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25 June 2017

To lose One's faith — surpass

To lose One's faith — surpass
The loss of an Estate —
Because Estates can be
Replenished — faith cannot —

Inherited with Life —
Belief — but once — can be —
Annihilate a single clause —
And Being's — Beggary —
                     Fr632 (1863)  J377

Dickinson wrote quite a few poems that reveal her struggles with the Calvinist Christianity she grew up with. This poem makes it clear that the stakes of such struggles are high – in fact, the 'Beggary' of one's Being. Dickinson makes her argument by comparing faith to an estate. Both are inherited, but while someone can sell off part or all of an estate and potentially get it back, any diminution of faith's estate forfeits the entirety of it. Dickinson's remarkable claim is that faith is indivisible and can never be restored.
        The poem has a legal tone. Faith is 'Inherited with Life', knitted together with clauses that if independently annihilated unravel its entire fabric. This legalistic tone reflects both the lawyerly speech Emily Dickinson, daughter of a lawyer, would have grown up on, as well as the covenant theology underpinning not only Calvinism itself but also its influence on civic and civil structures.
Dickinson Homestead -- lost but regained
 Dickinson's family history provided her with a case study for her analogy: her paternal grandfather lost the family estate because of poor business decisions*. His son, Emily Dickinson's father, regained it. He had to work long and hard to do so, but he did.

But how believable is it, really, when Dickinson says that faith can not be replenished, that even the loss of 'a single clause' can cause impoverishment? Can't our faith grow in a larger sense even while shrinking from some aspects of our original familial faith? In fact Dickinson herself struggles with aspects of belief from poem to poem**. And in the end, can't people come back to faith – embrace the religion they grew up with?
        It may be that the poet is aiming at something larger than the constricting Calvinism of Victorian New England. Her underlying concern may be that life, that physical reality, has a purpose, that it springs from an underlying intent. Or that death does not terminate existence, that there is some sort of continuation other than the coldness of the grave. Once belief in such  is lost, what possibly can be left to faith other than it behooves us to live each moment to the best of our abilities? I can't imagine that thought comforting Dickinson in her religion-drenched environs and who thought deeply about a god who is (sometimes) everywhere and (sometimes) nowhere – and how one knows the difference.

*Sewell, The Life of Emily dickinson, p.28-29: "In his all but fanatical work in the founding of Amherst College, Dickinson ruined his health and his fortune, sold the Homestead, and left Amherst when Emily was two." More information is available at the ever-useful Emily Dickinson Museum.

** Just a very few examples include:
- "My period had come for Prayer" (Fr525)  where Dickinson depicts an impersonal, incorporeal, but perhaps omnipresent God
- "Faith is a fine invention" (Fr202)  where Dickinson seems to argue that faith alone is not sufficient
- "Of Course – I prayed –" (Fr581)  where God is depicted as unresponsive to prayer.
- "This World is not Conclusion" (Fr373) where "Narcotics cannot still the Tooth
That nibbles at the soul –"
"Safe in their alabaster chambers –" (Fr124) where the dead do not rise and seem very dead indeed
- "He strained my faith –" (FR366)  where it is God who tests the faith of believers


  1. I always appreciate your take on Dickinson, and your well-informed analysis of her verse. On the subject of Faith, however, I would disagree with some of what you are asserting. If Faith is somewhat narrowly defined as a belief -- perhaps even a childish belief -- in life after death then yes, once that type of Faith is lost it is hard, or nearly impossible to regain. I would argue that Faith with a capital F is a multi-faceted, highly personal thing that encompasses many ways in which God, or a Higher Power may or may not be immanent. For example, if I am about to lose my job, or have lost my job, my Faith tells me that God will take care of me - not that God will find me another job, but that He/She/It will give me the strength to get through the difficult times. That is a more grown up view of Faith, in my opinion.

