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21 August 2013

My Faith is larger than the Hills —

My Faith is larger than the Hills —
So when the Hills decay —
My Faith must take the Purple Wheel
To show the Sun the way —

'Tis first He steps upon the Vane —
And then — upon the Hill —
And then abroad the World He go
To do His Golden Will —

And if His Yellow feet should miss —
The Bird would not arise —
The Flowers would slumber on their Stems —
No Bells have Paradise —

How dare I, therefore, stint a faith
On which so vast depends —
Lest Firmament should fail for me —
The Rivet in the Bands

                                                                        F489 (1862)  J766

Dickinson is having a bit of fun with faith, pretending she does not take sunrise for granted. No doubt she really believed that the sun would make its appointed rounds every day. But in this poem, like many quantum physicists, she is not so sure that the sun would do this if unobserved. And who is a better observer than a poet? Like many a Christian Scientist, she knows that faith is what makes things happen. (I hope physicists and Christian Scientists will forgive the poetic license!)
    Dickinson begins the poem with a grand claim: her "Faith is larger than the Hills" and so as they darken in the evening it falls to her to guide the Sun through the purpling light, through the night, and back again the next morning as she were at the helm of a great steamboat that led the Sun on his rounds (a variant on the chariot of Helios). The sun then lights up the weather vane (probably on the church steeple where it catches the first light of morning), then the hills, and then the rest of the world.
Weathervane on North Amherst Church
Should the sun not do this, the birds would just keep on sleeping, the flowers remain closed up, and the morning church bells not ring. Therefore, the poet drolly concludes, she cannot "stint" on her faith. Let it not be on her head that such a calamity should occur. She is a rivet in the bands (switching metaphor here) that keep the sun on his course. If she fails in her faith, the machinery of the world is weakened. I am reminded of Peter Pan where Tinkerbell is dying and but readers (or watchers) are told that if they believe in fairies, she will live. I think there is much truth to the notion that the world's great ideas are generated and maintained in collective belief.
    I suspect that in addition to writing about the lovely sun (which she has done in several previous poems), Dickinson may be employing a bit of irony: faith isn't needed at all to explain many wonderful things about the world. I'm pretty sure she knew the sun would rise with or without her faith. Perhaps faith, by corollary, isn't needed at all to prod God, either.


  1. This poem is wonderful.

    One of the foremost qualities of ED's poetry is certainty and confidence. Many of her opening lines begin with a statement that is startling and bold. In this poem, both the opening and closing lines have that quality.

    The certainty of these lines sets up a dynamic meditation on the subject of the poem, faith. In Christian tradition, particularly the Gospel of John, faith is the key to the firmament, to heaven. ED had a deep and nuanced relationship to Christianity. Helen Vendler points out, convincingly, in many of the 150 poems chosen for commentary in her book that ED's attiitude toward Christianity is often heretical.

    But this poem shows another view. The poem, in its use of our faith in sensory experience of the natural world as a metaphor for confidence in god reminds me of "I never saw a moor". In this poem, the sun is just the sun, of course, but also evokes god the father going abroad in the world "To do His Golden Will" and on which the the natural world, the birds and the flowers as well as heaven itself depends.

    So, what is the relationship of faith to the sun, to god? For me, the poem speaks of a certainty that underlies everything-- that is so pervasive that it is transparent in the way that a fish might not be aware of the water in which it swims. Faith becomes a confidence in what is seen now and then through the corner of your eye -- what William Carlos Williams refers to in his poem when he says "Only in isolated flecks is something given off, no one to witness and adjust, no one to drive the car." Faith becomes confidence at night in the memory of the sun -- something that has been seen and recalled.

    Many of the words of this poem are very powerful. The word "vast" is so striking -- you need only substitute the word "much" to understand by contrast what is lost when we are caught in conventional mind. And "stint" is very interesting. It implies that faith is the natural order of things and that an act of will or habit to constrain faith is necessary to cause Firmament to fail. To lose faith is to close your eyes -- and in that act, whatever the can be said about the existence of god separate from the human mind, the Firmament will fail "for me".

    1. Wonderful commentary – I'm particularly struck by "its use of our faith in sensory experience of the natural world as a metaphor for confidence in god," as well as "Faith becomes confidence at night in the memory of the sun -- something that has been seen and recalled."

      In regards to "stint," I recall Dickinson's poem where the soul "can close the valves of her attention." There is a similar sense there that attention, like faith here, is the 'natural order of things.'

      Thank you -- the poem has opened up quite a bit for me now.

    2. I like this post so much and the commentary of Ralph is fabulous, he has opened my eyes at poem, Amazing and profound idea: the wordl depends on our attention.
      Thanks, Susan and Ralph

  2. In ancient agricultural people there was a tradition that the king would sacrifice himself in late winter in order that his dismembered body could be sown as seeds in the earth to make sure the crops would go. This, some would say primitive ritual, enacts the more refined faith ED describes; the world only works through our intimate participation. It's a beautiful idea and a potentially bloody display, it's what a child's enchantment mind feels, but I'm afraid it ain't so.

  3. Not heretical at all. In fact, very reminiscent of the lectures ED apparently heard from Edward Hitchcock for president of Amherst College and professor of Natural Theology and Geology from 1845 until his death in 1864. In his lectures on the phenomena of the four seasons, he argues that the revelation of God can be seen through the processes of the natural world. Emily Dickinson seems to have dedicated much of her poetry to this idea.

  4. OMG I’m going to step outside outside now and watch the sunrise!