"THIS CONSCIOUSNESS THAT IS AWARE":
Emily Dickinson in the Wilderness of the Mind
DAVID R. WILLIAMS
EMILY DICKINSON, a lonely heir of the Puritans' call to conversion in the wilderness of the mind, spun endless circles around infinity transfixed by the abyss at the center. "This is to die sensibly; to die and know it," preached Jonathan Edwards. "We read in Scripture of the blackness of darkness; this is it, this is the very thing." Not fire, not torture, not eternal nothingness, but consciousness of endless consciousness alone was the terror of the pit. To be alone, without body, without perception, forever and forever, fully awake, facing "in lonely place/ That awful stranger Consciousness‑"this was the threat of immortality. "Looking at death," Emily Dickinson knew, "is dying."1
John Cody has argued that Emily Dickinson suffered a
"psychotic" breakdown and that her poems "portray faithfully the
terror of a mind collapsing under pressures that exceed its endurance."2 This may be so. It is hard to read her
letters and poems and deny that she did suffer a traumatic emotional experience
of some kind or that her behavior was, at best, eccentric. But whatever the
exact nature of this experience, whatever the causes, however analyzed in
whatever discipline, Emily Dickinson would have understood it within the
context provided by her intensely anachronistic Calvinist culture. It is her
poetry that is important to us, and if her poetry is her response to her
experience, neither Freud, nor Jung, nor Sappho can
provide the primary approach for our understanding of what she wrote. 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
There was from the first settling of
Emily Dickinson was the first
Nevertheless, the psychological crisis of conversion, still the heart
But there still remains confusion regarding Emily Dickinson’s relationship to her ancestral religion. Richard Sewall has said that her "whole career may be regarded as a sustained, if muted rebellion, against this very inheritance." More recently, Karl Keller has stated that she more than left the church, "she stood against, stood up to it:" Albert Gelpi has advanced the position that she was essentially a "Romantic Poet" liberated from her Puritan past by the refreshing winds of Emersonian Transcendentalism.5
Much of this sort of interpretation results both from a misunderstanding of what it meant to be a Calvinist in New England as well as from an inability to distinguish between the evangelical orthodoxy of the 1850s and the spiritual Calvinism preached by men like Edwards, Stoddard, and Hooker. Emily Dickinson was in rebellion, not against her ancestral religion, not against Calvinism, but against the sterile and superficial faith of her more immediate culture. If she revolted against the church, it was in the name, not of Emerson, but of Christ. And her doing so put her in the mainstream of the true Calvinist wilderness tradition.
The debate centers on the story of
To illustrate the independence and honesty of her convictions,
Miss Lyon, during a time of religious interest in the school, asked all
those who wanted to be Christians to rise. The wording of the
request was not such as Emily could accede to and she remained
seated‑the only one who did not rise. In relating the incident to me,
she said, "They thought it queer I didn't rise"‑adding with a
twinkle in her eye, "I thought a lie would be queerer.6
This alone might be considered ambiguous evidence. But placed next to the letters she wrote during this period, it becomes obvious that her rebellion was in the tradition of the seventeenth‑century minister, Jonathan Mitchell, who refused to accept "seemings" in place of the real thing, and of those faithful Christians who were "too scrupulous" to own the halfway covenant.7
In 1846, as the revival at
I was almost persuaded to be a Christian. I thought I never again could be thoughtless and worldly‑and I can say that I never before enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior. 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. I have longed to hear from you‑to know what decision you have made. I hope you are a Christian for I feel that it is impossible for anyone to be happy without a treasure in heaven. I feel that I shall never be happy without I love Christ.8
Her desire to believe remained sincere, but the lesson of this false conversion stayed with her, for she feared that she might "again be deceived and I dared not trust myself." Years later, still unwilling to trust herself, she remembered her youthful error and blamed, not fate, but herself "for entertaining Plated Wares/Upon my Silver Shelf‑" (J‑747).
