Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy

Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy

Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy

Emily Dickinson: Daughter of Prophecy


How do women, historically excluded from the role of preacher because of their gender, gain authority to assume a prophetic voice? What rhetorical strategies can empower the woman who would claim the role of prophet? In this book, Beth Maclay Doriani looks at the ways Emily Dickinson addressed these questions in the context of patriarchal nineteenth-century New England. She explores some of the central strategies Dickinson used to claim both poetic and religious authority and to join the ranks of the self-proclaimed prophets of her day - literary figures like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, as well as a host of preachers and other popular orators.


And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions. (Joel 2:28; reiterated in Acts 2:17)

FROM THE TIME that Anne Bradstreet defied each carping tongue and picked up her pen to write poetry, women in America have been struggling to assert their poetic voices. Lacking authority within American culture--authority that is crucial to the ability to speak, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar have admirably shown-- American women poets have explored various poses and strategies for sustenance and empowerment. In this study I examine one of the principal strategies through which Emily Dickinson sought to gain authority for her poetry: her method of drawing on the Christian prophetic tradition to achieve power and authority as a women prophet.

Surrounded by the prophetic voices of contemporary male and female orators, preachers, and self-proclaimed seers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well as the didactic religious voices of contemporary female poets, Dickinson responded with a wisdom literature of her own making, revising the conventions of faith and expressing her vision through her poetry. In revising Christian dogma, Dickinson often drew on the very rhetorical resources whose doctrines she sought to undermine. Thus, Christian prophetic tradition, which Dickinson and her contemporaries saw extending from the Old and New Testament eras into modern America through a line of authoritative, wise religious speakers, provided her with stances, rhetorical structures, and a style for her poetry. She adopted these not only from the writings of the scriptural prophets and wisdom speakers but also from, as she would have understood it, a contemporary expression of that prophetic heritage: the traditional sermon. Adopting features of Judeo- Christian prophecy, Dickinson found a way to speak as an authoritative daughter of prophecy in the tradition of Joel 2:28: "Your sons and daughters shall prophesy."

The biblical prophetic tradition to which Dickinson was exposed offers a way to understand her poetry that both feminist scholar-

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