Emily Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1830. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary (now Mount Holyoke College) from 1847-1848, but left after one year. Dickinson spent the majority of her life living with her family at their home in Amherst.
During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson wrote around 1800 poems, though fewer than a dozen were published while she was alive. Her first collection of poetry wasn’t published until after her death in 1886.
Emily Dickinson’s religious beliefs are complex and not easily categorized. She grew up in a Christian home and attended church regularly as a child. However, as an adult, she became more critical of organized religion and the role of women within it.
Dickinson was known for her reclusive nature, and it’s believed that she stopped attending church sometime in the 1850s. In a letter to a friend, she wrote, “I do not cross my father’s ground to any house of mine, without I specially praise God for all his mercies.” It’s widely believed that Dickinson found her own way to spirituality and a closer relationship with God outside of the confines of organized religion.
The Bible was a significant influence on Emily Dickinson’s life and work. She grew up reading it and attending church, so it’s likely that the Bible shaped her early religious beliefs. As an adult, she became more critical of Christianity, but continued to draw inspiration from the Bible.
Some of Dickinson’s most famous poems, such as “Because I could not stop for Death” and “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died,” make reference to the Bible. In “Because I could not stop for Death,” she references the Book of Revelation, while in “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died” she alludes to the story of Adam and Eve.
Emily Dickinson’s complex relationship with the Bible is reflective of her overall view of religion. She was raised Christian, but became more critical of the religion as an adult. However, she still found value in the Bible and used it as a source of inspiration for her poetry.
In her poem 1577(1545), “The Bible is an ancient Volume,” Elizabethan poet Katherine Philips’ elliptical style and compact phrases are evident. This piece is rife with satire, with the speaker asking whether people should adhere to Christianity out of fear or because they believe it to be true. The speaker metaphorically debases the Holy Scripture’s privilege as the single source for humanity’s understanding and urges the audience to discover something new to believe in.
In other words, the speaker is asking for a religious reformation. The first stanza sets up a grandiose diction in order to establish the Bible’s importance in society. The phrase “an antique Volume”(1) connotes both physical and moral age. It is old and weathered, but it is also respected because of its age. The simile “as dry as Sarcasm”(4) emphasizes the lack of emotion or life within the pages of the Bible.
Dickinson uses this to suggest that people have become so desensitized by Christianity that they no longer feel anything when reading it. This continues in the second stanza with the metaphor “a dusty Cupboard”(9), which furthers the idea that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of ancient stories.
The third stanza is where Dickinson begins to question the validity of the Bible. She asks, “Who touches it, touches a Man?”(11). This could be interpreted in two ways. The first is that whoever reads the Bible is engaging with God himself. The second is that the Bible is just a book and therefore cannot be magical.
Dickinson seems to lean more towards the latter as she goes on to say “Though handled – none detected”(12-13). She suggests that even though people have been reading the Bible for years, they have not found anything new within its pages.
The first line of the poem, which compares the holy book to an “antique volume,” says it all. In this passage, a collection of written or printed sheets bound together and constituting a book is referred to as a volume. The speaker considers the Bible to be an “antique” anthological compilation of tales that may be valued rather than the acronym – Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.
To put a price on the Bible would be to reduce it to a physical entity that can be held in one’s hand and bartered. The speaker does not believe that the Bible should have a monetary value, but rather it should be priceless because of its guidance and wisdom.
The second line states, “I scarce believed I saw it” which could be interpreted in a few ways. The first being that the speaker is unsure if they are seeing an actual Bible because of how surprised they are that someone would bring such an item into the market. The second interpretation could be that the speaker is unsure if they should believe what is written in the Bible because of how different it is from their own beliefs. They might see the stories and think, “I can scarcely believe that this is true.”
The third line, “When first it came to light” could be interpreted in the same ways as the second line. The Bible was written over thousands of years by many different authors and it was not put into its current form until around 400 AD. So, when the speaker says “when first it came to light” they could be referring to when the Bible was first written or when it was finally put together in its current state.
The fourth line is where the speaker really begins to express their opinion on the matter. They say, “That such a lilting History” which immediately brings up the question, what is a “lilting History”? A lilting History could be interpreted in a few ways.
It could mean that the history is false and not to be believed because it is not backed up by facts. It could also mean that the history is so different from what the speaker knows that they can barely wrap their head around it. The last interpretation could be that the History is written in such a beautiful and poetic way that it seems unreal.
The final two lines of the poem are very powerful. The speaker says, “As this/ Were found upon my table!” The exclamation point at the end of these lines emphasizes the speakers surprise and disbelief. They are surprised that someone would bring the Bible into the market and put a price on it and they are disbelieving that such a book exists.
Emily Dickinson was brought up in a Christian home and attended a Christian school, but she stopped attending church in her early twenties. She began to question the stories in the Bible and she did not agree with many of the things that were happening in the world around her. This poem is a reflection of her views on Christianity and the Bible. She does not believe that the Bible should be taken literally or that it should be used to justify harmful actions.