At home in
certainly comes from God‑and I think to receive it is blessed‑not that I know it from me, but from those on whom change has passed . . . . You must pray when the rest are sleeping, that the hand may be held to me, and I may be led away.9
Emily Dickinson despaired that she was not destined for salvation. Her carnal spirit enjoyed the world too much. Her head believed, but her heart did not seem able to grieve the acknowledged danger. She was not boasting but confessing when she wrote:
The shore is safer, Abiah, but I love to buffet the sea‑I can count the bitter wrecks here in these pleasant waters, and hear the murmuring winds, but oh, I love the danger! You are learning control and firmness. Christ Jesus will love you more. I'm afraid he don't love me any!'°
Although willing intellectually to acknowledge the desirability of
Her refusal to profess a false salvation was considered "queer." The irony of her stance was not lost on her and she was able to observe the situation with humor, if only to mail her anguish. Of her family, she said, "They are religious, except me, and address an Eclipse, every morning‑whom they call their 'Father.'"" The "sun" of her God in "Eclipse," twice passed over and barely touched by the Holy Spirit, she believed herself lost in the waste:
I never lost as much but twice
And that was in the sod.
Twice have I stood a beggar
Before the door of God!
Reimbursed my store‑ Banker‑Fatherl
I am poor once morel
It was not until years later that "Christ" did visit Emily Dickinson. It was then, in 1861, that she underwent the mental breakdown that John Cody analyzed, an event that stood out in her memory as the climactic moment of revelation. It was on a particular "Day," one that felt "Centuries" long, that "I first surmised the Horses Heads/Were toward Eternity‑" (J‑712). As William Sherwood has written, this was the "conversion that both her inclinations and her traditions had prepared her for. . . ” 12
The developments that led to this traumatic event, for whatever reason, began years earlier. In 1846, when
I'm just from meeting, Susie, and as I sorely feared, my `life' was made a `victim: I walked‑Iran‑I turned precarious corners‑One moment I was not‑then soared aloft like phoenix, soon as the foe was by‑and then anticipating an enemy again, my soiled and drooping plumage might have been seen emerging from just behind a fence, vainly endeavoring to fly once more from hence.
She also expressed her growing fears and her yearning for some "
In 1858 the tone of her letters began to change dramatically. No longer coherent and flowing, they became cryptic, mysterious, choppy, and superficially disordered. They also dealt more and more with her growing concern for her mental stability. For instance, in 1859, she wrote to Catherine Turner:
Insanity to the sane seems so unnecessary‑but I am only one, and they are `four and forty' . . . . I am pleasantly located in the deep sea, but love will row you out if her hands are strong, and don't wait till I land, for I'm going ashore on the other side
The image of the sea, as used here, reappears constantly in
It is not possible to date exactly the moment of Emily Dickinson's
crisis. But that something happened, and that she remembered it happening on a
particular day, is clear from her poetry. According to Cody, this
"terrible sundering of the personality's connection with reality" is
probably the "most terrifying" experience that a person can undergo.
There is a "dread of impending loss of control" followed by an
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading‑treading‑till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum
Kept beating‑beating‑till I thought
My Mind was going numb
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space‑began to toll,
all the Heavens were a
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing‑then (J‑280)
Here, in a nondoctrinaire, nondogmatic form, are the classic Calvinist images of the
crisis of conversion as they apply to the sinner first awakened to the terrors
of the wrath of God. Here is the beating on the mind like Christ knocking on
the door to the heart, here is the breaking of the rotten plank over the pit of
hell as worldly sense perception rots and consciousness plunges into subconsciousness, here is the complete surrender of finite
being to God's sovereignty, here is the loneliness of the lost sinner who
cannot hear the heavenly music, and here is the complete destruction of reason.
The central image of human consciousness suspended over the pit of hell is a
striking and unmistakable aspect of
A Pit‑but Heaven over it
And Heaven beside, and Heaven abroad,
And yet a Pit
With Heaven over it.
To look would be to drop‑ .... (J‑1712)
That this pit is of the mind is made clear when
Its Hour with itself
The Spirit never shows.
