Religious aspects in Emily Dickinson's 'Nature Poems'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Religious Background to Dickinson’s Poetry

3. Nature and Religion in Emily Dickinson’s Poems:
3.1. A Mystical View – The Divine in Nature:
3.2. Turning Around – A Sacramental View on Nature
3.3. Towards a Pessimistic View on Nature

4. Concluding Remarks


1. Introduction

Emily Dickinson is without doubt one of America’s most interesting and fascinating authors, especially with regard to her quite extravagant vita, living secluded from the public for the majority of her life and not even leaving her house. Confining herself exclusively to poetry, she has created poems of marvellous emotional impact and this especially holds true for her poetry dealing with nature. As there is hardly any poem on nature by her that does not have allusions to or is combined with religious themes, it makes this branch of her work even more interesting to deal with. But to be able to grasp all the allusions Dickinson has made to religion in various ways, her Calvinist-based church and the like, it is necessary to have an insight into her religious life, which is why a brief outline of her religious vita stands at the beginning of this paper.

There are many writings which deal with Dickinson’s faith and the religious topics in her work – among them those used as references in this paper like the works by Doyle, Klein and Knapp, for instance. Jane Donahue Eberwein, a well-respected Dickinson specialist, puts a lot of emphasis on Dickinson’s poetry with regard to the poet’s Calvinist heritage in her writings, all of which are worth reading.

One can find references to religion in more than only Dickinson’s nature poems, for example her poems on the life of Christ, but I will exclusively deal with her poems on nature, primarily focusing on “her quest for knowledge of the divine”[1], as Grimes puts it, and how this is reflected in her poetry. A few poems shall be exemplary for this and will be commented on. However, each of them will not be analyzed in too much detail. First and foremost, the main goal is to give an overview on how Dickinson refers to the deity through her poetry and how this view on the divine and (parallely) on nature changes over the course of her life.

2. Religious Background to Dickinson’s Poetry

The roots of Emily Dickinson’s belief lie in Connecticut Valley Congregationalism, a religious community that is based on Calvinism and the New England Puritan theology. Connecticut Valley Congregationalism only knows two sacraments, that of baptism and the Holy Communion (or the Lord’s Supper), of which Dickinson only received the first, having been baptized as a child. Consequently, these should be the only ones playing a role in her poetry. When reading Dickinson’s poetry it is important to keep that fact in mind. Scholars dealing extensively with Dickinson claim that due to her environmental limitations, she could not have incorporated much from other kinds of beliefs into her poetry. Eberwein states that “the only religious tradition she knew well enough to speak its language was that of Connecticut Valley Congregationalism”[2]. Klein even claims “critics who have imposed Catholic ideology [onto Dickinson’s poems] have missed the mark and have created a context that would have been foreign to Dickinson herself”[3]. Eberwein and Klein are probably on the right path with their argumentation.

Yet, it seems that only in her childhood days has she been very closely connected to the Calvinist church due to her family’s strictly religious attitude. Over the course of her life she grew more distant to her hereditary religion. She found “religious concepts emphasized within her culture that she virtually disregarded [...]. But while neglecting much of her Calvinistic legacy, she proceeded to rediscover other aspects of it, including the sacramental tradition”[4]. This distance to her own church is also manifested in the fact that she never received, or rather took, Holy Communion, hence being the only one in her family that did not become a ‘full’ member of the Congregationalist church. This also hindered her from taking part in the communion ritual during Sunday church, from which all non-members were excluded. But on the basis of her letters one can find that she did in fact experience the ritual as an outside observer though she was never truly admitted to it. Hence, she could also incorporate it into her poetry.[5]

Nevertheless, this non-membership of hers caused an alienation from her church and, consequently, also an alienation in the very way she incorporated Calvinist sacraments into her work. Klein puts it like this:

[Considering herself] fleeing from sacrament [...Dickinson] takes on new meaning outside the constraints of the exclusionary and [...] contrived dogma of the Calvinist church. When Dickinson finds the sacraments of the formal church empty and distant from her own experience, she moves away from these constraints in poetry [...and] turns traditional Christian sacrament on its head.[6]

