Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them –
They fling their Speech
By means of it — in God's Ear —
If then He hear —
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer —
F623 (1863) J437
In this short poem Dickinson depicts prayer as the recourse of Men to communicate with a God who remains hidden from them.
The tone is breezily dismissive and ironic; the import sad. What is both incisive and sad about the poem is the word choice. Prayer is no powerful medium; only a "little implement". How can such a paltry device ever crack the heavens – particularly when God has "denied" his presence. Shut out from divine "Presence", Men desperately "fling" their prayers. Dickinson says "Speech" here, not only for the rhyme with "reach" but to make quotidian what might otherwise be considered sacred.
Flinging speech into God's Ear is done on the chance that He hears it. "If then He hear" can be read, "In case He hears". It is as if we were to unceasingly throw messages in bottles into the sea hoping the intended recipient would receive and read them. To extend the analogy, suppose the intended recipient had purposefully removed himself from anywhere we could find him. We don't even know if the message would be read if the sea cast the bottle up at his feet.
|W.Holman Hunt, 1859: Morning Prayer|
This isn't the first Dickinson poem about prayer. Most recently in "Of Course – I prayed – " (F581), she says that she had indeed prayed but that God cared about as much as if "A Bird – had stamped her foot". But while Dickinson dismisses prayer, she does not dismiss the divine. In "My period had come for Prayer —" (F525) the poet does her best to find and talk to God but finds instead "Infinitude" and "Creation" – an experience of such awe that she abandons the idea of prayer and instead simply "worshipped".
In "At least – to pray – is left – is left –" (F377), Dickinson adopts a dismissive and rather flippant tone towards prayer. She is "knocking – everywhere –" and finally wondering why God can cause wars and storms but seems to take no interest in her.