On January 12, 2009, the words of Emily Dickinson will return to the London Underground. Not, though, as part of the Poems on the Underground series, which has featured Much madness is divinest sense, I taste a liquor never brewed, and There came a Wind like a Bugle in the past.
Instead, two lines from Dickinson will be part of the British Humanist Association’s Atheist Bus campaign:
That it will never come again
Is what makes life so sweet.
Believing what we don’t believe
Does not exhilarate.
That if it be, it be at best
An ablative estate —
This instigates an appetite
The campaign on the Underground will also feature Douglas Adams, Albert Einstein, and Katherine Hepburn. The choice–of Dickinson in general, and these words in particular–is thought-provoking.
Dickinson was certainly a skeptic. Though she lived in a world charged with religious and spiritual fervor–the last waves of the Second Great Awakening, Calvinist pietism, Emersonian Transcendentalism–she paddled against the general stream. Though she attended the Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson never “converted” like so many of her peers. “Christ is calling everyone here,” she wrote in an 1850 letter, “all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion.”
But an atheist? I’m not entirely convinced. Dickinson’s approach to religion was certainly ironic, skeptical, sometimes sacrilegious, often playful. In her poems about death in particular, she strikes some pretty hard blows against religious beliefs. Safe in their alabaster chambers, for example, notes the eternal sleep of the “meek members of the resurrection” while “[g]rand go the years in the crescent above them”; Death, for Dickinson, is a particular Eternity, with no sounding trumpet on Judgment Day.
But God–or a god of some sort–is strongly present in many of her poems. In some cases, it seems to be a Calvinist God–remote, unknowable, harsh. In other cases, as in her poems about the loss of loved ones, there seems to be a consoling God:
They perished in the seamless grass, –
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.
More often, “God” seems to be a metaphor for something–universal order, the grandeur of nature, time–larger than the individual. There’s much vastness in these short poems, and much wonder. Dickinson certainly rejects the trappings of church and piety, and is at the very least unorthodox, heretical, and strongly critical of religion. But she is very much of her time and place all the same, and not easily made to fit into contemporary atheist or humanist garb. If anything, she reminds me most of the Nontheist Friends, a particularly slippery sort of Quaker.
That the Atheist Bus campaign picked this particular Dickinson poem, and these specific lines, is interesting. It’s certainly an aphoristic statement, and it echoes the “stop worrying and enjoy your life” catchphrase of the campaign. But the second two lines–“Believing what we don’t believe / Does not exhilarate”–seems more consistent with Dickinson’s poetry, and, to be honest, much less trite; I could almost picture “That it will never come again / Is what makes life so sweet” printed on the pedestal of a “Precious Moments” figurine. There are better, more searing quotes available–her poem on the inefficacy of prayer, for example, or her playful mocking of a Heavenly afterlife:
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.
We need to be careful when marshaling the dead to our contemporary causes, particularly the subtle dead like Dickinson. Her concerns were not necessarily ours, and her approach to doubt and faith much more nuanced than what we hear now on either side of the debate. I don’t know that she’d be bothered to be on the Atheist Bus posters–she’d probably find it more than a little funny–but her smile would be more than a touch wry.