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01 November 2012

I know that He exists.

I know that He exists.
Somewhere—in silence—
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.

'Tis an instant's play—
'Tis a fond Ambush—
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!

But—should the play
Prove piercing earnest—
Should the glee—glaze—
In Death's—stiff—stare—

Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest—
Have crawled too far!
                                                                                          F365 (1862)  338

If God hides himself from our curious eyes, perhaps there is a good reason. How many of us could survive a true encounter? Yet it is reasonable for people to want some real evidence of his (or her or its—I’m going with traditional monotheistic formulations here) existence. Dickinson tackles this issue head on. She puts the question of God’s existence front and center: “I know that He exists.” But she also believes that his “rare” (rarified) existence is hidden from our grosser and fleshly nature. This is a purposeful act: “He has hid his rare life.”
Saul's encounter with God left his
blind for days. (Caravaggio: 1600)
                  But people will do what they can to have a direct experience of God. Some try through suffering or self denial; others through mind-altering experiences or substances; still others through meditation; many more through prayer and supplication. The poet frames this as a game.  The woman who wanders in the woods seeking evidence of the Divine and imagining that an angel or God himself might manifest in front of her is hoping for a “fond Ambush.” She wants the bliss of such a surprising experience, but she wants to “earn” it.
                  God becomes party to this game. His hiding now seems playful rather than precautionary. He may well indulge in “an instant’s play,” a game of hide and seek.
                  It’s a dangerous game—at least for the human (I’m remembering Sancho Panza telling Don Quixote that whether the stone strikes the pot or the pot strikes the stone it is going to be bad for the pot). In a later Dickinson poem, “He fumbles at your Soul” [F477], God begins by just noodling around a bit with your soul as if it were a keyboard and he were just finding the right key. But after a while he “Deals One—imperial Thunderboldt / That scalps your naked soul.” Yes, a dangerous game indeed.
                  Just so in this poem. What would happen, Dickinson asks, if the seeker finds God? Bliss? No. The game could well become “piercing earnest”—and she employs the word ‘piercing’ for its suggestion of stabbing, for the nails that pierced Jesus’ hands and feet during crucifixion, for a bolt through the heart—and certainly not something as trifling as, say, the piercing of a needle through fabric. This is no longer a game. The “glee”—Dickinson ironically trivializes the emotion here rather than use a word such as “ecstasy”—can quickly glaze over into the stare of the dead.
                  But Dickinson is not blaming the God-seeker for unwise presumption. The last stanza holds something of outrage. It drips with sarcasm. She goes back to God’s hide and seek: Doesn’t that “fun / Look too expensive” now, she asks? Look what you’ve done, is the implied accusation. People really can’t survive direct contact with the almighty. This “jest”—again a word to trivialize the hiding game God plays—has “crawled too far,” she says, as if it were something slinking out of the nether world.
                  The poem reflects both unquestioning faith and existential scorn. God may be great and powerful, his nature “rare” and beyond knowing, but Dickinson doesn’t trust him. 


  1. That is very interesting. I really hope that you are smart because I am about to plagiarize you. THANKS

    1. Ha. One good reason to always cite your sources is in case they are full of baloney. That way you don't look so dumb.

  2. I received this thoughtful commentary from reader Joe DiMattio:

    I know that he exists is a clear, absolute statement. Unfortunately, religious folks take this simple, direct statement as simple fact that Emily is a clear believer in this ‘He’, and that she is examining him for us as a believer in Christ. Having a friendly moment with Christ. If one examines her work and life experiences via many poems and letters critically (and many biographers have) one concludes that Dickinson is many things but not simple as regards religion (google Emily Dickinson and Religion- Joe DiMattio). She struggles with Faith and Reason endlessly. It is also clear that Dickinson can never give up her Reason and make that clear leap to Faith as all believers apparently do. She lived in an environment that required her to have Faith first and foremost. In contrast, she was of the mind that Reason come first and then see if you reach Faith. I suggest that this inability to suspend Reason is the prime reason for being sent home from Mt. Holyoke Seminary in May, 1848, just before completing her year of study. Her brother Austin had to come and get her because she was deemed ‘hopeless’, why hopeless, because she was a hopeless non-believer. She had to be gotten rid of by the Conservative Christian administration at Holyoke; it was a Christian Female Seminary after all. This episode, I imagine, was very stressful for her and an embarrassment for the family.

    I suggest that this poem is a case of Dickinson being facetious, a bit of irony. She may even be addressing believers directly saying I know he exists and is hiding and silent. He plays games like peek-a-boo with us, all of us. And, that would be nice if this whole thing (life and war, remember the Civil War in 1862. Bodies were being shipped home, to Northern towns like Amherst in train car loads) were a simple game. ‘He’ hides and plays a mean game with us. He apparently does not ‘care’ for us. ‘He’ is a mean God that kills young men and children by the thousands for play. Is the play “piercing earnest?” Did not this play prove “too expensive”, the expense being borne by us pitiful souls who get diseases and die in absurd wars initiated by elders.

    She is being herself, playing with word and ideas, being ‘ironical.’ I would go so far as to suggest that she is playing with ‘believers’, directly. In the way that ‘He’ plays with us. Your ‘He’, Christ, is a question. ‘Would not the jest -- have crawled (note the imagery) too far.

