By Sarah Klein

9/11/99 

"adjusting the Symbols -- /": Emily Dickinson & Her Sacraments

That the religious climate of her time greatly influenced Emily Dickinson's life has been widely acknowledged. That her work grapples continuously with concerns of spirituality remains undeniable. What consistently eludes critics and readers is a sense of clarity in attempting to somehow de-code Dickinson's "religious" poetry. The ambiguities that give the work its density, mystery and beauty also continually provide ample room for critical debate.

One aspect of spiritual representation in the poet's work that has somehow managed to escape extensive critical attention is the use of "sacramental" imagery. Throughout her poetry, Dickinson again and again comes back to images of the Christian sacraments in a painful quest for spiritual truth. And, like other aspects of her craft, the poet's expression of the "sacramental" escapes a simple unraveling or a quick definition. Delving as a "critic" into her embodiment of sacrament in language is -- like reading one of Dickinson's poems -- daunting,, but ripe with possibilities.

Upon entering this, or any, discussion of spirituality in Dickinson's work, a careful and thorough consideration of her religious contexts is essential. Only through an understanding of the poet's "raw materials" can we ever attempt to discuss her unique understanding and poetic use of these images. Past criticism on the subject has often been ill-informed of Dickinson's particular religious contexts, and has suffered because of the oversight. Several scholars have wrongly assumed that, because she resisted admission to the church, Dickinson never received the sacrament of baptism (Chase, Gelpi, Todd), while others have mistakenly discussed her sacramental imagery in terms of Catholicism (Anderson, Cameron, Chase).

In fact, Dickinson, was baptized and deeply rooted in the tradition of Connecticut Valley Congregationalism, a theology quite separate from and even hostile to the rituals and sacraments of the Catholic church. The New England Puritan tradition and Calvinistic theology formed the basis of Amherst's religious climate and was the bedrock of Dickinson's upbringing. The poet's exposure to Catholicism was likely quite limited. As a result, critics who have imposed Catholic ideology have missed the mark and have created a context that would have been foreign to Dickinson herself. Only Jane Donahue Eberwein has, to date, provided a sufficient discussion of Dickinson's sacramental imagery in light of its Calvinist foundations. In doing so, Eberwein has simultaneously been able to both focus and broaden the critical discussion of these concerns. Certainly it is vital to understand what ideals the traditional, church-sanctioned sacraments would have symbolized in Dickinson's world. If the poet replaces the traditional sacraments with her own alternatives, we then at least bring an understanding of what sacrament, to Dickinson, should accomplish in the human soul. It is only in this way that we can hope to discover Dickinson's unique vision of the meaning and experience of the sacred.

As Eberwein points out, Calvinism limits sacraments to baptism and communion (the "Lord's Supper"), completely excluding the rite of marriage and others recognized by Catholicism. A sacrament, in Calvinist theology, is a symbolic seal of the covenant between God and his elect. For the chosen, it is God's promise of salvation. The Reforming Synod of 1679-80 led Congregational churches in America to adopt the Savoy Declaration of 1658. Here, the sacraments are defined as "holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by Christ to represent him and his benefits and to confirm our interest in him, and solemnly to engage us to the service of God in Christ"(Eberwein 68). At the time Dickinson came of age in Amherst, these principles certainly still dominated Congregationalist theology and ritual.

Calvinists did not attribute baptism with the power to remove man's sin and depravity, but rather recognized it as a symbolic promise to children of church members. Primarily, the sacrament offered hope for future faith, repentance and grace. In addition, the cleansing quality of the baptismal water symbolized the purification of the soul and served as an "initiation" of sorts into the Christian community of believers. Dickinson did receive the sacrament of baptism as an infant, which was, in the First Congregationalist Church of Amherst, a public symbol of her parents' devotion to a religious upbringing rather than an act of individual, conscious choice.

