Part II: Thoreau and Dickinson

Thoreau made Emerson's injunction of "plain living and high thinking" famous when he set out to live outside Boston on an isolated tract of Emerson's land surrounding Walden Pond. Since then, Walden has come to symbolize American asceticism. During most of Thoreau's mature years, he and Emerson were good friends, and Thoreau even lived in the Emerson home, relieving the Concord sage of many practical duties. Thoreau believed in Emerson's transcendental philosophy, and his passionate temperament carried this philosophy to the limit of rebellion against society and initiated his retreat into the woods at Walden. It was also due to Thoreau temper and arrogance that his friendship with Emerson ran into some rough weather, nonetheless the tow men generally weathered these storms. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Indian literature, and when Whitman's Leaves of Grass was first issued in 1855, Thoreau went to Whitman with Emerson's compliments, and observing that "Song of Myself" was "remarkably like the Hindus," asked the poet whether he was acquainted with such writings. "No," Whitman said. "Tell me about them." Thoreau supplied Whitman with a list of books for reading, and included the Bhagavad Gita. In Walden, Thoreau writes in this way about the Gita:

Thus…..the sweltering inhabitants of Madras and Bombay and Calcutta drink at my well. In the morning In bathe my intellect in the stupendous and cosmogonal philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita, since whose comparison years of the gods have elapsed, and in comparison with which our modern world and literature seem puny and trivial; and I doubt if that philosophy is not to be referred to a previous state of existence, so remote is its sublimity from our conceptions. I lay down the book and go to my well for water, and lo! there I meet the servant of the Brahmin, priest of Brahma and Vishnu and Indra, who still sits in his temple on the Ganges reading the Vedas, or dwells at the foot of a tree with his crust and water jug. I meet his servant, and our buckets as it were grate together in the same well. The pure Walden water is mingled with the sacred water of the Ganges. (From Walden)

In Walden, Thoreau even wrote at greater length about the Gita, and it is clear that the words of Krishna figured prominently in the transcendentalist movement. The transcendentalist ideal was to attain union with God through "plain, healthy living," avoidance of the frills of society and all forms of artificial intoxication, avoidance of dogmatic "Church religions," and abandonment to the direct revelation of the Supreme Who usually spoke through His Nature, or Prakriti, revealing His Supreme Purusha, or what Emerson called, "the Over-Soul." "The overpowering reality," Emerson says, "is that unity, that oversoul within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other…Within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the Eternal One." For the transcendentalists, direct contact with Nature was as good as direct contact with the Divine, for it served as a springboard to ultimate realization of Him. Nature was a wise, familiar and loving guru.
Just six years before Emerson's Nature was published in 1836, the greatest peotress in literary history was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. Though she had little contact with the New England transcendentalists, Emily Dickinson wrote poems of transcendental love that reveal her qualifications as a New England gopi. For example:


Wild nights! Wild nights!
Were I with thee,
Wild nights should be
Our luxury!


Futile the winds
To a heart in port
Done with the compass
Done with the chart.


Rowing in Eden!
Ah! The sea
Might I but moor
Tonight in thee!


It is love that figures prominently in Dickinson's poetry, love for the creation evinced in her Nature poems and love for the Creator expressed in her poems of the soul, death, time, eternity and Christ. She writes:

Love is anterior to life,
Posterior to death,
Initial of creation,
The exponent of breath.


Her poems are intimate, intensely personal, and as one reads them one feels oneself to be actually transgressing, breaking into an elder sister's packet of love poems. Emily Dickinson became a recluse early in her life and seldom left her father's house in Amherst. She never intended that her poems be published, but after her death in 1886 her poems were salvaged and published in a series of three volumes. She never married, and though she was reportedly once interested in Rev. Wadsworth, her interests seem wholly absorbed in transcendental matters. Capable of expressing her most subtle thoughts in verse, she is never at a loss for the perfect metaphor. Compared to Whitman, her style seems tinsel and delicate, but her poems for all their delicate appearances carry the weight and deliver the wallop of poetic genius. Poetically, she is far superior to Emerson, Thoreau and the other New England transcendentalists. One pictures her standing with fearless love and faith before the Infinite, actually handling God, Nature, eternity and death with a feminine finesse. This is enabled by her capacity to surrender.

My rivers run to Thee:
Blue sea, wilt welcome me?
My river waits reply.
Oh sea, look graciously!

I'll fetch thee brooks
From spotted nooks,
Say, sea,
Take me!

Her love poetry is unmistakably directed to the Divine:

I envy seas whereon he rides,
I envy spokes of wheels
Of chariots that him convey,
I envy speechless hills
That gaze upon his journey….

At times she actually seems to chastise God when He appears to be far from her, leaving her to stand alone before death. For example:

1) I know That he exists
Somewhere in silence.
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

2) Tis an instant's play,
'Tis a fond ambush,
Just to make bliss
Earn her own surprise!

