Emily Dickinson & Going to Heaven

Raphael, "Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament"

Raphael, “Disputation of the Most Holy Sacrament”

Spiritual Sunday

Today is the church service where we remember our dead, so here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that grapples with the concept of heaven. Writing about it gives me a chance to reflect upon what I think has happened to my eldest son, who died 16 years ago.

Dickinson is both “astonished” at the idea of going to heaven and struck by how “dim” it sounds. I don’t entirely understand what she means but suspect, since she is skeptical, that she finds the idea of heaven to be both extravagant and impossible to imagine (she has a dim sense of it). She puts the words “robe” and “crown” in quotation marks, as though she is skeptical of the conventional imagery associated with heaven. I suspect she’d agree with Mark Twain’s account of such imagery in Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven. Stormfield learns that white-robed angels with haloes and harps are merely metaphors for the sake of earthlings:

Singing hymns and waving palm branches through all eternity is pretty when you hear about it in the pulpit, but it’s as poor a way to put in valuable time as a body could contrive.

Yet that being said, Dickinson is drawn to the idea that going to heaven is a process as natural as a sheep returning home at night. (She’s clearly referring to the image of Christ the good shepherd here.) She also knows that two loved ones that she saw die (probably her cousin Sophia Holland and her friend Benjamin Franklin Newton) believed in heaven, although she herself does not.

Her disbelief arises in part from her fear that, were she to become too enamored with heaven, she would not pay enough attention to “curious earth.” I love that phrase because it captures how alive she is to the things of this world. She doesn’t use heaven as an escape mechanism.

Yet this same focus on earth means that, when it covers her loved ones, she experiences much more pain. She doesn’t have the consolation of thinking that she will ever see them again. She leaves herself a slight out in her quirky second stanza, however: if the person to whom the poem is addressed does in fact go to heaven, then it must exist and she can ask that a place be saved for her.

I say quirky because she I think she’s being self-consciously fanciful in imagining a reunion. We know what she really believes in the dark image of abandonment in the final line: “I left them in the ground.” No mention of going to heaven here.

To sum up, she seems to see heaven as an astonishing fantasy but can’t believe in it. Unbelief has the advantage of focusing her attention on the life she is given but it also exacerbates her heartbreak.

Going to Heaven

By Emily Dickinson

Going to heaven! 
I don’t know when, 
Pray do not ask me how,– 
Indeed, I’m too astonished 
To think of answering you! 
Going to heaven!– 
How dim it sounds! 
And yet it will be done 
As sure as flocks go home at night 
Unto the shepherd’s arm! 

Perhaps you’re going too! 
Who knows? 
If you should get there first, 
Save just a little place for me 
Close to the two I lost! 
The smallest “robe” will fit me, 
And just a bit of “crown”; 
For you know we do not mind our dress 
When we are going home. 

I’m glad I don’t believe it, 
For it would stop my breath, 
And I’d like to look a little more 
At such a curious earth! 
I am glad they did believe it 
Whom I have never found 
Since the mighty autumn afternoon 
I left them in the ground.

For myself, I think I stand somewhere between Dickinson and her friends. Because Justin loved to dance, I imagine him dancing in some ethereal realm, even while I know that “dancing” and “ethereal realm” (and, for that matter, “him”) are themselves metaphors. It makes no sense to me that the spirit dies utterly when the breath goes and I sense that Justin somehow exists (another metaphor). That’s as far as I can imagine, however. I am like Hamlet who, after seeing the ghost of his father, tells his friend,

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

Rather than letting that pull me away from “curious earth,” however, it makes here-and-now tangible life much more precious. As Robert Frost observes in “Birches,” “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” I love the ground in which some of Justin’s ashes are buried and the river that contains the rest. Heaven resides in that love.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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