Self, world, and God in the poetry of Dickinson and Melville

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University of Alabama Libraries

Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville are the major nineteenth-century representatives of a strain of American poetry that may be termed, following Elisa New, "religiocentric." In support of this proposition, this study explores the following ideas: the meaning of the term "religiocentric;" the vexed issue of the value of Melville's poetry generally; form, content, and value Melville's Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land (1876); the religious views of Melville and Dickinson, and the areas where they overlap; the interrelationships of religion and textuality in Dickinson's work. In describing "religiocentric" poetry, I begin with R.W.B. Lewis's ideas of the emergence in the nineteenth century of what he calls the parties of "Hope" (exemplified by Emerson), "Memory" (for example, in sentimentalist literature and piety), and "Irony" (for example, in Nathaniel Hawthorne's sympathies with both of the other parties but his refusal to embrace either). I locate Dickinson and Melville in the party of Irony. Elisa New's recent work identifies the dominance of the effects of Emersonianism and the party of Hope in American poetry and describes a different strain which retains an idea of Original Sin and generally has a clear awareness of the problem of suffering. I follow her description of this strain as "religiocentric." Chapters 2 and 3 argue that Melville should be ranked with Dickinson and Walt Whitman as major American nineteenth-century poets. I discuss two relatively recent articles, by Helen Vendler and Rosanna Warren, which make forceful arguments on behalf of Melville's poetry, Warren more fruitfully than Vendler. I propose that Melville's immense and difficult Clarel has aesthetic value in addition to its service as a vehicle for the expression of various religious points of view. Dickinson and Melville were deeply interested in and troubled by religion. Though there are important differences in their outlooks, they were both theists and were both firmly grounded in the text of the Bible, even if their theisms ranged outside Christianity. The particular issue of textuality in Dickinson's poetry permits us to see a synthesis in her religious outlook of the transcendent and the material.

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American literature