BY MICHAELA WALKER, STAFF WRITER
When you come upon a distinctly beautiful scene, whether you’re at Yosemite marveling at the blunt, smooth face of El Capitan or you’ve lost your balance by gazing up at the heights of coastal redwoods in Muir Woods, there are a few different ways to respond. You might stand in silent awe of the scene, wonder at how physics and chance could result in such beauty, lift up a hymn of praise to God the Creator, or even compose a few lines of poetry.
Emily Dickinson, had she ever visited the likes of Yosemite or Muir Woods, would have done the last. Dickinson’s encounters with the natural world, though, were limited in her early life to New England, and later became increasingly narrowed to include only that slice of nature that was present in her backyard.
Though she is often remembered solely for the poems she wrote about death, Dickinson’s nature poetry makes up a large part of her body of work and her use of Christian religious imagery in these poems makes them useful for examining the poet’s complicated relationship with Christianity.
At age eighteen, Dickinson wrote to a friend that, while she deeply regretted not becoming a Christian, she would remain an unbeliever because it was hard for her to “give up the world.” I’d suggest that this “world” Dickinson refers to is not so much what we might immediately think of as worldly desires or fleshly impulses. Rather, it’s in Dickinson’s nature poetry that we are offered a glimpse into the “world” which she was so hesitant to give up. For a nature-lover like Dickinson, it seemed that Christ’s call to take up her cross and follow included a rejection of beauty which Dickinson was unwilling to concede.
Yet, she wasn’t able to completely write God off. Rather, the existence of Christian imagery in her nature poetry is evidence of the tension she felt between her simultaneous desire to remain “in the world” and her longing for something divine, permanent and transcendent, namely, something more worthy of worship than nature.
In 1858 she penned a short, sardonic, and somewhat heretical poem that parodies the Trinitarian formula and replaces it with her own trinity of nature:
In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze—
The poem’s triumphant tone seems to express the sufficiency of nature to fill the place where religion might reside, or even to argue that Christianity is merely a faint imitation of what already exists in nature. She uses a similarly playful and teasing tone when she writes:
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –
I keep it, staying at Home –
With a Bobolink for a Chorister –
And an Orchard, for a Dome—
Rather than implying a peaceful coexistence between the natural world and Christian religion, Dickinson’s intertwining of religious language with descriptions of nature in fact sets up a dichotomy. Church vs. the Backyard temple, Trinity vs. the bee, butterfly and breeze seems to be at the core of the poetic dialogue, and in both poems, nature wins.
This confidence and playfulness is lacking, though, in Dickinson’s later poem, “A light exists in spring” written in 1865. In this poem, the speaker attempts to describe the beauty of a particular scene in nature which is as “a sacrament.” She describes the scene as light that, “stands abroad/On solitary hills/That silence cannot overtake,/But human nature feels.” The beauty of this stretches the poet’s verse to the point of collapse—the beauty is not to be articulated, but rather to be felt. Though she is compelled to compare the beauty of the scene to a sacrament, the poem ends in neither peace nor ecstasy, but loss. As the horizon disappears and the light fades, “It passes, and we stay.”
The speaker is left alone in the wake of the hasty departure of this transient beauty. The passing of the light is contrasted with the stasis of the human observer, who remains even after the scene is over. The beauty of the scene leaves the poet alienated and alone. Here, it is clear, Nature has awakened a longing in the poet for something sacred and yet nature itself cannot fulfill that longing because of its transience. This suggests that nature is not a proper object for human worship, for when we worship it, we actually become increasingly alienated from it. When we hope that nature can fulfill us and answer our longings, we will only be frustrated and disappointed.
Interestingly, a contemporary of Dickinson’s, the poet Christina Rosetti, wrote a poem dealing with the same unanswered longing. Though they were contemporaries (Rossetti is a mere five days older than Dickinson) their work isn’t often brought into conversation because of its clear stylistic and thematic differences. The poets were born, raised and wrote on different sides of the Atlantic without ever crossing paths, and while Rossetti wrote earnest devotional lyrics that expressed her Christian faith, Dickinson’s poems about religion, as we’ve seen, are often playful or mocking. Despite these differences, though, both of them come to meditate on a similar issue.
