March 26-April 1, 1862: Fascicle 18

Emily Dickinson compiled Fascicle 18, consisting of 17 poems, in autumn 1862, though the poems she gathered in it were mostly written before that time. This week we focus on the complex relationships created by the poems’ proximity within the fascicle and how themes of resurrection, the afterlife, and immortality arise, through the Honors work of a student focusing specifically on Fascicle 18.

Madeline Killen

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Madeline Killen
Sources/Further Reading


Emily Dickinson by Jedi NoordegraafEmily 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.

“The rebel steamer ‘Nashville’ running the blockade at Beaufort, North Carolina.” Harper’s Weekly, April 5, 1862, page 209 (illustration).

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.”

 Shields at the Battle of Winchester, VA.  Currier & Ives, c1862. Gen. Shields at the Battle of Winchester, VA. Currier & Ives, c1862.[/caption]

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
Fanny Fern (Sara Willis, 1811 – 1872), a popular columnist and writer

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.

Spring Crocus
Crocus in spring.

Read this Week's Poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Madeline Killen


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.

Reaction Ball
Reaction Ball

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.

Further Reading

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


March 12-18, 1862: Death of Frazar Stearns

This week we focus on the death in battle of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern, in North Carolina. Stearns was member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. Dickinson was deeply touched by his death, as we see in the poems for this week, and this may have propelled her to consider publication.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Samantha Bryant

“A Christian Martyr”

This week we focus on the death of Frazar Stearns, which occurred on March 14, 1862 at the Battle of New Bern in North Carolina.

Frazar Stearns. Amherst College Collections

Stearns was a member of the Amherst College Class of 1863 and the son of Reverend William Stearns, the fourth and current president of Amherst College.

Reverend William Stearns.

He was one of a group of Amherst students who was encouraged to sign up for service by their popular chemistry professor, William Smith Clark of the Class of 1848. Clark became an officer in the 21st Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and appointed Stearns as his adjutant.

William Smith Clark.

According to historian Polly Longsworth, Stearns was not the only person from Amherst to perish at New Bern. But his youth, idealism, and prominent family helped to cast Stearns as a symbol of the terrible toll of the war. Following the Union Army’s victory at New Bern, General Burnside, the commanding officer, ordered that the first Confederate cannon taken during the battle be sent to Amherst as a memorial to young Stearns. The College’s Trustees ordered this cannon preserved with a plaque honoring Stearns and other casualties of the battle

as a monument of the heroism of those who have gone before them, and of the precious blood that has been spilled in suppressing this mad rebellion.

Stearns was eulogized, praised in state proclamations, and honored with a funeral that had an attendance rivaling the popular annual Amherst College Commencement.

Important for this project is that Stearns was a close friend of Austin Dickinson, Dickinson’s brother. His death hit very close to home in the Dickinson household. Dickinson wrote four letters that mention Frazar Stearns, which we will discuss below. She might have attended the ceremony, in which the 21st Regiment gave the Confederate cannon to Amherst College, at which her father presided. Scholars also speculate that this particular death might have propelled Dickinson into contacting Thomas Wentworth Higginson about her poetry and possible publication, which happened in in mid-April, the following month. There is much to explore about it.

“The meeting of ‘Marine Monsters’”


Springfield Republican, March 15, 1862– Foreign Affairs: “The news from over the water has ceased to have a particular interest in this country, with the exception of the designs of the allies on Mexico.”


Although we focus on the Battle of New Bern this week, the news of it had not yet appeared in the papers. Rather, the Republican was full of news of the “extraordinary naval battle of Norfolk,” Virginia, later known as the Battle of Hampton Roads, which occurred on March 9. For the first time, two iron-clad ships clashed: the CSS Virginia (originally named the Merrimack), secretly re-commissioned by the Confederacy,  and the smaller, though more maneuverable Monitor, retaliating for the Union.

Battle of Hampton Roads

There is only a short notice of “The Burnside Expedition … starting on a secret expedition to the mainland, the object of which is not revealed.”

Here is a summary of what happened at New Bern, with more details related to Stearns' role in the Biography section: Troops under the command of Maj. Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside moved into the North Carolina mainland, targeting New Bern, which had served as the capital of the North Carolina colonial government and then briefly as the state capital. On March 14, the 21st Massachusetts Regiment assaulted a brickyard and makeshift Confederate battery, allowing Union forces to take New Bern, which remained in Union control until the end of the war. New Bern proved to be an important victory for the Union because of the large amount of arms and equipment captured, and because it compromised the enemy’s supply lines. But it was costly: the 21st lost 19 men during the battle.

