By Sharla Moody, BK ’22. Sharla is majoring in English.
What is – “Paradise” – by Emily Dickinson
What is – “Paradise” –
Who live there –
Are they “Farmers” –
Do they “hoe” –
Do they know that this is “Amherst” –
And that I – am coming – too –
Do they wear “new shoes” – in “Eden” –
Is it always pleasant – there –
Won’t they scold us – when we’re hungry –
Or tell God – how cross we are –
You are sure there’s such a person
As “a Father” – in the sky –
So if I get lost – there – ever –
Or do what the Nurse calls “die” –
I shan’t walk the “Jasper” – barefoot –
Ransomed folks – won’t laugh at me –
Maybe – “Eden” a’n’t so lonesome
As New England used to be!
“What is — ‘Paradise’ — [?]” asks Emily Dickinson in the first line of one of her many poems. Today, her question resounds. All of us, whether religious or not, have formed an idea of Paradise in our minds. Paradise is a place where justice reigns, where we have a home, where we are content–the world is in order and all of our desires have been met.
Our design for Paradise, though, is often shaped by what we lack in our present conditions. Dickinson centers her poem on this sentiment and longs for a Paradise that alleviates the pains of her present circumstances. For the jobless, Paradise is a state of stable employment; for the ignorant, Paradise is knowledge; for the lonely, Paradise is community. While idealized versions of Paradise may differ from person to person, their roots remain the same: Paradise is a place where all our present negatives are turned positive.
Dickinson divides the poem into three different settings: the past, represented by Eden, the present, depicted by Amherst, and the future, presented as Paradise. This temporal structure presents Paradise as a place where desire is fulfilled. “Eden” evokes the memory of perfection. In our own lives we often idealize the distant past and childhood as seasons of perfect contentedness. Yet when ruminating on childhood recently with my brother and expressing a wish that I could return to that “better” time, he reminded me that I had faced my own share of problems then, though I did not fully understand their gravity or perhaps lacked the skills to process them. Our pasts are seldom truly “simpler times”, are often more difficult than the idealized versions we have created in our minds. This recognition should impress on us that what we consider important is often unique to our present moment, not fundamental to who we are. How quickly we forget the temporal specificity of ourselves! How emptily we define identity according to whether our wants are met.
Nevertheless, the sentiment of a simpler time is a seductive one that clearly captivates Dickinson. For her speaker, Eden represents a time of perfection, when the problems of the present do not yet exist. Eden is “pleasant”, juxtaposed with Amherst, which is “lonesome” and unfriendly, where people “laugh at me”, “scold us”, and are “cross”. The personal past always appears perfect, at least in hindsight clouded by the dilemmas of today. We forget the harsh realities from days prior when we live in harsh realities today. To really consider a place like Eden, whose nature is perfection, is so far beyond our realm of understanding that we label some distant past as perfect. This glossing-over of history, though, implies a craving to experience real perfection. Our memories are misleading: We are not satisfied in our current states. Either our past desires were never fulfilled, leading to dissatisfaction, or those desires have been fulfilled but were so momentary that they bring us no enduring joy. In high school, my English teacher tasked us with writing letters to our future selves, to be received at graduation. I remember being so dumbfounded by what I had written, that sophomore-year-Sharla had been so concerned with a quiz coming up. This quiz didn’t really matter in the long run, and so many desires are similarly highly temporal; of a worry for such an infinitesimal fraction of life that we wonder why they really bothered us.
At the time I’m writing this article, my present concerns are making sure that I finish my p-set by the end of the week and figuring out my transportation to the airport for the next break. Resolving these problems will not have a lasting effect on my long-term future or on my happiness, and this is often true of our desires. This relative insignificance may be hard to discern in the present, as every concern ultimately does impact us: If I fail to turn in my p-set at all, I may do poorly in my class and face consequences related to jobs later, or if I miss my flight I may have a miserable time arranging other accommodations. The fulfillment of present desires only creates a vacuum for future ones: I desire to finish the p-set so that I can then desire to get a good job, and I desire to catch my flight so I can then desire to spend my entire break with my family.
