the pattern of His intentions for her mind. Dickinson’s God is unrevealed: hidden, silent, unpredictable, and thus, above all things–despite his “visita­tions”–unknown. And here again, as with her evocations of human existence as life in the In-Between of world and transcendence, ignorance and knowledge, despair and faith, we find Dickinson attuned to a key element in Voegelin’s philoso­phy.

For in a number of works, Voegelin takes pains to explain how the divine ground of being–which in ancient cultures was experienced and symbol­ized as a plurality of intracosmic gods–gradually came to be recognized in its transcendent “oneness” through a differentiating process (discussed in chapter one) that produced symbolisms first of henotheism, then monothe­ism, and finally an explicit mysticism. We encounter such mysticism already in Plato’s notion of divine ultimacy as a “being beyond being” in Republic Book VI (508-9), but in a much more explicit and detailed manner in Jewish and Christian mystical traditions (and in those of Islam, Hinduism, Bud­dhism, and Taoism).

The historical differentiating process shows that, in the end, an explicit conceptual apprehension of divine radical transcendence forces upon its discoverers a consciousness of the profound unknowability of the Divine essence. Thus Voegelin describes the “millennial Movement” of human-divine encounter as issuing, during the first millennium B.C., into an explicit appreciation that, ultimately, the divine ground is an “Unknown God”–an undisclosable primal Mystery known to be such.

The “God” who emerges from Dickinson’s poems, it seems to me, conforms precisely to this “Unknown God” identified in Voegelin’s account of the historical process of mystical differentiation–that is, the one ineffable divine reality “behind” all intracosmic, mythic, and “revealed” gods of human history.34 A more precise parallel can be made, and it is one that speaks directly to Dickinson’s success in recovering difficult truths about life in the metaxy in a cultural and theological atmosphere dominated by the “revealed” God of doctrinal Christianity.

In his account of the Christian epiphany and the Gospel movement, Voege­lin argues that the “extraordinary divine irruption in the existence of Jesus,” as recorded in the New Testament, was nothing less than the coming to full clarity of the fact that Yahweh, God, the Creator, is indeed the agnostos theos, the “hidden divinity” or “Unknown God,” of an absolutely radical transcen­dence.

Loss of Awareness in the Modern Churches

The utter “beyondness” of ultimate divine reality, Voegelin argues, was at first glimpsed and then increasingly recognized in the theophanic experi­ences of earlier traditions–both Hebrew/Judaic and other–but climactically revealed as such by Christ. What Jesus’ teachings and actions impressed upon those who responded to “the whole fullness of divine reality [theotes]” in Him (Col. 2:9), was the radical mysteriousness, and absolute incommensurability with the created world and all finite comprehension, of “the Father” to whom he bore witness. Voegelin concludes:

“The revelation of the Unknown God through Christ, in conscious continuity with the millennial process of revela­tion . . . is so much the center of the gospel movement that it may be called the gospel itself.”35

However, he continues, the drama of the gospel as the climactic revelation of the Unknown God, who has been the divine partner in metaxic encounter for all peoples of all times, although “alive in the consciousness of the New Testament writers,” has largely been lost to the modern churches.

This Voege­lin attributes to the process of “doctrinalization,” of formulating in propo­sitions the experienced truths of the Christian epiphany, so as to precisely explain, and institutionally protect, their meanings–a process that was both necessary and inevitable but heavy with unfortunate consequences. The prin­cipal problematic outcome, he explains, has been the separation of “doctri­nal” or “school theology” from “mystical or experiential theology” and the institutional and pedagogical ascendance of the former to the point of the near-eclipse of the latter.

