Lost Faith

To lose one’s faith surpasses
The loss of an estate,
Because estates can be
Replenished,—faith cannot.

Inherited with life,
Belief but once can be;
Annihilate a single clause,
And Being ’s beggary.

~Emily Dickinson

I’m with the speaker of this poem as far as the first two lines. Faith is more precious than any worldly possession, even the most extravagant inheritance. It’s in the third and fourth lines that she loses me. Her argument is that faith is more precious than earthly goods because it cannot be renewed.

In the second stanza, the speaker goes on to develop this thought. She argues that faith is “Inherited with life” and that “Belief but once can be.” This seems like a very extreme view. Once faith is lost, it cannot be regained?

One one level, this seems true. It’s certainly difficult to regain lost faith. Yet we do it all the time–we forgive each other. We question, and while some of us take divergent paths, others circle back to where we started.

I suspect Dickinson is talking about religion specifically, but I think the poem applies to all kinds of faith. If we read it as religious faith, there’s a very Puritanical slant to the poem. If we read it as faith in others, it works on a different level. I wonder, too, if we can read it as others’ faith in us–our faith in the sense that it’s something that’s been placed in us by other people.

In any case, lost faith is tricky to regain–but I don’t think that, as the speaker of this poem argues, it’s necessarily gone forever.

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