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The Making of The Oxford Canon: Emily Dickinson

Today David Lehman, editor of The Oxford Book of American Poetry and Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City, examines the poetry of Emily Dickinson and her use of the verb, “to justify”. Lehman has been writing for the OUPblog all week, check out part one and two and three of this series.

Today I’d like to ask you, dear reader, for some help. I’ve been re-reading, with renewed appreciation, the poems of Emily Dickinson, and as usual I find myself turning over certain of her lines.

For example, her use of the verb “to justify” fascinates me. It is conceivable that she uses the word not only in its sense of “to recognize as true or genuine” or “to show or maintain the reasonableness of an action or a statement” but in a more specific theological sense, where “justification” is synonymous with salvation as the result of an act of divine grace.

Here are two instances of Dickinson’s use of infinitive “to justify.” In both cases, the word appears in the very last line of the poem. At the end of # 510 (“It was not Death, for I stood up”), Dickinson likens the speaker’s condition to being at sea. Here is the conclusion:

But, most, like Chaos – Stopless – cool –/
Without a Chance, or Spar –/
Or even a Report of Land –/
To justify – Despair.

The reader may well wonder why the poet opts for “Despair” where precisely the word “Hope” was expected. This, unlike some Dickinsonian riddles, is not insoluble, and I will propose a solution in tomorrow’s blog. But I am interested in the surplus meaning that the word “justify” has in that line, and that is because of the end of # 569 (“I reckon – when I count at all –“).

The burden of this poem is that “Poets” in their power encompass “the Sun,” “Summer,” and even “the Heaven of God,” making them all in some ways supererogatory. The poets’ Summer “lasts a Solid Year,” Dickinson writes. The poets’ Sun is, by our daily standards, “extravagant.” As for heaven, this is how she concludes her poem:

And if the Further Heaven –/
Be Beautiful as they prepare/
For Those who worship Them –/
It is too difficult a Grace/
To justify the Dream –/

Now, if we identify “Poets” in this poem as emblematic of the Imagination, much of it becomes instantly more comprehensible. But the last five lines remain opaque. Part of the difficulty rests with those pronouns, lacking antecedents as they do: Who are “they” who “prepare? Who are “Those” who worship? In the same line, whom does “Them” stand for? What is the “It” that is “too difficult a Grace / To justify the Dream – “And does “justify” here mean what it does at the end of #510?

Any ideas?


David Lehman is Poetry Coordinator of the New School Writing Program in New York City. His most recent books of poetry are The Evening Sun and When a Woman Loves a Man. He is the author of five books of critical prose, including The Last Avant-Garde: The Making of the New York School of Poets and The Perfect Murder: A Study in Detection. He founded The Best American Poetry series in 1988 and continues to serve as general editor of this prestigious anthology. He also edited Great American Prose Poems: From Poe to the Present and co-edited The KGB Bar Book of Poems, based on the reading series he and Star Black directed in New York’s East Village

Recent Comments

  1. Christie Ann Reynolds

    When discussing Emily Dickinson, one may find ways to force meaning upon her poetry due to its inherent “mystery.” While I hope that I am not about to force anything, I believe that I may have some insight on who the “they,” “them” and “it” are. This requires a Catholic or religious lens.

    “They” who prepare,” and “Those” who worship could very easily be followers of the Catholic religion. The “Them” could be interpreted as “The Father,” and “The Holy Spirit” and as Catholic follwers as a whole. It is the crucifixtion of Christ that is the “It” that is “too difficult a Grace / To justify the Dream-.” This is because by accepting Jesus’s death, Catholics are accepting human sacrifice, which in turn violates The Ten Commandments.

    While the crucifixtion of Christ allows Catholics to prosper and practice their faith, it is the very difficulty Catholics struggle with–how to appreciate the grace of Jesus and his suffering. As a reciprocation of Jesus’s act, Catholics are constantly confessing their sins and trying to redeem themeselves to Jesus and The Father and the Holy Spirit because of what they have made possible for the living.

    The sun that is described in the poem, can be interpreted as the light that Jesus brings with him. It is the yellow disk that represents his resurrection and therefore appears behind his head in most replicas of Jesus’s physical characteristics.

    How “justify” appears in both poems may be tied to the idea of salvation because it is justification that Catholics are concerned with. They must justify their actions to the Lord by asking: for forgiveness and guidance.

    If we want to ignore the Catholicism I’ve used to interpret the lines, why not think about the personal salvation of the speaker. Perhaps he or she requires proof or justification of her despair because outwardly, their appears no reason to be in despair.

    I come to this idea because Dickinson grew up in a fairly stable atmosphere where women did not always have the access to the same educational materials as she did. In that sense, she was lucky. But it is possible that Dickinson did suffer from depression or social anxiety or personal difficulties that kept her from leaving her room or for that matter, Amherst. Since depression and other psycholical disorders were most likely not properly diagnosed nor understood during her lifetime, both poems may translate her need to question her personality or “reclusive” tendencies. Dickinson herself most likely struggled with the idea that something may or may not be wrong with her. Perhaps this recognition is something that she used to align herself (or the speaker) with Jesus and the quest for Catholics (or herself) to justify their lives.

  2. Kelly Jones

    You do know that Emily Dickinson was Puritan and not Catholic, correct? Emily was opposed to organized religion and the societal hierarchy that was formed because of it. Therefore it is highly doubtful that there was a religious connotation to most aspects of her work. She prefered to find God through nature, not through the ceremonial monotony of her Puritan surroundings (refer to the sarcastic tone of “Some Keep Sabbath Going to Church”).

    I know I may just be a high school junior, writing this at 2:30am when I should be working on my International Baccalaureate homework, but I couldn’t help but notice this blog. So, with all due respect, maybe you should do your research before inserting your fundamentalist interpretation into a poet’s work who is so clearly capable of thinking independently from God. Dickinson will not be lumped into the run-of-the-mill category of having that biblical intendment.

    No disrespect to Mr. Lehman who is looking at the writing with an open mind. Thank you for searching for every possible meaning to even this single word. This shows that you have much appreciation for Emily’s vast range of vocabulary which she used to mold her every emotion into words. She is truly a a magician at capturing otherwise inexpressible human feeling.


    Kelly, I appreciate your insight and know all about Emily being a Puritan,etc. etc. It was an interpretation from specifically my point of view. What I brought to reading was mine and it is perfectly fine that you do not agree. However, the fact that Emily was Puritan has nothing to do with the implication that she struggled with both her belief in God and her denial of his existence. At the time of her life there was much debate about religion–and not just Puritan. It is possible, I believe, that she could have been considering and denying or combatting other religions within her work. Perhaps, this view can change as I delve deeper into study of Dickinson. I also want to add, I not a fundamentalist and I’m not lumping Dickinson into anything. I think one problem you are having is that you aren’t considering the idea that the speaker in Emily’s poems may have little to do with herself. The “I” is certainly not always literal. We will never know exactly what “I” Emily was using or referring to. And now, you can get back to your homework.

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