Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson by Richard E. Brantley

Richard E. Brantley’s Experience and Faith is a wide-ranging consideration of Emily Dickinson’s poetry, letters and prose fragments in the context of transatlantic Romanticism. The book is a thematically arranged exploration of Dickinson’s evangelical experientialist method. Brantley uses three broad themes in his approach to Dickinson’s work: “experimental trust” (chapter two), “nature methodized” (chapter three), and the “Romantic to Modern arc” (chapter four). Brantley situates these thematic concerns within deeply informed readings of Locke, Wesley and other nineteenth-century empiricists. I’ll return to these thematic considerations after first briefly describing the contextual ground within which he explores them.

Dickinson deployed a “method,” Brantley writes, rather than a “system” because, in A. Dwight Culler’s words, we must distinguish “between system and method, two words which many people take to be synonymous but which seem to [F.D. Maurice, in The Kingdom of Heaven] ‘not only not synonymous, but the greatest contraries imaginable: the one [i.e., system] including that which is most opposed to life, freedom, variety; and the other [i.e., method] that without which they cannot exist.’…. The terms are, indeed, useful for making distinctions throughout the century (8).” I think most readers will be struck by the appropriateness of the distinction as regards Dickinson in particular, but also by the wide applicability of the distinction across the nineteenth century. This, in short, is how Brantley justifies his transatlantic contextualizing approach to Dickinson: “Dickinson’s modest, non-totalizing practice of method…. defines her Late-Romantic imagination on the broadly experiential, skeptical yet testimonial, common ground between British empirical philosophy and free-will evangelical religion” (8).

Indeed, Brantley reminds us that, in Robert Langbaum’s words, “The essential idea of Romanticism is the doctrine of experience” (10). But Dickinson is not a passive experiencer: she is a powerfully interrogative or, to use Brantley’s preferred term, evangelical poet. “She makes clear” that “natural, spiritual, and aesthetic…. experience constitutes her and her readers’ sole mode of knowing, believing, and imagining” (10-11). Dickinson is by turns “tender-minded” and “tough-minded,” an opposition Brantley returns to throughout Experience and Faith, but it is always these empirical considerations that motivate her work. Thus her work is based on “experiential faith”—“a seemingly absurd, oxymoronic, and self-contradictory phrase that, like waging peace, or well-known secret agent,” is nonetheless “essentially true” (20)—and “religious epistemology” in the spirit, in Christa Buschendorf’s words, “of American pragmatism inaugurated by Emerson” (21). Indeed, throughout his book Brantley uses Emerson as a sounding board or basso continuoso against which he tests the Romantic resonance of Dickinson’s poetry.

For Brantley the spirit of pragmatism is important since, unlike post-modernist approaches to Dickinson’s work (which he eschews), pragmatism does not dodge “issues of transcendence” (26). This is a key point in Experience and Faith, for it allows Brantley to take strong positions based on his own experience of reading Dickinson, rather than wallow in the impersonal, foundationless linguistic Sisyphism of post-modern criticism. This, then, is a brief précis of Brantley’s approach; time now to turn to a synopsis of his thematic exploration of Dickinson’s work.

In his second chapter, “Experimental Trust,” Brantley again first foregrounds the importance of John Locke’s empiricism, especially via the transatlantic evangelist and founder of Methodism, John Wesley. As Brantley points out, a number of books by these and similarly minded writers were in the library of Edward Dickinson, the father of the poet (21). The poet’s grandfather and father both stressed the importance of the “cultivation of the female mind,” a very Lockean idea, and insisted “that sons and daughters alike should receive a more scientific than strictly human education” (37). Thus “[s]choolgirl Dickinson breathed in empirical air” (39).

Overall, Brantley finds in Dickinson a preference for the applied over the pure, for praxis over theoria. He specifically reads the poet’s work for leaps of experimental faith as regards a variety of scientific fields, for example medicine. “[E]ven when she invalidated a doctor’s nostrum, she did so in an open-minded, receptive spirit of trial and error, or of scientific cooperation with her doctor-partner in the search for a cure” (48; see also Letters [Cambridge, 1958] 1:171-72). This is an example of Dickinson’s trust in the scientific method, but her “experimental trust” has another, spiritual aspect: she is always retrospective, so that after a family friend died “she wrote to Elizabeth Holland… that ‘living Fingers that are left have a strange warmth’” (49; Letters 3:685). This line echoes Keats’ famous line, “This living hand now warm and capable” (49), and demonstrates that for Dickinson the personages of the dead live on in her imagination.

