A final paper for English 358, Modern Poetry, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Hope Howell Hodgkins, written on 24 July 2007 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Religious Imagination in Whitman, Dickinson, and Stevens
by Matt Wallace
Each of us expresses our deepest understanding of the world and our place in it through our religious beliefs. For about a third of the world’s population, Christianity provides the basis for their worldview. In its most basic form, Christianity asserts that all human beings are born guilty by reason of Original Sin and must be redeemed by acceptance of Salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Even so, some individuals raised within this tradition find it impossible to adhere to it and strike out on their own. In their own ways, Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself #48,” Emily Dickinson in “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303), and Wallace Stevens in “Sunday Morning” all reject traditional Christianity and substitute their own religious vision.
Walt Whitman’s early religious training was as a Quaker which imbued him with a lifelong respect for and love of Quaker teaching and custom. Though Quakers, Whitman’s parents didn’t belong to a meeting house but rather followed the heretical teachings of their friend Elias Hicks. Hicks expanded upon the Quaker doctrine of the “inner light” to allow maximum religious freedom. According to his doctrine, “no restrictions whatever should be placed upon on an individual’s religious convictions.” Also, he denounced the belief that man existed solely to glorify God and preached that “man’s only duty on earth is to enjoy life to the fullest extent, guided only by the ‘Deity-planted’ intuitions of one’s own soul.” These teachings formed “the very foundation of Walt Whitman’s own private religion” (Allen 18-19).
Whitman’s “private religion” also seems to have been influenced by Hindu teachings, but even Whitman contradicts himself on this. During an 1856 visit, Henry David Thoreau, noting the similarity between portions of Leaves of Grass and the Hindu scriptures, asked Whitman if he had read them; Whitman replied, “No: Tell me about them.” “Many years later Whitman named, along with the great works of world literature, ‘the ancient Hindoo poems’ as ‘embryonic facts of ‘Leaves of Grass’” (Allen 28). Even so, whether by personal intuition or direct emulation, Whitman’s views resemble Hindu thought.
The Christian God, as the Creator of all, is the ultimate source and meaning of existence; everything else that exists is subordinate to God. Similarly, the soul is a human being’s transcendent essence destined to spend eternity either in the presence of God or separated from Him; the soul is the true self and is superior to the temporary vessel of the body. In Hinduism, the ultimate reality is the Atman, the universal Self. It is not an individual being, but rather the totality of all being; everything that exists, including humans and gods, is a manifestation of the Atman. Through knowledge of one’s true Self, one gains knowledge of the universal Self.
In “Song of Myself #48,” Whitman gives full voice to his “private religion.” He discards traditional Christian views of “God” and “soul” and substitutes a quasi-Hindu view. In the first two lines, he creates an equivalence between the soul and the body, and vice versa: “I have said that the soul is not more than the body, / And I have said that the body is not more than the soul” (lines 1269-1270). He then dethrones God: “And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one’s self is” (line 1271). He emphasizes the ultimate importance of the individual Self: “And I say to any man or woman, Let your soul stand cool and composed before a million universes” (line 1277). In the third stanza, he continues his celebration of the individual Self: “I hear and behold God in every object, yet understand God not in the least, / Nor do I understand who there can be more wonderful than myself” (lines 1281-1282). Thus Whitman rejects traditional Christian religious beliefs and substitutes his veneration of the individual Self above all.
Emily Dickinson’s early religious training was as a Congregationalist with its Puritan Calvinist “doctrine of election and emphasis upon personal responsibility.” One chose to come to Christ and was expected to do so in order to join the church. By her time, the Puritan conversion ordeal of the earlier colonial period had been reduced such that “[t]o ‘become a Christian’ and join the church ..., a person needed only to subscribe to the articles of faith and offer the briefest assurance of belief in Christ” (Lundin 49-50). Even so, Dickinson couldn’t bring herself to make the required public profession of faith though she truly wanted to as letters to friends and family during her late teens and early twenties attest (Lundin 40-42, 52-53). By her late twenties, she quit going to church with her family; “Dickinson turned her back on the church and her face toward poetry” (Lundin 58).
Given her struggle with conversion, “The Soul selects her own Society—” (303) can be read as Emily Dickinson’s declaration of independence from traditional Christianity. In the first stanza, she announces her final decision: “The Soul selects her own Society— / Then—shuts the Door— / To her divine Majority— / Present no more—“ (lines 1-4). The “Door” she is closing is the door she long left open to Jesus, the door of Salvation in Revelation 3:20 (“Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.). And she won’t open that door again. In the second stanza, nothing will change her mind, not even Heavenly Transport sent to pick her up or a King of Kings begging on his knees: “Unmoved—she notes the Chariots—pausing— / At her low Gate— / Unmoved—an Emperor be kneeling / Upon her Mat—“ (lines 5-8). In the third stanza, she affirms herself and her self-sufficiency: “I've known her—from an ample nation—“ (line 9). She also declares her resolute intention: “Choose One— / Then—close the Valves of her attention— / Like Stone—“ (lines 10-12). In addition to being a depiction of hardness, the terminal “Stone” could be read as the tombstone marking the grave of her abandoned quest for Salvation or the unmoved stone closing the tomb of Jesus indicating no Resurrection, hence no Salvation. Though Dickinson found it impossible to be a Christian in the doctrinally pure sense, throughout her life she “wrestled with God the Father” and “was drawn irresistibly to Jesus the Son” (Lundin 4).
