A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘The Child’s faith is new’

The meaning of a classic Dickinson poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

Emily Dickinson’s individual and idiosyncratic way of looking at the world led her to write some wonderfully unique poems – about snow, about cats, about death. One of the recurring themes of her work is faith and religion, which she explores in ‘The Child’s faith is new’.

The Child’s faith is new –
Whole – like His Principle –
Wide – like the Sunrise
On fresh Eyes –
Never had a Doubt –
Laughs – at a Scruple –
Believes all sham
But Paradise –

Credits the World –
Deems His Dominion
Broadest of Sovereignties –
And Caesar – mean –
In the Comparison –
Baseless Emperor –
Ruler of Nought –
Yet swaying all –

Grown bye and bye
To hold mistaken
His pretty estimates
Of Prickly Things
He gains the skill
Sorrowful – as certain –
Men – to anticipate
Instead of Kings –

This poem explores the wide-eyed innocence that a child has when they first look out on the world, which eventually gives way to a more jaded cynicism involving a lowering of expectations, especially towards our fellow human beings. When we’re young, we are filled with faith in the world – ‘faith’ in the sense of ‘belief’ (or credulity even) but also in the sense of ‘trust’ and optimism.

Wide-eyed, we are alive to the wonders of the world around us: seeing the sunrise for the first time, and believing in everything which is false or fake (because we are innocent and don’t know any better). Caesar, in comparison with the child’s perceived dominion over the world, was a mean and empty ruler: the child feels in their heart that the whole world has been laid out specifically for them.

But such boundless optimism, a sense that ‘the world is one’s oyster’ (to borrow from Shakespeare in The Merry Wives of Windsor), is soon shown to be ‘mistaken’, and things which the child initially thought pretty are shown to be prickly, ugly and imperfect. The child comes to expect men to be men rather than kings: the child sees that everyone, no matter how grand they are supposed to be, has feet of clay, is mortal and flawed after all.

Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with Dickinson’s wonderful snake poem, ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, her ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’, and ‘I felt a Funeral – in my Brain‘. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.