“Plan of the Battle of Newberne.” Map by Robert Knox Sneden, 1832-1918. The original is at the Virginia Historical Society.

“Let us love better”

Frazar Stearns was born on 21 June 1840 and died on 14 March 1862; he was 21 years old.

Frazar Stearns. Image: Amherst College

His family was descended from some of the earliest settlers in New England: Thomas Dudley, governor of the Mass Bay Colony and father of the poet Anne Bradstreet, and Captain Edward Johnson, who both came over from England with John Winthrop in 1630.

On March 9, 1862, Stearns wrote to his mother,

We are going to-morrow morning at daylight somewhere, — where, exactly, I don't know… God only knows what a day may bring forth. He only can tell what may happen to me on the morrow; always remember that any hour or any moment may bring you news that I am killed or dangerously wounded. If either, then God’s will be done; and I hope I may always be prepared for any issue.
These are horrible times, when every man’s hand is against his neighbor. But I have hope. Let the North pray more; let them give the glory to God and not to man, and these days which are rolling by shall be full of glorious victories, which are soon, very soon, to bring on peace.

This letter reached the family on March 18th carried by a wounded private in Stearns' regiment.

On the eve of the battle, Stearns was still recovering from a wound he took at the battle of Roanoke on February 7, 1862. When the Union and Confederate forces engaged at New Bern, it became clear that the Confederates had left an unguarded gap in a wall that led to a strategic brickyard. Lieutenant Colonel William Clark volunteered his regiment to surge through the gap with bayonets and with muskets that were unreliable because many had gotten wet in the previous night’s rain. Furthermore, they were charging into superior fire. In the first surge on the brickyard, Stearns was hit just as the men began to head for the gap.

Lieutenant Colonel Clark wrote of the battle:

[T]he noblest of us all, my brave, efficient, faithful adjutant, First Lieutenant F. A. Stearns, of Company I, fell mortally wounded… As he was cheering on the men to charge upon the enemy across the railroad, he was struck by a ball from an English rifle… He lived about two hours and a half, though nearly unconscious from the loss of blood, and died without a struggle a little before noon.

When the telegram with this news arrived in Amherst on March 19th, the town was shocked and deeply affected. The funeral occurred on March 22. In one of her letters, discussed below, Dickinson gives a detailed description of it. Barton Levi St. Armand believes that “I felt a funeral in my brain”(F340A, J280)  may be Dickinson’s psychological response to Stearns’ funeral. Quickly thereafter, Stearns’ father published a book titled Adjutant Stearns based on his son’s letters from the front, William Clark’s accounts, and including the eulogies from the funeral and praises from people who did not even know Stearns. From this point onward, he became a symbol, almost the image of a Christian martyr.

The response in the Dickinson family was profound grief. Austin Dickinson was a close friend of Stearns.

William Austin Dickinson (1829-1895). Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library

He would be drafted in May 1864 and, along with four other Dickinson men who were also drafted, would hire a substitute at the price of $500 to take his place. This was customary in the upper classes, but the death of his close friend probably influenced his decision. The death was also deeply personal for Emily Dickinson, who knew Stearns and his family.

Dickinson mentions Stearns first in a letter dated December 31, 1861  addressed to her cousin Louise Norcross. In it, she refers to the death of another local boy, Sylvester Adams, communicated through a telegram signed “by Frazer Stearns” to a mother who has lost both her boys to the war. “Mrs. Adams herself has not risen from bed since then,” Dickinson reports and adds,

Frazer Stearns is just leaving Annapolis. His father has gone to see him to-day. I hope that ruddy face won’t be brought home frozen (L245).

