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Emily Dickinson: A Spiritual Materialist

Schmeltz's picture

I think To Live – may be a Bliss
To those who dare to try -
Beyond my limit – to conceive -
My lip – to testify -    

“I think to Live” is example of what has been classified as an Emily Dickinson “try-to-think” poem (1).  A reading of this poem would have it that Dickinson lived to become one of “those” individuals daring to stretch the mind beyond its human limits.  Some would propose that the intent of Dickinson's writing was to expand the contours of her own mind, challenge her preconceived ideas, express her intense cognitive processes, and deal with the immense emotional turmoil associated with the activities of her mind.  Emily Dickinson's poetry reveals that she extensively thought and often struggled with concepts of the brain, mind, and soul.  Glimpsing through her poems, it may seem that there are irreconcilable differences between the human brain, mind, and soul (1); however, I would argue that these differences are not so irreconcilable as one would tend to presume. 

A reading of “The Brain – is wider than the Sky” would have it that Emily Dickinson was simply a materialist (7).  While I can understand this conclusion, I feel it is inconsistent with the unusual sense of spirituality readers often feel as they read and reflect on a piece of poetry by  Dickinson.  According to the reading, Dickinson held firm beliefs concerning brain and mind relationships – beliefs consistent with the view held by neurobiologists today (7).  This reading suggests that Dickinson believed that the world was merely a construction of the brain.  The brain is “wider than the sky”, the sea, and even God, because it has the vast capacity to construct these phenomena.  Further, the brain not only constructs all the material and immaterial things surrounding us, but it also constructs the idea of “us” and a notion of the “self” (3).  According to Dickinson, it does so with ease.  It is not my intent to disprove what the reading is stipulating because I am not convinced it is wrong; however, I am not satisfied with the suggestion that Emily Dickinson subscribed exclusively to materialism.  Dickinson's poem, “The Soul unto itself”, illustrates that she possessed a strong sense of spirituality inconsistent with the reading of “The Brain – is wider than the Sky”.  Yet, I would not go as far as to assert that Emily Dickinson was exclusively a spiritualist.  A final poem by Dickinson, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, resolves the two modes of thought, materialism and spiritualism, and suggests that Dickinson did have a deep sense of spirituality rooted in a material object, the brain.

The first two stanzas of “The Brain – is wider that the Sky” strongly compliment the belief that Dickinson was a materialist.  The brain is contrasted with the material – the sky and the sea – and the reader is provided with material images such as a sponge absorbing the water contents of a bucket.  By contrasting the brain to large material things, Dickinson presents her belief that the brain has an enormous capability for thought and construction.  While these two stanzas provide evidence of her materiality, I argue that the third stanza of the poem presents ambiguity and challenges the materialist conception.  “The Brain is just the weight of God” asserts a strong relationship between the brain and God by suggesting that the brain constructs the idea of God.  However, Dickinson still leaves open the idea that the brain and God do differ and that they do so “as syllable from sound”.  A reading of this suggests that God is greater than the brain because “while the brain is a syllable, God is sound, or the brain is a representation of God, as a syllable is a representation of sound” (2).  This does not detract from Dickinson's intent of showcasing the significance of the brain's abilities, for she is speculating that the brain and God may not differ; however, at the same time she allows for a potential difference.  Thus, it is in the last stanza of the poem, a neglected and under-examined stanza, that the materiality notion is perturbed with the idea that the brain of a human being may have been created through God.  While I think it is safe to assume that Dickinson realized the brain's colossal and infinite capacity for thinking and creating, I do not think we can assume that she wholeheartedly sided with the belief held by contemporary neurologists who believe that all activity of the mind and all behavior results from the brain.  Dickinson did not have that scientific knowledge; yet, beyond that, her poetry suggests that embedded in her brain was something deeply spiritual. Therefore, “we need to resist reading into her poetics the insights about cognition that evolved during the second half of the twentieth century” and beyond (7). 