The result is that “Christianity” today has become, by and large, a matter of believers being urged to embrace (without too many questions, please) sets of doctrines or propositions presented as information about God and his creations “revealed” through Scripture and Church teach­ing. For Voegelin, who considers a life of genuine faith to be dependent on personal mystical experiences, it has been a disaster for the modern world that “[the] Unknown God whose theotes [divine reality] was present in the ex­istence of Jesus has been eclipsed by the revealed God of Christian doctrine,” that the ultimate unknowability of radically transcendent divinity has been largely forgotten in the mainstream Christian traditions.36

When Emily Dickinson rejected the “revealed God” of her Congregationalist community, therefore, and bravely explored in her own consciousness just who or what “God” might be, she discovered that “Jehovah” was an unknowable, sometimes terrifying Mystery, a Mystery for which “Jesus” and “Gethsemane” and “Crucifixion” could be approached as symbol-windows opening onto elemental truths of consciousness. She was in her own idiosyncratic and nonscholarly way–with an “inward eye,” as Barton Levi St. Armand puts it, that “remained stead­fastly, obediently open”–recovering the truth of the “Unknown God”and thus the essence of the Christian epiphany itself.37

From the point of view of Voegelin’s philosophy, Dickinson was in fact penetrat­ing to the “engendering experiences” of key Christian symbols and expressing those experiences and revivifying those symbols in poems of startling lucidity and originality. For her poems repeatedly remind us that “the truth of reality has its center not in the cosmos at large, not in nature or society . . . but in the presence of the Unknown God in a [person’s] existence to his death and life,” and that, in the wake of the differentiation of the radical transcendence of the ground of being, true testimony about the Divine “can only proceed from the god who is experienced as the Unknown God in the immediate experience of the divine Beyond”38

In this view, Dickinson suddenly looks less like the post-Christian nonbeliever portrayed by many commentators–or even like a brilliant originator of a unique religious faith, making her, like Wiliam Blake, a “sect of one”39–and more like a courageous, solitary recoverer of elemen­tal truths at the core of a religious tradition whose institutional forms, as she knew them, repelled her. Though she undoubtedly rejected “Christianity,” she may have been far more Christian than she suspected.

For if Voegelin is correct, the very heart of the Christian epiphany is that human existence is life in the unresolved tension of the metaxy, with the divine source of reality understood both as immediately present in consciousness– the “site and sensorium of Divine Presence”–and as the Divine Creator so transcendently “other” that one can only speak of “Hiddenness,” “Silence,” and “the Nameless.”40

Our Human Condition

Dickinson’s poems convey with power and precision exactly this unresolved tension, as well as this dual appreciation of 1) Di­vine Presence in the mind, and 2) the Divine’s radical inaccessibility, as they again and again point to, on the one hand, “the Divine reality which enters the metaxy in the [questing] movement of existence” in the human mind, and on the other, “the invisible God, experienced as real [utterly] beyond the metaxy of existence.”41

Bearing this analysis in mind, we may consider, finally, a poem in which Dickinson encapsulates our human condition: our situation of longing, doubt­ing, and hoping in the “in-between” of time and eternity, ignorance and knowledge, and faced with the challenge of sustaining authentic faith in light of awareness that the drama of our existence unfolds within, and in conscious relation to, an unfathomable Mystery:

This World is not conclusion.

A Species stands beyond –

Invisible, as Music –

But positive, as Sound –

It beckons, and it baffles –

Philosophy, dont know –

And through a Riddle, at the last –

Sagacity, must go –

To guess it, puzzles scholars –

To gain it, Men have borne

Contempt of Generations

And Crucifixion, shown –

Faith slips – and laughs, and rallies –

Blushes, if any see –

Plucks at a twig of Evidence –

And asks a Vane, the way –

Much Gesture, from the Pulpit –

Strong Hallelujahs roll –

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth

That nibbles at the soul –


Here we find the key Dickinsonian themes addressed above: clear affirmation of the reality of transcendent being, the impotencies of analytical intelligence in grasping the mystery of transcendence and the soul’s ultimate destiny and rec­ognition that the core of human consciousness is a longing for communion with that mystery.

And finally, we find the difficulties of genuine faith in an Unknown God contrasted with smug religiosity, a contrast caustically conveyed by her depic­tion of pulpit oratory and fervid congregational hymn-singing as narcotics employed to ward off awareness of the tension of metaxic existence. The last word, aptly for Dickinson, lies with “the Tooth / That nibbles at the soul”– the spiritual tension experienced by her principally in the negative modalities of doubt, anxiety, and an alienated and solitary seeking.

