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LeNotre, Katherine: "'Wider than the Sky': Dickinson on the Mind and Heaven as Places"

“Wider than the Sky”: Dickinson on the Mind and Heaven as Places

Katherine LeNotre, Catholic University of America

This paper analyzes Emily Dickinson’s conception of the mind as it relates to place, and then considers her images of heaven with regard to place. The presentation includes a discussion of the words “brain” and “mind” in her poetry, contrasting them at times with the “heart.” Helen Vendler’s criticism will prove helpful by reading Dickinson’s poems as explorations of the thought process, and I also examine possible influences on Dickinson’s understanding of epistemology and contemporary neuroscience.
The second part of the paper addresses how Dickinson’s idea of the mind as a place affected her poetic representations of Heaven. Religious imagery appears in her poems as often as natural imagery and economic imagery, although like these other groups of images, religious concepts often become metaphors for something else: a happy moment, or union with the beloved. Similarly, the language used in poems with heaven as the actually subject rarely include—or undermine—conventional language used to describe heaven. Dickinson’s resistance to sentimental Christianity rested, in part, on her beliefs about this immateriality of the mind as part of the human soul. In addition to research about Dickinson’s anti-sentimentality, this section considers her work as a contribution to theological aesthetics, aesthetics shaped in an integral way by an author’s theology. Here I see Dickinson’s poems by the light of the seminal work of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a twentieth century Swiss theologian.
This presentation touches on the conference’s theme in that Dickinson’s most significant exposure to “the world” was mental. Yet her “inner world” touched not only the shores of other continents, but also the realm of the infinite.