Roman Catholic Modalities in the Christian Poetry of Emily Dickinson, a Brief Examination
by Arthur McMaster
In the name of the Bee ―
And of the Butterfly ―
And of the Breeze ― Amen
An examination of Emily Dickinson's recognizably "Christian poetry" suggests a closer look at that smaller body of poems within that takes a particularly Roman Catholic theme, or that uses avowedly Catholic references. Her concluding stanza in the poem quoted in part above, seeming to bless herself with the glory of nature, establishes this basic inquiry. I suggest that her use of certain themes, such as the "wayward nun," shed light on Dickinson's complex and personally constructed faith. That faith is celebrated in nature, defined in her often sacramental poetry, and suggests that outside of any organized church her path to the Creator was unique.
Why, then, did she write with Catholic conventions, or modalities, and what does she mean by them? The answers seem to lie both in her own setting (time, place, and social environment) and within her own well-developed spirituality. Taking the first of these, Dickinson's interest in matters Roman Catholic were shaped by her home experience, by Amherst itself, where anti-Catholic nativist tradition cascaded around her―much of it from the Protestant pulpits and local newspapers. The related and perhaps the stronger influence was her acquaintance with the Irish Catholic help employed by her father. From these men and women, and from their outward displays of their faith, she saw manifested a religion that represented more of her own sense of God and Spirit than did the strictures of a cold and all-too remote religion she apparently could never abide. Moreover, she had a certain rebelliousness of spirit and an intellectual curiosity that seemed to push her away from the certitudes of Calvinism.
In order to distinguish what poetry of hers may be said to be "Catholic," within the great sea of her spiritual or Christian verse, I will suggest a few discriminators. By this I mean those poems where the poet makes a clear reference to distinctly Catholic phenomena, such as Mary the mother of Jesus; for she is not central to the Protestant canon. Secondly, references to the sacraments that are distinctly Catholic, such as Penance and Eucharist, or Holy Communion, are important. Uses of uniquely Roman Catholic lexicon, such as "mass," and "nun," intrigue her readers. I believe she uses them to signal an infatuation. Finally, there is the limited information that she may have been attracted to the doctrine of "works" as superior to "by faith alone"―a cornerstone of reformist Protestantism. Works, such as charity and care for the poor, are key in Roman Catholic precepts. Arminian by nature as well, such celebration of works is also sharply at odds with the prevalent Calvinist doctrine that surrounded her. (The Arminian doctrine is that Christ died for everyone. The Savior's atoning death provides the means of salvation for all mankind. It contrasts Calvinism, which holds that only an (pre)elect are saved.)
My judgment is that the woman's poetry is in every sense more spiritual than religious, spurning the dogma, especially as the term "religious" would have suggested a prescribed way to act, or to behave. Church rules did not fit with Dickinson’s need for individual conscience, and more so did not square with her sense of how she might speak directly to her God. As a progressive Christian she chose to tailor her own spiritual path.
Let's turn to a few of the poems that suggest themselves as Catholic. Notable is the poem numbered #918 by the standard Thomas Johnson (edited) collection, where her references to Madonna, as the Mother of God is intercessor to the Lord:
Only a Shrine, but Mine ―
I made a Taper shine ―
Madonna dim, to whom all feet come,
Regard a Nun ―
Thou knowest every Woe
Needless to tell thee ― so ―
But can'st thou do
The Grace next to it ― heal?
That looks a harder skill to us ―
Still ― just as easy, if be thy Will
To Thee ― Grant me ―
Thou knowest, though, so Why tell thee?
What kind of intercession does she seek? Well, we cannot know. But such intercession by Mary is strongly Catholic in practice.
Let's go further. If we examine the poem carefully, we might interpret a particular reverence for Mary that goes well beyond a simple prayer for intercession. The speaker lights the candle (taper) and makes a shrine to the Madonna, "to whom all feet come." As she prays to the Holy Mother she becomes the supplicant nun. This is the language of a woman who, in so defining herself, says, I am now without any armor, any devices, but my pure need is to be heard. She asks: will you not heal me of my woe ― my pain? Not only does she petition Mary but she lights a candle and makes a shrine. Pure Catholicism. As was suggested in her letters to her friend, adviser and confidant, Colonel Thomas Higginson, she may well have owned an image of the Madonna. A gift, perhaps, from her Catholic friends, servants of her father? We know that she was particularly close to the family cook Maggie Maher, with whom she may have felt some class solidarity and even kinship. And what about the image of Mary? Surely we cannot ignore the possibility that Mary as Virgin Queen had some appeal.
Another of her poems gives us a sense of how she might have pondered "Holy Communion." This poem represents particularly well her interest in the sacraments.
These are the days when birds come back ―
A very few ― a Bird of two―
To take a backward look.
Oh Sacrament of Summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze ―
Permit a child to join.
Thy sacred emblem to partake ―
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine (Johnson, 393)
This verse, more than any other, to my mind, seems to offer the dual interpretation of sacramental, as meaning both "of nature," and "of the Sacraments of the church." She is receiving the Lord, even as she welcomes and receives his few days of Indian Summer, even as do the birds, the prevalent bees, creatures that so often return to her work. Her metaphor nonetheless is proto-Catholic. Or maybe a better term is crypto-Catholic.
All that said, Dickinson seems to be playing with more than one notion. In her poem numbered 1068, she offers this intriguing scene: "Further in Summer than the Birds / Pathetic from the Grass / A minor Nation celebrates / Its unobtrusive Mass."
In conclusion, if as a poet Dickinson was a crypto-Catholic, and this is not my term, I believe it is likely so because she was both comfortable with and fascinated by the aura of "Holy Mother Church" and its essentially near-Arminian outlook of joy, free will, and salvation for all, even for the most troubled. Whatever we may choose to make of her election, she was a singularity ― a spiritual woman who posed eternal questions in her art. Her flood subject of immortality pairs well with her search for divinity. She chose in her poetry those words that made her oeuvre unique. Such modalities as "Mass," "Communion," and "Madonna" and surely the mysteries of the cloistered nun, touched her in ways with which must have felt comfortable. Felt right. To the extent that she trusted her judgment to find just the precise, the best word to complete an image, she also seems to have found something personally nurturing in the deeply spiritual antecedents of these most meaningful expressions.
Arthur McMaster is Adjunct Professor of English at Converse College. He is the author of four books, including two poetry chapbooks. He is a PQ Contributing Editor. Visit his author page at: http://arthurmcmaster.com/