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Poetry and Religion Research Paper

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Read the following sample research paper from Ultius below to learn about the relationship between Emily Dickinson's poetry and psychodynamics, a sub-field within psychology related to psychoanalytic theory by Sigmund Freud. A brief discussion regarding religion is also included. We have also written before about the relationship between Walt Whitman and Psychology in his poetry.

Psychodynamics and Religion: The Dickinson Interpretation

When evaluating works of art, written or aesthetic, there are many diverse interpretations that we can utilize. These diverse interpretations stem from various disciplines such as feminism, Marxism, psychodynamic theory and even religion. Each ‘lens’ of interpretation presents its own viewpoints and explanations as to why or how the author composed the work of art. Emily Dickinson, a famous poet, was known for writing very controversial poetry during the 1800’s. Luckily, Dickinson wrote about many diverse topics and gave future academics a wealth of material to critically analyze. The poems A Narrow Fellow in the Grass and Wild Nights have language that can be interpreted by both Psychoanalytic Theory as well as religion. These elements have also been thoroughly examined and documented by other scholars in their respective fields. In comparing both of these poems by Dickinson, they both share psychoanalytic themes and biblical imagery. 

First and foremost, Dickinson’s past gives us insight into some of the domestic and religious issues that she dealt with. Growing up with strict parents and attending a religious school, Dickinson:

"Was deliberate, self-conscious, and sophisticated… More intelligent by far than her coevals, ignored by an emotionally pinched father whose conception of woman's role was one of cooking, washing, and nursing the sick, superbly educated (for that time and place) at Amherst Academy and a year at Mount Holyoke Seminary, refusing conversion to the extremely doctrinaire Trinitarian Congregationalism that surrounded her” (Goldgar, 337).

Her problems with initially accepting Christianity was problematic for her familial tradition. Perhaps the limitation of having a domestic life with marriage was not satisfactory for her. Nonetheless, not having a husband and normal woman’s life, this also went against traditional religious values of her time period. This could explain why “Dickinson's mission, to wrestle with and defeat a brutal and savage God, was certainly individual, but she intended to be a ‘representative’ poet” (Goldgar, 338). This would entail that her struggle with religion was an integral influence in her poetry, as we will see further.

Psychoanalytic Theory and Poetry

The relationship between psychoanalytic theory and poetry is not a widely neglected or understudied phenomenon either. There are numerous examples where art and psychoanalysis has been fused together. Adrian Stokes argued that “it is often overt conflict that inspires an artist’s imaginative flights” (Stokes, 198). The same internal struggles that influence behavior also influence how art is produced. Moreover, when these “phantasies are spontaneously expressed outside the analytic situation in language, that is by the insane or by the poet, it is clear that the words are handled as a material with sensual qualities” (Stokes, 198). These sensual qualities are the result of subconscious psychic processes that help the artist project his or her inner most feelings. Dickinson’s background surely fit the role of potentially having internal dilemmas. From her apprehensiveness of accepting Christianity and upbringing during her youth, to her unorthodox poems, we will see that both religion and psychodynamic theory are both consistent elements and themes in her two poems. Click here to read more about what Freud had to say about how childhood development impacts us as adults.

Sexual Imagery and Poetry

In fact, Paula Bennett, in Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory, argued that much of Emily Dickinson’s work also included similar sexual imagery that related to Freud’s concepts. For instance, “Clitoral symbols-that is, symbols of small but precious objects-are ubiquitous in nineteenth-century American Women’s writing” (Bennett, 237). While this symbolism may have been considered relatively insignificant in our socially constructed means of interpreting poetry, Bennett noted that these sexual elements have remained consistent. The specificity of words like “heart, dowers, rose, rapture and bud” possess erotic connotations that are impossible to evade when taken into context (Bennett, 239). Surely, Dickinson faced scrutiny by her editors and peers. Scrutiny was always harshly delivered when the sexual viewpoints didn’t meet socially acceptable standards. In terms of the context of the time period, “Charles Rosenberg points out that during the years between 1830 and 1870, after the Second Great Awakening, a new interest was placed upon the social need to manage sexuality” (Burbick, 1986, 362). Therefore, in expressing her sexuality within her poetry, Dickinson was being a representative of her times as well, as shown in this sample research paper.

In A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, the dual theme of religion and sexuality is both present and consistent. Anthony Hecht remarked that a deeper interpretation of Dickinson’s poems was almost required to understand the full meaning; her poems represent “but rather a religious seriousness, however unorthodox, and a profound sense that neither life itself nor the holy text by which we interpret it is altogether intelligible, and both require a riddling mind or interpretive skill” (Hecht, 1978). Essentially, to fully understand the deep meanings, we have to look to references like biblical imagery. One such piece of Biblical imagery that the reader had to find was the analogy to the snake, the “narrow fellow in the grass” (Dickinson, 1). As Dickinson claimed that she never met this snake, the relation could be to the snake from the Bible that represents temptation like with Adam and Eve.