The sacrament of communion in Congregationalist worship differed vastly from that of the Roman Catholic or Anglo-Catholic traditions. Under the guidance of Calvinism, it rejects both Catholic transubstantiation and Lutheran consubstantiation. As Eberwein notes, it instead "emphasizes the spiritual nourishment drawn by the faithful from eating and drinking the food of the soul under the physical symbols of bread and wine" (70). According to one Amherst catechism from Dickinson's youth, communion signified "a remission of sin, freedom from wrath, peace with God, peace of conscience, adoption into God's family, increase of grace, perseverance therein, sanctified mercies and crosses, and a title to eternal life" (Eberwein 72).

Although Dickinson had received the sacrament of baptism, she never took holy communion. Dickinson's church, which she attended until approximately age 30, experienced fervent revivals during the Second Great Awakening (1831 - 1850). This new revivalism emphasized experiential religion, and Dickinson's church began to more stringently limit the sacrament of communion to those "converted and living in divine grace" (Eberwein 72). Because she never converted, Dickinson was excluded from the Lord's Supper, although she apparently witnessed the ritual on numerous occasions. This exclusion is crucial to a reading of Dickinson's sacramental imagery. Dickinson's correspondence mentions her experience of exclusion and alienation from the church, and she recalled herself "fleeing from Sacrament" (letter # 412).

It is this "fleeing" from Calvinist-defined sacrament that shows up throughout Dickinson's work -- And, to date, it has received meager critical attention. For Calvinists, the two sacraments, baptism and communion, symbolized God's promises to his elect, fellowship of the community of believers, and an initiation into a meaningful spiritual life. In Dickinson's poetry, sacrament takes on new meaning outside the constraints of the exclusionary and (in the poet's experience) 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. As Eberwein has rightly pointed out, the poet begins with the "tools" of Calvinism, the raw materials of the language, and is imaginatively challenged by the idea of "sacrament," but denies tradition by converting doctrine into her own vision (77).

Indeed, the poet consistently uses language associated with Calvinist sacraments -- but in doing so she questions and re-conceptualizes the definition of the "sacred." Dickinson's poetry turns traditional Christian sacrament on its head, because, as Susan Rieke recognizes, "the categories of the sacred and the secular are not distinct or separate classifications: the secular is decidedly holy" (259). Her sacramental language purposefully evokes the spiritual realm, but it is not the voice of the Congregational church. Rather, it is spoken by a voice continually examining the real source of the Divine, of fellowship, and of spiritual understanding. Finding no solace or genuine fellowship in the religious institution of her time and place, yet longing for spiritual connections, Dickinson seeks grace on her own terms. She finds sacrament in the world, but in new, "secular" spaces -- such as in nature and in individual consciousness -- where she somehow privately, intimately experiences the Divine. When she directly addresses the sacrament of the established church, it is generally with bitterness and rejection.

As Kathleen Norris points out, "Finding herself unable to contain her religious feeling within the bounds of orthodoxy, [ED] spent a good part of her life battling God directly . . . It was her confrontation with religion that helped shape her life and poetry . . . and like [Walt Whitman] she developed what can rightly be called a 'heterodox faith' that had little to do with churches or doctrines and a great deal to do with inner experience as well as nature itself" (223). Dickinson seeks contact with God outside rather than within the church, by her own means and as an individual soul rather than as one of the swooning flock of converts. In doing so, the poet's work becomes dramatically subversive, undermining traditional authorities and traditional definitions of meaningful spirituality.

A Young Communicant's Catechism, circulating in New England around 1830, instructed individuals preparing for the first Lord's Supper to regard the sacraments as "seals of the covenant of grace . . . to be sacred signs, memorials and pledges of his mercy to us, through a crucified Jesus" (Eberwein 68). Considering the religious climate of Dickinson's time and place, language associated with sacrament would include "seal," "covenant," "promise," and "ordinance." Dickinson's poetic employment of language associated with Calvinistic sacrament is frequent: "the Seal Despair -," "a Holiday - / Crowded - as Sacrament -," "Covenant Needle," and "Humming - for Promise - when alone -," "The Sealed Church," (Poems 258, 495, 851, 503, 322). Finding both the clearly overt and the slightly shrouded allusions to sacrament in the poet's work does not prove difficult -- But it is only when we turn more carefully to individual poems containing sacramental imagery that an understanding of Dickinson's unique treatment begins to unfold.

