Emily Dickinson's major ideas are readily available to us in her poems and letters, but on first reading, they form complicated and often contradictory patterns. This is not surprising; her world was insular and small, and she was highly introspective. In addition, her work has its roots in the culture and society of her times, but though these can be explored extensively and many parallels can be established between her statements and various literary and religious documents, the poems create more mutual illumination than does Emily Dickinson's background itself. Orthodox Protestantism in its Calvinistic guise was the major underpinning of nineteenth-century Amherst society, though it was undergoing shocks and assaults. This New England faith, often called Puritanism, was based on the idea of man as being sinful and unregenerate and completely at the mercy of a loving but arbitrary God. Salvation was by predestined election (it lay entirely in the will of God), but acceptance of God's will, and renunciation of the world for Christ, were paramount for proof of piety and peace of soul. Worldly success and religious faith were taken as signs of salvation but not as its causes. In Dickinson's time, this faith was wearing thin, and material success had long replaced deep piety as the real standard for recognizing the elect. This thinning out of faith helped create the ideas of New England Unitarianism and Transcendentalism. Unitarianism having watered down the emotional components of religion, the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson and others elevated man's spirituality, self-development, and union with the stream of nature to the level of the divine, without ever quite denying the Godhead. The Puritans had seen God's will everywhere in the signs of nature. In Emerson's footsteps, Whitman, Thoreau, and certainly Emily Dickinson tended to see man's spirit manifested or symbolized in nature, though Dickinson often saw only the human mind reading its feelings into nature. Dickinson was aware of and troubled by the admitted and surreptitious breakdown of faith in her time, and she was dubious of all measures to shore it up. She drew sustenance from new ideas, but sometimes found them shallow. She rejected old ideas, but found in them much emotional correspondence to her own set of mind.
For Dickinson, the crucial religious question was the survival of the soul after death. She rejected absolutely the idea of man's innate depravity; she favored the Emersonian partial reversal of Puritanism that conceived greatness of soul as the source of immortality. The God of the Bible was alternately real, mythical, and unlikely to her. She could neither accept nor reject His assurance of a life beyond death, and her doubts pushed her faintly in the direction of transcendental naturalism or towards mere terror of dissolution. She declares, alternately, faith and doubt with equal vehemence, surely as much because of her own struggles with the idea of and need for fulfillment as because of any intellectual battlement. Her sarcastic comments on the God of the Bible are not necessarily jocular. She was independent minded, but she did not shift her stance in her letters to suit her recipients, nor in her poems presumably, to suit her moods; she was interested primarily in her poetic momentum.
In some sense, Dickinson is almost always a religious poet — if her concerns with human perception, suffering, growth, and fulfillment as directed towards something permanent can be called religious concerns. These concerns are as important for her as are death and immortality, and though they have doctrinal and literary sources, they come chiefly from her observations and reflections on life.
Dickinson's reading was comparatively wide, and she knew both the essays and poems of Emerson, as well as Shakespeare, the Bible, the works of George Eliot, Hawthorne, the Brownings, and other earlier and contemporary classics. She alludes often to the Bible, and her combination of dense metaphors with everyday reality sometimes resembles Shakespeare's. However, both the Emersonian cast of her mind, which we will note in several poems, and her darker Puritan strain, were as much a part of the general atmosphere of her culture as of its specific beliefs and its reading matter. Dickinson's literary culture overlaps her religious culture, but the parallels they provide to her work are usually more incidental than revealing.
Although she prided herself on her indifference to broader social concerns, Dickinson does comment occasionally on the social landscape, particularly as it catches her satirical eye. Nature appears widely in her work — as a scene of great liveliness and beauty, as the embodiment of the processes of the universe which may resemble the actions of God and the shape of the human mind, and as an endless source of metaphors and symbols for all of her subjects. Nature, for her, is usually bright and dark mystery, only occasionally illuminated by flashes of pantheism and sometimes darkened by hopeless fatality. Her treatment of nature blends into all of her subjects.
The tradition of classifying Dickinson's poems into thematic groupings for analysis and comparison has been unjustly criticized. As we have remarked, it can contribute to simplification and distortion, but it is more illuminating than approaching the poems by categories of technique or periods in her life, and the danger of simplification can be easily met by a persistent testing of her poems against categories; that is, one can always consider the possibility that they have been misplaced or need to be viewed as part of several categories. For these Notes, we have grouped her poems under five major headings, aware that a few major poems may escape such a classification: (1) Nature: Scene and Meaning; (2) Poetry, Art, and Imagination; (3) Friendship, Love, and Society; (4) Suffering and Growth; and (5) Death, Immortality, and Religion.