Emily Dickinson compiled Fascicle 18, consisting of 17 poems, in autumn 1862. A seasonal marker emerges in the second poem of the Fascicle’s first sheet, “I know a place where Summer strives” (F363A, J337). The poem recounts the annual battle between summer and winter when “Frost” overtakes “her Daisies” for a brief period. Although Summer continues to pour “the Dew” upon the hardened ground, it “stiffens quietly to Quartz” in the increasingly cold air. While this poem works beautifully as an illustration of the changing seasons, Dickinson also uses this subject as a metaphor for the subject of resurrection, a theme that haunts the entire fascicle. As last week’s post observed, Dickinson associated resurrection with the season of spring, and it is a major preoccupation of hers. As she will remark to Thomas Higginson in a letter dated June 9, 1866:
You mention Immortality.
That is the Flood subject. (Letter 319)
The theme of resurrection emerges mainly through the poems’ proximity to one another. This reflects Sharon Cameron’s argument in her landmark analysis of the Fascicles, Choosing Not Choosing (1992). According to Cameron, while the Fascicles do not form a classically linear or chronological narrative, the poems’ proximity within the pages of the Fascicles inevitably leads the reader to associate them with one another and, thus, understand them through that relational lens.
In the case of Fascicle 18, we can observe this process working to create several narratives. One of the most obvious is how the poet blurs the lines between a lover and a deity or higher power. Thus, a poem like “I tend my flowers for thee” (F367A, J339), which appears romantic and erotic outside of the Fascicle’s context, reads as spiritual and even cynical when it follows “I know that He exists” (F365A, J338) and “He strained my faith” (F366A, J497). For this post, though, we will focus on the themes of resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality, which in this fascicle take the form of belief in and questions about what happens after death.
“A Truly Independent People”
Springfield Republican, March 25, 1862, Foreign Affairs: “The difficulty of the allied powers with Mexico may be considered as settled.”
John Bull and Brother Jonathan: This column argues that Americans have come to care nothing for England’s opinion and searches for a reason. The writer points to English ignorance of American institutions and peoples, their “sham rejection of slavery,” their lack of “sagacity,” even their ignorance of American geography, and makes this astonishing declaration:
We have never before, in our national history, been free from bondage to this opinion. Now, thank Heaven, we are. England has lost something she could not afford to lose; we have gained something we have always needed to make us a truly independent people.
It is worth remembering, as was noted in last week's post, that Lieutenant Colonel Clark, who commanded the 21st Massachusetts regiment, reported that Frazar Stearns was killed by “a ball from an English rifle. ” In this week’s Hampshire Gazette, a description of the battle of New Berne confirmed the fact that England was arming the Confederacy:
A large quantity of small arms, many of them new English rifles, were thrown away in their [the rebels’] flight. These with boxes of English caps found upon the ground, were, no doubt, late importations by the Nashville, which recently ran the blockade at Beaufort. … Over thirty dead horses lay behind the breastworks, and here and there the bodies of the rebel dead in the ditches on the field. The appearance of so many dead and mangled human beings in every stage of mutilation, was a sickening sight, and one which few would wish to behold a second time.
Springfield Republican, Saturday March 29, Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “The rebels, having abandoned their boasted Gibraltars, are now talking largely about making Thermopylaes. They undertook one near Winchester, Virginia, the other day, but Gen. Shields spoiled it for them, and after a most disastrous defeat, they fled to seek a new stand-point further in the heart of Virginia.”
The General Situation: “The rebels are suspected of playing false in the matter of exchanging prisoners.”
Springfield Republican: Life in Washington; Seen through New Spectacles. From our Special Correspondent: “Spring hovers not very far up in the sunny azure. … Nature may allure me to say that even Washington is fair.”
Also, from the Republican, the army rouses out of its winter lethargy. It is worthwhile to compare this description with the obsequies of Frazar Stearns in Amherst:
With shouts of joy which seem to rend the very sky, they receive their orders to march. With hilarious cries they rush on to death or victory. And these are not the men, whose fall on the battle field will win them glorious fames, funeral pageants, and immortal eulogies. They know that if they are wounded, strangers will tend them, while they languish in dreary hospitals; that if they die in battle, strangers will lay them in their unrecorded graves, if haply they do not fall like cattle in their trenches. These are our mercenaries.
How Shall we Deal with Slavery?
It is true that slavery is a purely state institution; the constitution neither sustains nor prohibits it, but simply recognizes its existence in the states. But the struggle of the southern leaders has been to make it a national institution, and to use the power and resources of the Union for its protection and extension, and they have made war upon the Union because they say that they had forever lost the power to prostitute the general government to the interests of their barbarous institution. Every legal and constitutional measure by which slavery can be limited and checked ought therefore to receive popular support, and will.