What Terror would enthrall the Street
Could Countenance disclose
The Subterranean Freight
The Cellars of the Soul
Thank God the loudest Place he made
Is licensed to be still. (J‑1225)
The day of revelation was a day of madness, a plunge into total depravity, an experience so powerful that ever after she recalled it with awe, and named it:
The first Day's Night had come
And grateful that a thing
So terrible‑had been endured
I told my soul to sing
She said her Strings were snapt
Her Bow‑to Atoms blown
And so to mend her‑gave me work
Until another Morn
And then ‑a Day as huge
As Yesterdays in pairs,
Unrolled its horror in my face
Until it blocked my eyes
My Brain‑begun to laugh
I mumbled‑like a fool
And tho' 'tis Years ago‑that Day
My Brain keeps giggling‑still.
And Something's odd‑within‑
That person that I was
And this One‑do not feel the same
Could it be Madness‑this? (J-410)
What we see here is the same
confusion that had sent
others, like the mystic poet Jones Very, briefly to
One way in which Emily Dickinson tried to express her own perception of her experience was by writing it out in poetry. In 1862, she wrote to Thomas Higginson, "I had a terror‑since September ‑I could tell to none‑and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground‑because I am afraid." At the time of her crisis, her strings "snapt," she could not sing, but in the "Quartz contentment" (J‑341) that followed, she found her voice. 16
The full conversion experience
always had two aspects, crucifixion
and resurrection, the wilderness and
One Year Ago‑Jots what?
Was't Grace? Not that‑
Was't Glory? That‑will do‑
Moreover, this Glory was, once again, a specific experience, that came only once and therefore had to be drunk of deeply and fully:
I tasted ‑careless‑then
I did not know the Wine
Came once a World‑Did you? (J‑296)
It was thus a sudden once‑in‑a‑lifetime experience of
Glory, of "Wine," as well as madness. The effort to describe this
apparently contradictory state produced some of
A Wounded Deer‑leaps highest
I've heard the Hunter tell—
Tis but the Ecstasy of death –
And then the Brake is still! (J‑165)
The conjunction of ecstasy and despair, of resurrection and of
crucifixion, often served her as the subject of poetic imagery. But when
Could we stand with that old 'Moses'—
Scan like him the stately landscape
On the other side
Like Moses, she had been allowed a sight of Christ,
from a distance, but had been denied entrance into
"Am not consumed," Old Moses wrote,
"Yet saw him face to face‑"
I am convinced was this. (J‑1753)
At times, such a sight was
deemed sufficient: "What
would I give to see his face?/ I'd give‑I'd give my life‑of course‑"
(J‑247). At other times, "One hour‑of her Sovereign's
face" was not enough. She complained that Moses suffered worse than
Stephen or Paul, "For these‑were only put to death‑"while
Moses was given a "tantalizing" sight of
With Thee in the Desert
With Thee in the Tamarind wood
Leopard breathes at last! (J‑209)
The image appears repeatedly. There is an "Awe," she wrote, "that men, must slake in wilderness" (J‑525). Her sojourn through the world was a sojourn "through Desert or the Wilderness" (J‑711). The experience of the sight of the "Son" of God from deep in the wilderness of madness was the hinge of her existence. Although the experience did not recur, and even the memory of it lost its original intensity, the brilliance of that flash changed everything:
Had I not seen the Sun
I could have borne the shade
But light a newer wilderness
My wilderness has made- (J‑123)
The loss of sanity was a loss of control of sense perception; it was a fading back from the world into the chaos of undifferentiated consciousness: "I clutched at sounds‑/ I groped at shapes‑/ . . ./ I felt the wilderness roll back . . . ." (J‑430) described the unfolding of the inner wilderness before her. But there was always the image of Christ in the wilderness making the ordeal bearable:
No wilderness‑can be
Where this attendeth me
No Desert Noon
No fear of frost to come
Haunt the perennial bloom
But Certain June! (J‑195)
The wilderness thus served
Although many of
The apparently contradictory moods of these poems have suggested to
Now here is a new made creature in a new world, viewing God, and wondering at his infinite glory, looking all round, astonished at the divine perfection shining forth in all his works. He views the spacious heavens; they declare to him the glory of the Lord: He sees his wisdom and his power; he wonders and adores; he looks around upon all His works; . . .; all is genuine, natural and free, resulting from the native temper of his heart.19
Here is a passionate love of the natural world, the elect perception that Emerson had tried to reproduce. But to try to fit Bellamy into any Transcendental category would be to stretch the definition of Transcendentalism beyond any practical use.
