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Emily Dickinson's Hidden God
Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, by Roger Lundin, Eerdmans, 1998, 272 pp.; $16, paper
When Emily Dickinson died at 56 in 1886, she was virtually unknown outside a tiny circle of acquaintances. Today she ranks as America's greatest poet and one of its most creative—though enigmatic—religious thinkers.
So argues Roger Lundin in this powerful contribution to the hundreds of books and articles on the Belle of Amherst.
That Dickinson has attracted so much attention is hardly surprising. After a seemingly conventional upper-middle-class childhood and adolescence, and a single year at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson gradually secluded herself to her homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. Except for two extended visits to Boston for eye treatment, in the last three decades of her life she saw few persons beyond her immediate family, and in the last two decades she left the grounds of her home but once. Frequently dressing in white, she permitted only a handful of visitors, sometimes expecting them to converse from the other side a slightly opened door, and other times simply turning them away. The same determined reclusiveness marked Dickinson's control of her work. Of some 1,800 known texts, only a handful were published in her lifetime, despite repeated entreaties from friends to share the fruit of her genius. Though Dickinson may have enjoyed several romantic relationships, including one in late life, she remained single.
Lundin argues that Dickinson's poetry was in large measure about belief, its uncertainties and comforts. On precisely arranged sheets, the Amherst poet crafted compressed lines about weighty topics—nature, consciousness, suffering, the life to come, and, of course, God. In Lundin's rendering, Dickinson's poetic sensibilities were particularly attuned to the vast silences. Her God was not so much nonexistent as mute, an eclipse, hidden: "I know that He exists / Somewhere—in Silence— / He has hid his rare life / From our ...