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
New England Congregationalists of Dickinsons 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 Dickinsons 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
Elliss 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.
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 Gods breath in the text. Through
wordplay, the reader becomes Gods partner.
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
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 Elliss
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!
believes that Dickinson made Jacob a Gymnast to highlight her
discovery of a new facet of Gods 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 Dickinsons creation tumbles between human and angelic
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.
the question nags: Might not this unusually well-educated 19th-century
woman, surrounded by learned clergymen and steeped in religious
culture, have known Hebrew?
is not the point here, Ellis replied. He said that in preparing
the essay he did attempt to learn whether Emilys 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.
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.
would be so foolish as to argue that point?
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.
he doesnt like to push the analogy too far, Ellis sees a
rich connection between mathematics and poetry, especially Dickinsons.
Its a matter of reading technically specialized, difficult
language. Of meticulously analyzing, element by element.
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.
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.
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 Amhersts community of perpetual
learners. In a sense all of this is right in front of me,
he said. There is treasure here.