Fathom Mag

Finding Faith and Mystery Out Emily Dickinson's Window

How a renowned poet became an unlikely catalyst with the unfathomable.

Published on:
June 29, 2021
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7 min.
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This world is not conclusion.
A Species stands beyond.

—Emily Dickinson

It was mostly a small thing I wanted to see that afternoon: A desk no bigger than a checkerboard. 

It all sounds, well, little, I know. But I had heard about the seventeen-inch square writing table where Emily Dickinson composed most of her astonishing verses, mentioned by artist Mako Fujimura at a Christian arts conference. In creative pursuits, he suggested, even a small surface, even little tools, help change the world.

Because I was already visiting Massachusetts relatives, far from my home in the South, I determined the three-hour drive to the Dickinson homestead worth it. The tour hosts that greeted us at the nineteenth-century Amherst home where Emily spent her adult life were pleasant and knowledgeable. They guided us through the house and upstairs in the corner of her bedroom, there it was: the easy-to-overlook writing table. The museum curators had spread facsimiles of Emily’s tools across the cherry wood surface: a stub of a pencil, a pen, postmarked envelopes that the poet had carefully unfolded, scraps she had turned into spaces for her tangled, intense, oft-revised verse, what someone called her “heart-stopping poems.” 

Those simple, clear panes of glass helped explain Emily Dickinson’s genius more than any piece of furniture I saw on the tour.

What I hadn’t expected was the view. The tiny desk sat near windows that opened onto a view of the wider world right outside. Those simple, clear panes of glass helped explain Emily Dickinson’s genius more than any piece of furniture I saw on the tour. Through those windows she could see the town’s main thoroughfare to Boston, a road that may have also been navigated by every funeral procession as it led to the town’s only cemetery. The smallest artifacts of the world also surrounded the window—motes of “quiet dust,” frost, the angle of sunlight on a bedroom floor, a bee at work. All the window opened to crowded into Dickinson’s verses. She transfigured the ordinary into the extraordinary with a searing genius and soaring precision. And along with her sometimes heavy exploration of mortality, a whimsy:

A Drop fell on the Apple Tree—
Another—on the Roof—
A Half a Dozen kissed the Eaves—
And made the Gables laugh—

She wrestled onto paper what she could hear, too, whether through the open window or in an excursion outdoors: a “murmur in the trees.” Or the buzz of a fly. Or, she pined,

Write me how many notes there be 
In the new robin’s ecstasy

As I think of that homely scene, I think I see what fed her inspiration, not only to write, but to ponder, to wonder. What she saw fed both her art and an impassioned, sometimes elusive hunt for spiritual reality. Sometimes when I teach about prayer, I talk about looking out windows as a spiritual discipline. Emily turned her concentration on the everyday, but she let it send her soaring into flights of imagination, out onto horizons of glory. 

Who else could distill a nighttime glance so potently:
The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago—
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below—

“My little Force explodes,” she wrote to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, her future editor and mentor of sorts, of the pressure to create, express, capture on paper. That was 1862, when she was firing off some three hundred poems a year. But for all her drive to articulate, there is an elusiveness to Emily Dickinson. “Since her death in 1886,” writes one observer, “an army of poets, playwrights, biographers, filmmakers, cartoonists, editors, and literary gumshoes” has tried better to understand her writings. There’s even a new Apple TV series about her, so fascinating do we find her fascinations. There’s a mystery to her life, as biographers and scholars try to figure out what propelled her creativity, what riveted her attention. 

Part of that interest has to do with Emily’s relationship to the Christian faith and her rapport with the mysterious and unfathomable. She helps me see what is both wonderfully concrete and daily yet also beyond easy imagining. The more I read her odd and exhilarating works, I notice the persistent gentle stabbings of transcendence that help me be more alert to what matters. 

The word mystery, in that way, signals an end to a stretching conversation, not a beginning. A coda rather than an invitation to explore.

When I was wandering her precincts, I had been (still am) doing my own work on the nature of prayer, the Incarnation, and, why not?—the Trinity. And now, two years after my visit-cum-pilgrimage, I take heart from Emily tending to moments when she noticed something close-by but also vastly beyond, something discernible and describable but also ineffable. 

The word mystery in contemporary use too often becomes a shortcut buzzword. “Well, it’s just a mystery,” we sometimes hear about challenging beliefs like the Trinity. The word in that way signals an end to a stretching conversation, not a beginning. A coda rather than an invitation to explore. 

I see in Dickinson something more sophisticated. Emily seemed to want to keep pummeling the artifacts of ordinary life until they burst out their stuffing, showed something of their innards and rationale, their mysteries. She certainly, to go by accounts of the few folks outside her contained household that she had contact with, acted, even in everyday converse, as someone intensely eager for lofty meanings.

