Emily Dickinson is an unlikely patron saint for all who seek or wrestle with God. Looking closely at twenty-five poems, this intimate portrait and personal reflection shows how Dickinson can guide us, through belief and doubt alike, toward God.
Many have thought that Dickinson, one of America's greatest poets, rejected religion. Yet the poems that unfold her soul can inspire ours, offering fresh answers to ultimate questions about life and death, faith and doubt, Jesus and God. In chapters on belief, prayer, mortality, immortality, and beauty, Kristin LeMay traces the dimensions of Dickinson's spiritual life and tells the story of her own search for God between the lines of the poems that Dickinson called "hymns."
Praise for I Told My Soul to Sing
“Exuberant and captivating. A shimmering jewel of a book.” –Dinty W. Moore
“Through her deep engagement with Dickinson’s poems—by turn prayers, partners, revelations, songs—LeMay has written a book that is, in Dickinson’s words, ‘the Heart’s portrait – every Page a Pulse,’ every page a kind of faith.” – Sarah Sentilles, author of Breaking Up with God: A Love Story
“Part spiritual autobiography, part homage to Dickinson’s inexhaustible poetic genius, and part exuberant close readings of the astonishing poems in which she wrestles with questions of faith and belief, I Told My Soul to Sing is a valuable study of the poet’s heterodox imagination. LeMay does not shackle Dickinson to a procrustean bed of doctrine and piety, dilute the poet’s astringent ironies, or flatten the provocative ambiguities. She has a gift for choosing unfamiliar poems from the canon and for judiciously quoting and interpreting them. A smart, seriously playful, winning, and readable commentary on a quintessentially elusive, thorny, and linguistically daring American poet.” – Herbert Leibowitz, editor, Parnassus: Poetry in Review
“LeMay’s implied reader is someone attracted to religious faith, but even an atheist can enjoy this book’s provocative illuminations of spiritual longing, fear, and anger, in which questions cut deeper than answers.” – Mark Halliday, poet, author of Keep This Forever and Stevens and the Interpersonal
“A brilliant analysis of the bond between life and poetry, written with sensitivity and talent.” – François Bovon, Frothingham Professor of the History of Religion Emeritus, Harvard Divinity School
In 1860, when she was just thirty, Emily Dickinson wrote a poem meditating on Jacob’s nightlong wrestling with an unseen stranger in Genesis 32. “I will not let thee go / Except thou bless me,” she quotes Jacob as saying, then pivots on his realization, moments later as the sun rises, that the stranger who had stooped to struggle with him was God himself: “And the bewildered Gymnast / Found he had worsted God!” (Poem 145). The poem explodes in wonder that God would permit himself to be known in this way. As Kristin LeMay argues in this striking series of meditations on twenty-five Dickinson poems, this is exactly the realization arrived at by the over eighteen hundred poems and one thousand letters Dickenson wrote, visible if you read them slowly and carefully enough, allowing them to goad and challenge you, rattle you in their inconsistencies, and comfort you in spelling out what you had never seen articulated before. As LeMay puts it, Dickinson was “a poet who called herself a pagan, foreswore prayer, never gave a confession of faith, and left the church” (p. 164), and yet, for all of her resistance, was finally a poet who could describe herself in a late fragment as “grasped by God” (p. 234). She seems to have spent a lifetime wondering at a God who would come near, take on her wild blows, and continue to hold on, whispering out of love’s weakness, “Then have I / Nothing to show / But Calvary—” (Poem 652).
I think LeMay is correct in this view of Dickinson, but that is not the real strength of this work, for, as she notes, you can find a version of this position in such scholars as Roger Lundin, James McIntosh, and Alfred Habegger. What is remarkable about the book is the personal struggle it enacts. Much like Dickenson herself, LeMay begins the book with Jacob’s opening confidence—“I won’t let her go until she blesses me” (p. 11)—but ends with Jacob’s chastened awareness that the real wonder is that the poet had been the one holding on all along. Twice, in her last year 1886, Dickinson turned Jacob’s words and wrote to dear friends, “I will not let thee go, except I bless thee” (p. 254). LeMay concludes with this thought—that the true wonder is that poetry, and through poetry, God himself stoops or condescends to be wrestled with, intending all along to bless in coming near. I read this book, then, as a spiritual memoir, accomplishing deeply inward work through what would seem the very ordinary tasks of literary criticism—working out linguistic puzzles, charting poetic breakthroughs, tracking down biographical details, holding on to these twenty-five poems over the course of a decade and allowing them to “challenge and deepen my spiritual life, my beliefs and doubts” (p. 10).
Three of the meditations especially stand out. “Intercession” begins with a discussion of Dickinson’s 436, where the poet ponders how one could “chalk the Sun” to someone who lived her entire life underground, then turns to a surprising moment in which the author, having found herself unable to pray, discovered herself praying Dickinson’s words, “pouring my word-poor desire for prayer into Emily’s poems, as in a mold, and let(ting) it settle there” (p. 107). Dickinson’s poems, that is, intercede for her, giving her words, in her personal darkness, for what she could not see or say on her own. “Resurrection” teases out the difference, in Dickinson’s 1573, between the spatial terms extent and expanse, arguing that Christ’s self (his “extent”) having passed through death meant, for Dickinson, that his “vast Expanse… opened in death a wide way” (p. 189) for all of us. Living with this poem, coming to terms with its challenging vocabulary, “chides us,” LeMay remarks, “into hope” (p. 190). And the poem “ Grasped by God” links three experiences of the author’s of God’s presence—once like light, once like honey, once like the wind, she writes, beautifully—with three reported by Dickinson in 996, comforting herself that, even in Dickinson, time passes and such experiences fade.
Reading, LeMay insists, is “shared work,” pointing to her experience of having “worked alongside Emily at mending those ‘snapt’ and worn places in my soul” (p. 253). It is work that she invites us to as well, offering us both eyes to see with and a “spiritual companion” with whom to “approach those fundamental questions that leave us trembling” (p. 150).
—Thomas Gardner, Anglican Theological Review