Although I have for a long time been seduced by the brilliance of Dickinson’s poetry, I was introduced to this particular poem when listening to a lecture on trans- feminism and theology by the Theologian Catherine Keller and I am indebted to her for much of the following interpretation.
To me this poem written before the term feminism was coined, encapsulates the search of feminist theologians to uncover and share the many meanings and interpretations of the mighty book in a way which empowers all. A weighty task indeed.
We Learned The Whole Of Love by Emily Dickinson
We learned the whole of love
The alphabet-the words-
A chapter- then the mighty Book-
Then -Revelations closed-
But in each other’s eyes
An ignorance beheld-
Diviner than the childhoods
And each to each a child
Attempted to expand
Alas that wisdom is so large
And truth so manifold
In the first stanza you can imagine a young child earnestly learning the reading process with the only book seen as suitable at the time. There is a sense of excitement as the book unfolds then nothing. Emily Dickinson has come to the end of her orthodox Christian education. The certainties have been learnt- or have they? As Catherine Keller says … the last line hints at theological trouble.
For Dickinson it seems the book of love has been closed. It ends with judgement- salvation or not. Is that the whole of love? The experience of a something more- something more liberating has been closed. End of story.
As a woman living in the 1800’s Dickinson knew a lot about women’s lives being closeted off. Yet in this poem she refuses to let another door close. The dash acts like a foot in the door- oh no you don’t.
In the intimate gaze of another they see each other’s ignorance – have we missed something? But as Dickinson says this ignorance is not the child’s ignorance of lack of knowledge. This is a divine ignorance which like the open-mindedness of a child will lead to a deeper search.
In this poem Dickinson rejects the know-it all- ignorance of orthodoxy and in the gaze of another’s eyes a new beginning seems possible. Sacred ignorance is not a lack of knowledge but a flourishing of wisdom. Wisdom does not close doors. Wisdom leads toan awareness of and the search for the multiplicity of truth. It does not put anybody in the closet.