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The Influence of Puritanism

Taking into account the definition of Puritanism given by the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, it is “the beliefs and practices of the Puritans”. Therefore, a definition of Puritan is needed, and

given by the same source it is “a person who has very strict moral attitudes and who thinks that pleasure is bad”. Puritans was the name given in the 16th century to a part of Protestants with the Church of England, who wanted to purify their national church. However, in the 17th century some Puritans separated from the Church of England. Many of these Puritans were Calvinists, who had intense theological convictions. Among other things, Puritans believed in the absolute sovereignty of God; in the total immorality of men (which was due to the concept of Original Sin); in the divine revelation; and in predestination, which means that personal salvation was dependent upon God, since He saves those He wishes. Furthermore, as they held that they had a direct relationship with God, no mediators were needed; this is the reason why they wanted the abolition of bishops. Finally, the beyond or the after life was something they strongly believed in. Puritans were here to work hard and not to have fun. So much so that they would not enjoy life on earth as much as they would enjoy life in the beyond.

Having been born in a Calvinist family, this term of beyond appears in most of all Emily Dickinson’s poems. This approach to religion held that men were inherently sinful and most human were predestined to hell; nevertheless a small number would be saved only if they proclaimed their faith in Jesus Christ as the true savior. However, the works and influences of Emerson and other poets opened up in her spiritual ideas further than the strict Calvinism. Apart from Puritanism, she was also influenced by Transcendentalism; she opposed the idea of God as influencing her every move and thus governing her thoughts and beliefs towards her life. In addition, Transcendentalists believed in the union with the over-soul.

Consequently, the influence of Puritanism -taking into account her father being a Calvinist, and thus his persuasion upon her- will be analyzed here. To accomplish this aim, “There’s a certain slant of light”, “I felt a funeral in my brain” and “The soul selects her own society” will be taken into consideration.

To start with, in the first poem, “There’s a certain slant of light”, two features of Puritanism appear explicitly: the divine revelation and the existence of a beyond. The slant of light which she mentions is sent from above and has a purpose (“An imperial affliction/Sent us of the air”); it symbolizes the little knowledge she possesses in life. As a result, the beyond exists and it is something which contains the whole knowledge she will acquire when she dies. This slant of light brings meanings about Life and Death (which belong to the beyond), but it is just a representation of them, of the whole knowledge she will gain in the beyond. She will only have a full light when she dies. What is more, what is very oppressing for her is the fact that the disappearance of the slant of light makes her realize that she is not death yet (“When it goes, ´t is like the distance/On the book of Death”). She will have to wait to get all the knowledge, which is only provided in the beyond.

The second poem taken into consideration, “I felt a funeral in my brain”, relates to her funeral and how she approaches the beyond. To my way of thinking, it could be seen as the second part of the first poem, because she describes that she is dead and that she will gain the whole knowledge because she is entering the beyond. Once more, the beyond appears here as something beloved, as death is liberation of the limitations of life; instead of just seeing the slant of light, she will see the whole light. Now she will understand life –which is a mystery-, since in life she was ignorant. This idea can be seen in the last stanza: “And then a plank in reason broke,/And I dropped down and down-/And hit a world, at every plunge,/And finished knowing-then”.

Finally, in the last poem chosen for this analysis, “The soul selects her own society”, not only does the beyond become evident again, but also the idea that the soul has previous knowledge, which in fact can be related to the belief of predestination. Consistent with the Puritan thinking, predestination is one of their core beliefs. This goes hand with hand with the absence of free will. In this poem, the soul possesses some previous knowledge which facilitates her to choose her own society (which can be an ideal, a religion, a lover, among other things), and after doing this the soul closes her doors to the rest options. Moreover, the beyond emerges one more time. This concept does not only mean the idea of an after life, but also of a “before life”. Before she is born, her soul already possesses knowledge, which is decreased when she is in fact living, although she is always receiving “slants of light”. Afterwards, the beyond appears another time in the after life, when she dies. Though, the idea of predestination is stronger here than the idea of the beyond. As mentioned before, the soul has got some previous knowledge that will not change; God had already decided that He will save that person. The first stanza “The soul selects her own society,/Then shuts the door;/On her divine majority/Obtrude no more” is a clear example of how this previous knowledge is a tool to choose the best option and hence, not to change her mind.

For the above mentioned reasons, the beyond is an important characteristic of the Puritan thought. Most of Dickinson’s poems are related to the beyond, and how desirable and pleasing will be to be able to have complete knowledge of Life and Death. The oppressing fraction is the between, the part in which she is alive and she simply has little knowledge. Death is not seen as something unwilling to reach; on the contrary, is something that brings satisfaction and fulfillment since she is no longer ignorant; it is merely in the beyond where she owns comprehension and understanding of everything.