Tuesday, August 25, 2009

He ate and drank the precious Words

He ate and drank the precious Words--
His Spirit grew robust--
He knew no more that he was poor,
Nor that his frame was Dust--
He danced along the dingy Days
And this Bequest of Wings
Was but a Book-- What Liberty
A loosened Spirit brings--
(F 1593)

Words and language held great power for Dickinson, and she spent much time in her childhood surrounded by books-- prose and poetry alike, as well as other literary publications like magazines and newspapers. It's obvious in this poem-- and in many others like "There is no frigate like a book" (F 1286)-- that Dickinson greatly valued literature and had a deep appreciation for books.

Yet what she does in this poem is create a sort of heresy, in which literature or the act of reading brings liberation and joy to the reader. Rather than a sermon or conversion experience, it is the book that shows him he is more than the mere dust of the earth in Genesis. The speaker in this poem becomes the preacher, testifying of the soul is that finds redemption and heaven in a mere book. It would have been horribly blasphemous, and yet Dickinson deliberately wrote the poem that way.

This poem bolsters the idea that words and language were salvation to Dickinson, that she found faith within them. She struggled to embrace the faith of her family and neighbors and wrote to her dear childhood friend, Abiah Root, "I was almost I was persuaded to be a Christian" (Wineapple 50), giving allusion to King Agrippa's words to Paul "Almost thou has persuaded me" (Acts 26:28). And yet she felt no absolute security in the faith surrounding her, unable to reconcile pain and the unknown with the hard realities of loss around her. Much of her writing was, after all, her way of singing like the boy in the graveyard. It was an exploration of the unknown, and yet it was simultaneously a distraction from what might be lurking in the shadows. Language was both her faith and her fear, and controlling it so carefully perhaps gave her the illusion of control that she craved.

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