As much a doubter as a believer, Emily Dickinson often expressed views about God in general—and God with respect to suffering in particular. In many of her poems, she contemplates the question posed by countless theologians and poets before her: how can one reconcile a benevolent deity with evil in the world?
Examining Dickinson’s perspectives on the role played by a supposedly omnipotent and all-loving God in a world marked by violence and pain, Patrick Keane initially focuses on her poem “Apparently with no surprise,” in which frost, a “blonde Assassin,” beheads a “happy Flower,” a spectacle presided over by “an Approving God.” This tiny lyric,Keane shows, epitomizes the poet’s embattled relationship with the deity of her Calvinist tradition.
Although the problem of sufferingis usually couched in terms of natural disasters or human injustice, Dickinson found new ways of considering it. By choosing a flower as her innocent “victim,” she bypassed standard “answers” to the dilemma (suffering as justified punishment for wickedness, or as attributable to the assertion of free will) in order to focus on the problem in its purest symbolic form. Keane goes on toprovide close readings of many of Dickinson’s poems and letters engaging God, showing how she addressed the challenges posed—by her own experience and by an innate skepticism reinforced by a nascent Darwinism—to the argument from design and the concept of a benevolent deity.
More than a dissection of a single poem, Keane’s book is a sweeping personal reflection on literature and religion, faith and skepticism, theology and science. He traces the evolving history of the Problem of Suffering from the Hebrew Scriptures (Job and Ecclesiastes), through the writings of Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas, to the most recent theological and philosophical studies of the problem. Keane is interested in how readers today respond to Emily Dickinson’s often combative poems about God; at the same time, she is located as a poet whose creative life coincided with the momentous changes and challenges to religious faith associated with Darwin andNietzsche.Keane also considers Dickinson’s poems and letters in the context of the great Romantic tradition, as it runs fromMilton throughWordsworth, demonstrating how thework of these poets (perhaps surprisingly in the case of the latter)helps illuminate Dickinson’s poetry and thought.
Because Dickinson the poet was also Emily the gardener, her love of flowers was an appropriate vehicle for her observations on mortality and her expressions of doubt. Emily Dickinson’s Approving God is a graceful study that reveals not only the audacity of Dickinson’s thought but also its relevance to modern readers. In light of ongoing confrontations between Darwinism and design, science and literal conceptions of a divine Creator, it is an equally provocative read for students of literature and students of life.