The Power of Naming
What does it take for a person to be named a person? What did it take for a woman in rural New England in the second half of the nineteenth century to be named and name herself a person worthy of regard and respect? Much less a poet?
It is, perhaps, telling that in her first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson did not sign her name but included it on a separate card in its own envelop. Under the religious and gender conventions of Dickinson’s day, women became worthy if they made a declaration of faith in God, married a man (which involved taking his name), had and raised children, bore up humbly under burdens and sacrifices, and had a “good” (that is, willing) death.
Dickinson sneered at this narrow definition of womanhood, dismissing it as “dimity convictions” (dimity was a sheer cotton fabric used to make curtains) in a poem Franklin dates to 1863:
What Soft – Cherubic Creatures -
These Gentlewomen are -
One would as soon assault a Plush -
Or violate a Star -
Such Dimity Convictions -
A Horror so refined
Of freckled Human Nature -
Of Deity – Ashamed -
It's such a common – Glory -
A Fisherman's – Degree -
Redemption – Brittle Lady -
Be so – ashamed of Thee – (F675A, J401)
For Dickinson, personhood was bound up with womanhood, sainthood and poethood, and involved a different kind of “degree.” In the poem above, she calls it “A Fisherman’s – Degree,” a qualification linked to the messy “freckled” realities of the laboring class and also to a proselytizing Jesus who would make his disciples “fishers of men.” In many poems from 1862, Dickinson’s speakers refer to degrees of royalty, self-sovereignty and spiritual entitlement, as well as self-naming and self-possession.
Dickinson’s Webster’s Dictionary defined “title” as a “right” in many spheres, such as law, society, and literature. Titles as “an appellation of dignity, distinction or pre-eminence” run counter to an American democratic spirit. Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson all fiercely rejected European distinctions of rank, social hierarchy, and inherited position, though Dickinson’s father and her brother Austin after him were both known informally as the “Squire” of Amherst. Titles, entitlement, and power for Dickinson are entangled with complex and sometimes ambivalent feelings.
In the literary sphere, titles denote the names of works and authors; it is telling that Dickinson rarely if ever gave titles to her poems. In Dickinson’s Webster’s, both "title" and "entitle" define literary distinction through the daunting representative of the patriarchal poetic tradition, John Milton. The second definition of “entitle” as “to superscribe or prefix” continues:
Hence as titles are evidences of claim or property, to give a claim to; to give a right to demand or receive. The labor of the servant entitles him to his wages. Milton is entitled to fame. Our best services do not entitle us to heaven.
The fifth definition of “title” is “A name; an appellation,” and offers an example from Milton that makes the opposite claim of distinction with reference to women:
"Ill worthy I such title should belong / To me transgressor. "– Milton.
This is Eve, hesitant to accept the title of “Mother of all Mankind,” because she fears she has ensnared Adam in the temptation and fall (Paradise Lost Bk 11, 163-64.) Even if Dickinson did not consult her Webster’s for these definitions, she knew Paradise Lost and would have been well aware, through religious teachings, of the original opprobrium attached through Eve to women.
For the theme of entitle, we take our cue from a group of letters Dickinson wrote to her friend Samuel Bowles, who was absent on a health-restoring trip to Europe. In one of these letters (L 250) she encloses the touchstone poem “Title divine – is mine!” (F194A and B, J 1072) with this comment:
Here's – what I had to ‘tell you’ –.
We will discuss this poem, and its variants, in more detail in the selection of poems. It contains a cluster of images that recur in poems during this period, exploring issues of and attitudes towards entitlement and power.
“True womanhood” = “good Union woman”
The Springfield Republican happily reports that England and France will not intervene in the war, once the news of the latest victories reach them. If they do come to the aid of the Confederacy, the columnist says, they are not true allies of the United States.
Another column ponders using war loans to pay for the Civil War. It cites England’s four billion-dollar debt, taken on years ago to wage war against France, to justify using foreign money to pay for a war that would essentially put the United States back together.
Springfield Republican, February 15, 1862:
Review of the Week. This week’s review takes up nearly three columns and discusses the “Progress of the War,” chronicling the preparations, battles, and other small happenings related to the Civil War from all over the country.
Among the highlights are reports of General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of Fort Henry on February 6, the arrest of Union General Stone (and other civilians) on the grounds of treason and collusion with the enemy, and the sense of hopelessness among the rebel forces, covered constantly in the North’s newspapers.
Grant’s capture of Fort Henry will soon be followed up by reports on the pivotal capture of Fort Donelson on February 16. These last two successes of his campaign in Kentucky and Tennessee definitively captured both states for the Union, and also earned Grant the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.”