But he is “brought home frozen.” In a letter to both Norcross cousins, Dickinson writes of Frazar’s death, and  the minute details she recounts indicate just how  intensely she felt this particular death:

You have done more for me– ‘tis the least that I can do, to tell you of brave Frazer –“killed at Newbern,” darlings. His big heart shot away by a “minie ball.”
I had read of those – I didn’t think that Frazer would carry one to Eden with him. Just as he fell, in his soldier’s cap, with his sword at his side, Frazer rode through Amherst. Classmates to the right of him, and classmates to the left of him, to guard his narrow face! He fell by the side of Professor Clark, his superior officer – lived ten minutes in a soldier’s arms, asked twice for water – murmured just, “My God!” and passed! Sanderson, his classmate, made a box of boards in the night, put the brave boy in, covered with a blanket, rowed six miles to reach the boat,– so poor Frazer came. They tell that Colonel Clark cried like a little child when he missed his pet, and could hardly resume his post. They loved each other very much. Nobody here could look on Frazer – not even his father. The doctors would not allow it.
The bed on which he came was enclosed in a large casket shut entirely, and covered from head to foot with the sweetest flowers. He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him good night, choirs sang to him, pastors told how brave he was – early-soldier heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds the wind shakes.
So our part in Frazer is done, but you must come next summer, and we will mind ourselves of this young crusader – too brave that he could fear to die. We will play his tunes – maybe he can hear them; we will try to comfort his broken-hearted Ella, who, as the clergyman said, “gave him peculiar confidence.” …. Austin is stunned completely. Let us love better, children, it’s the most that’s left to do. (L255)

Is there an echo of Tennyson’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” (1854) in Dickinson’s description of Stearns riding through Amherst with his classmates on either side? Tennyson wrote,

Cannon to the right of them,
Cannon to the left of them,
Cannon in front of them (ll. 18-20).

And does this echo give us a glimpse of Dickinson’s attitude towards this death, famously expressed by Tennyson:

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die (ll. 14-15).

In another letter at this time to Samuel Bowles, Dickinson writes again of this disturbing death. Her comments are often quoted as referring to her brother’s grief, but editor Thomas Johnson notes that,

This letter, which apparently enclosed another letter for Bowles to forward to somebody, uses Austin’s name throughout as a cover (399).

Although Dickinson refers to herself in the third person in the paragraph just before the one that mentions Stearns, the passage about Austin’s reaction can also be read as her own, especially as the imagery she uses makes it into her poetry about this event:

Austin is chilled – by Frazer’s murder– he says ­– his brain keeps saying over “Frazer is killed” – “Frazer is killed,” ­ just as Father told it – to Him. Two or three words of lead – that dropped so deep, they keep weighing –
Tell Austin – how to get over them! (L256)

In another letter to Bowles, Dickinson includes the poem “Victory comes late” (F195, J690), discussed in this week’s poems, which some see as her elegy for Frazar Stearns. Bowles wrote to Austin and Sue

 … and then the news from Newbern took away all the remaining life. I did not care for victory, for anything now. (Letters, 400)

Finally, in mid-July, 1871, Dickinson wrote to Louise Norcross:

“Oh! Cruel Paradise! We have a chime of bells given for brave Frazer. You’ll stop and hear them, won’t you?
“We conquered, but Bozzaris fell.” That sentence always chokes me (L362).

The town hung the bells memorializing Frazar Stearns on July 4, 1871. The reference, according to Johnson, is to a widely popular ballad, “Marco Bozzaris” by Fitz-Greene Halleck, about a general and hero of the Greek War of Independence, first published in 1825. The line Dickinson paraphrases reads:

They conquered ­ – but Bozzaris fell.

The rich digital source, “‘A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson,” edited by Marta Werner, also makes a provocative connection between the effect of Stearns’ death and Dickinson’s attitude towards her writing and her decision to contact Thomas Wentworth Higginson after she read his essay, “A Letter to a Young Contributor,” in the April 15th Atlantic Monthly. Werner speculates:

Indeed, it is very likely that the death of Frazar Stearns is also an impetus for her introductory letter to this prominent literary and war figure, particularly as Higginson's claim that nothing will make one immortal — not politics, not distinction in war — must have struck a chord following the poignant gun ceremony of April 14 [at which the Confederate cannon from New Bern was delivered to Amherst College].

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Samantha Bryant

I came to Emily Dickinson in elementary school. My teacher had assigned us, as a handwriting project, the neat copying of classic poems, which we were then allowed to illustrate and gather in a folder made out of wallpaper scraps. Most of us probably didn’t really absorb the poetry—the old-fashioned diction and difficult vocabulary made understanding the verses challenging for young readers—but I remember the loving care I took in copying the poems I chose, my feeling that, even if I didn’t really understand exactly what was being said, they were speaking some dark and secret place in my heart. These poems felt magic to me, like spells or maybe curses.

