Last week in 1862, the Springfield Republican published an enthusiastic notice about the forthcoming October issue of the Atlantic Monthly, which begins with Henry David Thoreau’s posthumously published essay, “Autumnal Tints” and ends with John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “The Battle Autumn of 1862.” These two works were part of a cultural moment of unrivaled natural beauty and unforeseen national horror at the growing deadly toll of the Civil War. This week’s post focuses on the theme of “Autumn” and explores these two works as important social and rhetorical contexts for Dickinson’s poetry of autumn written during this period.
Dickinson would have read both the essay and the poem in the Atlantic. They help to frame or, perhaps, echo her use of the seasonal and symbolic imagery of autumn to express her shocked awareness of war-time losses and death. During her life, Dickinson wrote many poems about autumn, but as Michelle Kohler argues, the poems she wrote in the autumn of 1862
are distinct not only for their quantity compared to other years but also for their haunting, sometimes violent imagery and their self-conscious, ironic tones. … no doubt provoked by the war’s violent transformation of the national landscape.
“Battle Autumn of 1862”
Springfield Republican, October 18, 1862
Progress of the War, page 1
“The rebels have taken advantage of our prolonged inaction on the Potomac, and Stuart’s cavalry [J. E. B. “Jeb” Stuart (1833-1864), Virginia-born US Army officer who became a gallant and masterful Confederate general during the Civil War] has made a bold raid into Pennsylvania, making the complete circuit of our army and getting back safely into Virginia. This exploit was more daring and, under the circumstances, more successful than the similar exploit of the same dashing cavaliers on the Chickahominy, and it is impossible not to admire their gallantry, disgraceful as the facts are to our own side.”
The Word for the Hour, page 2
“If ever there was an hour in the history of our country when the emergency demanded new hope and courage and cheerfulness, and the grasping of new strength for the sinews of toil, that hour is the present. Not that there is any lack of determination or resolution, for every set and every expression bears the seal of both. As a people we had learned to be buoyant and jovial and hopeful. Now is the time to be on our guard against the discouragements, the suspicions, the doubts, the fears, the sadness which will seek to overpower and make us imbecile.”
Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“Musical matters in this country are very naturally quiescent, while war and battle’s sound predominate. The government evidently has no ‘ear,’ and is forgetful of the inspiring effect music has on soldiers, for it has dismissed most of its regimental bands.”
Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862
Amherst, page 2
“Hon. Horace Maynard of Tennessee spoke in Agricultural Hall on Monday evening week on the state of the country. He denounced slavery as the cause of the war and deprecated the raising of party issues at the present time.”
Harper’s Monthly, October 1862
Romola, page 669 [historical novel of 1862-63 by George Eliot]
“Death had met him at his journey’s end. She had seen it all now. Loss, suffering—weary hearts, brave, hopeful hearts—and here the drama’s close! She felt as if she could never smile again as they glided silently away from the sloping green shore. So much voiceless, uncomplaining misery in those glistering, white tents, and in the homes, they were wearying to see! So much courage and self-sacrifice! So much devotion to a country that scarcely heeded these numberless patient offerings to its need!”
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862
[from the Springfield Republican, October 11, 1862, Nature, Newspapers, Etc., page 7
“The Atlantic for October would be a capital number if it contained nothing but the opening ‘Autumnal Tints’ by Thoreau and the ending ‘Battle Autumn’ by Whittier. What a sweet, sanctifying influence nature has upon her truest children. The simplicity born of her very self, the calm and the dignity, the purity and tenderness, the soft shadows, the wonderful fragrance, all her most delicate attributes steal into the works of these two men, and through their works we love them both.”
from “Autumnal Tints” by Henry David Thoreau
It is pleasant to walk over the beds of these fresh, crisp, and rustling leaves. How beautifully they go to their graves! how gently lay themselves down and turn to mould!—painted of a thousand hues, and fit to make the beds of us living. So they troop to their last resting place, light and frisky. They put on no weeds, but merrily they go scampering over the earth, selecting the spot, choosing a lot, ordering no iron fence, whispering all through the woods about it,—some choosing the spot where the bodies of men are mouldering beneath, and meeting them half-way. How many flutterings before they rest quietly in their graves! They that soared so loftily, how contentedly they return to dust again, and are laid low, resigned to lie and decay at the foot of the tree, and afford nourishment to new generations of their kind, as well as to flutter on high! They teach us how to die. One wonders if the time will ever come when men, with their boasted faith in immortality, will lie down as gracefully and as ripe,—with such an Indian-summer serenity will shed their bodies, as they do their hair and nails.
“Red is the Color of Colors”
Fall 1862 was a particularly bloody and traumatic time for the nation and must have deeply affected Dickinson and her circle of dedicated newspaper and journal readers. Papers and magazines printed detailed reports of bloody battles and battlefields, often accompanied by illustrations, and carried reports of Matthew Brady’s exhibit in New York of photographs of the horrible aftermath of the Battle of Antietam. As the reports intensified, attitudes became more agitated and extreme. In several letters Dickinson wrote during this period, she wrestles with the realities of the war.