Rossetti’s 1862 poem, “Spring” expresses a sense of loss that arrives with springtime which echoes the loss which Dickinson’s poem describes. Rossetti’s speaker first rejoices in the beauty of spring:
Seeds, and roots, and stones of fruits,
Swollen with sap put forth their shoots;
Curled-headed ferns sprout in the lane;
Birds sing and pair again.
Suddenly, though, the tone shifts, “There is no time like Spring, Like Spring that passes by: There is no life like Spring-life born to die,—”. In the midst of reveling in the beauty and energy of springtime, the poem is stalled by the speaker’s simultaneous revelation that spring will ultimately pass and end in the death of nature that is autumn. Once again, the beauty of nature is impermanent and frustrates the human’s longing for beauty that will last.
Rossetti, having a poet’s eyes to see the beauty all around her, also struggled with the same dilemma that Dickinson faced. Did Christianity inherently require a rejection of the beauty of nature? This is a major preoccupation of Rossetti’s and during the same year that she wrote “Spring” she also wrote a long narrative poem that may offer a resolution to the dilemma that both she and Dickinson faced. In, “From House to Home,” the speaker is placed in a beautiful garden, fragrant and teeming with life:
Wood-pigeons cooed there, stock-doves nestled there;
My trees were full of songs and flowers and fruit,
Their branches spread a city to the air,
And mice lodged in their root.
This is one of Rossetti’s most poetically rich descriptions of nature and she lingers on this scene, giving the reader a full view of the beauty that surrounds the speaker. As the speaker walks through this paradisal garden, she is aware of the presence of, “one like an angel,” who walks beside her but she is hardly aware of his significance to the scene. The verse lingers over descriptions of the beauty and opulence of the garden, while the speaker’s departure from the “one” happens quickly and with little notice. As she continues to occupy herself with exaltation of the garden, suddenly the garden transforms—“No bird, no lamb, no living breathing thing;” is left with the speaker.
Rossetti identifies the loss of beauty in the garden as having a relational dimension, while her ability to properly perceive it is reconciled through her being connected back to the One. The One wasn’t merely a fellow traveler or friend, but he was the source of the beauty in the first place.
C.S. Lewis describes the sense of loss and frustration that one may feel due to this unanswered longing we experience when we try to worship nature apart from its source, “This love” he writes, “when it sets up as a religion, is beginning to be a god—therefore to be a demon . . . Nature ‘dies’ on those who try to live for a love of nature.” He observes, “Say your prayers in a garden early, ignoring steadfastly the dew, the birds and the flowers, and you will come away overwhelmed by its freshness and joy; go there in order to be overwhelmed and, after a certain age, nine times out of ten, nothing will happen to you.”
Is this to say that people who are not Christian will not be able to appreciate beauty? No, not at all. It is to say, though, that the Christian occupies a unique position in relation to nature. We can appreciate its beauty, care for it and love it, while at the same time knowing that nature, like us, is a created thing, made by a Heavenly Father. This leads us to a balanced delight in nature that neither deifies it nor treats it as something lowly which we can disrespect or destroy. Nature can teach us about the glory of God and show us that he is a God who loves beauty. Most of all, though, nature can and should inspire in us a desire to get to know the Creator behind the beauty.
For Dickinson, the natural world she experienced in her backyard was a holy of holies, without need of the formal structures of religion or the presence of God. One wonders how her poem, “A light exists in spring” may have ended, though, if she had trusted in the source of the beauty. Whereas the disappearance of light leaves Dickinson alienated and alone, the Psalmist cries out:
He made the moon to mark the seasons;
the sun knows its time for setting.
You make darkness, and it is night, […]
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom have you made them all. (Psalm 104:19-20)