One of my selections was “Because I could not stop for Death” (F479), which might seem a bleak selection for such a young poetry reader. Despite my youth and inexperience with death, I was a serious minded little girl, with a religious bent, trying hard to reconcile my feelings of right and wrong with the conflicting messages I was hearing about God and the afterlife. I was drawn in by the image of a small, serious girl (much like myself) sitting in a carriage with Death himself, which in my mind looked like a traditional grim reaper, calmly riding off into the sunset.

As I grew up and grew older, Emily’s poetry (I feel I’ve known her all my life, so I think of her by her first name) always remained a touchstone in my life. It is still so today, especially when I am going through rough times full of turbulent and conflicting emotions. Her work speaks my heart especially well when she writes of grief.

In the selections for this post, I taste personal grief drizzled over a bitter cake of wider suffering. It is hard enough to lose someone beloved, but the experience is all the more devastating when the loss comes of violence or in war that seems senseless, especially to those watching from afar. Reading these poems opens an ache deep within, an echo of the complicated tangle of emotions surrounding loss.

There is such daring challenge and visceral hurt in a line like “Was God so economical?” Economy seems a petty thing, a concern for householders, not for all-powerful God, but the God in “Victory comes late” has set the table so high that we can’t reach it, though He has promised to care for us. In grief, so many of us experience anger and a feeling of having been betrayed or cheated, like sparrows left to starve.

As my students say, “I know these feels.” I know too, the feeling of tragedy redoubled, when grief comes to someone who has already been struck by loss too many times and the desire for answers. I, too, have wanted to know whether someone suffered, or what they thought about at the end, or if they were afraid.

All the stages and phases of grief, all the terrible maelstrom of mixed emotions, all the pain and hope and fear that surround death come through in these poems and remind me once more why there’s no one like Emily to grieve with when loss knocks on your door.

Bio: Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day, and escapes into superhero fiction by night. She is the author of the Menopausal Superheroes series (Going Through the Change, Change of Life, and Face the Change) and other feminist-leaning speculative fiction. She’s also a lifelong poetry enthusiast, old movie buff, and connoisseur of home baked cookies. You can learn more about Samantha and her work at her website and blog or by following her on Twitter.

  • Amherst College,” Amherst Historic, accessed March 12, 2018.
  • Dakin, M. R. “Your Classmate and Friend.The Consecrated Eminence: The Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.
  • Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Emily Dickinson and the Civil War.” Emily Dickinson Museum.
  • Murray, Aife. Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language. Hanover: University Press of New England, 2009, 165-66.
  • Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980.
  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 104-115.
  • Stearns, William.  Adjutant Stearns. Massachusetts Sabbath School Society, 1862. Ebook, 100 ff.
  • Longsworth, Polly. “Brave Among the Bravest,” Passages of Time: Narratives in the History of Amherst College, ed. Douglas C. Wilson. Amherst: Amherst College Press. 2007.
  • Sweet, William. A Cannon for the Confederacy: The Legacy of Frazar Stearns
  • Werner, Marta, ed. A Nosegay to Take to Battle’: The Civil War Wounding of Emily Dickinson.

Websites related to the Battle of New Bern (1862):


March 5-11, 1862: Women of Genius

Although Dickinson never met the English author Mary Ann Evans, who wrote under the pseudonym George Eliot, she considered Eliot a friend and certainly a role model. Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. This week, we look at “women of genius” of this time period and how Dickinson’s own genius shaped her life.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

“What do I think of glory”

This week we build on last week's post on a remarkable woman by picking up on a snarky comment from the February 22th Springfield Republican’s “Books, Authors and Art” section:

Miss Evans (George Eliot) promises a new novel this spring; but judging from her last (Silas Marner) her glory has departed; Happy marriage and rest from doubt and scandal take the passion out of women geniuses. Adam Bede and the Mill on the Floss were born of moral trial and heart hunger; and the reading world must find their compensation–if they can–for the falling off in their successors in the belief that the writer is content and at peace.

George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), 1819-1880

The forthcoming novel referred to here is Romola, a historical tale set in fifteenth-century Florence, which appeared in serial form in Cornhill Magazine from July 1862 to August 1863 and was published as a book in 1863. Note that the writer accepts the fact of Eliot’s artistic “glory,” but sees domestic happiness as antithetical to “women geniuses.” In fact, Eliot’s acknowledged masterpiece, Middlemarch, was still to come in 1871-72. Dickinson will rave about it in a letter to her Norcross cousins who solicit her opinion, using the same word, “glory,” as in the Republican’s dismissive comment:

What do I think of Middlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.”