Klein furthermore states that “when she [Dickinson] directly addresses the sacrament of the established church, it is generally with bitterness and rejection”[7]. Based on these thesis’ one could regard Dickinson as an atheist, which can definitely be negated. “Her poems and letters have always revealed a deeply religious nature”[8]. She may not have found spiritual fulfilment in her church but she has remained a true believer in divine powers. This is actually a quite modern idea, a-typical for a person having grown up in a small, strictly religious community, to detach a divine power from the church, seeking “contact with God outside rather than within the church”[9] - but Dickinson did, longing for “grace on her own terms [...finding] sacrament in the world, [...] in new secular spaces - such as nature and in individual consciousness”[10]. Nature seems to have been playing a very important role for her in the whole process of finding divine grace in another sphere than that of the church which, for the poet, was not at all sufficient in its means on the way to a ‘contact’ with the divine. Nevertheless, nature is not just an invariable entity in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Quite surprisingly, the concept of nature undergoes a change in her work, starting of as pure nature mysticism, and, over a more sacramental view, evolving towards the final stage, the poet’s sceptic and even dark view on nature[11]. The one thing these stages have in common is that nature is always set in relation to the divine, a quite obvious thing as nature is the medium that Dickinson chose to find her way to God on her own and in her own way. As already stated above, that was something the church could not accomplish because it limited the individual soul, as the poet herself formulates in poem 508:

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of grace-
Unto supremest name-
A half unconscious Queen-
But this time-Adequate-Erect
With will to Choose, or to reject,

It is quite noteworthy how the words that seem important with regard to her individual idea of belief are written with an initial capital letter. In that poem, though not belonging to her nature poems, Dickinson’s relation to the church is summed up very explicitly and one should understand why “the avenue she chose [...] to know and understand God [...] was the world of nature”[12]. She chose nature because, for the poet, it didn’t have that limiting element which most, if not all, organized churches share to a certain extent. Anyhow, her overall view on nature is not a positive one from beginning to end.


[1] Grimes, Linda Sue: 08/31/2003. “Couriers Within: The Creative Force in the Art of Emily Dickinson.” <> (02/26/2004).

[2] Eberwein, Jane D. 1996. ’Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition’. In: Farr, J. (ed.) (1996). Emily Dickinson – A Collection of Critical Essays. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, p. 90.

[3] Klein, Sarah: 09/11/1999. “Adjusting The Symbols: Emily Dickinson And Her Sacraments.” <> (02/26/2004).

[4] Eberwein 1996, p. 89 f.

[5] cf. Eberwein 1996, p. 98.

[6] Klein 1999.

[7] Klein 1999.

[8] Wilbur, Richard 1997. ‘Dickinson Acquired a Unique Understanding of Faith’ In: Johnson, T. (ed.) (1997). Readings On Emily Dickinson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press.

[9] Klein 1999.

[10] Klein 1999.

[11] Doyle distinguishes these three stages in her paper ”Experiment in Green: Emily Dickinson’s Search for Faith”. To my mind, this distinction is a quite useful tool helping to track down the development in Dickinson’s nature poems. Hence, I will take up the basics of this theory in the course of the paper.

[12] Doyle, Connie: 1989. “Experiment in Green: Emily Dickinson’s Search for Faith.”<http://www.> (02/26/2004).

Excerpt out of 14 pages


Religious aspects in Emily Dickinson's 'Nature Poems'
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (Anglistisches Institut II - Abteilung für Amerika-Studien)
American Nature Poetry: From The Puritans To The Present
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Beurteilung der Hausarbeit durch Univ.-Prof, Dr. Herwig Friedl, Heinrich-Heine-Universität: Dies ist eine außerordentlich intensive, engagierte und interpretatorisch erfolgreiche Arbeit. Mit klug und gut ausgewählter Sekundärliteratur...wird die Entwicklung der Dichterin Dickinson als...lebenslange offen Suche interpretiert... Die Grundhaltung der Arbeit, die Bemühung um kritische Würdigung des Werks und der Respekt vor der historischen Kontextualisierung, sowie die einzelnen Gedichtauslegungen zeigen ein beachtliches literaturwissenschaftliches Niveau an. Eine vorzüglich gelungene Darbietung.
Religious, Emily, Dickinson, Nature, Poems, American, Nature, Poetry, From, Puritans, Present
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Tim Jakobi (Author), 2004, Religious aspects in Emily Dickinson's 'Nature Poems', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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