It is certainly valid to suggest that Dickinson, although excluded much of her life from religious activity in the church, recognized the importance of spiritual experience and connection to the Divine. Aside from the obvious thematics of her work, the poet's correspondence documents these values. Not only was Dickinson raised in an intensely religious atmosphere, but she maintained that presence in her own life and work. It was forever a monumental concern. One of Dickinson's most powerful poems speaks of the experience of spiritual assurance, of being among the "elect." The speaker in Poem 528 vehemently claims the state of grace and immortality for herself:

Mine -- by the Right of the White Election!
Mind -- by the Royal Seal!
Mine -- by the Sign in the Scarlet prison --
Bars -- cannot conceal!

Mine -- here -- in Vision -- and in Veto!
Mine -- by the Grave's Repeal --
Titled -- Confirmed --
Delirious Charter!

Mine -- long as Ages steal!

If, in fact, the poet experienced the spiritual assurance spoken here, her refurbishment of the concept of sacrament must have played a vital role. It is in this experience of new understanding of sacrament that Dickinson reaches and connects with the Divine, cementing the seal and promise and signifying her place in the community of the "saved." This assurance exists in spite of the poet's bitter recognition of her exclusion, created by the rigid doctrine of the church:

Snatches, from Baptized Generations --
Cadences too grand
But for the Justified Processions
At the Lord's Right hand. (Poem 367, ll. 5-8)

Cynthia Griffin Wolff points out that, unlike the Roman Catholics, "Puritans had rejected the 'magical' properties of sacraments, viewing them as just another manifestation of decadence in the church of Rome" (212). While for Catholics, communion becomes the actual body and blood of Christ, for Calvinists the Lord's Supper is pure symbol. Wolff believes that "In Dickinson's estimation, the loss obliterated the promise . . . The sacramental vernacular of water, wine and bread, which gave hope to so many other Christians, spelled anguish to Emily Dickinson, misery and betrayal . . . As a poet, she would deploy precisely this vernacular, then -- this limited Biblical evocation of food and drink, in order to explore the comprehensive desolation of all human beings -- spinning through empty space and irretrievably isolated from their mysterious, metaphorical God" (212). Wolff has rightly recognized Dickinson's need for a reintroduction of the mystery and close contact with the deity absent from the Calvinist church. This is not to suggest that Dickinson was a "closet Catholic," -- In actuality, the poet more closely resembled one of the old-school, pre-revival Puritans who believed that the covenant with God must be solidly based in an extremely personal experience, stressing careful thought regarding doctrine and an intensely individual faith the Divine (Telfer 38). I simply suggest that she longed for a magical, literal connection to the deity, and that this hunger could not be fed by the church of her childhood. In Poem 751, Dickinson directly addresses the God, church and sacrament of Calvinism, and her tone is decidedly bitter -- In the church's sacrament, she is experiencing only exclusion, not magic or connection to the Divine:

Lest I should insufficient prove
For His beloved Need --
The Chiefest Apprehension
Upon my thronging Mind --

'Tis true -- that Deity to stoop
Inherently incline --
For nothing higher than Itself
Itself can rest upon --

So I -- the undivine abode
Of His Elect Content --
Conform my Soul -- as 'twere a Church,
Unto Her Sacrament. (ll. 5-16)

These are images of the doctrinal sacraments rejected by Dickinson as empty and exclusionary. She finds the direct, mysterious sacramental contact with the Divine through nature and through the individual consciousness of the "self," bringing this to life in the poetry. These more natural, more intimate images are the "metaphorical embodiments of his lost presence" mentioned by Wolff (422).

