Review of Steve Herrmann's Emily Dickinson: A Medicine Woman for Our Times

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This exciting and important book is filled with verve and insight that only Dickinson can awaken. With the help of Carl Jung and the inspiration of his own deep work, including his penetrating insights on Walt Whitman’s launching of an American movement of Spiritual Democracy, Herrmann sheds brilliant light on the spiritual genius of Emily Dickinson. Rightly does the author call Dickinson a “medicine woman for our challenging times,” for even today – 130 years after her death – she still brings forth wisdom and insight to challenge patriarchy. The book is filled with insights triggered by James, Jung, Whitman, Emerson, Everson, Jeffers, Melville, Humboldt, and the author’s own well-traveled soul. Herrmann’s acute exegesis of many poems that sometimes seem opaque is sensible and eye-opening.

Herrmann argues that the crux of Dickinson’s struggle was her wrestling with the archetype of vocation. It was her vocation as a poet that charged her with awe and ecstasy as when she wrote: “Take all away from me, but leave me Ecstasy,/ And I am richer than all my fellow Men–/ Ill it becometh me to dwell so wealthily/ When at my very Door are those possessing more,/ In abject poverty – ” (#1640) Yet she had to sacrifice her career as a public poet in her lifetime because she was excluded for the most part from the male-dominated world of publishing. Herrmann believes that Dickinson underwent a “crucifixion of her ego on the cross of her poetic vocation.” After suffering a breakdown she revealed how she rose not as a wounded bird but riding “the Ether into the air or sky as shamans do.”

Herrmann picks up on this and recognizes Dickinson as a “Lightning shaman” for “her God was not only a God or Goddess of Love but also of immense violence, explosiveness, force.” This medicine woman was “no frail and fragile daisy but a shaman that has been dismembered and has transformed the very foundation of the Judeo-Christian mythos from the ground up.” How did she accomplish that? I believe it is because she rejected the dualistic and original-sin-based Fall/Redemption religion for a nature-based, wisdom-based, or creation spirituality. Examples abound.

For example, Herrmann recognizes in her work a “post-Christian tradition” because she sees herself as “a second Christ, a second Jacob” and “is every bit as much a God-wrestler as Melville and Whitman were.” But to speak of oneself as “a second Christ” is in fact the teaching of the Cosmic Christ lineage, that we are all “other Christs.” Mystics from Eckhart to Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day have said exactly that. So too did Paul at the origin of the Christian movement. Emily writes:

“Title divine – is mine!…

Royal – all but the Crown!” (CP 1072)

Herrmann shares a letter Dickinson wrote in which she wonders if she was “the apostle of a new ‘religion’ that was from Nature, and was free with the beauty and Bliss of creation.” (206). To me, the religion she is speaking of is creation spirituality and it only appears to be a new religion because for so many centuries, anthropocentrism, emboldened by the Enlightenment and the split between psyche and cosmos, religion and science, swamped our reverence for the sacredness of creation. Jesus was a carrier of that lineage since he derives from the wisdom tradition of Israel which is indeed the creation-mystical tradition of his ancestors. Dickinson is clearly part of that lineage.

She criticizes that too much attention given to the Bible which is, after all, only one source of revelation – to her, the Bible “is an antique volume–/written by faded Men.” (195f) Nature is the other source of revelation and, to her, the more pressing. This is why she prefers a “warbling Teller” and Orpheus (who is a Nature poet) to the Bible and Biblical preachers. And she calls on scientists as well, since for her: “All science …is of God and from God.” (Hildegard of Bingen, a sister mystic and feminist 700 years earlier wrote “All science comes from God.”) Emily’s “religion, therefore, is a religion of science, Nature and the Cosmos, or what Thomas Jefferson [called] ‘Nature’s God’.” (113) Compare this to Aquinas who says “revelation comes in two volumes: The Bible and Nature.”

Like these other nature-based mystics, Dickinson exhorts us to pay attention to the “momentary experiences of transcendence,” in the now. For instance: “The Soul’s Superior instants/ Occur to Her – alone – ” (Hermann, 80f) All people are open to these experiences. This is spiritual democracy. These are moments of ecstasy that we ought not take for granted. So trusting is one in these very mystical moments that, as Herrmann points out, “even after her attempts to publish met with utter failure, the ‘Soul’s Superior instants’ were enough to sustain Emily Dickinson throughout her lifetime and allowed her to maintain equanimity.” (81)

For Dickinson the kingdom of God is that of creation or nature – and it is not far from us provided we truly open our eyes and see.

‘Nature’ is what we see–

The Hill – the Afternoon –

Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee –

Nay – Nature is Heaven –

Nature is what we hear –

The Bobolink – the Sea –

Thunder – the Cricket –

Nay – Nature is Harmony –

Nature is what we know –

Yet have no art to say –

So impotent Our Wisdom is

To her Simplicity. (CP 332)

Herrmann recognizes her indebtedness to the important book Cosmos by the celebrated scientist of her day, Humboldt. He says, “Her poetry is a celebration of what Humboldt called ‘an image of infinity revealed on every side, wherever we look upward to the starry vault of heaven, scan the far-stretching plain before us, or seek to trace the dim horizon across the vast expanse of ocean.” (33) She acknowledges having been a “bride of Awe” and this too points to her “marriage with the Universe” as Herrmann observes. She would be a certain champion of the new cosmology we are learning today from science and one can only imagine how she would have responded to praise the universe and its 13.8 billions years of creativity and expansion were she alive today.

Like these other nature-based mystics, Dickinson exhorts us to pay attention to the “momentary experiences of transcendence, in the now….All people are open to these experiences.” This is spiritual democracy. These moments of ecstasy we ought not take for granted. Dickinson’s sense of the sacredness of nature extends of course to the holy marriage of psyche and cosmos. She celebrates the cosmos and the capacity of human consciousness to relate to it.

The Brain – is wider than the Sky –

For – put them side by side –

The one the other will contain

With ease – and You – beside – (CP 312f)

Does this not echo Aquinas’ teaching that every human being is “capax universi,” that is, capable of the universe?

Dickinson talks of God as “Mother” or “Mama,” thus embracing the Divine Feminine, and re-translates the New Testament in certain passages purposefully moving from “Father” to Mother God. (CP 77)

She also teaches a realized eschatology, that is to say, that heaven begins here and we should focus on the here and now recognizing the Kingdom of God among us. She comes to realize that the journey, the Way, is eschatology enough. She tells us her cathedral is nature and the birds are her sexton.

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church –

I keep it, staying at Home –

With a Bobolink for a Chorister –

And an Orchard, for a Dome – ….

God preaches, a noted Clergyman –

And the sermon is never long,

So instead of getting to Heaven, at last –

I’m going, all along. (cp 153F)

There is so much to like in the shaman-poet, Emily Dickinson. And there is so much to thank in Steven Herrmann’s respectful treatment of her genius as he brings her alive for our times.


Reverend Dr. Matthew Foxis author of thirty-two books on spirituality and culture including:Original Blessing,A Spirituality Named Compassion,The Reinvention of Work,Letters to Pope Francis,The Pope’s War,and most recentlyMeister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times.