Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born on her parents homestead in Amherst Massachusetts on December 10, 1830. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was a local lawyer and a trustee of Amherst College – a place of learning part-founded by her paternal grandfather Samuel Dickinson. In 1813, he built their homestead – a large mansion on the town’s Main Street and this became the focus of Dickinson family life for the better part of a century.
Although Emily was part of a prominent family with strong ties to its community, she spent much of her life in isolation from her peers. She never married, and most of her friendships were dependent upon an exchange of personal correspondence. Over time Dickinson continued to withdraw into herself and is considered to have become a recluse throughout the later years of her life – a period during which she barely even left her bedroom.
A Prolific Poetess
During the time that Emily spent alone she filled her hours writing poetry. She was so prolific that it is estimated that she composed nearly 1,800 poems; though of these only seven were ever published.
Whilst most of those with whom Dickinson was in regular correspondence were probably aware of her poetry it was not until she died from kidney failure at the age of 55 that her younger sister Lavinia, discovered her cache of work . This led to Emily’s first collection of edited poetry being published by former personal acquaintances in 1890.
A complete, and mostly unaltered, collection of her poetry, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, was published for the first time in 1955.
Today, the writings of Emily Dickinson are being reexamined within the context of a more spiritually-enlightened era. At the forefront of this renewed assessment is Steven Herrmann – an acclaimed author and academic who has approached Dickinson’s work from a part-Jungian, part-Shamanic perspective. Herrmann, who is the author of Spiritual Democracy: The Wisdom of Early American Visionaries for the Journey Forward has lectured extensively on Jung at many places; including Yale University.
In his book Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times Herrmann examines the life and writings of the poetess from a number of challenging perspectives. In its opening he presents a discerning perspective of Dickinson’s rather ambiguous sexual expression. Whilst some commentators have pondered upon her possible lesbian tendencies Herrmann is of the opinion that this masks a much deeper but equally sensual relationship; one which he defines exoterically as being redolent of today’s same-sex marriages but which esoterically can be likened to “the union of the soul with God (or the Self).”
As with all individuals who teeter on the edge of society’s norms, Dickinson’s self-enforced isolation from her peers and community is shown by Herrmann to have been an inevitable consequence of her disillusionment with many traditional core American values. This was particularly evidenced by her increasing disillusionment towards her traditional Christian upbringing.
Given her family’s important standing in the community, ceasing to attend church must have taken no small amount of resolute determination on her part. As Herrmann points out, it was this part of her strong and fiercely independent nature that has caused her to become evaluated as one of the forerunners of the feminist movement and which probably caused her to remain single throughout her life.
Thus, in many ways, the Dickinson that Herrmann portrays in his book is a person desperate to transcend the limitations of the era that she was born into. He clarifies this in the following way.
“Emily, therefore, was free to introduce a feminine fourth, a way to wholeness, into the masculine trinity and open up Christianity to a radically altered shamanistic version of faith that could include both sexuality and a feeling for the dead, the very values Freud and Jung were able to advance for the 20th century.”
Although Herrmann evaluates his subject within terms of psychological impulses he also identifies another equally important undercurrent to Emily Dickinson’s enigmatic character.
He states, “The more I’ve looked into the secret springs of action in Emily Dickinson’s life, the clearer it’s become to me that the way she got out of her psychological difficulties and outgrew her fate was to simply follow the way of her animal helpers, her spirit guides into the unconscious, most “Snake,” “Blue Bird,” “Hummingbird,” and the little “Green tree People,” or frogs.”
The universal consciousness that gives rise to these elements is not the domain of the patriarchal deity that Dickinson came to revoke, but that of the Divine Feminine: although as Herrmann states, “She was a pantheist and post-Hebrew and post-Christian poet par excellence, for she saw God in all natural things.”
In the Name of the Bee
In the closing of Emily Dickinson Herrmann takes a more personalized approach to her legacy. Firstly he describes a number of synchronicities that took place that surrounded his writing of the book. Secondly, he offers the reader a number of different approaches they can take to keep the spirit of Dickinson alive resonant to today’s shifting interpretation of the sanctity of marriage, as well as using her as a guide to adapting to these societal changes into the emergence of a new social order – that of Spiritual Democracy, of which Emily Dickinson should be seen as a leading dispenser of a new American myth for our times.
All great individuals, artists and social reformers are born into an era that is not wholly compatible with the consciousness they carry. In many cases this rebelliousness evolves over time for it is as if they outgrow the spiritual constraints placed upon them and the psychological walls placed around them. In many cases this leads to an immense battle which for so many has led to madness, depression, and self-inflicted wounding.
In Herrmann’s work we are introduced to a creative reclusive – someone who was born completely out of her era and yet who managed to find a way through her destiny in a way that meant she avoided many of the calamities that have befallen others.
From reading the opening of this work I was immediately drawn into an account of perhaps one of the best examples of a soul who was totally committed to the fulfillment of the Great Work. For that reason the story of Emily is fascinating enough but Herrmann’s evaluation of the many other undercurrents of her life and poetry takes the reader into unexpected, but rich, terrain.
It makes sense to evaluate Dickinson within a largely Jungian construct for, as anyone in the field of spirituality will tell you, his specific type of psychological analysis lends itself well to those who commune with the deeper aspects of their inner cosmology. It not only makes sense for Steven Herrmann to employ Jungian themes to his investigation of Dickinson but, as the reader discovers for themselves, her difficult and challenging life can perhaps only truly make sense within this context.
When approaching a work like this one has to ask whether the legacy of the subject has been enhanced through such in-depth analysis. In the case of this excellent work this is a resounding yes, for Herrmann has fulfilled a unique role in bringing the energy, passion, foresight, and vision of a fascinating character to life – someone who shied away from expressing it herself during her own lifetime.
This highly recommended work will be a glorious revelation to all Emily Dickinson fans; as well as to anyone interested in the role and power of the reemerging feminine archetypal energy of the Goddess along with its embryonic seeds of its manifestation which emerged in so many ways during the latter part of the 19th century and early part of the 20th.
Throughout this work Herrmann offers a vital exploration of Dickinson and In this context Emily Dickinson is a work that carries a great spiritual force – one that is adeptly channeled, interpreted, and directed by Steven B. Herrmann; and which is encapsulated in a work that resonates with a powerful sense of destiny.