George Eliot is one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite. … (L389, late April 1873).

Dickinson’s reverence for Eliot as woman and writer is well known (see Sources). Of the three portraits Dickinson hung in her room, one of them was a picture of Eliot, the only woman in the group. Although Dickinson never met the English author, she considered her a friend, and certainly a role model. When Dickinson heard of Eliot’s death in December 1880, she was bereft, and wrote to her intimates about “Grieving for ‘George Eliot’” (L683) and called her “my George Eliot” (L710; emphasis hers). In a letter to Samuel Bowles, dated late November 1862 (L277), Dickinson alludes to an image from Eliot’s novel, Mill on the Floss, which she was probably reading during this time.

Eliot was not the only “woman of genius” Dickinson admired and identified with in terms of their shared struggle to be recognized and accepted. Eliot chose to publish under a male pseudonym, like the Brontë sisters before her, in order to evade prevailing cultural attitudes that trivialized or denigrated women’s artistic productions. Attitudes like the one asserted by the Republican, that women could achieve genius if they were motivated by “moral trial” and “heart hunger.” But if they found some modicum of domestic happiness or stability, the quality of their work must inevitably fall off. That is, women could be artists, somehow transcending the limitations of gender, but not women at the same time.

In fact, Anglo-American culture has not been good to its women of genius, especially its poets. The first poet to publish a book of poetry written in the North American colonies was Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672), the educated daughter and wife of men who both served as governors of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

But when her brother-in-law carried her book of poems to London to be published in 1650, it was titled, The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America. High flown praise, but muses are not writers. This brother-in-law felt it necessary to engage a bevy of notable literary men to write prefatory poems and endorsements for this somewhat unusual volume, and he himself wrote a long letter confirming that, indeed, this was the work of a woman “honoured, and esteemed where she lives for … her exact diligence in her place.”

Over a hundred years later, the owners of the child prodigy and slave, Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784), tried to get her poetry published in Boston in the late 1760s.

Frontispiece to "Poems on Various Subjects," 1773

To do so, they not only appended a letter of verification to the volume, assuring a doubting public that this young African woman had indeed written poems that emulated Alexander Pope, but they also included a statement signed by a troop of prominent men who affirmed Wheatley's authorship. At the top of this list was the Governor, the Lieutenant-Governor and a host of Boston worthies, including a man who would soon make the act of signing his name the signal act of rebellion: John Hancock! Nevertheless, Wheatley had to take her manuscript to London for publication.

One of the reasons for this treatment is the historical gendering of genius, enshrined in the Roman origin of the word itself, which connotes the male “essence” or “gens” that is passed down through the male lines of a family. Romantic and Victorian ideas of genius look back to the Greeks, who argued that certain men could be the medium for ideas of the divine, a creativity that looked a bit like madness, because they were, according to the reigning medical theory of humors, warm and dry.

Women, by contrast, were wet and cold on account of having wombs; their madness was not creative but procreative—that is, hysterical (from “hyster,” the word for womb). Thus, the rhetoric of genius that praised “feminine” qualities in male artists, like intuition and emotionality, excluded women and supposedly “primitive” peoples on the basis of biology and psychology. Some thinkers, like the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860), developed the idea of the artist as a “third sex” or androgyne, who combined “feminine” receptivity and “masculine” will. But this led to different treatments of melancholia, a state closely associated with genius; in men, it was a channel to sublime revelation, but in women it led to weakness and mental illness.

Virginia Woolf, 1927

In her ground-breaking feminist analysis of genius, A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) conducted a telling thought experiment. She imagines that Shakespeare had a sister named Judith who was just as brilliant and ambitious as her brother, and tries to construct a life for her. After considering all the social constraints placed on Englishwomen of the sixteenth century, Woolf concludes that

 a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty.

Not surprisingly, in this tale Judith ends up pregnant, abandoned and, unable to support herself, commits suicide.

