The Poet & The Mathematician...(continued)


Thus began a year-long project in which Ellis, with encouragement and scholarly advice from Ladin, prepared a closely argued essay on “‘A little East of Jordan’: Human-Divine Encounter in Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible.” The paper was published in the Spring 1999 issue of The Emily Dickinson Journal. The Journal’s editor is Dickinson scholar Suzanne Juhasz of the University of Colorado at Boulder. Professor Juhasz found the essay “brilliant,” and praised its “genuine insight” in the fields of Dickinson studies and Biblical scholarship. This is, of course, an astonishing endorsement – not because Juhasz recognized the merit of Ellis’s analysis, but because the informal norms of the Academy tend to keep scholars working within their own disciplines. As a rule, mathematicians do not write scholarly critiques of poetry and the Bible.

Ellis’s mentor, Jay Ladin, is a poet with a firm foothold in the world of scholarship; he earned a master’s in fine arts degree from UMass and is at work on a doctoral dissertation for Princeton University on Dickinson and modern poetry. He began the class he taught at The Homestead by noting that “in important ways, Dickinson is impossible to understand. That was our starting point,” Ladin recalled in a telephone conversation recently. “I think everyone breathed a great sigh of relief.”

Ladin said that his teaching method was to work with the class “to think our way through the poems word by word, line by line,” one or at most two poems per session. He found Ellis to be “extraordinarily sensitive to language.”

Ladin mentioned to the class that his own study of the Hebrew Bible had been formative for him – “and this sparked something in Richard. That’s when he showed me the ‘East of Jordan’ poem. Richard talked about the idea of comparing Dickinson and the Hebrew Bible, and we kicked some ideas around and I encouraged him to write them up. He went through many drafts, and with each one he showed me, I’d throw out more questions.”


“With Emily Dickinson,” Ladin said, “there is a tremendous temptation to use the poems to solve the great mysteries of her life. But Richard doesn’t do that. Instead, he demonstrates how the two kinds of texts illuminate each other. It’s a very suggestive piece, but he carefully stays away from making a biographical argument.”

One must be very clear about this point: Though it would tickle the fancy of many a Dickinson fan if he did so, Ellis never asserts that the poet knew or was familiar with Hebrew.

Rather, the key argument of Ellis’s paper is that “reading Dickinson through the lens of the Hebrew Bible gives insights not readily available through the usual lens of the King James version.” (The latter was, of course, the translation that was commonly read in 19th-century Amherst.) These insights, he maintains, “highlight her profound perception of the relationship between humanity and God, revealing numerous features shared with the Hebrew Bible.”

As a rule, mathematicians do not write
scholarly critiques of
poetry and the Bible:
the exception to the rule, professor Richard Ellis,
in the gardens of Emily Dickinson’s Homestead.

Ellis contends that the Hebrew Bible and the poet wrestle with the enigma of how to use language “to portray the unportrayable confrontation of the human and the Divine.” In his view, “their solutions are strikingly similar” in that they both choose language that is “riddled with paradox, wordplay, and shifts of perspective fluctuating, at times almost instantaneously, between hierarchy and intimacy, transcendence and immanence, abstraction and sensation – all of which have the effect of creating multiple, often contradictory interpretations.”

Devout New England Congregationalists of Dickinson’s day believed that “the Bible was written in an authoritative and transparent language faithfully mirroring spiritual reality.” In other words, it was thought to contain – literally and essentially – The Truth of God. Though, as many scholars have argued, the Bible shaped Dickinson’s universe, from an early age she displayed rare independence in her religious life (for example, her refusal as a teenager to be “saved” along with her fellow students at a religious revival at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary).

In Ellis’s reading, the poet “committed the supreme act of linguistic defiance” by flipping belief in the literal truth of the Bible upside down. “Like the Hebrew Bible, her poetry relies on the use of paradox, wordplay, and multiplicity of perspective as the most effective artifices for manifesting the essential truth about the human-Divine relationship. . . . In her work, the human-Divine relationship is articulated, not as a fixed body of dogma, but as a verb, a field of force, a gymnastic somersaulting that never rests.”

Consider that in its original format the Torah is a handwritten scroll containing only consonants but no vowels or punctuation. The reader is thus “empowered and urged to experiment with alternate vocalizations and punctuations and thereby discover new meanings in the text.” Learned Hebrew scholars hold that wordplay “is the trace of God’s breath in the text.” Through wordplay, the reader becomes God’s partner.

