Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the main themes of Dickinson’s poetry is the religious quest. She wanted to know with some certainty true answers to the questions that human beings repeatedly ask about the meaning of life: How did we come to be? Why are we here? What is our ultimate destiny? In her poems, she uses the poet’s tools, a powerful imagination and a command of language, to seek in her own experience the answers to these questions. In this way, she associates herself with the Romantic poets, giving primary authority to personal experience, especially in nature, rather than to that of previously written words in scriptures and commentaries. Her work as a whole suggests that she was not comfortable with having to depend on nature and personal experience as sources of knowledge about God and religious truth, but that she was less comfortable with simply accepting what others believed because they had lived before her or occupied positions of authority. Among the more revealing poems about this quest are “I had not minded—Walls—” (398), “Me prove it now—Whoever doubt” (poem 537), and “Those—dying then” (1551).

Her humorous irreverence in this poem regarding her culture’s attitudes toward alcohol and the seriousness of religious subjects reflects her rebellion against authority. Her presentation of the experience of nature as uniting her with divinity illustrates her hope that, through personal experience, she might gain true religious knowledge....

(The entire section is 457 words.)