Given Dickinson's religious background, it is not surprising that she explored spirituality to a great extent in her poetry.  It has been said that during her lifetime, she expressed doubts and skepticism concerning religion, but that she continued to maintain strong religious feelings (6).  “The Soul unto itself” provides some added insight into Dickinson's spirituality.  This poem suggests that the soul stands alone and is separate from oneself.  It “is an imperial friend – Or the most agonizing Spy – An Enemy – could send - ”.  Further, “Secure against its own – No treason it can fear – Itself – Its Sovereign – of itself  - The Soul should stand in Awe - ” (8).  In this poem, Dickinson's intent is to celebrate the soul, a disembodied immaterial entity that presumably has a unique power and freedom detached from oneself.  Thus, it would seem that Dickinson was very much a spiritualist if we considered her in light of this very ethereal poem; however, we cannot project labels onto her based on but one reading because it is representative of but one of her streams of thought.  We cannot label Emily Dickinson a spiritualist because a collective review of her work suggests that she thought both in terms of spirituality and materiality.  As Jed Deppman concludes in “Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson”, “Dickinson saw thought under many lights and through many lenses” (1). 

An unedited version of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, induces an intense emotional experience as one realizes that she is writing in response to troubling thoughts (5).  Deppman proposes that the main purpose of many of Dickinson's poems “is not to invent or define an extreme experience, but to deal with it once it arrives, to knead it, battle it, alter it, realize it, or just survive it through thought” (1).  In  “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, the reader experiences the mental anguish associated with the brain's activity and the agonizing persistence of this activity.  The pain keeps “treading” until “Sense” breaks through and offers some temporary relief.  However, the pain picks up again and keeps “beating” and “beating” until the “Mind” breaks down, overwhelmed by too much activity, and resigns to numbness.  Then, a “Box” is lifted and a noise creaks across the “Soul” causing additional spirals of thought.  It is interesting to note that in this unedited draft she originally uses “Brain” in place of “Soul”, but then ultimately crosses out “Brain” favoring “Soul”.  The poem persists in loneliness, with reason breaking through, and then a final “crash”, but it seems as if she “Got through” her battle in the end.  In this poem, it is clear that Emily Dickinson recognizes both “Brain”, “Mind”, and “Soul” as distinct and significant given that each is capitalized and provided its own separate line (5).  This poem raises some very relevant questions.  What was her reason for choosing “Soul” instead of “Brain”?  Does “Soul” have a specific function that the “Brain” does not?  Or was “Soul” used merely for rhyming purposes?  Did she even differentiate between the brain, mind, and soul?  It is difficult to say, but we can deduce that the brain, mind, and soul were heavily explored by Dickinson in her effort to “try-to-think” and understand herself. 

As Deppman acknowledges, “we do not know if Dickinson succeeded or even thought she succeeded in thinking what she tried to think”.  Instead, “we know only that these were poems in which she tried to help or save herself by representing her own efforts to help or save herself” (1).  We know that in her own efforts of attempting to understand herself, she thought of and recognized the role and presence of the brain, mind, and soul, but to what extent did one overpower the other in her view, we will never know.  Why does she choose the brain in some contexts versus the mind and/or soul in others?  These are all potential questions to be explored, yet the main focus is whether or not Emily Dickinson was a diehard materialist.  Based on her thoughts, I would argue that she was not a materialist.  Was she exclusively a spiritualist?  Based on her thoughts, I would argue that she was not a spiritualist.  So, instead of projecting these extreme labels on her, I would argue that she was both a materialist and a spiritualist.  Moreover, I would argue that both are possible provided the idea that the brain is in fact “wider than the sky”.

I think it is probable that there exists a more complimentary relationship between materialism and spiritualism than one would be initially inclined to admit.  If the brain is in fact “wider that the sky” and more vast than the sea, then I suspect that there is room enough inside the brain for spirituality.  I suspect that the brain is the “organ of the mind” (4) and of the self, and the origin of deep spirituality. 