3) But should the play
Prove piercing earnest,
Should the glee glaze
In death's stiff stare,

4) Would not the fun
Look too expensive?
Would not the jest
Have crawled too far?

Certain poems reveal her experiencing doubt and also wondering about her own sanity, but she always emerges from these bouts victorious, with a firm faith in the Divine and the immortality of the soul.

I never saw a moor,
I never saw the sea;
Yet know I how the heather looks,
And what a wave must be.

I never spoke with God,
Nor visited in heaven;
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the chart were given.

That she "never spoke with God" is doubtless claimed for the poem's sake, the atheist class that turns from God, and considers this class of men to be pitifully drowning in their own ocean of disbelief.

The maker's cordial visage,
However good to see,
Is shunned, we must admit it,
Like an adversity.

For her, as for Whitman, the "kelson of the creation is love."

Who has not found the heaven below
Will fail of it above.
God's residence is next to mine,
His furniture is love.

As with Emerson and Thoreau, her transcendental exhibition is often stimulated by direct contact with Nature, and she gets drunk with air and water.

I taste a liquor never brewed,
From tankards scooped in pearl;
Not all the vats upon the Rhine,
Yield such an alcohol!

Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew……

She writes poems celebrating the intimate details of Nature; the bee, the bat, the hummingbird, the robin, the butterfly, the flowers, the snake, the plants, grass, spiders, the rat, squirrel, jaybird, the rainbow and the wind all are equally wonderful to her. Some of her Nature poetry is even cosmic, as the beautiful poem beginning "The moon was but a chin of gold…."

Yet Nature is held in perspective. Throughout her poetry, death is her constant companion, and she often considers her sojourn on this earth as a sojourn in exile. Her real life and true lover are in eternity.

Not in this world to see his face
Sounds long, until I read the place
Where this is said to be
But just the primer to a life
Unopened, rare, upon the shelf,
Clasped yet to him and me.

She pictures herself as sailing on a "wondrous sea" toward the eternal shore where there are no storms and all ships at rest. While she is at sea, she prays, "Grant me, O Lord, a sunny mind,/ They windy will to bear." For her, eternity is revealed in the exquisite solitude of the Soul.

The Soul's superior instances
Occur to Her alone,
When friend and earth's occasion
Have infinite withdrawn….

Eternity's disclosure
To favorites, a few,
Of the Colossal substance
Of immortality.


Death is the coachman of the carriage that carries her into eternity, and therefore is honored and glorified.

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held by just ourselves
And Immortality.

This carriage rides her past all the phenomena of the physical, material universe, off into a superior, timeless realm.

Since then 'tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

In another poem, she likens death to the Spirit's discarding an old over-coat.

Death is a dialogue between
The Spirit and the dust.
"Dissolve," says Death. The Spirit, "Sir, 
I have another trust."
Death doubts it, argues from the ground.
The Spirit turns away,
Just laying off, for evidence,
An overcoat of clay.

To what degree she saw Christ as her Savior from the clutches of death is not certain. However, a number of poems indicate that she accepted Christ as her Savior, and one poem actually implores His help.

At least to pray is left, is left.
O Jesus! In the air
I know not which thy chamber is,
I'm knocking everywhere.
Thou stirrest earthquake in the South,
And maelstrom in the sea;
Say, Jesus Christ of Nazareth,
Hast thou no arm for me?

That Emily Dickinson is an excellent candidate for "gopi-hood" is undebatable. She seems to have had fewer personal problems than Thoreau and Emerson whose experiences in cosmic consciousness appear at times to have shaken their stolid New England personalities. She is definitely unattached to her earth life, considering the life to come as the great promise. She lets the Lord know she is "ready to go" on that carriage ride into Eternity in this way:

1) Tie the strings to my life, my Lord,
Then I am ready to go!
Just a look at the horses
Rapid! That will do!

2) Put me in on the firmest side,
So I shall never fall; 
For we must ride to the Judgment,
And it's partly down hill.

3) But never I mind the bridges,
And never I mind the sea;
Held fast in everlasting race
By my own choice and thee.

4) Good-bye to the life I used to live,
And the world I used to know;
And kiss the hills for me, just once;
Now I am ready to go!

Emerson, Thoreau and Dickinson represent the major forces in the transcendental movement in America in the last century. Rebellion had indeed begun against the encroaching materialism that was triumphing in the cities and spreading through the veins of the young nation. Emerson warned young men against going to Boston and New York. Stay with your Maker in the open air, me enjoined. Thoreau retreated to the woods of Walden, and Emily Dickinson hardly ventured outside her house. But there was one courageous Olympian capable of shouting the good news of God and the universe for all men around the earth to hear, for men in cities as well as in the fields and forests Whitman, who could absorb both good and evil in his Leaves, and who was capable of translating what was previously considered untranslatable. The great song of cosmic consciousness in America was left for him to sing. And he was to be the mendicant-bard of the American roadside.


(Next Issue: Krishna Consciousness In American Poetry, Part III: Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself")