Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Friday, February 8, 2013

Emily Dickinson Never Ceases to Amaze.

I got a blast from the past listening to NPR recently - they were talking about the poet Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite poets, especially as a teenager. Once I got a slim volume of some of her poetry from the Scholastic Book Fliers (weren't those things AWESOME!) and I read every poem over and over. Eventually the cover fell off, but I kept reading it. One of my favorites was one that begins "This world is not conclusion." After hearing the NPR segment, I went to my "Collected Works of Emily Dickinson" from Barnes and Noble that I bought a few years ago to replace my worn out copy. I looked up the poem - yes, just as I remembered! Awesome! 

Recently on Facebook I heard of an event, "Show them a theologian." You pick a theologian and use his/her picture as your profile picture. I mentally rounded up the usual suspects - Bonhoeffer, Thomas Merton, MLK Jr, Henri Nouwen... but hmm, where were the women? I haven't read a lot of Julian of Norwich, and I'm not the biggest fan of Theresa of Avila. Then, bam! An idea! I could use Emily!

I wanted also to include one of her poems, of course, and why not use my favorite, to show that she often wrote about faith, God, and eternal life? And why type it when you can google search it? But I got an unintended surprise. The poem I found was not the poem I remembered from childhood. What I found was I think the original, before it was edited for cleanliness and also before it was ABRIDGED. It turns out the poem that I had known and loved was not the COMPLETE POEM. I had no idea. And the poem in its entirety is more amazing, more subtle, more thought-provoking than the original. I'll share both for comparison. The one I grew up with:

THIS world is not conclusion;
  A sequel stands beyond,
Invisible, as music,
  But positive, as sound.
It beckons and it baffles;        
  Philosophies don’t know,
And through a riddle, at the last,
  Sagacity must go.
To guess it puzzles scholars;
  To gain it, men have shown         
Contempt of generations,
  And crucifixion known.

Nice and neat and drawn together. Now, this is the original, I think (I'm actually finding it hard to discover why it was edited the way it was). Imagine my shock and delight. 

This World is not Conclusion.
A Species stands beyond --
Invisible, as Music --
But positive, as Sound --
It beckons, and it baffles --
Philosophy -- don't know --
And through a Riddle, at the last --
Sagacity, must go --
To guess it, puzzles scholars --
To gain it, Men have borne
Contempt of Generations
And Crucifixion, shown --
Faith slips -- and laughs, and rallies --
Blushes, if any see --
Plucks at a twig of Evidence --
And asks a Vane, the way --
Much Gesture, from the Pulpit --
Strong Hallelujahs roll --
Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul --

Wow. What a difference that last stanza makes. It entirely changes the meaning of the poem. The first one ends with such trusting certainty in the unknown, while the second (or rather the first? Since it was the original?) leaves you with that nagging feeling of doubt... or it it belief in an afterlife that is nagging the soul? (Narcotics here refers to drugs used for dulling a toothache). It's unclear, and so much more realistic and interesting. The first poem affirms that we will never know what is beyond death in this lifetime, and the second affirms that this knowledge nags at us like a toothache.  No one has pat answers about what lies beyond, of course. Our faith gets tripped up all the time. But to think of heaven as another species (as in, we'll have immortal bodies like Paul writes, perhaps? 1 Corinthians 15:53: "For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality." ) rather than a sequel (more of the same thing) is so much more compelling... and Biblical. Way to go, Emily. 

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