A Personal Analysis of Emily Dickinson's "J501"

Dickinson Portrait

Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype circa 1848
Emily Dickinson Daguerreotype circa 1848 | Source


Emily Dickinson is increasingly regarded as an important figure in American poetry. Her posthumous fame comes from her alleged reclusiveness and unconventional writing style. Her improper syntax was the perfect complement to her transcendental views about nature and her dismissal of formal religion. Here I will explore her work “J501” as a testament to the structure and content of her now famous poetry.

Emily Dickinson’s “J501” adheres to the ballad stanza rhyme scheme fairly well. Although the form is recognizable, it is somewhat disguised by the three slant rhymes she uses in only five stanzas. The short length of the poem in relation to the number of perfect rhymes used makes the ballad stanzas even less obvious, especially if the reader is unfamiliar with other works by Dickinson. The slant rhymes are only a slight deviation from the rhyme scheme and they are a common characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry, unlike the conventional works produced by William Cowper. Along with the slant rhymes, the absence of clear breaks between stanzas further diminishes the appearance of form and meter in the piece. The indiscriminate stanza breaks add to the unified statement feel of the poem. The second and the last stanza are the only two strict adherences to the ballad stanza perfect rhymes: “know/go” and “roll/soul”. I believe that these are placed to add emphasis and create memorable parts of the poem on their own. “Sagacity must go” is more of a demand than a plea by Dickinson for, in my opinion, priests and philosophers to accept that they cannot understand the afterlife. The placement of the perfect rhyme at the end of the poem provides a clear, concise conclusion that even diligent, organized religion cannot shake humankind’s helpless uncertainty about existence after death.

Although much can be said about the unifying effect of slant rhymes, emphasizing perfect rhymes, and no lines between stanzas, there are downsides to Dickinson’s approach. Conventional poetry such as Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness” uses plenty of perfect rhymes and stanza separation. This may seem somewhat plain and formulaic, but it does make it very easy to recognize statements, questions, and the breakdown of the poem’s purpose. When compared to “Light Shining Out of Darkness”, Dickinson’s work is harder to navigate and draw an accurate conclusion. By examining the placement of her slant rhymes it seems that Dickinson would prefer us to look at her work with a holistic eye, instead of focusing on specific components. “J501” is an isolated statement that the afterlife does exist, but that it is not completely understood by any scholars or priests. This could be said as the completely opposite intention of Cowper’s poem. Cowper is giving us a listing of instructions and descriptions pertaining to God’s ways and trusting them; every little division and perfect rhyme set apart the statements with the intention of suggesting the importance of each one. 

Dickinson gives us the expectation in “J501” that there is a heaven, including a heavenly “species”. The tension of the poem is generated by the recognition that philosophers, scholars, and even organized religion cannot “still the tooth that nibbles at the soul”. I believe that this “tooth” is the anxiety and focus that humankind puts on understanding what comes after death. The words “baffles”, “puzzles”, and “riddle” and to the tension of the poem. The literal conclusions drawn from the poem do not offer any solace to the tensions or assurance to the expectations presented earlier. What can be derived from the literal conclusions of the poem is that Dickinson is sure of the afterlife, but she and everyone else really do not have any clue as to the nature of it, thus creating additional tension. The only thing that is sure is the simple existence of an afterworld. This inevitable, unpredictable nature of the afterlife supports Dickinson’s later emphasis on the uselessness of organized religion. Much like the philosophy and scholastic study of heaven, organized religion remains purely speculative.

I believe that the notion “Narcotics” in the last stanza refers to the “Strong Hallelujahs” from the pulpit in the previous lines. Here Emily Dickinson is identifying formal religion as a drug. This drug that is religion is used only for the purpose of stilling the tooth that nibbles at the soul. In other words, religion is used as a coping mechanism for the anxiety we feel about the looming world and state of being after our lifetime. Dickinson clearly states in the beginning lines of the poem that she is certain about the existence of a world after this one, and that there are indeed heavenly “angels” in the world beyond ours. I can really understand the careful simile placement in the first stanza. She uses music and sound to illustrate the nature of her beliefs about the subject. “Invisible, as Music” is describing the abstract, unseen nature of heaven and its inhabitants; “But positive, as Sound” is alternately explaining Dickinson’s certainty in here mind about the afterlife. It seems as if Dickinson is still uncertain about the strength and purpose of faith in the mortal world. The word “slips” sticks out especially because it highlights the inconsistency of human nature. Also, the recognition of many types of people questioning the afterlife leads the reader to believe that Dickinson is also involved in this uncertainty. A sense of universality comes through when Dickinson mentions the “tooth that nibbles at the soul” because she does not write anything that would lead the reader to believe she is excluded from this.

Dickinson’s religious attitudes are not as firmly rooted as her more conventional counterpart, William Cowper’s. The only steadfast religious statements made by Dickinson are in the first few lines of “J501”. Cowper’s “Light Shining Out of Darkness” is filled with declarative religious statements and suggestions all the way from the title to the last line. Dickinson’s preferences toward religion can be simply summed up in her belief in an afterlife and her opinion that formal religion is an unnecessary drug at its most basic form. Cowper hand urges “fearful saints, fresh courage take” and for his audience to trust God “for his grace”. Cowper comes across as a fully aware disciple of God that even anticipates the “bitter taste” of God’s plans when they are not yet fully revealed. Dickinson may very well be a believer of strong faith; however we simply are not fully exposed to Dickinson’s religious predispositions in “J501”.

A more revealing look into Emily Dickinson’s religious attitudes comes in her poem “J324”, it is simply a more concrete look at the opinions that are briefly encountered in “J501”. Like “J501”, “J324” reassures Dickinson’s certainty in regards to the existence of heaven: “So instead of getting to Heaven, at last – I’m going, all along.” Here Dickinson states her opinion even clearer than “But positive, as Sound”. In “J324” Dickinson enforces her view on the unnecessary nature of formal religion by replacing the formal religion’s elements with examples of her own. Dickinson continues her ridicule of formal religion in another poem of hers, “J1545”. This poem focuses most of its criticism on the Bible. Dickinson uses this poem to present the Bible, the most important object in organized Christianity, as a fairy tale, “an antique Volume—Written by faded Men”. Dickinson is flat out dismissing the authenticity of the Bible as the word of God, replacing its value with that of a classic piece of literature. She likens the characters of the Bible to those of an epic piece of fiction.

Emily Dickinson’s work was initially put down as un-publishable, but now is considered a national literary treasure. There is a lot to learn from Dickinson’s unique, against the grain style. Set apart by her syntax, slant rhymes, and religious opinions that were contrary to popular belief, Dickinson successfully immortalized her individuality.

Dickinson's Homestead

A marker280 Main Street Amherst, MA 01002-2349 -
280 Main St, Amherst College, Amherst, MA 01002, USA
[get directions]

Emily Dickinson wrote in recluse from her room at the family "Homestead" in Amherst Mass.

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Comments 2 comments

Haley Hart 5 years ago

Did you happen to have Beard for American Lit II? And great job. This was really useful in helping me understand the poem better.

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jwalkerprice 4 years ago from Auburn/Jacksonville Author

hahaha yeah this was for Beard. Don't use too much. This is fairly recent.

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