Transcendentalism and the Poetry of Emily Dickinson
The poetry of Emily Dickinson is the embodiment of transcendentalism. It is both pondering and appreciative of human nature and the world in which human nature exists. In her poetry, Dickinson exhibits the questioning spirit characteristic to the spiritual hunger of the era during which she lived and expresses her curiosity concerning many of the cornerstones of the human experience. In one of her poems, Dickinson proclaimed that she “saw New Englandly. ” She possessed a vision shaped by her “Puritan heritage and Yankee background” and this was evident through the speech and cadence of her poetry (McChesney, 1 of 21).
However, her rigid New England tunnel vision is what inspired her ever questioning spirit which she explored through poetry. Constricted by her New England lifestyle in which women maintained the air of domesticity at all costs, Emily Dickinson experienced a vast expansion of insight that she was unable ignore and needed to express.
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She struggled with her abnormal resistance to domesticity, but such a struggle lead her on a journey in which she investigated the humane concepts of life, love, death, religion, nature, and the universe as a whole (McChesney, 2 of 21).
According to Sandra McChesney, “Emily Dickinson spent her whole life investigating life itself. ” Many literary analysts agree that although Dickinson led a sheltered life confined to a single room, she embraced her own vitality and was invigorated by the life that flowed through her veins. In her poem “To Be Alive – is Power” she blatantly states that being alive alone radiates a certain power and “existence in itself is omnipotence enough. ” Furthermore, Dickinson believed that there was a specific purpose for the occurrence of each human existence according to her poem “Each Life Converges to Some Centre –”.
In this poem, Dickinson “explores the relationship between the central life goal towards which each human being strives, and the tortuous uncertain process of striving itself” (Leiter, 1 of 3). In the first stanza of the poem, it is established that each human life revolves around a certain goal whether a person chooses to acknowledge it and work towards it or not, it is still there. In her criticism of the poem, Sharon Leiter points out that the use of the words “some center” provides for an unclear meaning.
It causes the reader to wonder whether if each “centre” is the same or if each person has an individual centre towards which their desires gravitate. This poem encompasses the transcendent spirit and lust for truth because it poses the underlying question if each person’s centre is God or if it is composed of one’s own personal desires (Leiter 1 of 3). In the second stanza of the poem, Dickinson discusses the credibility of the goal being dared too easily and how a person may feel they are unable to attain their central goal.
Stanza three characterizes the goal as a “brittle heaven” that is approached with caution that each person reaches for but is afraid that he may destroy it with his touch. Stanza four proclaims that although a person may be unsure he can obtain his goal, he still strives for it even if it seems so unreachable it sits amongst the clouds. A person believes as he is striving towards the goal, the saints are diligently working to make it happen and assist in the process of achieving it.
In the last stanza of the poem, Dickinson suggests the possibility of an afterlife and the opportunity for one to achieve his goal there should he not achieve it during his earthly existence. This assumption can be made from the part of the poem that says “Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture, but then, eternity enables the endeavoring again. ” Overall, the poem captures the essence of transcendentalism because it considers the purpose of human existence and questions the extent of human ability. Another cornerstone of transcendentalism that Emily Dickinson explored through her poetry is love.
According to Sandra McChesney, “love represented the entirety of meaning to Dickinson. ” It was everything and love was the equivalent of life. It is clear to many people that have read her poetry that Emily Dickinson did not only find love in a significant other, but in everything that surrounded her. Through her poetry, Dickinson explored the wonder and appreciation that most humans feel when they encounter love in any form. In her poem “That I Did Always Love”, Emily Dickinson explores the way that experiencing love impacted her life.
In the first stanza of the poem, she states “That I did always love, I bring thee proof” meaning she has always known love her entire life in people and the world that surrounded her. The next two lines, “That till I loved, I did not love enough” expressed that until she loved someone romantically, she was not experiencing love in its full capacity and that loving someone in such a way only enhanced her life. In the next stanza of the poem, Dickinson states that she will always love and love will not cease to exist on her.
The line following this, “I offer thee” may indicate that she was able to envision herself loving one person always. “Love is life, and life hath immortality” captures Emily Dickinson’s perspective that all of life is composed of love and that since life will always exist on earth, so shall love. In her poem “Title Divine is Mine”, Dickinson considers the role of intimate love in a woman’s life and is skeptical that such a presence should result in the traditional path of marriage and children. In the first line of the poem, Dickinson boldly states “Title Divine is Mine.
” She is expressing that her own divinity belongs to her and would not let a title of “wife” mask or mar her individual presence. In the next lines, “The wife without the sign. Acute degree conferred on me” she is expressing that she is expressing that she still desires to fulfill such a role in a man’s life but without so much emphasis placed on the title and expected duties of being such a figurehead. She would like to be what others would consider a low key lover. In the lines “Empress of Calvary. Royal all but the crown –” she asserts that she would still bear a significant presence in a man’s life and love him passionately.
She would still be the queen of his world, his empress, just without donning the universal symbol of a crown to let others know she belonged to him. The next couple of lines assume that others may see her as lacking because she does not possess the desire that most women do for a traditional wedding ceremony with an exchange of vows and rings and all its other glory. This idea is established in the lines of the poem that read “Betrothed, without the swoon God gives us women when two hold garnet to garnet, gold to gold. ” In the last few lines of the poem, Dickinson expresses that a woman believes she is winning when she achieves the title
of “wife” and treasures the way that the phrase “my husband” rolls off the tongue. In the last line of the poem, Dickinson simply questions “is this the way? ” In this poem, Dickinson questions the role that romantic love should play in a person’s life and comes to find that her views are different than the traditional New England views she was raised with. Overall, Emily Dickinson’s pondering of the concept of love and the various roles it plays in the human experience captured the essence of transcendentalism: a questioning spirit.