Wallace Stevens, though he was married in a Lutheran church and had his daughter baptized in an Episcopal church (Jarraway 2), was temperamentally an atheist, if not one outright. He wrote in a 1940 letter, “My trouble, and the trouble of a great many people, is the loss of belief in the sort of God in Whom we were brought up to believe” (Letters 348). In his 1951 lecture at Mount Holyoke College, “Two or Three Ideas,” he wrote, “To see the gods dispelled in mid-air and dissolve like clouds is one of the great human experiences.” Even so, the annihilation of the gods annihilated something within us which “left us feeling dispossessed and alone in a solitude” like parentless children in a deserted home which had become hard and empty (Collected 842). Stevens’s solace for this condition was poetry.
In “Sunday Morning,” Stevens questions and rejects Christianity. In Part I, a woman (perhaps a personification of Stevens’s intellectual faculties) relaxes at home on a peaceful Sunday morning instead of going to church. She indulges in the sensual pleasures of her home which “mingle to dissipate / The holy hush of ancient sacrifice” (lines 4-5). She chooses the immediate pleasures of the world over the worship of the sacrifice of Jesus. Even so, she can’t escape being carried over the “wide water” of her thoughts: “She dreams a little, and she feels the dark / Encroachment of that old catastrophe” (lines 6-7). Her thoughts lead her to the Christian Holy Land, site of the Crucifixion and Resurrection: “to silent Palestine, / Dominion of the blood and sepulcher” (lines 14-15).
Her religious musings continue through the interior sections of the poem. In Part II, she questions devotion to Jesus: “Why should she give her bounty to the dead? / What is divinity if it can come / Only in silent shadows and in dreams?” (lines 16-18). In Part III, she questions the belief of Eternal Life purchased by the blood of Jesus with the substitution of an earthly paradise purchased with mortal blood: “Shall our blood fail? Or shall it come to be / The blood of paradise? And shall the earth / Seem all of paradise that we shall know?” (lines 39-41). In Part IV, she denies Paradise and Eternal Life as an “old chimera of the grave” (line 52). In Part V, she continues to have “The need of some imperishable bliss" (line 62) and finds it in mortality: “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires” (lines 63-65). In Part VI, she doubts that Paradise is paradise because it has “no change of death” (line 76). In Part VII, Life is proclaimed Paradise.
In Part VIII, Christianity is rejected utterly when the woman hears “A voice that cries, ‘The tomb in Palestine / Is not the porch of spirits lingering. / It is the grave of Jesus, where he lay.’” (lines 107-109). The empty tomb from which Jesus arose from death into Eternal Life is not the portal to Paradise for those who believe; it is nothing but the eternal grave of a dead man which offers nothing to the living. For the living, paradise exists in the here and now of the physical world, trapped in isolation with our incessant thoughts: “We live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night, / Or island solitude, unsponsored, free, / Of that wide water, inescapable” (lines 110-113). Thus Stevens finds paradise in poetry.
In their poetry, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Wallace Stevens all rejected traditional Christianity and substituted their own religious vision. For Whitman, it was a “private religion” which celebrated the uniqueness and grandeur of the individual within the whole of life and the Cosmos. For Dickinson, it was a cherished dual struggle to understand her relationship with her God and to create her own place in the world in which she lived. For Stevens, it meant rejecting Christian otherworldliness in order to embrace life fully with all its limits and to celebrate it just as fully through the power of human imagination. In the process, all left a great legacy to the ages.
Allen, Gay Wilson. A Reader’s Guide to Walt Whitman. New York: Farrar, 1970.
The Bible. King James Version.
Jarraway, David R. Wallace Stevens and the Question of Belief: Metaphysician in the Dark.
Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1993.
Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1998.
Ramazani, Jahan, Richard Ellman, and Robert O’Clair, eds. The Norton Anthology of Modern and
Contemporary Poetry. 3rd ed. Vol. 1: Modern Poetry. New York: Norton, 2003. 2 vols.
Stevens, Wallace. Collected Poetry and Prose. New York: Library of America, 1997.
---. Letters of Wallace Stevens. Ed. Holly Stevens. Berkeley: University of California, 1996.