Distinguishing Mode

  • Richard E. Brantley


Although major authors beginning with Chaucer have written from intellectual and spiritual frames of reference, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830–86) reflects the subtlest mix of philosophical procedures and religious principles in Anglo-American literature. For example, the “wise passiveness” of her synthesizing temper moderates the obsession with empirical and evangelical synthesis to be found throughout the bi-national paradigm of transatlantic Romanticism with which I have long been associated, and that I now reconsider from her nuanced perspective (Wordsworth, “Expostulation and Reply” [1798], line 24). Just as she relishes problems in sensationalist epistemology without either oversimplifying their challenges or underestimating their difficulties, so too does she face dilemmas in “Methodist” methodology, such as free will versus predestination, while preserving the “Negative Capability” on which art depends, and in which it abides (Keats to George and Thomas Keats, December 21, 27 [?], 1817). British empiricism and free-will evangelicalism, I argue, contribute to the play of her Late-Romantic imagination, for the scientific and technological prowess with which her poetic personae commit themselves to natural religion yields, as well, to their Protestant witness and, for that matter, to their Romantic hope. The complexity and intrigue of their variation on the empirical/evangelical dialectic of Romantic Anglo-America, as distinct from the despair and nihilism in their anticipation of Modernism and of Postmodernism, derive from the dynamic of suspense through which their faith in experience shades over into their experience of faith.


Distinguishing Mode British Empiricism Religious Doubt Sensationalist Epistemology Negative Capability 
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  1. 5.
    Brantley, Coordinates of Anglo-American Romanticism, 13–31. For a discussion of the Calvinist mood and the Arminian tendency of British High Romanticism, see Brantley , “Christianity and Romanticism: A Dialectical Review,” Christianity and Literature 48 (Spring 1999): 349–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 36.
    Daniel J. Orsini, “Emily Dickinson and the Romantic Use of Science,” Massachusetts Studies in English 7.4–8.1 (1981): 57–69, esp. 63–64.Google Scholar
  3. 43.
    See Jed Deppman, “‘I Could Not Have Defined the Change’: Rereading Dickinson’s Definition Poetry,” The Emily Dickinson Journal 11.1 (2002): 49–80. Dickinson’s definition poems, as Stonum reports, include “the universal, structural, and essential aspects of an experience,” as well as “an analysis of the workings of the consciousness of the one involved in the experience.” See Stonum, “The Politics of the Sublime,” Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin 13 (November/December 2001): 27. Stonum here expounds on Deppman’s presiding idea as presented at the EDIS Trondheim Conference, August 3–5, 2001.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 47.
    Gary Lee Stonum, “The Politics of the Sublime,” Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin 13 (November/December 2001): 27.Google Scholar
  5. 53.
    Benjamin Goluboff, “If Madonna Be: Emily Dickinson and Catholicism,” New England Quarterly 73 (September 2000): 353–67, esp. 366.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Richard E. Brantley 2004

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  • Richard E. Brantley

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