The mental crisis of the early sixties passed, but
The waiting was not serene. The paranoia that had first surrounded her remained. She withdrew into seclusion, afraid to face the world. Having tasted of the fruit of the tree of selfconsciousness, she experienced a sight of sin; her nakedness was unbearable. "I was afraid and hid myself," she explained. When left alone in the house, she came close to panic. The terror floated just below the surface and she tried not to tempt it:
The nights turned hot, when Vinnie had gone, and 1 must keep no window raised for fear of prowling 'booger,' and 1 must shut my door for fear front door slide open on meat the `dead of night,' and I must keep 'gas' burning to light the danger up, so I could distinguish it‑these gave me a snarl in the brain which don't unravel yet, and that old nail in my breast pricked me.22
She recognized that she had wrestled with God, but unlike Jacob she had lost. She was no longer in control, but neither had she received a blessing. She still waited with fearful uncertainty for the divine event. It could be terror:
Others, can wrestle
Yours, is done
And so of woe, bleak dreaded‑come,
It sets the fright at liberty
And terror's free
It could be joy:
A Transport one cannot contain
May yet a transport be
Though God forbid it lift the lid
Unto its ecstasy! (J-281)
Not able like John Cotton to "wade in grace," she tired of the waiting and even thought of suicide as a means of breaking free:
What if I say I shall not wait!
What if I burst the fleshly gate
And pass escaped‑to thee!
What if I file this mortal‑off—
See where it hurt me‑that's enough
The Grace‑Myself‑might not obtain
Confer upon My flower
Refracted but a Coutenance—
For I‑inhabit Her- (J-707)
one; all matter is in the mind and I e mind in God. The vision of Christ is thus a vision of God's f cal
consciousness, the highest level possible. Of Christ on the cross,
They weighed me, Dust by Dust
They balanced Film with Film,
Then handed me my Being's worth
A single Dram of Heavenl
Christ was thought to be eternally present because God's consciousness is eternally present, holding the entire creation together in every moment of time. What human beings lack is the perception to see the presence of Christ in this creation. Christ is present, but we do not have the eyes to see Him: "Not 'Revelation'‑'tis that waits) But our unfurnished eyes" (J‑424). For that rare achievement of elect perception, that "Dram of Heaven" that Emily Dickinson once sipped, first there had to be a desire to discover consciousness. Then there had to be a recognition that the perceiving self is an obstruction, that the ego is not the ultimate source of consciousness but a tin God, "plated wares," a sham. The journey leading to this discovery is an ancient story, not invented by Calvin or restricted to Christ. It is the myth of humankind.
Finding is the first Act
The second, loss,
Third, Expedition for
The 'Golden Fleece'
Fourth, no discoveryFifth, no crewFinally, no Golden FleeceJason‑sham‑too.
