Richard E. Brantley

Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson

Richard E. Brantley, Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. 275pp. ISBN: 1403966303 (hardback). £42.50 (UK), $69.95 (USA).


Reviewed by Ashley Hales, University of Edinburgh (online, March 2006)


In the context of what we now call transatlantic romanticism, J. Hillis Miller wrote some time ago of each work being a 'node or intersection in an overdetermined network of associations, influences, constraints, and connections' and that 'Each [intersection] must be patiently untangled and interpreted for itself' (in Theory Now and Then [1991], p. 225). Richard E. Brantley's newest study of the poetry of Emily Dickinson indeed patiently untangles and respectfully interprets the various points of association and connection in Dickinson's poetry between a British evangelicalism in the theology of John Wesley and a philosophical experiential tradition following from Locke. Brantley's method of combining religious and philosophical forms of knowledge to read Dickinson's poetry is helpful, in his words, for 'sharpening [the] argumentative edge in Dickinson studies' (5) as well as more generally 'hold[ing] that philosophy, religion, and literature figure in the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States' (175).

Thus, Experience and Faith covers much ground, not only in the author's wide reading and fine close readings of Dickinson's own poetry and letters, but also in his interactions with the theological and philosophical underpinnings of both Britain and America as influential for American poetry. Experience and Faith follows from Brantley's previous studies in transatlantic comparison, with particular reference to the religious, philosophical and literary climate of what he has called Anglo-American romanticism.

Brantley's method is far-reaching and deeply personal. Experience and Faith is both for the general reader - Brantley writes that the forty-eight sections may be read as one argument or as stand-alone sections from which to browse - as well as for the critic, as it resituates Dickinson in terms of historical and theological criticism rather than contributing to psychological or political readings. The first chapter, 'Distinguishing Mode', sets up the twin axes on which Brantley's argument relies (namely, free-will evangelical theology and British empiricism) as indicative of Anglo-American romanticism generally and Dickinson's poetry in particular. In this short chapter Brantley gestures to his own as well as others' critical assessments of Dickinson that he explores more fully in chapter five.

Chapter two, 'Experimental Trust', examines the first intertwining between experience and faith where he argues that sensationist epistemology and scientific rationalism are vital to an understanding of Dickinson's imagination. This chapter roots Dickinson's poetry both 'in the world but not (quite) of it' in its relation to medicine, the Industrial Revolution and the biological and physical sciences. It also offers a helpful reading of Wesley's views on women's education and Dickinson's own education in the sciences.

It is chapter three, 'Nature Methodized' (with its dual understanding of scientific method and Methodist theology), where Brantley's argument and readings are most skilful. Brantley reads Dickinson's often-neglected nature poetry as indicative of the 'central paradox of her "naturalized imagination" and her "poetic faith"' where 'rich phenomena shade over into strange noumenon' (80). By reading nature through an empiricist lens and then reinvesting this with the mystery of faith, Dickinson poetically unites the seemingly contradictory categories of experience and faith. Following from Wesley's own 'philosophy of experience' situated at once 'within, as well as outside, nature', Dickinson's poetry evinces a 'religion of nature' that is at least 'ambiguous as to whether the natural and the supernatural can, or should, be reunified' (103). Brantley, like Dickinson, 'dwells in Possibility' and both opens up and out the potential for both ecological and faith-informed readings of Dickinson in this chapter that will resonate beyond the 'lady whom people call the Myth'.

The fourth chapter, 'Romantic to Modern Arc', takes a step back from direct examination of experiential faith and faith in experience to focus through these categories on Dickinson's place both in relation to the High-Romantics and her Modern and Postmodern imitators. Brantley here again 'dwells in Possibility' by treading a fine line between literary periods, preferring to read her imagination as Late-Romantic in that it has more in common with British High-Romantics than with the mode of Continental or Anglo-American Modernism. He therefore prefers to read her art as multiply informed: 'Modernist Romanticism and Romantic Modernism largely denominate it. While Romanticism amply informs it, Late Romanticism labels it' (160). Establishing how her poetry both looks backward (and insinuating it also gazes across the Atlantic) as well as anticipates later writers' concerns, such as 'out-rag[ing] Woolf and out-freez[ing] Frost' (163), Brantley clearly places Dickinson as bridging the gap between the Romantic and the Modern.

The final two chapters, 'Practical Conspectus' and the Conclusion, are where Brantley as Dickinson devotee emerges from behind his academic argumentation and very personally professes his own faith in experience and hope for an experience of faith. Restating his thesis, Brantley writes: 'Dickinson's expression validates, as opposed to ironizing, or seeing through, the empirical/evangelical dialectic of Anglo-American Romanticism, which she invites her reader to participate in, as well as to observe' (211). Brantley himself takes up this challenge directly; whereas the last four chapters had observed this empirical/evangelical dialectic, here he participates in it. The ordering of this penultimate chapter seems out of place, as Brantley's own descriptions of faith in experience and experiential faith are vital to his own Methodising where he uses Dickinson as 'suggest[ing] […] a way of overcoming the split between the natural and the supernatural and envision[ing] the terms of reunification' (188). These personal reflections as well as the review of Brantley's earlier work in transatlantic Romanticism would have been most helpful at an earlier point in the book, providing the context in which to read Brantley's own re-contextualisation of Dickinson.

The idea of 'Anglo-American Romanticism' brings me to my own penultimate point. As Brantley notes, 'the perennial reciprocity on each side of, and back and forth across, the Atlantic between positive and negative poles of philosophical and religious values, and not the victory of one side over the other, makes the Anglo-American relationship special in the realm of literature' (175). Such observations, unfortunately, are rare. Brantley neglects to interrogate this hyphen between Anglo and America, a point that would have helpfully added to a theorising of the transatlantic. It seems that at times in his efforts to display the various nodes and intersections between experience, faith, Britain and America, that rather than disentangling these intersections and arranging them in a manner that helps his reader to trace their interactions and implications, Brantley himself gets entangled in their paradoxical and multiplicious nature. This, of course, could simply be due to Brantley's efforts to 'dwell in Possibility' as well as the nature of his wide-ranging study which testifies on every page to the author's familiarity with British and American Romanticism as well as with current-day criticism, theory, religious milieu, and pedagogy.

Additionally, more first-hand interaction with Wesley's own writings would, I imagine, be welcomed by readers. Brantley does include perceptive moments of reading Wesley (especially Wesley's abridgements of Edwards' works), but on the whole Brantley's interaction with him is simply as a way into Dickinson's imagination. A single chapter on Wesley would have been welcome to establish how Wesley espoused both a free-will evangelical as well as experiential theology through his writings; this, in turn, would have enabled Brantley to locate more precisely the exact modes of comparison between Wesley and Dickinson where the comparison is not exactly a Bloomian notion of 'anxiety of influence' but also more specific than 'this is somehow like that'.

But these are rather insignificant drawbacks to a study that in its sustained attention to poetic nuance as well as to the larger philosophical and religious contexts of Dickinson's art makes critical strides and establishes various nodes or intersections between faith and experience.


© Symbiosis, 2006