Monday, June 02, 2008

Emily Dickinson’s God

Those -- dying then,
Knew where they went --
They went to God's Right Hand --
That Hand is amputated now
And God cannot be found.

The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small --
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all.

This one, numbered 1551 by editor Johnson in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, struck me for a few reasons. It’s easy to parse -- I didn’t know what an “ignis fatuus” was but got the sense of it from context (it’s a will-o’-the-wisp, the ghostly light that seems to flicker over a bog at night). It’s fierce. God is not just missing – his hand’s been amputated! Not sure what “Behavior” it is that “abdication of Belief” makes “small”, but considering the way the poem starts, “Those – dying then”, one may presume the “Behavior” has something to do with dying, whether something done by the dying one herself or by those who remain alive. Better a flicker over the bog than the pure darkness of unbelief? It’s hard to credit this. Is Dickinson being a mite ironic?

Jay Laden in an essay originally published in Cross Currents, describes the reaction his class had during a discussion of selected Dickinson poems about God. Laden says his students were Orthodox Jews. Rather than suggesting that God does not exist, Laden’s students insisted, this poem is proof that Dickinson takes God’s existence for granted: “Dickinson's poetry evinced a passionate engagement with God, an engagement that affirmed God's existence and importance even as it fretted or raged over God's inaccessibility.”

1 comment:

jcdurbant said...

Very interesting but strange to find not even one mention of either the Bible or of the Job story ?