To go in search of identity and to find oneself a sham was a prerequisite for proceeding beyond to totality. One had to accept one's own annihilation and learn to live not for self but for Being. This was what Emily Dickinson was waiting for. This is
the light that slowly trembled in. To know that Eternity exists and to be able to accept that in place of self was the final revelation of grace:
Time feels so vast that were it not
For an Eternity
I fear me this Circumference
Engross my finity‑‑
To His exclusion, who prepare
By processes of Size
For the stupendous vision
Of His diameters
To experience the "stupendous vision" of Eternity was to
participate in Eternity. The "Perished patterns murmur," as the
Children of Israel "murmured" in the wilderness against their God and
perished there. But their children did enter into
Mortality." To deny self and to receive the vision of God was to be in covenant with God, the promise sealed. It was true liberation from the world, from the flesh, from finite consciousness. It
Mine‑by the Right of the White Electionl Mine‑by the Royal Seall Mine‑by the sign in the scarlet prison! Bars‑cannot conceall
Mine‑here‑in vision and in Vetol
Mine‑by the grave's repeal‑‑Titled‑‑Confirmed‑‑Delirious Charterl
Mine‑long as Ages steall
1. L‑99; Jonathan Edwards, "The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable," Representative Selections, Clarence Faust and Thomas Johnson, eds. (New York: Hill & Wang, 1962). p. 147; J‑1323; J‑281.
Hereafter, poems will be cited in the text according to the numbers of
The Complete Poems of Emily
Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed. (
2. John Cody, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1971), p. 24.
3. One noteworthy exception to the general tendency to deal lightly with ED's . Calvinist spirituality is William Sherwood, Circumference and Circumstance: Stages in the Mind and Art of Emily Dickinson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1968). Ronald Lanyi, "'My Faith that Dark Adores': Calvinist Theology in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson;' Arizona Quarterly, 32, 3, 1976, pp. 264‑78, finds evidence of ED's belief in the five points of the Synod of Dort. Stich literal dogmatic readings of ED's Calvinism, while not wrong, tend to obscure the spiritual aspect of her poetry and do not add to our appreciation of ED as an artist.
4. Thomas H. Johnson, Emily Dickinson: An Interpretative Biography (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1955), p. 4.
5. Richard B. Sewall, The Life of Emily Dickinson (New York: Farrar, Straits, 1974), pp. 19‑20; Karl
Keller, The Only Kangaroo Among the
Beauty: Emily Dickinson and
6. Clara Newman Turner, quoted in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, Jay Leyda, ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), p. 136.
7. Robert Pope, The Half‑Way Covenant (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), pp. 134‑36; Cotton Mother, Magnolia Christi Americana (Hartford: S. Andrus & Sons, 1853), p. 90.
I 1. 1.‑261.
12. Sherwood, Circumference, p. 138. Although recognizing that ED's trauma was essentially a "conversion" as the Calvinists understood it, Sherwood was unable to reconcile his religious interpretation with ED's mental instability, arguing that her experience was not "a crack‑up. . . , but a conversion. . ." (p.
138). Unfortunately, too many critics, fearing the negative implications of psychological terminology, have resisted the obvious. John Cody's words bear consideration: "If one can be induced to stare unflinchingly for a moment into the psychic hell that for a time overwhelmed her, one sees that the 'psychotic' are not necessarily mindless and absurd‑in fact they are far more frequently preternaturally aware of their deeper psychic processes,
hypersensitive, and gentle. And . . . their mental and emotional perturbations may become the vehicle through which genius is kindled" (p. 11).
13. L‑11; 1.‑154; L‑182; L‑185.
14. L‑209; 1.‑216. For an example of one of the first "disordered" letters, see
L‑195, written November 6, 1858.
15. Cody, pp. 313‑14.
18. Gelpi, p. 92.
19. Jonathan Edwards, "The Excellency of Christ;" Selections, p. 373: "When we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds are the emenations of His infinite joy and benignity:' Joseph Bellamy, "True Religion Delineated," Works, v. I (New York: S. Dodge, 1811), p. 98.
20. Octavitis B. Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New Engkind (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), p. 108.
2 3. L‑389.
24. Gelpi, p. 36. Also L‑916.
25. L‑560; L‑562; Taylor, "Preparatory Meditations, Second Series," 1,Poems, p. 83; Jonathan Edwards, "The Christian Pilgrim," Selections, p. 131.
26.1.‑248. Other "Master" letters are L‑187 and L‑233.
27. Jonathan Edwards, "A Faithful Narrative," Works, v. 4 (New Haven: Yale University Press 1972), p. 178; L‑874; L‑522.
John Welles, The Soules
Progress to Ilk, Celestial Canaan (