In Poem 1077, Dickinson uses traditional sacramental imagery of communion. Here, the celebrated sacramental experience is found in nature -- The language is only the "raw material" of the poet's subversive theme. In this poem, the sacrament is one of inclusion. It is non-doctrinal, a poem in which the natural world contains the sacred experience:

These are the Signs to Nature's Inns --
Her invitation broad
To Whosoever famishing
To taste her mystic Bread --

These are the rites of Nature's House --
The Hospitality
That opens with an equal width
To Beggar and to Bee

For Sureties of her staunch Estate
Her undecaying Cheer
The Purple in the East is set
And in the North, the Star --

In Poem 342, Dickinson marks the changing of natural seasons as a material, visible embodiment of immortality. Using both the language of the physical, natural world and the language of the sacramental, Dickinson recognizes a symbolic experience of spirituality and rebirth. This experience, of course, lies outside the realms of the church and is a revolutionary form of sacrament. Here, the material "sign and seal" is not sanctioned by doctrine, but is nevertheless experienced intimately by the poet as a sacred experiential marker. For Dickinson, connection to the natural world is a connection to the real self, and ultimately to the Divine. Here, divine promise becomes real in the cycles of nature rather than in the communion cup or at the baptismal font:

The Lilacs -- bending many a year --
Will sway with purple load --
The Bees -- will not despise the tune --
Their Forefathers -- have hummed --

The Wild Rose -- redden in the Bog --
The Aster -- on the Hill
Her everlasting fashion -- set --
And Covenant Gentians -- frill

Till Summer folds her miracle --
As Women -- do -- their Gown --
Or Priests -- adjust the Symbols --
When Sacrament -- is done -- (ll. 9-20)

A vivid eucharistic thread runs through Poem 130, in which Dickinson observes natural changes in terms of human concerns of life, death, and immortality. Here the poet is immersed in bittersweet changes of the Indian Summer. Again she uses the traditional sacramental language of the Calvinist church, but only to serve her alternative vision of sacrament. The poet comes closest to experiencing God when she connects the "self" to the natural world. Dickinson recognizes the material embodiment of ultimate, spiritual truths and the experience of rejuvenating grace in what she sees around her in nature, not in the church's communion:

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze --
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake --
Thy consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

In Poem 508, Dickinson overtly rejects the sacraments of the Calvinist church, embracing instead the "self." Her direct sacramental language parallels the emptiness of the church's baptism with the richer meaning of her own unique baptism. As an expression of nature and what is "natural," the individual consciousness is celebrated here -- individual power and free will, in direct opposition to Calvin's doctrine, is embraced as an alternative baptism into salvation. The covenant with the divine, and acceptance into the community of the elect, comes only by valuing the individual "self":

I'm ceded -- I've stopped being Theirs --
The name They dropped upon my face
With water, in the country church
Is finished using, now,
And They can put it with my Dolls,
My childhood, and the string of spools,
I've finished threading -- too --

Baptized, before, without the choice,
But this time, consciously, of Grace --
Unto supremest name --
Called to my Full -- The Crescet dropped --
Existence's whole Arc, filled up,
With one small Diadem.

My second Rank -- too small the first --
Crowned -- Crowing -- on my Father's breast --
A half unconscious Queen --
But this time -- Adequate -- Erect
With will to Choose, or to reject,
And I choose, just a Crown --

Again, in Poem 383, we see traditional sacramental imagery used subversively to celebrate individual consciousness. Here, the inner experience, the "real thing," is a vital spiritual connection to the Divine. It is interesting to note that, in this case, Dickinson deals with the sacrament "exhilaration" as if it is actually a material embodiment -- It can be drunk, or "set away." For Dickinson, this inner experience of the "self" becomes the material substance equivalent to outward and visible sacrament, and is elevated above the "less divine" alternative (i.e., the church's version of sacrament):

Exhilaration -- is within --
There can no Outer Wine
So royally intoxicate
As that diviner Brand

The Soul achieves -- Herself --
To drink -- or set away
For Visitor -- Or Sacrament --
'Tis not of Holiday

To stimulate a Man
Who hath the Ample Rhine
Within his Closet -- Best you can
Exhale in offering.

