Dickinson’s “There is no Frigate like a Book”

After finally finishing all 1,175 of Emily Dickinson's poems, I'm still left trying to make sense out of what I read. Too bad I'm no longer interested in formal education because I suspect I could actually have written a PHD thesis on Dickinson's poems. Joe Duemer's response to one of my earlier comments on Dickinson's poetry inspired me to buy Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, part of New Century Views, a series apparently inspired by Twentieth Century Views, a favorite of mine because it offered such a wide range of views on an author. The 18 articles in this collection, which I've only had time to glance at so far, will probably inspire me to come back to Dickinson later.

Unfortunately, writing about Dickinson may serve more as a Rorschach test than as an accurate analysis of her ideas. Although our basic philosophies seem quite different, there is still much in her poetry I love. One of my favorite themes that continues to emerge in the later poems is the idea that the whole world can be found in the proverbial grain of sand:

By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing --
"Nothing" is the force
That renovates the World "

We tend to overlook the small, everyday things we do for each other, focusing, instead, on the "special," "dramatic," events in our life. Perhaps we should focus on the small, everyday things that people do for each other and the inarticulate ways we try to express our abiding love for one another. It is this kind of love that "renews" the world.

We do not have to sacrifice this life for a future life:

The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart's extent
Reduces it to none.

Life after death may well dwarf the life we have lived here on earth, but the human heart's reach dwarfs time and space itself.

Refusing to accept the idea that earthly happiness should be sacrificed for heavenly success, Dickinson continually links heaven, and infinity, to now:

Who has not found the Heaven -- below --
Will fail of it above --
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove "

Those who sacrifice this life for "eternal happiness" may well be incapable of finding true happiness at all. If we cannot find joy in God's miracles here on earth, how can we hope to find happiness in Heaven?

Dickinson also seems to question the concept of "original sin" or, perhaps, the idea that our life is by its very nature "sinful," and, thus, unhappy:

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven --
For what, he is presumed to know --
The Crime, from us, is hidden --
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.

Though there's certainly plenty of speculation about death and loss in Dickinson's poetry, there are also innumerable paeans to nature:

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows, --
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night's delicious close.

Between the March and April line --
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.

It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation's sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.

Joy and pain often seem inseparable in Dickinson's poetry, just as they do in life itself. This constant tension between joy and sorrow is part of what makes Dickinson's poetry so remarkably rich.

For Dickinson, of course, poetry itself seems to make everyday life so rich:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry --
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll --
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

Perhaps it is this very belief in the power of poetry, a power accessible to all, that most ties me to Dickinson's works.

2 thoughts on “Dickinson’s “There is no Frigate like a Book”

  1. I find that Emily has a profound look on things that makes her work so interesting. The way you have to think to understand even a little of what she might be saying really opens you to a lot of things! I love her work and i wish i could see how she looked at life in my own eyes!

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