For many of Dickinson’s contemporaries, the war represented a divine punishment of national sins, especially the sin of slavery. In an examination of writing about the war during this period, David Cody finds many writers expressing the widespread belief that only a bloody purgation of the national soul, identified as
a national crucifixion … will make possible a triumphant national resurrection.
As Julia Ward Howe famously wrote in her “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” published in the Springfield Republican in February 1862, God himself was “trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored” to produce a new sacramental wine we all must drink. In Howe’s ringing lyrics, the “burnished rows of steel” contain “a fiery Gospel” and war becomes a “righteous sentence” passed on all of us, who must sacrifice ourselves as Christ sacrificed himself.
By contrast, readers welcomed the two texts in the Atlantic this month for their calming and healing tone. Both texts, especially Whittier’s poem, acknowledge the devastating effects of war but focus on the autumnal beauty of “Nature,” which implies recuperative cycles and a “higher” form of apprehension.
Whittier’s is the more traditional vision, depicting Nature as keeping
Her ancient promise well,
Though o’re her bloom and greenness sweeps
The battle’s breath of hell.
In his vision, war is not the glorious sacrifice depicted by Howe in her “Battle Hymn,” but associated with Hell and chaos, hate, bitterness and suffering. The speaker asks “in times like these” for the ability to see with Nature’s eyes and hear with her ears in order to meet the palpable grief and pain around us.
She mocks with tint of flower and leaf
The war-field’s crimson stain.
Mocks because her sanguinary colors do not signify tragic death but the necessary harvest of ripeness and the rest and renewal of the earth.
Thoreau worked on his essay as he lay dying of tuberculosis in early 1862; he never knew of the atrocities of Antietam, yet his words address a nation in turmoil. The essay turns the “notes” he took on the autumnal changes of a range of local plants, grasses and trees into a kind of word-fugue adorned with philosophical reflections. Dickinson responds to and echoes many passages from this beautiful essay in her autumn poetry.
For Thoreau, as for Dickinson, the seasons and, in fact, all of the physical world are emblematic. “October is [the world’s] sunset sky,” the season of flaming beauty, ripeness and harvest. It brings an inestimable wealth of beauty the world bestows on us all as our common inheritance, free for the taking, if we can but “see” it:
No annual training or muster of soldiery, no celebration with its scarfs and banners, could import into the town a hundredth part of the annual splendor of our October.
And if we only “elevate our view a little,” we can see that red “is the color of colors [that] speaks to our blood” but not in terms of warfare and killing:
It is the emblem of a successful life concluded by a death not premature, which is an ornament to Nature. What if we were to mature as perfectly, root and branch, glowing in the midst of our decay …
For Thoreau, we cannot rightly appreciate living without embracing the end of life, a lesson we can learn from the autumnal tints of the New England woods. But there are larger lessons to learn from the trees:
A village needs these innocent stimulants of bright and cheering prospects to keep off melancholy and superstition. Show me two villages, one embowered in trees and blazing with all the glories of October, the other a merely trivial and treeless waste, or with only a single tree or two for suicides, and I shall be sure that in the latter will be found the most starved and bigoted religionists and the most desperate drinkers. Every wash-tub and milk-can and gravestone will be exposed. The inhabitants will disappear abruptly behind their hams and houses, like desert Arabs amid their rocks, and I shall look to see spears in their hands. They will be ready to accept the most barren and forlorn doctrine,—as that the world is speedily coming to an end, or has already got to it, or that they themselves are turned wrong side outward.
Dickinson must have appreciated Thoreau’s mocking account of their Puritan forebears:
One wonders that the tithing-men and fathers of the town are not out to see what the trees mean by their high colors and exuberance of spirits, fearing that some mischief is brewing. I do not see what the Puritans did at this season, when the Maples blaze out in scarlet. They certainly could not have worshipped in groves then. Perhaps that is what they built meeting-houses and fenced them round with horse-sheds for.
Finally, with her disdain of society and love of hay and grass and sense of the agency of nature, Dickinson must have resonated with this passage in Thoreau's essay:
Think what refuge there is for one, before August is over, from college commencements and society that isolates! I can skulk amid the tufts of Purple Wood-Grass on the borders of the “Great Fields.” … I had brushed against them and trodden on them, for sooth; and now, at last, they, as it were, rose up and blessed me. Beauty and true wealth are always thus cheap and despised. Heaven might be defined as the place which men avoid. Who can doubt that these grasses, which the farmer says are of no account to him, find some compensation in your appreciation of them?
As I write, a surprisingly warm breeze (for mid-October in Vermont) ruffles the leaves of the old lilac tree outside my study window, while rich afternoon sun glints off the leaves fallen to the ground. The sky is absolutely clear, a light blue. And while there is no scarlet rain in the forecast, this also feels like a bloody autumn season, given the political situation, the recent confirmation travesty, and the upcoming mid-term elections.