Still, some have concluded, too glibly, that Emily shunned religious faith more than she embraced it. She reserved for herself, to be sure, a kind of reticence in the face of over-eager religiosity. As revivalist congregational piety swirled around her, with a fervor that reminds me of my Southern California high school Jesus People days, she indeed held at arm’s length some of the excesses. 

But I never sense her resorting to mystery as a retreat or an excuse to avoid the effort of apprehending the holy or having the heart set to smoldering. Hers was an imagination that labored, that kept trying to tease out what the glories mean, kept trying to express what (who) we meet when the “species” beyond us waves in the wind-ruffled leaves or ember-glows in a sunset streaked with coral and shredded with shades of orange and pink. “This is the land the sunset washes,” she said, the “western mystery!” where

Night after night her purple traffic
Strews the landing with opal bales;

So it’s not vagueness in her that impresses, not a lack of heartfelt desire to see and know, but rather a passion, an uncaged heart uttering prayers with eyes wide open.

Emily keenly recognized how the fiercest truths may overwhelm us.

Some time ago, before my homestead mini-pilgrimage, staying at a friend’s house set in the mountains of western North Carolina (talk about sunsets!), I noticed one of the biographies of Emily in the guest bedroom. In his masterful account of her life, Robert Sewall spoke of perhaps Emily’s most famous couplet, and how she seemed to live out the advice she gave: 

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant— 
Success in Circuit lies. 

The craft is surely on display: The first line has a staccato quality—seven ts adding to the intense sharpness and abruptness. Tell all the truth but tell . . . and so on. 

Then I found the entire poem in the Everyman’s Library edition of her poetry:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind.

Emily keenly recognized how the fiercest truths may overwhelm us. Lightning, as it turns out, does not literally blind a child’s eyes, not like looking full into the sun. But the point holds: sometimes we need to be dazzled gradually. (And perhaps it’s ironic that at one point in Emily’s life iritis inflamed the tiny muscles of her eyes, making her painfully tender toward light.)

But I also think about our wisest Christian teachers reminding us of the limits of speech not to make us confused, but to make us open. Following Emily, I think of our attempts to talk about the triune God in this way: Some of our greatest truths sometimes are too bright for a mere glance amid our infirm delight. And her nods to the Truth, with a capital T, glimpses of things-as-they-are: I take that as an encouragement to keep looking and pondering. 

When it came to her own life, the biographer stressed, she did live out a certain obliqueness, a sideways slant. But also lived with a remarkable, heartfelt, restless ardor:

Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul—

My evangelical leanings make me want to state the truth boldly, vividly, with exclamation points and overdone italics. So I think I see in Emily’s reticence something instructive. A venerable stream of spirituality known as apophatic tends to accent the limits of language and thought in speaking of God. In some forms it can lead to shyness around divine things, making us too reserved in what we can say or think or pray.

But Emily didn’t blanch at devotion, some days at least. She seemed famously not fond of dogma but certainly warm toward the drama of the presence of God. Allergic to every-Sunday church attendance, yes, but we know that she counted those church’s ministers as her friends and trusted spiritual mentors. Scriptural allusions stud her poems.

And the more I read, the more I see how so many of her verses carousel around not just church but God, not just religion as form and custom but as stand-my-soul-at-attention longing. Jesus got downright poetic himself when he spoke of those who hunger and thirst for something beyond our normal religious routine.

I’m recognizing that even more than serving as a modest guide to mystery, Emily helps in the travail of prayer.

And I’m recognizing that even more than serving as a modest guide to mystery, Emily helps in the travail of prayer. Prayer, after all, itself leaves trails of the mysterious, no matter how intimate our conversing with God may sometimes be. It means wrestling, some days. Crying out. Not always getting a facile answer. She used words not only to speak about divine rustlings, but also to maintain dialogue with the divine center of the glories she glimpses. And wrestle she did:

Of Course—I prayed—
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird—had stamped her foot—
And cried “Give Me”—

She cared too much to be passive.

I see her emotionally raw glimpses of her pull-push relationship with religion, at least of the organized kind, in some ways kin to our era’s Nones, who shun formal affiliation but still hunger. There’s still the longed-for communion:

Savior! I’ve no one else to tell—
And so I trouble thee.
I am the one forgot thee so—
Dost thou remember me?

Dickinson was on intimate speaking terms with mystery even as she wrote on that little table surface, maybe snatching a chocolate wrapper, as shown to us by the tour guide, handy for jotting another line or two. 

It was she, after all, who penned:

Infinitude—Had’st Thou no Face
That I might look on Thee?

Might Emily have wondered if God, who made lightning, whose vast infinite glory is beyond our seeing and even imagining, could also dazzle, all the while drawing us close? 

Timothy Jones
The Rev. Timothy Jones is Rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Halifax, Virginia. He is the author of almost a dozen books on prayer and the spiritual life, including The Art of Prayer: A Simple Guide to Conversation with God, and he blogs at revtimothyjones.com.

Cover image by Alistair MacRobert.

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