“Dwell[ing] in possibility” (a line Brantley quotes many times), the poet displays an optimism towards the power of the burgeoning industrial revolution in such poems as “Force Flame” (Poem 963 [all references are to the Franklin edition], quoted on page 52). Dickinson embraced all the sciences with “subtle, sense-related complexity” (55), but wrote particularly compelling poems using images and language from astronomy, biology, geology and the new challenge of evolution. Brantley seems especially sensitive to Dickinson’s animal poems, for example Poem 359, which he says “celebrates the scientific sense in which the speaker and the bird share common ground” (71). What strikes me, though, is that Brantley himself, though apparently a lover of the natural world and thus deeply sympathetic to Dickinson’s bios-themed poems, may not have spent much time in a lab. In discussing Poem 1181, “Experiment escorts us last— / His pungent company / Will not allow and Axiom / An Opportunity—” (quoted on page 71), he finds “pungent” to connote “sweaty, overwrought” and to be unflattering (71-72). But anyone who has spent any time in a chemistry lab instantly understands the word “pungent” to be a straightforward empirical observation regarding the aroma of such a place. Acidic, astringent, sulfuric—a chem lab’s experimental results are “pungent company” indeed but are nothing like those of a “sweaty” and “overwrought” gymnasium, which is what Brantley seems to be thinking of here. This is a minor quibble, though, in an otherwise fascinating ramble through Dickinson’s themes of experimental trust. What I was struck by, in rereading the many poems Brantley presents, is Dickinson’s resistance to the fetishization of charismatic mammals; she prefers birds, bees and bugs, and the God of small things.

Chapter three, “Nature Methodized,” is Brantley’s foray (though even never uses these terms) into a climatocritical and ecocritical reading of Dickinson. He discusses her “atmospheric conditions” and “perspective on the seasons” (81) and “her preference for spring and for summer” (85). Climatocriticism, a recent sub-discipline of ecocriticism that reads for images of weather and climate change, is a perfect approach to Dickinson, whose poetry abounds with storms. “The Wind begun to rock the Grass,” for instance, is a brush with death and destruction; in Brantley’s terms of experience and faith, it is a kind of “there but for the gust of God go I” thanksgiving, since the storm brewing in the first line “overlooked My Father’s House” in the penultimate one (Poem 796, quoted on page 89).

Again, the wealth of biology in Dickinson’s poetry is ripe for a deep-ecological exegesis. Brantley, for some reason, steers clear of an explicit reading in this respect, though the spiritual force he finds in her work makes his book important reading for ecocritics. “Four Trees—opon a solitary Acre—”, for instance, is a perfect example of Dickinson experiencing the world as an interdependent entity, for “Without Design / Or Order, or Apparent Action—” the parts “Maintain—” the whole (Poem 778, quoted on page 93). In Dickenson’s “Four Trees” we’re seeing a witness to the God of nature at work and the poem is an emblematic example of Dickinson’s “natural religion” (102-103).

In chapter four, “Romantic to Modern Arc,” Brantley locates Dickinson within that historical arc as both forward- and backward-looking; she is “Janus-faced,” as the author states in several places. She is skeptical of received opinion, but her skepticism is “[k]enetic, not deadening” (118). She evokes an “art of belief” that recognizes “the split between science and religion” (143). It seems to me that she bridges this split, if not precisely attempting to heal it. This is the “Compound Vision—” that “Reorganizes Estimate” (Poem 830, quoted on page 136).

Throughout Experience and Faith Brantley uses the famous “Negative Capability” passage from a letter of Keats much in the way he uses Dickinson’s line “I Dwell in Possibility,” that is, as a resonator against which his various thematic strings sound. And as sounding boards, the two ideas seem to me to harmonize beautifully. But I’ve always been puzzled, and here more than ever, at the elision of the final fragment of that famous, wandering sentence of Keats’. What the “poet-doctor” (174) wrote was that what “Shakespeare possessed so enormously” was “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge.” But Brantley (and most everyone else, for that matter) leaves out everything after “reaching after fact and reason” (see, for example, page 13). What of “the Penetralium of mystery,” this curious word that is unique in its usage in English (the rare penetralia being the standard spelling)? It seems that the Penetralium would only bolster Brantley’s case here. The Penates were the gods of the hearth at the heart of the home; what could be more “naturally religious” than their “mysterium tremendum” (174)? Moreover, “being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge” suggests the motor of skeptically imaginative curiosity that drives Dickinson and that Brantley so longs to share with us.

But share he does, especially in his final two chapters. He finds in Dickinson a poet of “hopeless love”—not hopeless from despair but in “manifoldness” (196, emphasis in original) and irreducibility. That he saves this idea for the end—rather than letting it drive the book from the beginning, rather than making plain his own “hopeless love” for the poet at the outset—seems backwards to me. True, I think Brantley wants to mirror Dickinson’s “Janus-faced” looking. But in his Acknowledgements, Brantley writes that he hopes “to cast a wide net, if only to catch a few in it” (iv). I’m not so sure his net is “wide,” but it trawls very deep in the waters of transatlantic Romanticism. Nearly every paragraph of the book is loaded with quotes, from the primary sources, the Romantic writers themselves, as well as contemporary and historical critical commentary. And I wonder if this is a problem in “catching” readers: we don’t actually get much of Richard E. Brantley until the final two chapters of the book. In short, I think the book might have been organized differently to greater effect. Having said that, I think this fascinating and deeply learned contribution to Dickinson studies deserves to be widely read—especially, as I indicated earlier, by ecocritics. There is much food for thought here, there is much scholarly legwork done here; in a couple hundred pages Brantley has distilled an era and captured something essential about Emily Dickinson. Whether we agree that hers was truly a “Late-Romantic imagination” or not, this book performs an invaluable service.

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