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18 January 2016

Prayer is the little implement

Prayer is the little implement
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
        The poem doesn't offer much hope that prayers are either heard or acted upon. The "Apparatus" seems inadequate and God's denial of his Presence seems far from encouraging. The cool finality of the last two lines, written as drily as if for an equipment manual, finishes the dismissal of 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 —"  (F525the 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.


  1. With regard to line I/2-3 „...Men reach | Where Presence – is denied them –” you write: #God has "denied" his presence. Shut out from divine "Presence", Men desperately...# You seem to read: Men reach out into somewhere where God’s presence is denied them by God. Right? Well, ED’s writing is mostly (in a serious way, of course) ambiguous. But would the primary reading not rather aim at refused human presence in numinous realms?
    (Dieter Wirth, Regensburg, Germany)

    1. Such a reading would assume that God's presence can only be felt in numinous realms versus his making himself felt, being present to someone in this earthly realm. In the Pentateuch there are several instances where God is present in human lives on earth (Moses, for example, or Abraham), and where prayer does seem answered. This is a far cry from the lack of any response Dickinson has described in other poems and suggests in this one.

      If I take your meaning properly, you say a 'primary' reading leaves open the possibility that if only we could get through some numinous realm, then we could perhaps gain God's presence. Perhaps. But taken as a whole, I stand by what I wrote: "How can such a paltry device ever crack the heavens – particularly when God has "denied" his presence." Making the heavens or numinous realms off limits to humans is one good way of denying presence.

    2. Considering the continuation with “in God's Ear”, there seems to be no denial of God’s presence (his being somewhere). My reading was: A prayer is the little device by which men (♂♀) try to reach out ... but in that space men’s presence is denied men (by God or by ...); presence in a sense near to “access”. By the way, in this thematic context we have two German equivalents: “Anwesenheit” (so.’s being in a place) and “Gegenwart” (≈ so.’s being (experienced) nearby – interestingly, you wrote: being present to(!) someone). I had in mind the simple first meaning in relation to men. But I do acknowledge the vagueness of the referent (which should be preserved in a translation).

      Maybe, our little controversy is due to a different reading of the expression “...where...” I take it in its simple spatial sense, as the direction-object of “reach”. (Maybe, this is not adequate.) You seem to refer it to the whole preceding sentence (“on the earth where”); you even write “[particularily] when”. (But ED did not insert a one-syllable “when” or “while” in this poem!) Anyway, the final word will be yours, of course. I’m not the expert of (ED’s) (19th century) (Am)English, but I am very fond of your language. (D.W.)

    3. I agree with your parenthetical comment that interpreting "where" in a 'simple spatial sense' might be inadequate.

      True, the passive structure of "Where Presence – is denied them" doesn't explicitly say God himself is denying his presence. It may simply mean that God is somewhere that people can't go. And it is also true that I get more excited about the poems when I sense a railing against the underpinnings of Christian or Calvinist dogma. So my reading bias influences my commentary.

      Still, the word "deny" is pretty strongly suggestive of a Denier. I find it the key word of the poem. It doesn't lead to a reading that, say, God is inaccessible because of the nature of things, or that that 'veil' between the mundane and the divine, between life and death, that Dickinson writes about in other poems is just a foundational part of the universe. No, I think Dickinson means us to read "is denied them" as oppositional.

      But I think I have a better understanding of what you meant and it caused me to read the poem in a different way -- which I appreciate! The whole poem takes on a different tone when the "Where" is read spatially. Being open to this reading makes me confront my reading bias, which is important.

  2. This is a perfect little poem, powerful in its way. Fresh and alive.

    It is not prayer that is flung. Prayer is the apparatus, the implement. The last line of the first stanza is enjambed with the first line of the second. So, they "fling their Speech [b]y means of [prayer]". This creates a distinction between speech and prayer. What is the difference? What is the mechanic of prayer (to continue the metaphor)? Intention? Devotion? Imagination? Speech is earth bound. It is the apparatus of prayer that aspires for transcendence.

    But, you are right, ED is completely unafraid to acknowledge that it is unknown, perhaps unknowable whether man's speech is heard by God. And, not only that, if the speech were to be heard what would be the reaction? The existence of God as compassionate is not taken for granted, that too is unknowable. What would be the human reaction to having something flung in our ear? Perhaps we should wish that God does not hear!

  3. Susan, I just want to comment on how Dickinson inspires great writing in others. I see it in your sentence, "How can such a paltry device ever crack the heavens?" This comment in itself stood out to me as poetic. It's pleasing to my ear, and little things like this make it fun to read your blog, in addition to the fact that I like getting another perspective on ED's poems. Thank you.