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Brantley, Richard E.: "The Interrogative Mood of Emily Dickinson’s Quarrel with God"

The Interrogative Mood of Emily Dickinson’s Quarrel with God

Richard E. Brantley, University of Florida

Barton Levi St. Armand, Shira Wolosky, and Patrick Keane have opened conversation about Emily Dickinson’s theodicy. St. Armand has described Dickinson’s association of cats with the playfully cruel nature of the Calvinist God. Wolosky has emphasized how the Civil War caused Dickinson’s questions concerning providential justice. Keane has demonstrated the relevance of Darwin’s science to such poems of attempted theodicy as Dickinson’s “Apparently with no surprise.” In “The Interrogative Mood of Emily Dickinson’s Quarrel with God,” Richard Brantley rejoins these issues.

Brantley reinforces St. Armand’s point by focusing on “The Cat reprieves the mouse” while acknowledging Wolosky’s insight into the importance of the Civil War to Dickinson’s concern with divine justice. Primarily, however, he seeks to supplement Keane’s Darwinian emphasis. Brantley’s argument harks back to the beginning of the theodicean tradition to show that Dickinson develops not so much a question/response theodicy, after the manner of Milton or Tennyson, as a series of questions without clear answers, as in Blake’s “The Tyger.” He suggests that Dickinson is even more tough-minded than Darwin. At the same time, as Brantley concludes, God remains as much her desired addressee as Job’s or Hopkins’s. Dickinson’s theodicean’s quest is no less aware of the historical sweep of this tradition than of its nineteenth-century condition.