I know that He exists.
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—
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)
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.