Fresh Gossip of Books, Authors, Art, and Artists: An anonymous columnist relates the latest in titles ready to be released—as soon as the War dies down. The author says some famous authors are set to release both heavily-anticipated sequels and new books, and even reveals some plot points and details about a few of them.
Augusta Jane Evans, the controversial Southern writer, is one such author.
Her novel Beulah became popular during the Civil War, and this article hints at the release of her next book, Macaria, but also questions Evans’ character. The article aligns “true womanhood” with being a “good Union woman,” but also concedes that as long as Evans stands behind her beliefs and
draws a line between her northern friends and the wicked ‘invaders,’
she remains a respectable woman and writer.
On Emancipation. Various columns this week focus on “The Emancipation Question” from different viewpoints. “Emancipation and its Effects” is the last of these articles written by a “gentleman from the eastern part of Massachusetts” who will publish all his columns in pamphlet form. It summarizes the abolitionist argument, stating that the North has much more to gain than lose by emancipating all slaves in the Confederacy, and that–contrary to popular belief of the time—freed people of color are harmless, capable, and ready to take on freedom.
“A Promiscuous Rampage” by a few anonymous writers attacks the government for being too forgiving to the Confederate states and border states, and for not aiming to completely subjugate the South and abolish slavery in every part of the country before declaring a restored Union—if there could ever be one.
“Taking Care of the ‘Contraband’” gives some updates on how the North aims to help freed slaves who come from the South. Some states have constructed living spaces with schools and churches; instructions on how to donate clothing are at the end of the column.
A strange three sentence long column appears on the corner of page 2, describing what Ralph Waldo Emerson thinks of the war. With no author or title, we cannot be sure who wrote it.
Atlantic Monthly, February 15, 1862:
“Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Julia Ward Howe’s famous poem-song makes its debut in this month’s Atlantic. The piece raised morale and became wildly popular in the North, and remains an important influence on poetry, song, and pop culture to this day. Originally taken as a patriotic song for the North, it now acts as a general cry of loyalty, whether in the United States or abroad. The "hymn" uses long lines, each stanza containing three 15-syllable lines in iambic rhythm followed by a 6-syllable refrain in a trochaic rhythm, and a very regular rhyme scheme: aaab, cccb, dddb, eeeb. These elements give the impression of a marching army, straight lines and perfect timing.
A poem titled “Snow” paints a vivid picture of a wintry nature scene, specifically focusing on how snow changes the landscape. Likewise, the poem “Midwinter” watches the silent invasion of a snowfall. This poem’s stanzas vary in length and in meter, but all lines are almost consistently octosyllabic, and are in couplet pairs. The subtly varying feet disrupt the normal flow of the piece that the first stanza establishes with the traditional (but still cut short!) iambic tetrameter, as if seasons are slowly shifting and a snowstorm moves in to take over from warm fall weather.
“At Port Royal” by John Greenleaf Whittier speaks in the voice of “the Negro Boatmen,” glorifying the black population soon to unite and rise to freedom, as “De Lord” intended. Last week, we highlighted this poem, reprinted in the Hampshire Gazette, as an example of the ballad measure. The use of black vernacular by a white author plays into “the Emancipation Question”–Whittier was an outspoken abolitionist and used poetry to advocate for the cause. As discussed last week, this poem uses extremely regular and traditional metric forms: 12 quatrains, with abab rhyme schemes in each stanza, and a refrain. Metrically, the poem is very similar to “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Such a stately meter used with black vernacular language reinforces what the poem aims to do: elevate the black speaker, his cause of freedom, his personhood, to show that emancipation is not only possible but the only moral way to proceed.
A final poem titled “Ease of Work” is about the struggle all authors feel in living up to their best work, even when what they produce surpasses the expectations of their readers.
Articles on Italian landscape art and natural history also appear this month. Dickinson may have had some interest in them, because the natural sciences were considered appropriate for women, and as a child, she worked on multiple herbariums like many other young girls at the time.
“Samuel Bowles and Power”
One of Emily Dickinson’s main correspondents during this period was Samuel Bowles, editor of the Springfield Republican.
Dickinson wrote a cluster of letters to Bowles, which Thomas Johnson dates to “early 1862.” Alfred Habegger, in My Wars Are Laid Away in Books, dates them to late 1861, and Jay Leyda, in The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, dates each of them sporadically, and also adds Letter 229, which the other scholars date to February 1861. For simplicity’s sake, and to explore the relationship between Dickinson and Bowles in one place, we present all the letters in a group here.
In Letter 249 Dickinson apologizes for “amazing” Bowles’ “kindness,” perhaps meaning she overstepped a boundary in a previous interaction or correspondence. This letter also contains a poem:
[Sh]ould you but fail
[at] – Sea -
[In] sight of me -
[Or] doomed lie -
[Ne]xt Sun – to die -
[O]r rap – at Paradise -
I’d harass God
until he let [you]
Bowles traveled by ship to Europe, and Dickinson wishes him well in this letter. The “you” in the poem is evidently very important to the speaker, as she would “harass God” to give her friend eternal peace should his ship go down.
