Emily Dickinson’s ‘Brittle Pier’

This blog just might make a few of you weep; once you truly ‘get it’, that is; if you truly let it sink in. So…you passionate ones, get ready! It moves me deeply; that much I’ll say.

Emily Dickinson’s poems almost never fail to do that, I might add. Move me, I mean. On almost every page of her 700-page collection, I’ll find one that strikes a chord; one that makes me shake my head in wonder. Oh, there are plenty that don’t do that, of course; especially the ones I don’t understand. I really can’t claim much affection for those, but then whose fault is that?

courtesy of Amherst College Library

My list of Dickinson ‘favorites’ has shifted over the years, I’ve noticed. All the popular, anthologized ‘classics’ have been forced down the list, to make room for fresher, deeper, more startling discoveries. (That tells us something about textbooks and college anthologies, too, I believe.) But right at the very top of the list are her poems of spiritual quest. There’s not a one of those that I don’t love! Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor. Maybe it’s because I know that quest in a very personal way.

Want a good example? How about the powerful closing lines of “This World Is Not Conclusion”? (By the way, if any of these poems are challenging for you, I suggest you read them a couple of times before you get discouraged; that’s what it takes to get adjusted to her unusual ways. With any poet, actually, I almost never ‘get’ the message with just a single reading.)

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-- 1

It is remarkable that, in spite of her tight-gripped privacy, Emily Dickinson didn’t hesitate to divulge this sense of spiritual ‘gnawing’. Here’s another, my favorite of them all…

How brittle are the piers 
On which our Faith doth tread--
No Bridge below doth totter so--
Yet none hath such a Crowd.

It is as old as God--
Indeed--'twas built by him--
He sent His Son to test the Plank, 
And He pronounced it firm.2

As far as we can gather from her letters, Emily Dickinson did attend church from time to time. But that was not necessarily a good experience. ‘Church’ in her day was riddled with liberal skepticism, New England Deism and Unitarian sophistry. Pastors were often ‘sophisticated’, ‘erudite’ creatures, more devoted to ‘oratory’ than to true communication. In so many churches, as so often today, there was no ‘bite’ to the message in the pulpit; no Savior for the dear ones in the sanctuary.

Which is not a good thing when the “Tooth” is “nibbling at the Soul”.

In one poem, written quite obviously after returning home from a tedious Sunday sermon, Emily has had enough. (And when she’s had enough, watch out!):

He preached upon "Breadth" till it argued him narrow--
The Broad are too broad to define
And of "Truth" until it proclaimed him a Liar--
The Truth never flaunted a Sign--

Simplicity fled from his counterfeit presence
As Gold the Pyrites would shun--
What confusion would cover the innocent Jesus
To meet so enabled a Man! 3

Emily Dickinson’s spiritual journey was not completely in the dark. In fact, in several of her later poems, she seems to have quite a grasp of what she longs for; she seems to know what needs to be found…

Of Tolling Bell I ask the cause?
"A soul has gone to Heaven"
I'm answered in a lonesome tone--
Is Heaven then a Prison? 

That Bells should ring till all should know
A Soul had gone to Heaven
Would seem to me the more the way
A Good News should be given. 4

Her point of course is that a perfunctory, momentary ‘tolling’ should never suffice with such incredible news! That bell should be rung ’til it cracks! But what deep longing there must have been for her to think along those lines!

A similar sentiment shows up in “Spurn the Temerity”, where she recognizes the joyful significance of the agony in the Garden–and even the Crucifixion itself!–for those who truly know the One who endured it!

Spurn the temerity--
Rashness of Calvary--
Gay were Gethsemane--
Knew we of Thee. 5

But, by far the most moving of all are just her cries and her longings and her pleas. As private as she wished to be, she did not hide those moments from the public eye. And I find that remarkable. Take, for example, this memory from her earliest childhood…

A loss of something ever felt I--
The first that I could recollect
Bereft I was--of what I knew not
Too young that any should suspect
A Mourner walked among the children
I notwithstanding went about
As one bemoaning a Dominion
Itself the only Prince cast out--

Elder, today, a session wiser
And fainter, too, as Wiseness is--
I find myself still softly searching
For my Delinquent Palaces. 

And a Suspicion, like a Finger
Touches my Forehead now and then
That I am looking oppositely
For the site of the Kingdom of Heaven--6

Or try getting to know the person behind this powerful thing:

I prayed, at first, a little Girl, 
Because they told me to--
But stopped, when qualified to guess
How prayer would feel--to me---

If I believed God looked around, 
Each time my Childish eye
Fixed full, and steady, on His own
In Childish honesty--

And told him what I'd like, today
And parts of his far plan
That baffled me--
The mingled side
Of his Divinity

And often since, in Danger, 
I count the force 'twould be
To have a God so strong as that
To hold my life for me

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent now,
It takes me all the while to poise, 
And then--it doesn't stay--7

“To have a God so strong as that to hold my life for me.” I told you some of you might weep! (Not you hard-hearted ones, of course! I wasn’t talking to you.) We don’t know what was “tipping the Balance” at the time she wrote those lines; but what great longing those lines convey!

I wish I knew more. I wish I could talk to her! We could pick up Starbucks and hash out the things that were “tipping the Balance so frequent now”. I suppose it’s just the pastor in me; but I would ask her: “Where did you go with this? What finally happened in the end? How did it finally work out for you?” And wouldn’t it be nice if she had come with some “boxes”! Those boxes of hers with bundles of scraps tied with twine! She would rummage through one and bring up a bundle; gently untie it and hand me a scrap, with perfect lines in beautiful hand, which I’d like to believe were some of her last, though…probably not. She was never that simple. But this she might hand me, in response to my question…

"Unto me?" I do not know you--
Where may be your House?

"I am Jesus--Late of Judea--
Now--of Paradise"--

Wagons--have you--to convey me?
This is far from Thence--

"Arms of Mine--sufficient Phaeton8--
Trust Omnipotence"--

I am spotted--"I am Pardon"--
I am small--"The Least
Is esteemed in Heaven the Chiefest--
Occupy my House"--9
  1. #501 circa 1862 The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Ed. Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown and Co., New York, 1960 p. 243.
  2. ibid. p. 610, #1433 circa 1878.
  3. ibid. p. 533, #1207 circa 1872.
  4. ibid.p. 444, #947 circa 1862.
  5. ibid. p. 610, #1432 circa 1878.
  6. ibid. p. 448 #959 circa 1864.
  7. ibid. p. 281, #576 circa 1862.
  8. Phaeton: a four-wheeled, horse-drawn touring carriage. (You didn’t expect her to use an ordinary word, did you?)
  9. ibid. 1, p 451, #964 circa 1862.

Categories: poetry

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6 replies

  1. At one time I might cry with her, at another I might not feel anything, depending on my own circumstances at that particular moment. I believe this is true of most people with regard to songs and poetry.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I came across your entry when googling Emily Dickinson’s “How brittle are the Piers” poem for one of my classes at school. I enjoyed your thoughts on her poetry. We discussed last week how her spiritual ponderings are so raw and real. I think it is because she wanted her poetry destroyed upon her death that it freed her up to be fully present with her doubts, questions, and at times innocence in her faith. I wonder if we would have had a much different Emily had she known she would be writing to all of us one day and not just for herself… Thanks again for sharing, I loved your thoughts!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Beautiful, and yes, I cried. You knew I would.

    Liked by 1 person

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