Using traditional language in order to subversively suggest alternative values is one way in which Dickinson plays with the idea of sacrament. However, it is not the only way. Susan Rieke suggests that "The familiar, skeptical and blasphemous stances with the deity are sacred positions for Dickinson, as well as necessary parts of her relationship with the deity. In carving her role as a poet, Dickinson likewise sacralizes that position, and, at times, makes herself, as poet, superior to the deity" (260). Rieke is touching upon Dickinson's tendency not only to re-conceptualize sacrament, but to take on the role of creating sacrament and offering it to others as an immortal piece of herself.

In the midst of all this discussion of sacrament, it is most fascinating to recognize the ways in which Dickinson creates sacrament in the form of poetry. The poet goes beyond searching for the sacred out in the world -- she is able to find it within the "self" and to manifest it in the material form of the poem on the page. Through the act of writing, the poet creates, partakes of, and shares sacrament with the reader. She not only searches for the sacred in the world, but she finds it within the "self" and gives it expression in the poem on the page. This expression is immortal, because expressed as written poetry it outlives the physical human body of the poet and ensures life after death.

The idea of the progression of "self" from a state of exclusion and deprivation, through experience and into the role of nourisher of others, is most beautifully played out in Poem 773, where sacramental imagery of communion again support of Dickinson's alternative, subversive vision:

Deprived of other Banquet,
I entertained Myself --
At first -- a scant nutrition --
An insufficient Loaf --

but grown by slender addings
To so esteemed a size
'Tis sumptuous enough for me --
And almost to suffice

A Robin's famine able --
Red Pilgrim, He and I --
A Berry from our table
Reserve -- for charity --

As Joanna Yin notes, Dickinson offers her poetry as "nourishment to sustain other souls," in lieu of the sacrament of the Puritan Lord's Supper. The ultimate suggestion in this action is weighty: "The old sign, like the old Puritan religion, is cracking, cannot sustain life, and must be replaced" (8). Dickinson seems to view the Calvinist communion cup and the Calvinist baptismal font as those which are "Quaint -- or Broke -- / A newer Sevres pleases -- / Old Ones crack --" (Poem 640).

In considering both Emily Dickinson's reconstruction of the sacred symbols and her very personal recreation of "sacrament" through poetry, Richard Wilbur comes closest to "summing it all up":

"[Dickinson] inherited a great and overbearing vocabulary which, had she used it submissively, would have forced her to express an established theology and psychology. But she would not let that vocabulary write her poems for her . . . To be sure, ED wrote in the metres, hymnody and paraphrased the Bible, and made her poems turn on great words . . . But in her poems those great words are not merely being themselves; they have been adopted, for expressive purposes. They have been taken personally, and therefore refined" (127).

Truly, Dickinson has refined and made the sacrament personal -- and this remains, in the material form of the written poems, a literary and spiritual legacy.


Works Cited

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. "Emily Dickinson and the Calvinist Sacramental Tradition." ESQ 33: 67-81.

Johnson, Thomas H., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1960.

Norris, Kathleen. "'Let Emily Sing for You Because She Cannot Pray . . .'" Cross Currents 36: 219-229.

Rieke, Susan. "'I'm Kneeling -- Still --': A Study of Emily Dickinson's Siege on the Sacred." ABR: 44: 258-279.

Telfer, Terry. "A Relgious Context for ED's Poetry." Dickinson Studies 73: 37-52.

Wilbur, Richard. "Sumptuous Destitution." Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, Ed. Richard B. Sewall, 127. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1963.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1988.

Yin, Joanna. "'Arguments of Pearl': Dickinson's Response to Puritan Semiology." The Emily Dickinson Journal :1-11

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