Greek & Roman Biographies
November 9, 2011
Emily Dickinson’s Confessions
In Saint Augustine’s Confessions, he gives us a chronological depiction of his entire life. He focuses on the major events that raised questions in his mind about both the world and God. His accounts of his life are highly important because they allow us to see how he felt during the events. As well, we get to see key quotes/ statements of Augustine’s life from him. Augustine starts his Confessions by giving the reader a complete analysis of his entire childhood. He starts from his birth and accounts up through his time as a schoolboy in Thagaste. He then explains his wild and adventurous teenage years, in which he claims he is moving further away from God. The rest of his books explain his journey through life, trying to understand the meaning and true nature of the world. He loses faith at times and even questions God throughout his life, because he truly wants to know the truth of the world. Saint Augustine’s Confessions reminded me of a famous American poet named Emily Dickinson. Her life seemed to be filled with torment and questions. Throughout her entire life she dealt with death, it seemed like everyone she ever knew died. She believed in God just like Augustine, but she could not understand how God could let these deaths surround her in such a manner. Her life is similar to Augustine’s life, because they both were masters of rhetoric and words. As well, they both questioned God and the true nature of the world. I believe that Emily Dickinson’s Confessions would be similar to Augustines, because they were both looking for the same things in life.
Augustine in his Confessions starts by asking God how he is able to praise and believe in him, when he does not know what he looks like or what he even is. “Then what are you, God—what, I inquire” (Confessions, Book 1, Sc. 4). The start of the book shows that his life was full of questions. And through philosophy and trying to understand religion he moves throughout his life. After he is done questioning God he starts to give us a chronological account of his life. In Book 1 he explains his entire childhood. He recalls that he cannot remember any of his infancy and very little of his early childhood. He ponders on key themes like our human origin, will & desire, and our human language. When he was uncertain of how something works he would try to understand it and ask questions. “Tell me whether my speechless stage occurred after some other stage of me had died away” (Confessions, Book 1, Sc. 9). Complex things like human child development interested him, he wanted to know if either God created humans that way or if it was our human ability. After he explains the rest of his childhood he begins to depict a dark and wild side of his life that occurred during his teenage years. Book 2 & 3 focuses on the time of his life that he was furthest from God, he started to have wild sex and do immoral deeds that caused him to view himself as “evil”. He recalls one of his immoral deeds were he steals pears from a fruit tree in the dead of night. “In the dead night, after prolonging our pranks in the streets, as was our noxious custom, we malicious young punks steered our way to the tree, shook down its fruit and carted it off, a huge load we did not want to eat ourselves but to throw before swine… Simply what was not allowed allured us” (Confessions, Book 2, Sc. 9). Augustine continues to express his horrible behavior during his teenage and young adult life. He speaks about the concept of Neo-Platonism, which is when all creation turns away from Gods perfection creating chaotic states. He believes that the world is frantic and chaotic and that he needed something to believe in. In Book 3-7 Augustine focuses on his conversion to the Manichaean religion. He explains that he needed something to guide him and clearly explain the world to him. His experience with the Manicheans was horrible, he believed that they were speaking truth to him but in the end they were only telling lies. “Truth, Truth was their byword, of which they told me much, though no truth was in them. False was all they told me—not only of you, who are the truth, but about the makeup of the world” (Confessions, Book 3, Sc. 10). Augustine seems lost after he realizes that the religion he has been following is actually false. He seeks the truth and in the remainder books he finds the Catholic Church and becomes baptized. Augustine’s Confessions and his life embody much hardship and pain. But he allows the reader to see his point of view throughout his entire life, with this kind of writing ones life can be not only read but also felt.
Emily Dickinson had a rough life, even though she was fairly healthy and comfortable for the majority of her life. She was surrounded by death, every close relationship she had with someone ended up in his or her eventual death. She believed that the world was cruel, and in her poetry she wrote about death and immortality. Similar to Augustine she spoke about Neo-Platonism in her writing; she believed the world was a frantic and chaotic place. Her life reminds me of Augustine’s because she was a honest and good person, but through horrible circumstances they were confused and lost in the world. Emily Dickinson’s life is perfect for a remake of Augustine’s Confessions. If she were to write a similar novel with the same style as Augustine it would go something as followed.