A Corrective Offered by T.S. Eliot

Like Dickinson, T. S. Eliot shows that he is well acquaint­ed with experiences both of spiritual desolation and of mystical communion with the Divine.42 Unlike Dickinson, however, and like Hopkins, Eliot offers a poetic vision of the cosmos that is decidedly and positively Christian, one in which divine transcendence is affirmed to be ultimately, albeit mysterious­ly, an unconditioned act of unconditional Love.

But Eliot’s Four Quartets seems, in some sense, to reconcile the spiritual outlook of Dickinson, with its anxious doubts and focus on the darkness of the Divine mystery, with that of Hop­kins the confirmed Christian–to embrace them both in the “mediation” of a higher synthesis. And it does this through bringing their poetically expressed experiences and insights into a wider and fuller spiritual horizon.

This larger horizon results from Eliot’s deep reflection upon two issues, neither of which seriously informs the poetry of Dickinson or Hopkins: the profoundly historical nature of human existence and the solidarity in spiri­tual wisdom that unites the world’s major religious traditions. Dickinson’s antidoctrinal rejection of institutional Christianity and Hopkins’s devo­tional Christian perspective both appear somewhat provincial in compari­son with the historically sensitized, and energetically ecumenic, mystical “Christianity” of Eliot’s Four Quartets, with its allusions to Eastern religious traditions, attention to historicity, and elegant spiritual cosmopolitanism. El­iot in Four Quartets is not only, like Dickinson and Hopkins, a supreme poet of the metaxy and of the divinely grounded cosmos, he is also a poet whose art is operating, in the exercise of its spiritual function, at the level of contem­porary historical and global consciousness.


All poems are taken from]: R. W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, 608-9. All fur­ther quotations and numbering of Dickinson’s poems are from this edition. When quo­tations do not include the first line of the poem, I reference the poem’s first line. Partial quotations from poems will indicate preceding and/or succeeding lines or stanzas by the symbol . . .

1. Harold Bloom, Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 345.

2. On existence in the In-Between of world and transcendence as a “tension,” see Eric Voegelin, “Structures of Consciousness,” in The Drama of History, 361-64; “Eternal Being in Time,” 321-30; and “Reason: The Classic Experience,” 279-85.

3. Marietta Messmer, “Dickinson’s Critical Reception,” in Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchie, and Cristanne Miller, eds., The Emily Dickinson Handbook, 320n4.

4. Harold Bloom, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 295.

5. Ibid., 291, 305; Genius, 350 (emphasis added).

6. Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols., 2:719-20.

7. Robert Weisbuch, “Prisming Dickinson; or, Gathering Paradise by Letting Go,” in Grabher, Hagenbüchie, and Miller, eds., The Emily Dickinson Handbook, 219; Clark Griffith, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry, 5.

8. On “second realities,” see, for example, Eric Voegelin, “The German University and the Order of German Society: A Reconsideration of the Nazi Era,” 16, 33-34; “On De­bate and Existence,” 36-38, 44,49; and “On Hegel: A Study in Sorcery,” 237,242-54. For a striking example of the employment of the concept by Doderer, see Heimito von Doderer, Every Man a Murderer, 234-35; for an analysis of Doderer’s use of the concept in his masterwork The Demons, see the chapter “‘A Secret between Man and God’: Second Reality in Heimito von Doderer’s The Demons,” in Charles R. Embry, The Philosopher and the Story­teller: Eric Voegelin and Twentieth-Century Literature, 80-116. Voegelin attributes the first use of the notion to Robert Musil in the latter’s novel The Man without Qualities.

9. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 404. On human existence as “the Question,” see 388- 410.

10. Weisbuch, “Prisming Dickinson,” 203. She has been accorded other catchy titles as well. D. S. Savage has described her as “the poet of death,” and Clark Griffith as “the poet of dread.” See D. S. Savage, “Death: A Sequence of Poems,” in Oscar Williams, ed., Master Poems of the English Language, 751; and Griffith, The Long Shadow, one of whose chapter titles is “The Poet of Dread.”

11. Voegelin, “Eternal Being in Time,” 329.

12. Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 176.