Springfield Republican printed “Night-Song in Lent” by R. Storrs Willis (1819-1900), an American composer, mainly of hymn music, and a long column on the recent popularity of photo albums. Then, this short notice came at the very bottom of the last column on page 6:
“Fanny Fern” has separated from her husband, Parton, on the ground of alleged misuse, not only on his part but that of one of his relatives.”
“A Brother Lost”
This week, the Dickinsons still mourn the death of Frazar Stearns.
Hampshire Gazette for March 25 ran a story about “The Capture of Newbern” that included a letter by “Lieut. Dwight of this town,” written to his brother, in which he says of the battle:
It is impossible for me to give you any description of the fight in writing … The fog was very thick and the smoke hung to the ground … We heard cheering and knew that a charge was being made, but there was no cessation of the firing and it was understood that the enemy held their position. This charge was made by the 21st Mass., 3 companies, and they got inside but were driven out, and their loss was very great. Adjutant Stearns of the 21st was killed. He is the son of President Stearns of Amherst College.
The Gazette also included a long obituary for Stearns that began:
The death of this young man has detracted much from the joy with which the victory would otherwise have been hailed by our people. … the remains of the student soldier were followed to the tomb by all the faculty and students of the college, and many of the town’s people, all of whom mourned as for a brother lost.
But change is afoot. April will be a momentous month for Emily Dickinson.
Starting in middle school and ending when I came to college, I would spend hours every day baking in the sun on poorly maintained tennis courts, perfecting my serve and topspin. Any one of my coaches’ rolling baskets of fuzzy yellow balls would inevitably contain a tiny torture device called a “reaction ball.” I bet many high school athletes would know exactly what I’m referring to: a tiny rubber device that looked like a bouncy ball with other bouncy ball halves growing out of it at odd angles. Coach would bounce it, I’d go running after it in whichever completely unpredictable direction it opted to fly off. Catch it in the air, I’m still in the game; catch it after a bounce, and I’d have push-ups or burpees or sprints as punishment. For a while, I thought that quitting tennis in college meant I’d left the unpredictable demands of the reaction ball far behind me. But that was before I started writing a senior honors thesis on Dickinson’s Fascicle 18.
Fascicle 18 a beautiful reaction ball of themes and meanings, hopping away from me in some shocking new direction the moment I begin to think I’ve gotten a grip on it. I found my way to the fascicle because of a close reading assignment I completed my junior winter in Professor Schweitzer’s “The New Emily Dickinson” course on its fourth poem, “I know that He exists.” The year of the poem’s composition —1862, at the peak of Dickinson’s “white heat” of creativity and the Civil War — and its use of words like “Ambush,” “piercing,” and “Death” led me in the direction of war. I read the poem as a call to an absent God to intervene in the bloody tragedy of the Civil War.
Based on this reading, I submitted my thesis proposal, positing that I would do an analysis of the fascicle through the lens of war and religion. I quickly realized, however, that to boil a fascicle down to two central themes is to do Dickinson a great injustice — so for the past few months, I’ve chased this fascicle down countless side alleys and back roads, finding myself face-to-face with themes as quintessentially Dickinson as cyclical time, immortality, death, and poetry itself and as surprising as miscarriages, abortions, and trauma.
In Fascicle 18, it’s exactly Dickinson’s noncommittal word play — choosing not to choose single definitions — that creates this reaction ball effect. In “I know that He exists,” “Bliss” is personified; she must “Earn her own surprise.” Later in the fascicle, in “Is Bliss then, such Abyss,” Bliss is an object: “sold just once / The Patent lost / None buy it any more —.” On sheet five, the speaker’s “Reward for Being, was This — / My premium — My Bliss —.” Within the fascicle context, this single word takes on three different meanings but also inevitably carries the context and definition that it has elsewhere in the fascicle. We hold all three Blisses in our mind at one time when we read Fascicle 18, incapable of ignoring the trace of Dickinson’s variants and altering the impression of the entire poem and fascicle.
Bio: Madeline is a member of the Dartmouth class of 2018. An English major and an Italian minor, she took the "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course taught by Ivy Schweitzer in winter 2017. This course inspired her English honors thesis, which focused on Dickinson's Fascicle 18. A chapter of this thesis, titled “The Landscape of Bliss,” won the prize for the best undergraduate research essay from the Emily Dickinson International Society in 2018.
Kirby, Joan. "Death and Immortality." Emily Dickinson in Context. Ed. Eliza Richards. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, 160-178.
Hampshire Gazette, March 25, 1862.
Springfield Republican, March 29, 1862
The Hampshire Gazette, March 25, 1862