Moreover, her struggle with Christianity at an earlier age could have prompted her to use the snake analogy as a way to mock, or poke fun at a popular Christian story. Besides, Dickinson had a history of mimicking certain literary elements like riddles in correlation to Psalms stories (Hecht, 17). Even in letters that she wrote to friends, Joan Burbick noted that Dickinson utilized Biblical imagery and literary allusions as well (Burbick, 1980, 68). Thus, her religious background has undoubtedly been an influence in her poem. Analyzing this poem from the perspective of religion gives us insight that the theme of religion is not only present, but consistent in her writing.

Sexual Imagery in Narrow Fellow in The Grass

On the other end, a psychodynamic perspective is also represented by this same poem. If we identify key words that pertain to sexuality, we quickly isolate a few blatant ones: “occasionally rides,” “shaft,” “opens further on” and “tighter breathing” (Dickinson, 1). From a Freudian perspective, these terms would suggest that Dickinson utilized sexual imagery to make an analogy to a penis that she was tempted by. Furthermore, the theme of temptation is present because the poem constantly reminds the reader that the fellow in the grass appears and then is gone. This could easily pertain to a married man that she encountered a few times or just a random person that Dickinson wished to engage a sexual encounter with. Regardless, the potential themes of “a eulogy for the man she loved but never told” and a “lustful experience” are present (Marhafer, 62). Since Freud’s work focused on expressing these same internal sexual conflicts implicitly, it is plausible that Dickinson’s poem was a release of this sexual tension. Taking into context that she was not married and resided at her strict father’s house, the feasibility of this interpretation becomes clearer. The very direct sexual imagery that Dickinson utilized correlated simultaneously to Freud’s notions of internal sexual conflicts. Since artwork, like dreams or an inkblot, is an open ended form of expression, the evidence suggests that the theme of sexual desire was deeply rooted in this poem.

The poem Wild Nights also carries this dual interpretation of psychodynamics and religion. Growing up in a Christian household, a certain code of decorum was placed upon Dickinson. This code required that sexual expression was exclusively reserved for a marital relationship. Since Dickinson was not married and had relatively little contact with the outside world, she was left to ponder her religious values and such. Indeed, Wild Nights as a title is a suggestive choice of words towards sin. Elisa New labeled Dickinson as a “poet whose breathy evocation of ‘wild nights’ has had critics for the last one hundred years looking for this bride of quietness's silent partner in sin” (New, 2).  Indeed, the context of the poem could be interpreted as religious. For instance, Dickinson uses the words compass and chart in terms of navigation. Moreover, the direct Biblical reference to “Rowing in Eden” could represent the fact that she considered herself lost for a period of time before she fully accepted Christianity. The analogy of looking for a savior and being “done with the compass, done with the chart” also points to the fact that she may have stopped looking at Christianity for all of her answers (Dickinson, 1). Nonetheless, we do see clear Biblical imagery that could be analyzed through a lens of religion.

Biblical Imagery in Poetry

In fact, other scholars have also noted Dickinson’s use of Biblical imagery as well. Joan Burbick remarked that Dickinson’s writing “was marked by the fervor of evangelical Christianity” (Burbick, 1986, 361). Essentially, that means that in Dickinson’s poems, she tended to include language and context that would suggest a Biblical meaning. Another major example is that the overall composition of this poem, just like A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, also has the same structure and symbolism as the Psalms. While Dickinson may not directly cite God or other pieces of Biblical language, the imagery and interpretation is clearly there. Indeed, Elisa New noted that Dickinson had a tendency to write about religion in a very discrete way. Even Dickinson’s biographer agreed that her writing had an ““increasing frequency of mature and sometimes distraught religious gropings" (New, 2). Again, this goes back to her difficulty with accepting God and Christianity since it was forced upon her by her family traditions. The same tone that Dickinson expresses in refusing navigation and rowing in Eden in her poem coincides with the same apprehension she felt in her earlier days regarding Christianity. Therefore, we see not only the theme of religion in another poem, but also the significance and relation it had to her troubled youth. 