13. R. W. Franklin, ed., The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, 608-9. All fur­ther quotations and numbering of Dickinson’s poems are from this edition. When quo­tations do not include the first line of the poem, I reference the poem’s first line. Partial quotations from poems will indicate preceding and/or succeeding lines or stanzas by the symbol . . .

14. 984: “Satisfaction is the agent”; 484: “From blank to blank.”

15. Jane Donahue Eberwein, “Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradi­tion,” in Judith Farr, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 89-98; Richard Wilbur, “‘Sumptuous Destitution,”’ in Farr, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, 54—55.

16. Wilbur, “‘Sumptuous Destitution,”’ 53.

17. Her letters describe a “false conversion” in her childhood; see Jane Donahue Eber­wein, “Dickinson’s Local, Global, and Cosmic Perspectives,” in Grabher, Hagenbüchie, and Miller, eds., The Emily Dickinson Handbook, 33.

18.Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 175.

19. 1421: “Of Paradise’ existence.”

20. See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 12, Article 12: “Whether We Can Know God in This Life by Natural Reason?” Aquinas’s argument here is that we know a transcendent God to be real as the necessary first cause of all things discov­ered through our senses. Lonergan provides a complementary argument for an “unme­diated experience [in consciousness] of [a] mystery of love and awe” that, when properly understood, is revealed to be the divine presence whose essential reality belongs to the “realm of transcendence.” See Lonergan, Method in Theology, 112-15.

21. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 404.

22. Wilbur, “‘Sumptuous Destitution,”’ 55-56 (emphasis added).

23. 1260: “Is heaven a physician.”

24. 525: “My period had come for prayer.”

25. “. . . Through which existence strays / Homeless at home.” 1603: “To the bright east she flies.

26. Wilbur, “‘Sumptuous Destitution,’” 58.

27. “Mass,” incidentally, would not be a word taken from Dickinson’s Congregationalist environment, but rather, with its distinctly Catholic resonance, would have been used by Dickinson for its unsettling “shock value.” Cf. Eberwein, “Emily Dickinson and the Cal­vinist Sacramental Tradition,” 102.

28. It is unknown whether Dickinson was acquainted with the details of Druidic religion, but its rituals of human sacrifice may have been familiar to her.

29. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 53.

30. 696: “The tint I cannot take is best”; 1404: “In many and reportless places”; 627: “I think I was enchanted.”

31. 1420: “How much the present moment means.”

32. 670: “One crucifixion is recorded only.”

33. 425: “’Twas like a maelstrom, with a notch.”

34. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 52-53, 326; “The Gospel and Culture,” 210. On the “Unknown God,” see The Ecumenic Age, 52-54, 71, 89, 95, 326; “The Gospel and Culture,” 196-200, 210-211.

35. Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 192, 196, 198

36. Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 199. For the full analysis adumbrated here, see 189-212.

37. Barton Levi St. Armand, “The Art of Peace,” in Farr, ed., Emily Dickinson: A Collec­tion of Critical Essays, 172.

38. Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 210; and The Ecumenic Age, 95.

39. Bloom, Genius, 345.

40. Voegelin, The Ecumenic Age, 53. See Eric Voegelin, “What Is Political Reality?” in Anamnesis: On the Theory of History and Politics, 396-97: “[R]egardless of what [terminology we invent] we shall not gain more than the insights that (1) in the tension toward the ground we have experience of a reality that incomprehensibly lies beyond all that we ex¬perience of it in participation, and that we (2) can speak of the incomprehensible only by characterizing it as reaching beyond the symbolic language of participation . . . by means of such symbols as the ‘ineffable’ or the ‘silence.’”

41. Voegelin, “The Gospel and Culture,” 194.

42. T.S. Eliot is considered in Professor Hughes’ following chapter.


Also available is “T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: A Pattern of Timeless Moments.”

This excerpt is from A Beautiful Question: The Spiritual in Poetry and Art (University of Missouri Press, 2011).

Glenn HughesGlenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes

Glenn Hughes is Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s University in Texas. He is author of several books, including Transcendence and History (Missouri, 2003); A More Beautiful Question (Missouri, 2011); and co-editor, with Charles Embry, of The Eric Voegelin Reader: Politics, History, Consciousness (Missouri, 2017).

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