Emily Dickinson was raised in a traditional New England homein the mid 1800's. Her father, along with the rest of the family, had become Christians and she alone decided to rebel against that and reject the Church. She, like many of her contemporaries, had rejected the traditional views in life and adopted the new transcendental outlook.
Massachusetts, the state where Emily was born and raised in, before the transcendental period, was the epicenter of religious practice. Founded by the Puritans, the feeling of the avenging had never left the people. After all of the "Great Awakenings" and religious revivals, the people of New England began to question the old ways. What used to be the focal point of all lives was now under speculation and often doubted. People began to search for new meanings in life. People like Emerson and Thoreau believed that answers lie in the individual. Emerson set the tone for the era when he said, "Whoso would be a [hu]man, must be a non-conformist."
Emily Dickinson believed and practiced this philosophy. When she was young, she was brought up by a stern and austere father. In her childhood she was shy and already different from the others. Like all the Dickinson children, male or female, Emily was sent for formal education to Amherst Academy. After attending Amherst Academy with conscientious thinkers such as Helen Hunt Jackson, and after reading many of Emerson's essays, she began to develop into a free willed person. Many of her friends had converted to Christianity, and her family was also exerting enormous amount of pressure on her to convert.
No longer the submissive youngster, she would not bend her will on such issues as religion, literature and personal associations. She maintained a correspondence with Rev. Charles Wadsworth over a substantial period of time. Even though she rejected the Church as an entity, she never did reject or accept God. Wadsworth appealed to her because he had an incredibly powerful mind and deep emotions. When he left the East in 1861, Emily was scarred and expressed her deep sorrow in three successive poems in the following years. They were never romantically involved but their relationship was apparently so profound that his departure prompted Emily to seal herself off from the outside world. Her life became filled with gloom and despair until she met Judge Otis P. Lord late in her life. Realizing that they were well on in their lives, they never were married. When Lord passed away, Emily's health condition which had been frail since childhood, worsened.
In Emily's life, the most important things were love, religion, individuality, and nature. When discussing these themes she followed her lifestyle and broke away from traditional forms of writing and wrote with an intense energy and complexity never seen before and rarely seen today. She was a rarity not only because of her poetry, but because she was one of the first female pioneers into the field of poetry. Emily often speaks of love in her poems, but she did it in such a way that would make people not want to fall in love. She writes of parting, separation and loss. This is supported by the experiences she felt with Wadsworth and Otis P. Lord.
"Not with a club the heart is broken, nor with a stone; A whip so small you could not see it, I've known."
This seems to be an actual account of the emotions she experienced during her relationship with Otis Lord. Individuality played a pervasive role in her life as a result of her bout with separation. Emily did not conform to society. She did not believe it was society's place to dictate to her how she should lead her life. Her poems reflect this sense of rebellion and revolution against tradition.
"From all the jails the boys and girls Ecstatically leap,- Beloved, only afternoon That prison doesn't keep."
In this poem Emily shows her feelings towards formalized schooling. Being a product of a reputable college, one would think that she would be in favor of this. But as her beliefs in transcendentalism grew, so did her belief in individuality. Emily also went against the Church which was an extreme rarity of the time. Similar to many others that shared her beliefs, she too did not think that a set religion was the way for salvation.
"Some keep the Sabbath going to Church; I keep it staying at home, With a bobolike for a chorister, With an orchard for a dome."
According to this poem Emily clearly states that nature is her source of guidance and she has little need for the Church as an institution. Like Thoreau, Emily believed that people need to understand nature before they could begin to comprehend humanity because humanity was just a part of nature. Unlike many others, she felt that nature was beautiful and must be understood.
"Has it feet like water-lilies? Has it feathers like a bird? Is it brought from famous countries Of which I have never heard? Will there really be a morning?..."
Further on in the poem she goes on to ask if the scholar or "some wise man from the skies" knows where to find morning. It can be inferred that morning, something so common place and taken for granted, cannot be grasped by even the greatest so called minds.
Emily also saw the frightful part of nature, death was an extension of the natural order. Probably the most prominent theme in her writing is death. She took death in a relatively casual way when compared to the Puritan beliefs that surrounded her life. Death to her is just the next logical step to life and she compares it to a carriage ride, or many other common place happenings.
"Because I could not stop for Death- He kindly stopped for me- The Carriage held but just Ourselves- And Immortality."
Life, according to Emily, is brief and the people living out their lives have little control.
"In this short life That only lasts an hour, How much, how little, Is within our power!"
However non-religious she may appear, and however insignificant she believes life to be, she does however show some signs in accepting life after death.
"This world is not conclusion; A sequel stands beyond, Invisible, as music, But positive as sound."
To Emily the most important things in her life were religion, individuality, nature and death. She may not have believed in God, but He did have a profound impact throughout her childhood. Emily and Emerson alike, felt the most important thing was to maintain ones individuality as she did. She was fascinated by both nature and death and she attempted to explain both in her writings.