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13 November 2015

God is a distant — stately Lover —

God is a distant — stately Lover —
Woos, as He states us — by His Son —
Verily, a Vicarious Courtship —
"Miles", and "Priscilla", were such an One —

But, lest the Soul — like fair "Priscilla"
Choose the Envoy — and spurn the Groom —
Vouches, with hyperbolic archness —
"Miles", and "John Alden" were Synonyme —
                                                                               F615 (1863)  J357

Although when this droll poem was published (in 1891, among the first) it was met with such outrage it was withdrawn. Impish as it is, however, I find the poem sweetly religious. God may be "distant" and "stately", but he loves humanity enough to woo. A less loving god would probably just drown the lot and start over. Oh, wait … Still, Dickinson's use of the Miles Standish legend to frame the Christian God's outreach to his fallen people is not only clever but apt.

Dickinson draws from Longfellow's The Courtship of Miles Standish, 1858. The Puritan captain loves Priscilla but feels he would botch the wooing, so instead he sends the young, handsome and silver-tongued John Alden to plead his case. What could go wrong? Here is Longfellow:

     Go to the damsel Priscilla, the loveliest maiden of Plymouth,
     Say that a blunt old Captain, a man not of words but of actions,
     Offers his hand and his heart, the hand and heart of a soldier.
     Not in these words, you know, but this in short is my meaning;
     I am a maker of war, and not a maker of phrases,
     You, who are bred as a scholar, can say it in elegant language,
     Such as you read in your books of the pleadings and wooings of lovers,
     Such as you think best adapted to win the heart of a maiden. (lines 148 – 155)

Unsurprisingly, the fair Priscilla chooses Alden and the two marry, leaving the poor Captain to his war making. 
Standish does look a bit

The Christian analog is the Old Testament God of the Jews who seeks the salvation of all people through the human incarnation of his son – who is the second part of the mystical Trinity of three beings (Father, Son, Holy Spirit) in one. No doubt he realizes the blunt old God of conquest and laws wouldn't appeal as much to the more settled, trade-based populations that emerged from tribal peoples. And so, Jesus.
        Dickinson makes no mention of redemption – the idea that Jesus is the ultimate blood sacrifice for human sins – but drolly suggests that the Son of God is simply a more appealing stand-in for the top of the Trinity ticket – the "stately Lover" himself. How clever: you think you spurned the Old Testament God of laws and retribution for the violence-abhorring Peace and Love Son – only to be informed later "with hyperbolic archness" that they are one and the same. Pwned.

That "hyperbolic archness" is one of many bits of word play and clever poetic devices. A hyperbola is itself an arch (or, technically, arc). Dickinson's depiction of God as a "stately Lover" who "states" conveys his distance and oldness – and lack of verbal facility (he is blunt, like Captain Standish). Dickinson's insertion of "Verily", a word the King James translators kept putting in Jesus' mouth to introduce the homely but effective parables, not only archly appropriates biblical language but merrily sets up the 'V' alliterations of Verily, Vicarious, and Vouches. Pure Dickinson fun!

For all the fun, despite the lack of reference to sin, salvation, damnation, or crucifixion, Dickinson clearly conveys the idea that God loves humanity. He woos intently; people don't have to beg for divine clemency, let alone love. Her contemporary audience, and even most English-speaking peoples today, would be familiar with the other concepts.

In other poems Dickinson depicts her mixed feelings about God the Father:

  • A fiercesome opponent: "He fumbles at your Soul" (F477) where God "fumbles at your Soul" and then "Deals One – imperial Thunderbolt"
  • An unfair judge: "It always felt to me – a wrong" (F521) where Dickinson feels that God's refusal to allow Moses enter Canaan
  • An ambiguous presence who "grows above" but cannot be seen: "My period had come for Prayer" (F525)
  • An uncaring deity: "Of Course – I prayed" (F581) where God cares so little for prayer that the poet says she would have been better off if God had never created her
  • A dangerous ambusher: I know that He exists" (F365) where should God decide to show himself, it is likely in jest and likely to be deadly.
  • The maestro of the natural world: "Like Mighty Foot Lights – burned the Red" (F507) where a glorious sunset is a divine production
  • An all-consuming master: "He put the Belt around my Life" (F330) where God has taken up the poet's life as if it were a deed of property
  • A cruel miser: "Victory comes late" (F195) where God's table is set too high for humanity so that they cannot eat all the goodies

There are more – the list is just what I came up with in a search through this site for "God". In general, Dickinson treats Jesus more tenderly and with more love and longing (if not, at times, passion) This poem bridges the dichotomy of Envoy versus the Groom. Unlike Priscilla who could only get one husband, you might choose the son but that old fox of a father comes along with him. 


  1. Thank you for this history lesson. And your use of "pwned" made me lol.

  2. Gosh, it's wild to see ED's mind at work sometimes. Christ as Alden? Who else would've thought of that? To put God the father and the son into the terms of a lovers triangle is an interesting twist, to say the least.

    From the Dickinson Lexicon. Archness, n. Cunning; mischievousness; cleverness; teasing; good-humored slyness; [fig.] riddle; puzzle; enigma; mystery; (see Longfellow's Courtship of Miles Standish).

    (It's interesting that this entry alludes to Longfellow's poem.)

    So, hyperbolic archness is...God as over-the-top clever? Or, in your parlance, "that old fox the father."

    Perhaps there is a warning here that if you get into religion because of the mercy of Christ, be careful, because you get "stately" religion along with it, and all that implies (judgement, damnation, etc.)

    It seems to me that ED is being hyperbolically arch here herself.

    Love your observation about hyperbola as an arc.

  3. “Woos, as He states [tells] us — by His Son —”:

    Jesus tells Nicodemus, a local Jewish leader, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16).

    “[God] Vouches, with hyperbolic archness —”:

    “Vouch” means to swear something is true. God “vouches”, through his son, that He and Jesus are “Synonyme” (synonyms), two names for the same thing.

    “Hyperbolic archness” means “exaggerated cunning” (EDLex). Isn’t this how a compelling used-car salesman pitches an old car, “good as new”? Orwell smiles, wherever he is.

    No wonder this poem “was met with such outrage it was withdrawn.” (SK)