    1. I agree with you capital F Faith remarks, but I am still a bit mystified about what Dickinson was getting at when she writes that Belief happens only once and if even a clause is lost all of Faith/Belief is lost with it. That's why I reached a bit on some of the larger themes of Christianity. She may be claiming that one pulled thread can ultimately unravel the whole cloth of faith -- but her metaphor, with clauses, is slightly different.

    2. And you know her education in that area may be very good, or she may have overheard talk at her home, she was able to experience many of the greatest minds of her time in America where she was. I read once that St Thomas Aquinas believed that if you throw out one belief, you are not in accordance with the whole. She may have learned this by some offshoot, and gone and written her poem.

  2. I would note that Dickinson does not capitalize "faith." However, that might mean nothing, especially as her capitalizations so often seem purposeless quirks of penmanship. Moreover, the difference between "faith" and "belief" are intriguing. Can we ever know what Dickinson intended? I doubt it. Perhaps we should not even try. Should we be content to rely upon our own singular "explications"? Perhaps. What do you think? I ask these questions in part because of my own interest in Dickinson, and my plans for an extended series of postings on her poems.

    1. I think we should try! We may never know what Dickinson was meaning, but I believe that we can often come to a cohesive interpretation -- one that is supported by the poem. Dickinson's work is often very difficult and it is easy to just pass over a poem because it seems opaque. Sometimes just reading someone else's thoughts on such a poem opens the door for your own reading. I am often mystified (although, thank goodness, not as often as I was when I began this project) by ED poems and find help from other writers. Many times as I go through the poem again later I find I don't agree and have another interpretation.

      I'm happy when I have a "singular 'explication'" but I am often called on to revisit it when I get a new comment on an old poem. Sometimes I'm very happy with what I wrote -- and sometimes I'm not.

      In this poem I think Dickinson uses 'faith' and 'belief' interchangeably, simply to have a synonym rather than to repeat the word. I see no indication that she is shading meaning from one to the other.

    2. I'm old enough to remember New Criticism and the warnings against Intentional Fallacy and Affective Fallacy. Those concepts color my POV regarding the poet's intent and our singular explications. BTW, I agree with you POV almost all the time in your postings. I don't disagree this time, but I simply felt like putting in my two-cents as a recovering New Critic.

  3. Do you think in this poem she might be assuming the voice of a strict Calvinist? Would that shed light on the last two lines?
    Lee Silverwood

    1. Now that you mention it, I wonder if it isn't an ironical poem. Yet I think that Calvinists believed that you were saved by Grace rather than by either works or even belief. I'll have to look into that (again).

  4. This is a poem about the New Testament.

    The Book of Hebrews 9:15 (KJV) says:

    "And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance."

    The transgressions of the first testament are "original sin". Christ's death is the means for redemption from original sin and eternal salvation; the metaphor of salvation as an inheritance would have been explicit to ED (and to all Calvinist Christians).

    However, the inheritance comes with a caveat -- a condition precedent (if you want to use legal terminology) or a "clause", as ED calls it in her poem. That caveat is from the Book of John (3:16) -- the scripture citation that you see waved on cardboard placards by Evangelicals even today at football games: "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Belief is necessary for salvation.

    ED was independent minded. When she was in school during a Christion revival, she never took the step of confessing belief and accepting salvation despite pressure from family and peers. Still, she understood Calvinism. This poem is, perhaps, an indication of the struggle in her own mind to reconcile the faith she inherited with her relentless allegiance to Truth.

  5. It seems likely here that this poem is not primarily a statement about her own belief. It is more like a veiled and ironic comment on the religion of her time, where faith was accepted as an inherited dower which gained its legitimacy from credal clauses. 'Beggary' is our true state before the Tremendousness. 'Surpass' in the first line suggests a conditional 'would' or 'might', and the use of 'one' conveys a certain detachment.

  6. I just wanted to say thank you so much for writing these posts on Dickinson's poem's. I'm currently making my way through her complete poems, and your explanations are invariably helpful when I hit a snag or want a second opinion on my own reading. This is truly one of the one helpful endeavors in literary criticism I have ever encountered.