Letter 250 contains a version of “Title divine – is mine!” a poem Dickinson also sent to Susan Dickinson in a much more contained form around 1865. After the poem in the letter to Bowles, Dickinson writes:
Here's – what I had to "tell you" -
You will tell no other? Honor – is it's
own pawn -
As Bowles was the publisher and editor of the Springfield Republican, perhaps the request, “you will tell no other?” asks Bowles to promise not to publish the poem without her consent, as some of her poems were during her life. The phrase,“Honor – is it’s own pawn -,” also concludes Dickinson’s first letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L260), again following a line that asks him not to “betray” her.
Through the strait pass
of suffering -
The Martyrs – even – trod.
Their feet – opon Temptation -
Their faces – opon God -
A stately – shriven -
Convulsion – playing round -
Harmless – as streaks
of meteor -
Opon a Planet's Bond -
Their faith -
the everlasting troth -
Their expectation – fair -
The Needle – to the North
Wades – so – thro' polar Air!
The letter preceding the poem seems to be an introduction to it:
If you doubted my Snow – for a moment – you never will – again – I know -
Because I could not say it – I fixed it in the Verse – for you to read – when your thought wavers, for such a foot as mine -
Bowles might have reacted negatively to another poem Dickinson sent to him, and said as much. In response, Dickinson tries to convince him never to “doubt her Snow – for a moment.” The “feet” here also refer to the poetic foot, and Dickinson uses snow and whiteness as a symbol of poetics in other places as well, most relevantly in “Publication – is the Auction” (F788, J709) when the speaker criticizes the publication process as a “foul” thing, one that renders poets as sellouts, something in which the speaker would rather not “invest – Our Snow -”.
Letter 252 thanks Bowles for his gracious understanding, and wishes that he could come to Amherst for a visit that very day. It also encloses another poem about emotional distress:
“Speech” – is a prank
of Parliament -
“Tears” – a trick of
the nerve -
But the Heart with
the heaviest freight
Does'nt – always – move -
This poem may be an exploration of the numbness Dickinson refers to in relation to the “terror” she experienced in September of 1861, the exact nature of which is unknown. Bowles was one of her correspondents to hear about it and provide support, which may be the reason for sending such a grateful letter to him and confiding her feelings about power and entitlement to him.
The word entitle — with its (timely up-)rooting as a term used in gender-, class-, and race-studies, relations, and activism — causes such tremors in the foundations of Western thinking at present in history that I found myself hesitant in writing a reflection on it this week for White Heat. Emily Dickinson’s use of the word seems to be one of meta-positivity, a sort of anointed power vested in the “entitled” provident, that must be respected, along with a self-awareness of the dangers attached to power, generally, that we might see quite readily on the surface of Shakespeare, for one, in his tragedies of royalty.
It seems, however, inversely, to be quite subversive in its seduction, inviting a sort of meta-ironic image of an evil, caught in its own net, as say Baudelaire might have put it, as a flâneur and poet living in Paris around the same time. As a verb of endowment, opening towards an invitation of another’s entitlement, as viewed in the political context that it receives today — seems rather than a “knighting,” or even a “crowning” — to be inviting no less (even more) of a sovereign position whose danger lies in a fall towards tyranny, and to those in a position of power and authority, who would likewise abuse it.
It is in fact, rather than purely a seductive word, also a sobering one.
That church’s space —
is quiet that lonely thing
that sings over morning,
a dusty light fluorescence.
In liminal loneliness, life —
is like some wooden door,
around whom blind corners
turn — on its hinges; to those
who have not yet known it —
a practiced goodbye — are learning it
indeed — that in hymns, it is — already —
procreating endlessly, along tomorrow.
Bio: Eliot Cardinaux is a pianist and poet. He is the founder of The Bodily Press through which he has released the works of others, as well as several of his own chapbooks, including, most recently, Mother of Two. His first album as a leader, American Thicket, was released in 2016 on Loyal Label. His poetry has been featured in Caliban Online, Big Big Wednesday, Hollow, and Bloodroot Literary Magazine. Cardinaux performs and records regularly around the East Coast and in Europe. His latest musical project, Sweet Beyond Witness, is an album of solo piano compositions and spoken word with accompanying writings and film, slated for release in 2018.
Atlantic Monthly, February 15, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 15, 1862
Johnson, Thomas H. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1986.
Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Archon Books, 1970.
Habegger, Alfred. My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. The Modern Library, 2002.