“In those moments of contemplation, alone in her room, Dickinson listed, dissected, analyzed, conjectured, yearned and turned her soul inside out, discovering and defining the infinite shades of meaning of one single word” (McChesney, 7 of 21). Another overlapping concept between transcendentalism and Emily Dickinson’s poetry is the love of nature and its relationship with divinity. While examining Dickinson’s poetry, it would be difficult for one to deny that Dickinson possessed a deep love for nature.
This love is often shown with a few simple words but is focused on the details of the subject. In her poem “Nature is What We See” , Emily Dickinson straightforwardly expresses her belief that “nature is what we know” because it cradles humanity and makes up entirely what one hears, sees, and experiences with the senses. Dickinson provides the simple examples that one sees a hill, the afternoon, a squirrel, an eclipse, a bumble bee and hears the sea, thunder, and a cricket and shows her appreciation for nature by saying that it is both heaven and harmony.
At the end of the poem, Dickinson leaves the reader with the idea that the wisdom that humans work so hard to gain and so proudly boast pales in comparison to the gloriousness that nature possesses in its simplicity. In many of Dickinson’s poems as in “Nature is What We See”, she makes a connection between an earthly existence and a transcendent existence such as when she stated “Nature is heaven. ” She believed that a certain divinity existed in both nature and humanity and investigated the relationship between divinity and nature and divinity and humanity, and eventually how all three forces were connected in the universe.
In her poem “The Brain is Wider than the Sky”, Dickinson explores the human capacity to contain both nature and divinity even though humanity exists among these things. In the first stanza of the poem, Dickinson states “The brain is wider than the sky, for, put them side by side, the one the other will include with ease, and you beside. ” By this, she means that the capacity and depth of the human brain is boundless, even greater than that of the sky to contain anything.
She subtly suggests that when comparing them, the brain would easily include such an earthly thing as the sky inside of it and leave the rest of the earthly human next to it and in awe of it. In the next stanza, Dickinson compares the brain to another feature of the natural world, the sea. She states “The brain is deeper than the sea, for, hold them, blue to blue, the one the other will absorb, as sponges, buckets do. ” With this stanza, Dickinson is yet again comparing the divine and wondrous ability of the brain to a feature of nature that many find wonder within.
She suggests that the brain would absorb the sea within it because of the power that the brain possesses as it is responsible for human consciousness and one’s ability to experience things such as the sea or the sky. In the last stanza of the poem, Dickinson states “The brain is just the weight of God, for, lift them, pound for pound, and they will differ, if they do, as syllable from sound. ” With this stanza she is comparing the divinity of the brain to the ultimate divine figure, God, and suggesting that the brain contains God within it.
She believes that the brain plays as much of a role in the human existence as God does, but that the brain is more capacious because it is able to create and believe in such a concept as God. Emily Dickinson’s poetry concerning nature exemplifies Sandra McChesney’s point of view that “Dickinson’s love of nature painted a tremendously complex picture as she tried to find in the natural world a firm understanding of the relationship between people and God and the solutions to questions of shape and continuity of the universe that she could find nowhere in her background” truly solidifying the transcendental spirit into something tangible.
Lastly, Emily Dickinson is famous for her poetry that discusses death. To many people, it is the most mysterious of the human experiences that is difficult to understand and accept (McChesney, 9 of 21). Emily Dickinson was no exception to this mannerism, but this did not discourage her from exploring it. In the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” Dickinson explores what the experience of death would be like. Death is personified as a gentleman that Dickinson feels at ease with but expresses that she was unprepared to encounter as she wasn’t properly dressed to go on a journey with him.
After going on a carriage ride with death, Dickinson arrives at her grave and expresses that the long length of time she has been dead feels shorter than a day. In the last two lines of the poem, Dickinson tells the reader that she acknowledged that death was the passage into eternity and an afterlife. This poem encompasses how Dickinson assumes the mysterious process of death would feel and it attempts to answer many of the questions that humans altogether have about death.
In her poem “I Measure Every Grief I Meet”, Dickinson talks about how she studies other people’s pains (presumably losses) and compares them with her own. In the first stanza, she states “I wonder if it weighs like mine, or has an easier size. ” Throughout the next few stanzas she introduces other questions she has while observing other people’s pain such as “I wonder if they bore it long, or did it just begin? ” and “I wonder if it hurts to live, and if they have to try”. She wonders if time elapsing since the pain began lessens the pain at all or if people go on to feel the pain just as deeply forever.
In the last two lines of the poem, Dickinson contemplates if grief that people may feel can become less significant because they have experienced worse pains and felt greater loves. This poem explores how death and resulting grief affects the living instead of the person that has actually died unlike the poem “Because I Could Not Stop for Death. ” According to Jone Johnson Lewis, “at the level of the human soul, all people have access to divine inspiration, and seek and love freedom and knowledge and truth.
” Through her poetry, Emily Dickinson tapped into her divine inspiration and searched high and low within herself for freedom, knowledge, and truth. Examining wonders of the human experience such as life, love, nature, divinity, and death sent Dickinson on a spiritual journey and revealed “a mind aching for concrete endings to arduous but ethereal mental journeys” (McChesney, 9 of 21). Dickinson used poetry as a tool to allow the world to accompany her on these challenging journeys and as a place where her questioning spirit could have a voice and ultimately capture and contribute to transcendentalism.