  7. I wonder if its the loss of "nimble faith" ED is worried about rather than the "conclusion" of creedal confession. Seems to me she celebrated her rejection of the straight jacket of what counted for orthodoxy. Perhaps conforming to mindless "orthodoxy" was the true "beggary" and abandonment of one's inherited faith.

    1. The more I think about this the more I like it. I can see how giving up one big of her 'native' propensities if not convictions would be beggaring. It subtly associates Christian prayer and worship with spiritual destitution, and suggests that faith is what you're born with vs. what you are taught to believe.

  8. This comment actually goes back to another poem (if that is allowed), Fr 477, He Fumles at Your Soul.
    Although ED's readership seems to find the last two lines continuing the theme without being inconsistent, I am set off - to me it is like an afterthought that has been wedged in. These lines, to me, even change the central metaphor. My question is: is the scholarship convinced that there were no later drafts of the poem without the last two lines.?
    Lee Silverwood

    1. I looked in the Archive and see only the one version. I don't, however, see how the last lines 'change the central metaphor'. Explain, s'il vous plais!

    2. It is six years later and I am just seeing your question. Oh well sometimes health, or health issues, get in the way of focus.

      If I can remember my first impression of this poem, the central metaphor for me was losing faith::losing all one’s property through some calamity (like a fire or hurricane). So “annihilate a single clause” seemed out of place. However after rereading the poem I see consistency if the loss of an estate is caused by being left out of someone’s last will and testament. I’m sure with her family’s legal background she heard stories of probate disputes raised by disappointed heirs over surprising legacies.
      All of the last stanza suggests the inheritance interpretation, in fact. My bad.

  9. This is a very useful and most valuable site for me. I am an interpreter of English from Russia. I have translated some of Emily's poems. And this one in particularly.
    Here is my Russian translation:
    Эмили Дикинсон
    Труднее веру потерять

    Труднее веру потерять,
    Чем потерять наследство.
    Вернуть наследство можно вспять.
    А веру не по средствам.

    Нам вера в день рожденья
    Даётся только раз -
    Теряешь эти звенья, -
    И ты бедняк тотчас.

    My name is Valentin Savin. I am from Moscow, Russia.
    My email is

  10. I can see the irony in this. I found myself substituting the Romantic ideal of Innocence for both “faith” and “belief” - which leads me to wonder if ED wasn’t saying that only as an “innocent” can one hold onto “faith” and “belief” - she knew that as a “no hope” she was way past that.

  11. On July 5, 2017, R.T. (above) noticed that “faith” isn’t capitalized in this poem and wonders whether we can infer anything from ED’s capitalizations. Yes; for example, ED capitalizes masculine pronouns that refer to God or to Reverend Charles Wadsworth but not for other precedents. Modern style manuals suggest only God get “reverential capitalization”, but for my current “terra cognita” of ED poems, F1-F632, she considered Wadsworth God and capitalized pronouns referring to “Him”.

    As to the word “faith”, ED used it 37 times in 1775 poems (Johnson, 1960). Of these, six are first words in lines, which are always capitalized and therefore excluded from analysis.
    In the remaining 31 instances, 17 are lower case and 14 uppercase, but ED’s usage was not random. During her lifetime, ED’s use of the words “faith” and “Faith” declined, both in raw numbers and in frequency of caps (percentages).

    Separating 1775 poems into thirds:

    Poems J1-J591 use “f/Faith” 14 times; in caps 11 (79%)
    Poems J592-J1183 use the word 13 times; in caps 3 (21%)
    Poems J1184-J1775, 4 times; caps 0 (0%)

    Apparently, over her lifetime, ED’s interest in the concept of “f/Faith” declined, as did her reverential capitalism of “Faith”.

    A reasonable inference is that she came to terms with “faith” and spent less time thinking about it. Or perhaps the silence of God convinced her to invest her energy in more rewarding poetry.