This same poem also has value when interpreted from a psychodynamic perspective. Many other scholars have noted that the implied sexual imagery from this poem is very strong. For instance, “George F. Whicher in 1938 comments that the poem ‘comes as close to innocently erotic imagery as she was ever to go’” (Faris, 270). Faris also noted that “Wild Nights is a compact of Freudian figures” (Faris, 270). Moreover, Thomas H. Johnson referenced the poem as being “manifestly erotic poetry” because it included water imagery (Faris, 270). In taking a closer look at the poem, the water imagery of navigation is certainly present. According to Freud’s work, waves crashing and the sea represent very sexual language because they relate to bodily fluids and such. Moreover, in using the word luxury, it is important to note the historical context and meaning. Charles R. Anderson remarked that not only did this poem contain “frank eroticism,” but also that Emily would have been aware that Latin luxuria included the meaning of ‘lust,’” (Faris, 270).  Therefore, once we take the vivid scene of rowing in the sea in excitement along with the key words of wild nights, lust and consistent exclamation points, we now have a much richer sexual interpretation of the poem. 

Dickinson's Background in Poetry

Again, Dickinson’s background explains why her poem included subtle and ambiguous sexual language. Not only would direct sexual expression contradict her familial values, but Dickinson always had a Puritan-esqe presence about her.  Joyce Oates enforced this by suggesting that her background was a strong indication that there were internal problems regarding her identity (Oates, 823). The strong sexual tension that was displayed by her poetry, coupled with her personal values strongly conflicted with one another. This would have been the epitome of an internal conflict according to Freud. These different forces would have resulted in cognitive dissonance. Consequently, Dickinson’s frustrations would have showed up in her poetry, as it did here. The strong sexual imagery present was a very clear and consistent interpretation as a result.

It is important to note that with these two interpretations, psychodynamics and religion, we are subject to the fallacy of merely finding what we are looking for based on loose guidelines. In fact, before delivering his analysis of Wild Nights, he noted that the text “Could be misread and the subject “critics' preoccupation with symbol-searching” (Faris, 274). Indeed, the symbols and elements that we analyzed could have multiple interpretations across various disciplines. However, it is the consistency of her language and biographical details regarding her youth that incline us to make such a strong assertion. Dickinson’s use of romanticism, Biblical and sexual imagery has been documented by many other scholars and is relevant across other many of her other works.

Discussion and Conclusion

As reviewed, Dickinson’s troubling childhood started when she was apprehensive to accept the religious background and beliefs that were bestowed upon her by her strict father. She did not follow through with a paradigm childhood or life. She never married and certainly did not move out of her father’s house. Therefore, she was never exposed to certain social situations regarding sexuality. Instead, as Oates noted, “she [spent] a good deal of her time looking inward, contemplating what in another era would be called the soul and the soul's relationship to God” (Oates, 814). These circumstances, along with the textual evidence within Wild Nights and A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, suggest that religious and sexual repression was an influential aspect of her poetry. From using sexual language like shaft and luxury (lust), the sexual interpretation is hard to miss. Conversely, the references to Eden, the relationship between snakes and temptation, and the similarity in composition to Psalms, suggests that the religious interpretation is also highly supported. Therefore, the selected poems by Dickinson represent a strong relationship to both psychodynamic theory and religion.

Works Cited

Bennett, Paula. "Critical Clitoridectomy: Female Sexual Imagery and Feminist Psychoanalytic Theory." Signs 18.2 (1993): 235-259. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3174975>

Burbick, Joan. ""One Unbroken Company": Religion and Emily Dickinson." The New England Quarterly 53.1 (1980): 62-75. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/365289>

Burbick, Joan. "Emily Dickinson and the Economics of Desire." American Literature 58.3 (1986): 361-378. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2925608

Dickinson, Emily. “Wild Nights.” Emily Dickinson—Love (2009). CUNY. Web. 28 Mar.2011. http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/wild.html

Dickinson, Emily. “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.cswnet.com/~erin/ed10.htm>

Faris, Paul. "Eroticism in Emily Dickinson's "Wild Nights!"." The New England Quarterly 40.2 (1967): 269-274. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/363772>

Goldgar, Harry. "Review: Emily Dickinson's Wrestle with God." The Hudson Review 40.2 (1987): 337-342. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/3851115>

Hecht, Anthony. "The Riddles of Emily Dickinson." New England Review 1.1 (1978): 1-24. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40355187>

Marhafer, David. "Reading a Poem by Dickinson: A Psychological Approach." The English Journal 77.1 (1988): 59-63. JSTOR. Web. 29 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/818026>

New, Elisa. "Difficult Writing, Difficult God: Emily Dickinson's Poems beyond Circumference." Religion & Literature 18.3 (1986): 1-27. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40059320>

Oates, Joyce. "Soul at the White Heat: The Romance of Emily Dickinson's Poetry." Critical Inquiry 13.4 (1987): 806-824. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1343529>

Stokes, Adrian . "Form in Art: A Psychoanalytic Interpretation." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 18.2 (1959): 193-203. JSTOR. Web. 28 Mar. 2011.<http://www.jstor.org/stable/427266>

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