Ellis’s reading of “A little East of Jordan” reveals Dickinson, in a similar fashion, engaging in wordplay. Hers is “not a replay of the Biblical struggle” between Jacob, the father of Israel, and the Angel, as set down in Genesis 32, “but a new vision of the human-Divine encounter in a parallel Dickinsonian universe.”

Here is a hint of the Dickinsonian universe: Her Jacob is a Gymnast who, after a long night of wrestling, nearly overpowers a stranger whom the reader knows, but he does not, to be an Angel. The Stranger/Angel asks permission to eat breakfast. Jacob agrees provisionally. Only if his adversary will bless him . . . which he does. At which point, “the bewildered Gymnast/Found he had worsted God!” (Worsted is a play on the word “bested,” but that is another complex poetic allusion, lucidly teased out in Ellis’s essay.)

This is, by any measure, a startling recasting of the familiar Bible story, as Ellis demonstrates. The poet is ironic, humorous, audacious, even outrageous. What an idea to imagine an Angel asking of a mere human permission to eat breakfast!

Ellis believes that Dickinson made Jacob a Gymnast to highlight her discovery “of a new facet of God’s personality that is revealed in the encounter at Peniel” – and that facet has to do with dynamism, intimacy, dance, struggle and play. The word Gymnast suggests “the acrobatic, paradoxical flipping of perspective” that is a key theme in the poem. The gymnastic Jacob of Dickinson’s creation tumbles between human and angelic realms.

In her tight focus on the wrestling match, she offers the reader an utterly radical view of the human/Divine relationship – a view that proposes a reversal in the traditional top-down hierarchy between God and humankind, and even holds out the possibility of intimacy. Thus, and in numerous other ways Ellis cogently lays out in his essay, Dickinson brilliantly dealt with the problem of imagining the unimaginable: meeting up with God.

Still the question nags: Might not this unusually well-educated 19th-century woman, surrounded by learned clergymen and steeped in religious culture, have known Hebrew?

“Biography is not the point here,” Ellis replied. He said that in preparing the essay he did attempt to learn whether Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, had enrolled in a Hebrew class at Yale – a center of Hebrew studies in the 1820s – when it was offered, in his junior year of college. Alas, Ellis found, in that year, the Dickinson family was short of funds, and Edward stayed at home in Amherst. But Ellis believes it likely that through contact with local clergy Dickinson was exposed to narrative devices from the Hebrew Bible, the ur-text that Ellis sees as “the greatest hidden text of Western civilization.”

“Look,” said Ellis, in a way that suggested – only slightly impatiently – this would be his last word on the touchy subject for now. “Dickinson was a linguistic genius. All she had to hear was one word to get her going.”

Who would be so foolish as to argue that point?

This summer, by invitation, Ellis read his paper at the annual meeting of the Emily Dickinson International Society – a heady and unusual opportunity for a scholar of higher mathematics.

Though he doesn’t like to push the analogy too far, Ellis sees a rich connection between mathematics and poetry, especially Dickinson’s. It’s a matter of reading technically specialized, difficult language. Of meticulously analyzing, element by element.

“In 70 words, Dickinson gives you a very compacted structure. She compresses a lot of ideas. Every symbol counts. Your task is to break out the meaning, to make sense” of a dense cryptic code. “By adding a last word, she can change the meaning of a sentence. . . and she often does.”

In preparing his essay on “A little East of Jordan,” Ellis feels he served an apprenticeship of sorts. The essay went through 13 drafts, and cites dozens of literary sources. Nor will this be his only piece of Dickinson scholarship. There are at least a half-dozen other Dickinson poems based on key figures in the Hebrew Bible – Abraham, Moses, and Elijah among them. Having honed his analytical skills on Jacob, Ellis plans to tackle another of the Biblical poems before long – that is, when he is not engaged in his new research project, which is one of the important, outstanding problems of mathematical physics: investigating applications of large deviations to models of turbulence.

Ellis speaks gratefully of the richness of his life – his wide-ranging intellectual life, his life since his reconnection with his Jewish origins, his life within Amherst’s community of perpetual learners. “In a sense all of this is right in front of me,” he said. “There is treasure here.”