Evangelist of Nature

This is my letter to the World
That never wrote to Me —
The simple News that Nature told —
With tender Majesty

Her Message is committed
To Hands I cannot see —
For love of Her — Sweet — countrymen —
Judge tenderly — of Me

On a first reading of this Emily Dickinson poem (#519 in the Franklin edition), one may be struck by the unassuming humility of the poetess. To be sure, the first two line strike a rather passive aggressive note. But her complaint against the world is immediately set aside. In the third and fourth line, the poetess presents herself as somebody who has merely given us the message told to her by Nature. What’s more, the message is simple, which suggests that it required no great talent to hear it and to write it down. Then, in the second stanza, Dickinson conjures forth the image of her future readers – not, however, to congratulate herself on having won fame, but rather to beg these readers to judge tenderly of her, and that not for her own sake, but for Nature’s. The suggestion is, of course, that the poems are imperfect and that a harsh judgment is justified; but we are implored to have mercy on her because she served to the best of her abilities. As I said, an unassuming humility.

Such a reading, however, would be woefully mistaken. Dickinson is not a humble poet, rather the opposite; and this will become clear to us when we look more deeply into the poem.

Let us look first at the two most striking combinations of words: “tender Majesty” and “judge tenderly”. Both are paradoxical. Majesty may be awesome, fearsome, terrible – but surely not tender. Judgement may be harsh or merciful, but one who is tender surely does not judge at all. Now both Majesty and Judgement are strongly associated with the Christian (male, monotheistic) God, who sits in awful majesty as judge over the nations. What Dickinson is doing, then, is to present Nature as an alternative or at least a complement to Jehovah: Nature being equally divine, but the source of a tenderness that cannot be found in either the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament.

As corroborating evidence for such a religiou reading, we can point to the near-identity that is established between tenderness and divinity in Dickinson’s poem “My Triumph lasted till the Drums” (#1212), in which we read:

Could Prospect taste of Retrospect
The Tyrannies of Men
Were Tenderer, diviner
The Transitive toward —

Read in this way, the first stanza takes on a radical new meaning. Why does Nature tell “News”, which is surely a rather surprising word in the context? (After all, Nature is cyclical and more or less eternal, hardly the source of news.) The point is of course that Dickinson is here to tell the good News, the Euangélion, of the divinity she serves. Rather than humbly suggesting that she is merely writing down what Nature told her, Dickinson is casting herself in no less a role than that of the Evangelist of Nature. Yes, her words are only what Nature told her; they are not strictly speaking her own; but that is precisely why they have authority. Who must listen to them? The World. Everyone should tune in to this Gospel of Nature, a message that is more loving, the suggestion is, than that of the dominant masculine religion.

When Dickinson asks us to judge tenderly of her, she is not imploring from a position of weakness. She is reminding us of the famous words of Christ: “for with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged”, and repurposing them for her own poetic-religious purpose.

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