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Allen Tale is indisputably correct when he writes (in Reactionary Essays) that for Emily Dickinson "The general symbol of Nature . . . is Death." Death is, in fact, her poetic affirmation. Yet he continues with a questionable declaration: ". . . and her weapon against Death is the entire powerful dumb-show of the puritan theology led by Redemption and Immortality."

It is true that she is forced to experience and deal with nature before she can turn her back on it, but redemption and immortality are for her neither weapon nor protection. If these concepts deserve any place at all, it is rather because they are avenues of escape from death. In her love poems, as well as in the group dealing with time and eternity, she returns constantly to her preoccupation with death—both as it is incorporated in all of nature, and as it encompasses it on all sides. Here she faces and resolves the issue many times, but never wholly with what Tale is pleased to call her "puritan theology."

Certainly the love poems provide the more personally representative passages from which to draw an argument against Tate's statement. A recurrent theme in these poems is the separation of two lovers by death, and their reunion in immortality. But Emily Dickinson's conception of this immortality is centered in the beloved himself, rather than in any theological principle. . . . The immortality which concerns her arises directly from her connection with a second person, and never exists as an abstract or Christian condition. . . . /115/

In this same way, redemption is also reduced to the simplest personal equation. In these poems redemption, as such, is never mentioned; rather, the awareness of it permeates the entire section. Redemption for Emily Dickinson is too synonymous with immortality to receive much individual distinction. There is little talk of heaven or hell, except as they exist within the poet herself. . . .

It is not the "dumb-show of the puritan theology" which protects the poet, but her own redefinition of Christian values. This redefinition is not important because of any radical deviation from the church's precepts, but because the catchwords of pulpit and hymnal have been given an intimate and casual interpretation. She speaks of Death's coming for her, yet has him arrive in a carriage to take her for an afternoon's drive. She writes of Calvaries, but they are "Calvaries of Love"; the grave is "my little cottage." . . . The familiar and comforting words that, for her, spell everyday life are used to mask unrealized abstractions. It is by contracting the illimitable spaces of after-life to her own focus, that she can find peace, for "their height in heaven comforts not." She fills the abyss with her talk of tea and carriages and the littleness of time. Puritan theology may have given her a fear of the loneliness of death, the Bible and hymnal may have provided her with patterns and phrases, but these equip her with terminologies, molds in which her personal conceptions can take form, rather than actual Christian conceptions.

Death for Emily Dickinson, therefore, was an uncomfortable lacuna which could in no way be bridged, except by transposing it into a more homely metaphor. Death as a caller, the grave as a little house—these are a poetic whistling in the dark. In a safe and ordered microcosm, she found death an ungoverned and obsessing presence. It could be neither forgotten nor accepted in its present form. Death had possessed too many of her friends to be reckoned with as a complete abstraction. But when she translated this oppression into a language of daily routine, she could blot out the reality of death with pictures conjured up by the surrounding images:

What if I file this mortal off,

See where it hurts me,—that's enough,—

And wade into liberty?

                [#277—Poems, 1891, p. 107] /116/


    . . . this is said to be

But just the primer to a life

Unopened, rare, upon the shelf

Clasped yet to him and me.

                [#418—Poems, 1890, p. 132]


I sing to use the waiting. . .

And tell each other how we sang

To keep the dark away.

                [#850—Poems, 1896, p.170]

The idea of filing it off, of wading into death and its liberty, of calling death a primer, or of singing away eternity, is the balance of known with unknown which Emily Dickinson must portion out to herself before she can rest.

Allen Tale is on the right track in referring to death as her "general symbol of Nature." It is the logical culmination of nature, and the greatest example of the change which is constantly moving through nature. Emily Dickinson regards nature as resembling death in that it can, for the moment, be brought within her garden walls, but still spreads around her life and beyond her door, impossible to hold or to measure. Both are forces which must be discussed and rehearsed constantly. They are too present and compelling to be pushed into the recesses of the mind. The brute energy of both must be leashed to the minutely familiar. Emily Dickinson's wild nights are bound and her fears assuaged with the images of her immediate reality. But this immediate reality is made up of her personal terms, and has come from her own heart, not from the tenets of her church. /1171/


From "Three Studies in Modern Poetry," Accent, III (Winter, 1943), 115-117.