I have to confess to taking refuge in the nineteenth century more times than I care to say this year; perhaps work we love is a healthy solace. And so I take this opportunity to reflect on the process of White Heat at this time of harvest and gathering in. Every week brings a surprise like a crisp apple, sometimes many surprises. Here are the surprises for this week.
First, reading Thoreau is always a revelation, but especially in light of Dickinson. I think much more work could be done on his influence on her thinking and writing. In reading his essay, “Autumnal Tints,” I am struck by their common discourse of natural things as “friends” and how the autumn colors “excite” Thoreau in an almost erotic way. Talking about the late red Maples, he exclaims, and I can almost hear Dickinson approving his sentiment:
A queen might be proud to walk where these gallant trees have spread their bright cloaks in the mud.
I am struck by Thoreau's casual assertion of the contemporary presence of ancient mythology. In describing the “great fleet of scattered leaf-boats which we paddle amid” on an afternoon trip up the Assabet, he adds as an aside:
—like boats of hide, and of all patterns, Charon's boat probably among the rest, and some with lofty prows and poops, like the stately vessels of the ancients, scarcely moving in the sluggish current,—
With the merest of ripples in the emotional tenor of his description, death in its ancient form of a water crossing slips into the tranquil Concord landscape.
There are so many more passages to highlight, but my favorite is this: Thoreau is describing “a small Red Maple” that has
added to it stature … by a steady growth for so many months, never having gone gadding abroad, and is nearer heaven than it was in the spring.
This reminds me of our discussion of the word “gad” in a notable poem in last week’s post, “It would have starved a gnat” (F444, J612), in which the speaker complains she is so diminished that, unlike the tiny gnat, she does not even have
Opon the Window Pane
to gad my little Being out –.
Maybe gadding abroad is not all it’s cracked up to be.
And talk about gnats, did Dickinson borrow the idea of hers from Keats’s “Ode to Autumn,” a poem critical to the poems of autumn we looked at this week? Here's what Keats has to say about this arthropod:
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
For rather insignificant things, they get a lot of airplay from Keats as the wailing choir mourning the end of autumn, and they certainly “gad” about but in a mournful way.
One last surprise this week was reading “Whole Gulfs – of Red, and Fleets – of Red –” (F468, J658) into this group of autumnal-themed/war poems and glimpsing there the “horrid crews” of Satan’s fallen armies from Paradise Lost.
Finally, I offer two of my poems written as an American sojourner in London.
Dust skirts the Broad Walk of Regent’s Park
acorns underfoot burst from barbed husks
stumbling walkers ear-budded and
huddled into down vests
by noon folding macs across arms in the damp sun.
Is it really you?
Plenty of late flowers for the bees—
anemones and cyclamen
but Asian hornets arriving from France
We stand amazed at the Masons Arms,
five flights of blooms
tumbling from boxes on red brick,
but September brought scorching heat
we feared would never end.
Back home you don’t seem quite so battered.
New England’s blaze of trees
shames the sad brown things bundled into sacks
by London street sweepers.
Apples brew cider burnished like champagne
and on the West Coast
trimming season is in full swing
where you have been sighted
drowsing among the weed
high and heavy with resinous buds
How can we sing this season
homesick and appalled by the US election?
Keats’s redolent words mock us.
Deer still browse in Sussex fields
but Brexit looms like winter’s chilblains.
Out of Place
after Adrienne Rich
I wanted everything to bloody stop
Badly I wanted the walkers to work the runners and tourists
gash of giant red busses barreling down the road
abruptly as I had stopped in mid-stride
dropped to my knees slipping the mask
of urban indifference–
dead fox in Marylebone Road.
Splayed on its side at the edge of the curb.
Was it a vixen I couldn’t tell but suddenly wanted
the fierceness of vixens protecting their kits
wanted to stroke its pelt the light russet of ferrous earth
breathe the tang of rankness
browning bracken of moors and briars it had torn through
wanted a wildness to tear through
the sharp bramble of lies and lacerations.
But some frayed blue fabric around its neck
stopped my hand
makeshift collar fashioned by a child perhaps
who thought to domesticate a city fox
or bit of construction-site tarp
poked through in search of food
then torn away in feral panic
not bearing to be caught or tethered
collared like sea fowl strangled
by loops of six-pack holders.
Mysterious blue ruff
stiff against your auburn fur
royal against dirty streets and masked eyes.
I could hardly bear to look
your sly elongated muzzle
hear your bloody screech
as if you were the last free thing on earth.
bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the editor of White Heat.
Kohler, Michelle. “The Ode Unfamiliar: Dickinson, Keats, and the (Battle)fields of Autumn. Emily Dickinson Journal 22, 1, 2013: 30-54, 30.
Atlantic Monthly, October 1862
Hampshire Gazette, October 21, 1862
Harper's Monthly, October, 1862
Springfield Republican, October 18, 186
Cody, David. “Blood in the Basin: The Civil War in Emily Dickinson’s ‘The name of it is Autumn.’ " The Emily Dickinson Journal 12 1, 2003: 25-52, 39-40.
Thoreau, Henry David. “Autumnal Tints.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1862.