Wrapping our brains around a more complimentary explanation between materialism and spiritualism, offers us a way to comfortably approach Dickinson's work without confining her to a specific realm of thinking.  While we will never know for sure what was going on in the brain of Emily Dickinson and what her intent was for writing, I suspect that her poetry was her way of working through her own discomfort and mental disturbances.  Regardless of her intent, her work continues to engender powerful physical, psychological, and emotional responses in her readers because it highlights some classic human struggles, including the human attempt to comprehend the complexities of the brain, to grapple with the elusive concept of “mind”, and to determine the existence of an immaterial soul.  Due to the human brain's enormous capacity for thought, humans have for centuries struggled to define and understand the brain, mind, and soul and the struggle persists.  I would argue that in Dickinson's personal life, this struggle was more intense due to her great capacity for thinking combined with her troubled mind.  Deppman purports that Dickinson struggled in her attempt to “reconcile her desire for mental lucidity with her intense emotional experience” (1).  In the end, I think her way of reconciling this instability was to attribute all activity of the mind to the brain.  In doing so, Emily Dickinson conceded to materialism, but not without maintaining her deep spirituality – a spirituality contained in the brain and contained “with ease”. 


1) Deppman, Jed. “Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson”.  The Emily Dickinson Journal. Project MUSE (2004) Vol. XIV, No. 1: 84-103. 12 Feb. 2010. <    v014/14.1deppman.html>.   

2) Graimes, Linda Sue. Emily's Brain: Dickinson's “The brain is wider than the Sky”. 1 Jan 2007. 18 Feb. 2010 <>. 

3) Grobstein, Paul.  Who's afraid of Emily Dickinson? Or...How I learned to stop worrying and love the brain. Jan. 2002. 12 Feb. 2010. </bb/brainpsychoanal.html>.

4) Hansotia, Phiroze, MD. A Neurologist Looks at Mind and Brain: “The Enchanted Loom”.  History of Medicine. Clinical Medicine and Research (2003) Vol. 1 No. 4: 327-332. 12 Feb. 2010. <>.

5) “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”. 18 Feb. 2010.<>.   

6) “Emily Elizabeth Dickinson”. Neurotic Poets. 12 Feb. 2010. <>.

7) Sielke, Sabine. “The Brain – is wider than the Sky – or: Re-Cognizing Emily Dickinson.” The Emily Dickinson Journal. Project MUSE (2008) Vol. 17 No. 1: 1-8. <>.

8) “The Soul unto istelf.”  Academy of American Poets. 18 Feb. 2010. <>.    



Paul Grobstein's picture

Was Dickinson a Dickinsonian?

Seems to me you've managed to get Dickinson's mind and soul inside her brain, and then all of that inside of your own, if not "with ease" then at least reasonably comfortably.  Yep, lots of space in there, "wider than the sky."  And you've added an interesting twist.  The sky and the ocean are "material" things, so one could indeed argue that "with ease" meant there was room left over for the immaterial, the "spiritual."  That, though, leaves open (or, perhaps better, poses) a further question.  Is the brain a sort of hanger for the "spiritual," a place where it can rest or go elsewhere, or is the spiritual, like the sky/ocean a brain construction?
Like you(?), I'm inclined to think Dickinson would have opted for the latter, if the question had occurred to her.  I agree though that "The Soul unto Itself" requires some consideration along these lines.  My own reading is that the poem doesn't so much "celebrate" the soul as wrestle with it.  Its about the "soul unto itself," rather than about the soul per se and not entirely complimentary about what the "soul unto itself" is like.  This fits, I think, with the argument you develop that Dickinson was a "thinker," someone who wrestled with things going on inside her head, the brain, the mind, and the soul among them, rather than being either a spiritualist or a materialist (which, in either case, obviates wrestling/thinking).
Along these lines, its perhaps worth thinking a little more about the third stanza of "The Brain is wider than the sky,"  as per an earlier student suggestion and my following comment.  Yes, there is a possible difference between brain and God ("if they do") but perhaps what's more significant is the non-parallelism with the first two stanzas.  The first two stanzas open by asserting a striking difference, the third by suggesting instead a similarity.   Perhaps there is there a way of resolving conflict via a recognition that conflict too is constructed, using whatever name one chooses for the constructor?