  3. Another aspect of this poem is Dickinson's tendency to conflate an earthly beloved with God. This makes the poem more concrete, if a bit less theological. Here, she knows there is heavenly love because she has tasted it on earth. But as with all things earthly, this has ended ("an instant's play"), so she is left with a cruel taste of the eternal.

    1. Well, but there is the Death part. Perhaps her mood was inspired by thoughts of a cruel and indifferent beloved, but I think it more likely that if an earthly figure were standing in for the Most High, it would be a saint who drew to close to the divine fire and was burned.

  4. I feel like you can also read this as positing the effect of, not an encounter with God, but God's continual perceived absence. "Ambush" can be the attack; it can also be the lying in wait that precedes. Taking the second meaning, the third stanza then becomes an examination of what happens if we play this fun game of hide-and-seek, we wait for Godot, and he never springs laughing from the covert. If I wait and watch for that moment of glee and it never comes, if my eye glazes in Death's stiff stare (or perhaps simply in the death of hope) and I have never experienced his rare life, at that point the game is no longer fun.

    I have recently discovered and am loving your blog. Thank you!

    1. It's an interesting way to read the poem -- the deadly dearth of God, the existential Godot. The 'game' of God not showing himself -- even at death -- is indeed a bitter jest that crawled too far. I do think, here, of a previous comment about the young soldiers dying on the battlefield, some trying to crawl to safety.

      Thanks for posting!

  5. I love this poem. I too have thought a great deal about this poem. I like your initial reading, but I read the last two verses differently.

    I think it's terribly important to read E.D. as a meditator. Someone who questions deeply does arrive at the silent attention, where the "self" dies into a "selfless" awareness.

    When she talks about bliss, she totally knows what she is talking about. She has also earned the right to say "I know" that God exists. I agree that it's probably not a monotheistic, dualistic God at all. Instead, it's that which thought obscures. It's that which abides in silence, beyond gross sense-perception.

    The "play" metaphor is very important. The divine or bliss plays peek-a-boo with us. It appears from beyond time in time. We experience bliss and it surprises us. In an important sense, we already are this bliss, so we are recognizing ourselves.

    I don't think it's fair to say she mistrusts God. It's highly unlikely that she believes in God in the conventional and dualistic sense. But she certainly knows and trusts in the divine. It's not a question for her but an experiential reality.

    So I think the final two stanzas deal more with the sad reality that many people never recognized their own true nature. They never see that we are made of bliss.

    The game of peek-a-boo indeed proves too earnest, because we die without enjoying the game. We die without seeing the point, a bit like the reader who reads a poem but doesn't get the gleaming insight and joy -- the open secret -- that is at its heart.

    The last verb "crawl" is interesting, too. It makes me think of the worms in the grave. (Ostensibly, they're part of the jest too, because they're bliss too). And of how our skin crawls at the thought of death. There's lots of evidence in her poems that she thinks we fear death because we don't realize, as ordinary selves or supposed persons, that beyond death lies bliss. It also puts me in mind of Blake, who calls the conventional human, whose perspective is limited to time, a "worm of sixty years."

    If there's a dangerous game here, it's not the game of seeking a direct experience of the divine; it's the game of believing so firmly in matter and identity that one never relaxes one's gross eyes into that subtle silence or gentle attention. It's the game of believing in an isolated little self.

    There is no scorn in Emily Dickinson. Nor is there atheism and skepticism. There is instead the impish joy of bliss. The open secret she shares with us, with a infinitely friendly wink.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. While I agree with much of what you say about Dickinson, and have over time been awakening to a lot of the meditative and Transcendentalist qualities in her poems that I missed in earlier explications, in this poem I think she is pointing to danger other than that of the 'sad reality' of being blind to that 'subtle silence or gentle attention' of the divine. Rather, I think in this poem she wears the mantle of Calvinist critic. There is a God or godly 'He' and He has hidden himself from our gross eyes. While it may be true that our gross senses cannot recognize deep truths and the Divine, we can with practice learn to relax into "that subtle silence" and bliss. But here, the He hides. It's an important distinction.
      And should one search, instead of attaining peace or bliss, one is imperiled: The glee glazing in Death's stiff stare is actual danger. It is much more ominous than dying without 'enjoying the game'.

      I do think that this poem is one where Dickinson is working out her objections to the paternalistic monotheism of her Calvanist environment. I do find the 'impish joy of bliss' and a good deal of wonder and awe in other poems. But not this one.

      I do think I've neglected the Dickinson you describe in other poems. If I didn't have over a thousand more to read and write on I'd go back and change them. But I have to stand by my reading on this particular poem.

      I'd be interested in what other readers have to say.

  6. God as puppet-master - dabbling in His creation and creatures as a child plays w pillbugs in the sandbox. I like the idea that it is a response to Calvinist ideas, as the concept of “earning” our salvation was a hot-button issue for theologians. I’d say she was more observational than bitter until I read the next poem (366 He strained my faith) which drips with bitterness.

  7. She “had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

    (Robert Frost. 1942. A Witness Tree)