Originally published 2006-02-27.
Read, sweet, how others strove…
Read, sweet, how others strove,
Till we are stouter;
What they renounced,
Till we are less afraid;
How many times they bore
The faithful witness,
Till we are helped,
As if a kingdom cared!
Read then of faith
That shone above the fagot;
Clear strains of hymn
The river could not drown;
Brave names of men
And celestial women,
Passed out of record
There are those who are courageous because they value truth over faith (“they bore the faithful witness,” stanza 1), and those who are courageous because of their faith (stanza 2), it seems. Those who have faith seem to win a very great glory.
If that division holds, then this poem is a simple expression of faith.
But we’re dealing with Emily Dickinson here. That division does not hold. Notice the last lines of the second stanza: some names have “passed out of record into renown.” Would that not be an apt description of the people being read about in the first stanza, the ones that teach the speaker and whoever/whatever is dear to her to be “stouter,” “less afraid,” and provide, generally, “help” independent of a kingdom?
“Read then” can mean, therefore, two things: it can mean an event that happens after the first stanza, or it can mean the same event as that which occurs in the first stanza. (An example of the logic of the latter: “If you do A, you then do B” – it is entirely conceivable A = B, or B is some integral component of A.) I take the second stanza to be an elaboration of the first, not a contrast.
Does that mean this poem is a secret atheist’s hymn? Well, the language of faith in the second stanza can’t just be thrown out, and shouldn’t be. It is very clearly the divine being spoken of in the second stanza: faith shines brighter than the “fagot,” a man-made thing; the sound of the hymn is never dulled by the river’s natural chaotic rush. Bravery/divinity ultimately comes from sharing one’s light with others, and leading a life that is distinct, worthy to be praised.
What Miss Dickinson is probably saying is that there are divine human beings on Earth, and that those divine human beings show the rest of us how to love life because they love truth. There is only one truth in this life which is a certainty, though, which is that we will perish. A genuine love of life means that the traditional grounds for hope are not secure; the care of a kingdom is in a deep sense scorned, for if we do love life, we want to forge our own paths, find the truth that matters to us. Nonetheless, this whole process makes those of us who care not for the divine very divine. We will be the peacemakers, we will be those who mourn. We will be those who ask, seek and knock. We will even be meek and poor, for magnanimity doesn’t mean bragging all the time – it means giving so our other virtues are not compromised.
We will want Truth for all of us, and thus that search is not mere atheism, if it is atheistic at all.
There is a reconciliation between religion and irreligion here, but it depends on a tension, and the beauty of the poem is in its forcing us to see that tension and not dismiss it as many of us do in everyday life.