For some reason, we still hope that the fulfillment of present desires will finally bring us to Paradise, even though we can see that the fruition of past desires has not tangibly affected us in the present. But why? Paradise is a place where our desires are eternally fulfilled, but if our desires are so temporal that this is impossible, what’s the point? We will always seek better things, even if the best things are slightly out of reach. For Dickinson’s speaker, the present is “Amherst”, a place described in relation to the speaker’s hopes for the future. The speaker’s questions about Paradise center on how it differs from Amherst. The lines “Is it always pleasant — there — / Won’t they scold us — when we’re hungry — / Or tell God how cross we are —” reveal that the opposites are true of the speaker’s present experience: It is unpleasant, someone scolds the speaker for being hungry, and authority figures are not receptive of the speaker. Most telling, Dickinson includes, “Maybe — ‘Eden’ a’n’t so lonesome / As New England used to be!”, indicating that the speaker presently faces loneliness. This painful present defines the speaker’s desires for her future. The speaker longs for fulfillment in relational community.
New England in the 1840’s seemed to promise the relational Paradise Dickinson ached for through communalism, notably attempted with the communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands in Massachusetts during Dickinson’s lifetime. Communalism sought Paradise through intentionally-structured community, but failed. Throughout all of history, humans have striven for Paradise on earth–through capitalism, communism, different monarchies, and every other system imaginable. Today, on campus, we similarly seem to believe in human-won Paradise. But communalism couldn’t fill every pain in New England. Nor have capitalism, communism, monarchies, or other systems cured the world of its maladies. We’ve seemingly exhausted all the possible routes on our quest to return to Eden, and none of them take us back home.
We cannot get back to Eden. We have been shut out of the possibility of real utopia on earth. History has proven that humans are inherently selfish and faulty, perhaps to varying degrees, but universally. And even at our best, our desires are unique to us as individuals and largely circumstantial. With this in mind, we can never realize what is perfect and good for us in the long-term, let alone for other people. Instead, we need a common thread to bind us together in unity, while entailing a setting aside of ourselves; that thread needs to be a firm and immutable truth.
When we think about wanting Paradise, we ask, “How can we make the world better?” We acknowledge its faults. I humbly suggest that Christianity addresses the entire conundrum of Paradise: the faults of the world, the implausibility of finding Paradise due to fractured humanity, and our inability to pinpoint what exactly is good for us. But it also offers a way to reach Paradise, though not through human endeavors toward the past or future. Christianity offers the consistency of a loving God who lives in infinity, steadfast despite the changing tides of time. Christianity is not mere wish fulfillment, but rather a better solution than communalism, communism, capitalism, or any other system imaginable. It provides better, truer, steadfast desires that will lead us to Eden. For Dickinson’s speaker, this is the answer to her questions of Paradise. It seems that the speaker dies in the final stanza of the poem, marked by change in verb tense–“shan’t” and “won’t” become “ain’t”, and now New England is in the past. The ambiguity of “Maybe –” suggests that perhaps she finds herself in restored relationship with others and in satisfying community. A good God desires good things for His creation. And unlike people, who are fickle and wayward and woefully imperfect, God is all-seeing, constant, and above all else, good.
Is Paradise for ourselves and for our campus just around the corner, after the next protest, after the next wellness discussion? Perhaps. But perhaps our desires for justice, home, and contentedness, though extraordinarily noble pursuits, are too temporal to sustain us and too blurry around the edges to formulate in a way that is good for everyone. It often feels we will never succeed in our aspirations. Every day we hunger for Paradise, but the answer is in plain view. Thinking externally of ourselves, outside of the finite timeline that binds us to specific moments, and thinking outside of our own desires, we reach for it. So we stretch our hands towards Paradise.
Taken from the Fall 2019 issue of Logos, Desire.