I cannot recall my childhood, but know I was born in 1830 on December 10th. Living in Amherst, Massachusetts, I received a proper education of a traditional Victorian girl and worked hard. I know that you Lord have given me life in a comfortable setting, but how can I come to express how I feel about this world. I sometimes find myself wondering aimlessly, trying to understand the world and how things work. I was told as a child I took up the piano and had a keen interest for music. My father always emphasized the importance of learning and school. Me and my brother and sister were always being checked on. My parents had a good relationship, but my father was always away on business. I ask you God, why does my mother seem so cold and distant? My father is kind hearted and loving, but my mother keeps her distant. My God, I know you are supposed to be apart of all of us humans. Then explain to me why my mother is cold. Through dedication and family connects, my sister and I started school at Amherst Academy. And here is where I studied English, Literature, Latin and even history. I learned a lot during my childhood. But God why do you take my loved ones away from me?
During my time at Amherst I lost a close cousin that I considered one of my best friends. My cousin Sophia Holland grew ill from typhus and died in April 1844. Tell me my supplicant Lord, why do you take my flesh and blood? I grew depressed and bitter and became melancholic. I could not comprehend the thought of a just and merciful God taking a life of an innocent person. Why my Lord, are you an enemy or a friend to us humans. I questioned God and nature and became increasingly depressed. I was sent to Boston to stay with some family, and during this time I regained my sanity. I returned to Amherst Academy to continue my studies. When I returned I met some life long friends such as Abiah Root, Abby Wood, Jane Humphrey, and Susan Huntington Gilbert. In 1845, I attempted to understand and follow religion based on Christianity. I confessed to many of my friends my newfound faith. God, my merciful Lord, you have cured me of my pain. Even though you took my beloved Sophia, you have shown me the light. During this time Emily wrote to her friend, “I never enjoyed such perfect peace and happiness as the short time in which I felt I had found my savior” (Emily Dickinson). I continued to learn throughout the school year and once I finished I enrolled in Mary Lyon's Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Through education and faith I learned to enjoy life.
When I was eighteen my family befriended a man named Benjamin Franklin Newton. He was supposedly one of my father’s beloved friends. I have always thought that you God had sent me this man to teach me rhetoric and the brilliance of language. I considered him my mentor and teacher and he taught me many things. “When a little Girl, I had a friend, who taught me Immortality – but venturing too near, himself – he never returned” (Emily Dickinson). I speak about him in a later letter because his death troubled me. A few years down the road the Amherst Academy principal died of brain congestion, these two deaths so close together caused me to slip back into a deep depression. I ask you my God, my merciful Lord, why must I suffer this terrible torment. I believe that I am morally just, so why do you make me suffer. “Some of my friends are gone, and some of my friends are sleeping – sleeping the churchyard sleep – the hour of evening is sad – it was once my study hour – my master has gone to rest, and the open leaf of the book, and the scholar at school alone, make the tears come, and I cannot brush them away; I would not if I could, for they are the only tribute I can pay the departed Humphrey” (Emily Dickinson). After this death I stayed away from Amherst and decided to work on my poetry and writing. Susan Gilbert was one of my best friends and I frequently wrote her. During this time in my life I tried to focus on my poetry and writing. But in the mid 1950’s my mother became bedridden.
During the mid 1950’s my mother became extremely ill, and throughout the next 20 or so years until my mothers death I stayed at home with my mother. I ask you God, how do I become the center of so much pain. And through this world of so much pain and death, I started to become both depressed and dark. My writings became geared towards death or immortality, and I had dark and demented dreams. Over the years God, my Lord, I tried to keep my faith in you. But throughout the years all of my loved ones have died. I have no companions and I am lonely and depressed. My father died in June 1874 and my mother died after a long life of pain a year later in June 1875. God, you have taken everything from me. Not just my parents or my companions, but through experiencing this cold world without the ability to “know” you has caused me to not believe. And without your love God, I am lost in this lonely world and through my depression I shall die.
Saint Augustine writes in a style that allows him to question every idea and concept of life. While he thoroughly reenacts the events of his life he continuously asks God questions to the things that he is unsure of. When he is feeling confused or down he questions God and asks for help. In my Emily Dickinson Confessions comparison I tried to incorporate this very style. Emily had a burdened life filled with death and despair. I took the negative events and emotions in Emily’s life and used them to guide me with what questions she would ask God. Just like Augustine she is confused about the world, and she attended school to increase her knowledge of many subjects. Augustine wrote his Confessions based on the major events of his life and how he felt throughout his life. His writing had a strong emotional vibe; we are able to feel how he felt during his lifetime. When he was going through his wild teenage years we were able to see how he felt about it, he expressed that his love for God had diminished and that he felt guilty for the sins he had been committing. We get to see the full life of Augustine, starting with the events of his life to his deepest and most honest feelings. And through writing a Confessions for Emily Dickinson, I see that Augustine’s style of writing was for a reason. And that reason is to allow the reader to understand the subject at heart and be able to judge them through their personal experiences and their feelings.