We’re so familiar with Emily Dickinson today that we forget she was virtually unknown in her lifetime (1830-1886). She wrote more than 1, 800 poems over her lifetime, but very few were published while she was alive. Various editions were published after her death, but a definitive edition of her poems (unedited, as she wrote them) wasn’t published until 1955, notes author Kristin LeMay.
Contributing to the contemporary lack of awareness was Dickinson’s penchant for avoiding people. As she grew older, she stayed inside the family home in Amherst. Few visitors could persuade her to see them; occasionally she would talk to guests behind a door. She also wore all white, all the time.
A factor in the community’s judgment of “eccentric” was that, at an early age, she stopped attending church. And yet her poetry is filled with references to God, Jesus Christ, faith, the cross, and other tenets of Christianity. This is what attracted Kristin LeMay to Dickinson, and how she used Dickinson’s poetry to answer her own doubts, questions, and uncertaintities.
The result is I Told My Soul to Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson, published by Paraclete Press. LeMay, who teaches writing at Ohio University, has written a book that is part biography, part poetry explication, and part LeMay’s own personal memoir. She takes thirty of Dickinson’s poems and uses them to navigate the rocks of belief, prayer, mortality, immortality, and beauty.
It’s an interesting combination of genres and approaches that could have easily gone awry. But it works, and it works well. Dickinson, in LeMay’s hands, becomes more than a poet; she is a friend (LeMay refers to her as “Emily” throughout), a mentor, a fellow pilgrim in a spiritual journey, and eventually a kind of saint. The author had a strong sympathy for and identification with her subject but never subsides into idealizing Dickinson or glossing over her flaws. The poet is in turn skeptic, doubter, ardent believer, rebel and conformist, and often all at the same time.
In Short, LeMay’s Dickinson is remarkably human. Consider the normal coexistence of doubt and belief.
“Doubt and belief, Emily would be the first to say, are not necessarily in opposition, ” Le May writes. “Emily judged that doubt enhanced belief, since doubt’s uncertainty keeps us hunting after God: ‘The Risks of Immortality are perhaps its charm – A secure Delight suffers in enchantment – .’ Her insight stretches into human nature, within and beyond religion.”
Dickinson’s own struggles, as understood from her poetry and the letters she wrote, become a mirror for LeMay. She sees her own spiritual journey in Dickinson’s poems. She attended Harvard Divinity School, she says, “in large part to relearn how to pray, because I’d grown so uneasy about it. ‘I fumble at my Childhood’s Prayer – , ’ Emily mirrors my confusion. Well, I’d fumbled so long at prayer, I’d finally lost the ball.” Dickinson’s poetry will eventually help her recover that lost ball.
I Told My Soul to Sing is the story of two women on a spiritual pilgrimage a century apart. One is an unknowing guide and mentor; the other knows the journey will not necessarily have a reachable destination but is glad for and encouraged by the companionship.
Poetry can do that.
We have a copy of I Told My Soul to Sing to give away. Simply leave your name (or a comment) in the comment box, and we will draw a winner at random (a different random than we did for Rainer Maria Rilke’s Prayers of a Young Poet).
Buy a year of happy work mornings today, just $2.99. In November we’re exploring the theme Surrealism.
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- Poets and Poems: Dan Rattelle and “The Commonwealth” - June 29, 2021