The second child of a prominent Amherst family, Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in the town (and the house) where she was born. Her conservative father, Edward Dickinson, generally considered to be a strict tyrant, was an important influence on his daughter, who considered home to be a holy place. Her early religious experience was in the Calvinistic Congregational Church, where the sermons on damnation terrified her as a child. She rejected the idea of sin and gradually overcame her terror, largely because of the influence of her friend, the Josiah Gilbert Hollands, whose theology was more liberal than that of her father. However, she was never comfortable with organized religion, and that attitude is reflected in many of her poems.
Also important to Dickinson’s poetry is her knowledge of the Bible, which was extensive, and her interest in religious reform and the new, more imaginative sermon style of the mid-nineteenth century. Her father disapproved of this new style, which included a mixing of the sacred and the secular, but her friend Charles Wadsworth was an important innovator and practitioner. His sermons plus the popular writing of women such as Fanny Fern (Sara Willis Parton) influenced Dickinson to apply the language of religion plus her love of paradox, humor, and ambiguity to a wide variety of subjects. It also allowed her to focus on the human side of Jesus.
Dickinson’s rhythm and rhyme have a religious connection as well. Many of her poems use common measure, also known as hymn stanza (the rhythm of many nineteenth century Protestant hymns), and variations on this regular rhythm. These are often used to contain controversial subjects or ironically undercut traditional ideas. “A Word...
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