I am taking a graduate class this semester that is half Henry James, half Emily Dickinson. The two authors wrote during the same time period, though Dickinson was a bit older, and definitely less known during that era.
I confess: I never liked Emily Dickinson when she was taught in high school. We always had to read the same boring poems, and they always seemed to me all emo and ridiculous. Had we delved deeper into her verse and actually learned more about her life, I would have been as obsessed back then as I am now. Or maybe I really needed to be at the place in my life that I am now, the same age as Emily when she was writing roughly a poem a day, as I used to do when I was in my undergraduate program.
Emily Dickinson is the reason I signed up for this class. That, and I had heard wonderful things about the professor, who is truly a delightful man who tells some of the best life stories. Also, my friend Nicci had linked Emily Dickinson’s herbarium on twitter, and I was immediately drawn in. I had no idea that she was an avid botanist, as was I, in my undergraduate program, where I managed (against the odds of a vile sickness) to squeak out a botany degree (with an American Literature minor).
Anyway, I’ve been focusing a lot of my time and energy researching her life, because I decided to drag ole ED into my creative project for my thesis. To my delight, I discovered that she loved science, and not just science, but learning in general. She was even considered “the brain” of the family. One of my favorite aspects of her poetry are the countless debates she has about religion and science, and trying to reconcile the two. Many times in class when we read her poems, the “I went to Catholic school” girls will immediately start in to fulfill some kind of God complex that they need to believe in. Or whatever. It’s been so long since I had to deal with the Catholic crap in my own life that I forget other people do, and probably don’t appreciate it being labeled as poo. Anyway…
Tonight someone picked this poem to read aloud, and everyone seemed to be talking about God and how she’s talking about medicine not being helpful to a corpse, blah blah, and then I say, “Yeah, but it seems to me like she’s saying that praying isn’t going to help the sick as much as medical science will.” *crickets* And then the professor says, “Well, that is certainly one possible interpretation.” Good on him for not picking sides, he probably feels the need to stay neutral.
Anyway, you decide. Poem is J-1270:
Is Heaven a Physician?
They say that He can heal —
But Medicine Posthumous
Is unavailable —
Is Heaven an Exchequer?
They speak of what we owe —
But that negotiation
I’m not a Party to —