The Catholic Studies Reader

By James T. Fisher; Margaret M. McGuinness | Go to book overview
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15
Seeing Catholicly:
Poetry and the Catholic Imagination

ANGELA ALAIMO O’DONNELL

In her poem “The Robin’s My Criterion for Tune,” Emily Dickinson attempts to describe the peculiar vision that powers her imagination and informs her poetry. With typical deftness, she states simply, “I see—New Englandly.” Anyone who has read even a few of Dickinson’s poems—each sparse and spare, yet offering up food for the soul even the angels might savor—recognizes exactly what she means by this. Dickinson’s geographic home, an accident of her birth, has located her in the universe, given her a vantage point from which to see the world and a language to engage it. The rhythm of New England seasons lends to her poems their sense of temporality, the slant sun a light to her landscapes. Also embedded in Dickinson’s remark is the looming presence of the dark, Puritan God, who is a permanent part of her consciousness. Although she rebelled against her family’s Calvinist faith, which took the form of Orthodox Congregationalism, Dickinson could never quite shake the gloom of her religion, and it casts its long shadow even in her sunniest poems.

Apparently with no surprise
To any happy Flower
The Frost beheads it at its play—
In accidental power—
The blind Assassin passes on—
The Sun remains unmoved
To measure off another Day
For an Approving God.1

God’s indifference to the world and the suffering of its creatures portrayed in this poem is typical of the Puritan vision, famously expounded by Jonathan Edwards in his sermons as well as in the writings of his Puritan predecessors. Dickinson inherited this New England

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