Search This Blog

04 March 2012

"Faith" is a fine invention

"Faith" is a fine invention
For Gentlemen who see!
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency!
                                                            - F202 (1861)  185

In a clever little dig at unexamined religiousness, the poet suggests that Faith is not only an “invention” but a redundant one as it is fit for “Gentlemen” who can already see what they want with their normal vision. But even this invention falls short of what is needed in an “Emergency.” When you can’t see with unaided eyes what needs to be seen, it’s time to wheel out the microscope.
            The core faith for most major religions is that the Holy books reveal truth and that their (and their clergies’) prescribed form of worship, rituals, and value systems are what most please God. There are some people who see God’s hand in everything or who think God talks directly to them. What will happen when beliefs and holy texts fall short or are even contradicted?  While faith is “fine” when evil is punished, virtue rewarded, and prayers seemingly answered, if things are amiss, then faith  might be questioned.  Perhaps it will reign supreme no matter what (always explained away as “God’s mysterious ways,” or the need to believe in a “grander scheme” in which our little sufferings [like the Civil War or slavery – topics bleeding over dinner tables or worse throughout the U.S. at the time Dickinson was writing this]) serve some ultimate Good, but Dickinson recommends taking a close look. The preacher or doctor needs to think and reflect deeply not only on what he reads but on what he sees.
            Dickinson was a naturalist and educated woman, and this reality-based approach suited her. Her poems don’t spout “commonplace truths” as so many did in her time (with some exceptions), but are often shockingly bold and original.

The poem is concise and clever enough to be epigrammatic. It’s the sort of thing that can be easily  memorized and trotted out on appropriate occasions.


  1. of course, as any reader of Annie Dillard and C.S. Lewis might realize, that clever little dig could be turned around on the "educated"...where would her "naturalism" help her to see the evil of slavery? It wouldn't. One could only have some concept of a miscarriage of justice if one had some standard of justice in the first place. Maybe science is a fine invention when kept in its category but faith is handy in a moral emergency

    1. In fairness, I probably went overboard on the 'dig' aspect of Dickinson's poem. I think she was addressing 'blind' faith -- the unsearching kind that fastens on superficial dictums and has no interest in geology, astronomy, etc. With today's established science, a study of either and both disciplines would argue against a flat earth -- something in my youth some religious folks I knew believed because of a literal reading of the bible.

      That being said, while many people find wellsprings of moral action, justice, and other virtues through faith, atheists and doubters, and people of ambiguous spirituality also have demonstrated well-developed and inspirational ethics and moral behavior.

      Dickinson, unlike her famous poet peer Walt Whitman, was no atheist despite her questionings, railings, and occasional barbs.

    2. What do you mean by "moral emergency" and how does "faith" help?

  2. This cryptic four-line poem leads off a cryptic four-sentence from ED to Bowles. I have capitalized words that are underlined in the handwritten manuscript.

    "East" is one of ED and Susan's code words for Susan, just as it is Antony's metaphor for Cleopatra in Shakespeare's 'Antony and Cleopatra'. To my ear, "mountain Road" and "Bareheaded life - under the grass" also sound like code words, perhaps shared only by ED and Bowles.

    Dear Mr Bowles.
    Thank you.

    "Faith" is a fine invention
    For Gentlemen who SEE!
    But MICROSCOPES are prudent
    In an Emergency!

    We spoke of the “East”.
    I have thought about it this winter.

    Don’t you think you and I should be shrewder,
    to take the MOUNTAIN ROAD?

    That BAREHEADED LIFE – under the grass – worries one like a wasp –

    The rose is for Mary.

  3. Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For by it the elders obtained a good report. Hebrews 11:1-2 (KJV)

    ED sent this short poem (F202) and note, inscribed on a single sheet of stationary, to Samuel Bowles (1826-1878). Given Sentence 2 of the note, they had held an intimate pre-winter conversation, which ED has been thinking about. Enclosed with the note was a rose for Sam’s wife, Mary Schermerhorn Bowles (1827-1893), whom he married in 1836 and with whom he fathered 10 children. Cherry-picked historical evidence suggests Mary was taciturn and stern, but truer history reveals a remarkable woman, wife, and mother.

    Among Mary’s traits was a Reaganesque “Trust but verify” attitude about her husband’s relations with other women. We will never know whether Sam’s sworn marital fidelity prevailed during his many close friendships with fascinating women such as Maria Whitney (Bianchi 1924, p. 76-77) with whom Sam had recently developed a close relationship (late Autumn, 1861, Habegger 2002), but Mary Bowles usually gave him the benefit of any doubt. ED had her own secrets of the heart, and, as this poem and note suggest, she and Bowles may have shared such information in private conversations, at least until Bowles breached ED’s trust in an 1863 letter to Austin.

    Lines 1 and 2 of F202 seem directed at Sam, while Lines 3 and 4 seem to warn Sam that Mary’s liberal trust in his fidelity might include a “microscope” for verification. In any case, the tone of this note suggests “shrewd” friendship between ED and Sam, not romance.