Margaret Fuller, daguerreotype

Judith’s story is not so far from that of women of genius in the nineteenth century. Margaret Fuller (1810-1850), hailed by her contemporaries as a rare intellectual and artist, condemns the treatment of women of genius of her day in her remarkable study, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). Notice the connection in this passage by Fuller to Dickinson’s use of bird imagery for Sue and herself:

Plato, the man of intellect, treats Woman in the Republic as property, and, in the Timaeus, says that Man, if he misuse the privileges of one life, shall be degraded into the form of Woman; and then, if he do not redeem himself, into that of a bird. This, as I said above, expresses most happily how anti-poetical is this state of mind. For the poet, contemplating the world of things, selects various birds as the symbols of his most gracious and ethereal thoughts, just as he calls upon his genius as muse rather than as God. But the intellect is cold and ever more masculine than feminine; warmed by emotion, it rushes toward mother earth and puts on the forms of beauty. Women who combine this organization [the electrical, the magnetic] with creative genius are very commonly unhappy at present. They see too much to act in conformity with those around them, and their quick impulses seem folly to those who do not discern the motives. This is an usual effect of the apparition of genius, whether in Man or Woman, but is more frequent with regard to the latter, because a harmony, an obvious order and self-restraining decorum, is most expected from her.

Then, women of genius, even more than men, are likely to be enslaved by an impassioned sensibility. The world repels them more rudely, and they are of weaker bodily frame.

It is not hard to see why a woman like Dickinson, who knew herself to be touched with brilliance, would choose not to be an active member of a world that rudely “repels” women of genius.

“God spared my life, and for what”

Springfield Republican, March 8, 1862.


“Our position abroad is as good as we could desire.” Reports are that “the secession cause is in fact dead in Europe” and those backers in the British and French governments have accepted pending defeat of the South.

The war in Mexico concludes with “an armistice and negotiations for settlement.” The negotiations could continue for months, but the Union is not interested in rejoining the conflict, even if by chance it does start up again.

Trouble lies with Russia, however. Serfs criticize the law that gives them their freedom, because they have to buy their freedom, which is impossible for nearly all under serfdom. Poland and Finland seek to use this weak spot in Russian governing to gain independence. Germany, Hungary, Italy, Prussia, and Austria struggle with dissatisfaction in ruling powers and widespread imperial governments, and the Roman Catholic church is in turmoil due to an unstable Pope in times of war.


Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “This week has been marked by important progress with little fighting,” says the Springfield Republican, and Union General Scott says “that the war is over and there is nothing to do but to clear up and prepare for peace, and the recent national successes at the West would seem to be decisive of the final result, so far as can now be seen.”

Winfield Scott (1786-1866)

The “rebels” are retreating, cornered, or preparing to fight their last fights, and the Union has occupied most of the South by now. Tennessee officially rejoined the Union, and “the confederate leaders at Richmond are represented to be in a state little short of panic.”

From Washington. The paper reports that the South had known about the decisive capture of Harper’s Ferry on Monday, but Southern newspapers were barred from printing such an update on the War, presumably to hide it from the public.

Harper's Ferry, Virginia

Confiscation and Emancipation. Illinois Senator Trumbull proposed a bill for the “confiscation of the property and the emancipation of the slaves of rebels,” a controversial move that has people asking what the rights of southerners are.

Lyman Trumbull (1813-1896)

Senator Trumbull maintains that full war laws apply, and that the South is to be treated like an enemy nation with total destruction possible, but to lessen such a harsh punishment towards the rebels, that confiscation and emancipation was enough, and to treat them as “belligerents” was enough, at least until they could possibly be tried for treason.

“Suggestions for the Crisis.” This column debriefs some lessons learned, reasons for war, and what should happen in the event of another uprising. The author notes that starting the war in the spring was a good move for the Union considering the paralyzing winters the North experiences, and that the South had produced “few great men in this generation.” They also try to tease out the exact reason of the rebellion, but can’t quite find it, resolving to label it a power grab of the dying Southern power.

“The Dark Side of the Picture.” This letter from a Northern officer who was at Fort Donelson shows the “terrible realities of war.” He recounts the number of dead, the outcome, and the “wholesale slaughter” that left only seven out of 85 men alive.

Do not wonder, dear father, that I am down-hearted. My boys all loved me, and need I say that, in looking at the poor remnant of my company—the men that I have taken so much pains to drill, the men that I thought so much of—now nearly all in their graves—I feel melancholy. But I do not complain; God spared my life, and for what, the future must tell.

“Was I the little friend”

This week brought the sad news of the the death of the infant Edward Dickinson Norcross, on March 6. He was the son of Alfred and Olivia Norcross, Dickinson's maternal uncle and aunt.

Also this week, Dickinson writes a letter to Mary Bowles, the wife of Samuel Bowles, about accidentally sending Mr. Bowles a note to complete an “errand” for her, forgetting he left for Washington on the first of the month.

Mary Bowles

She worries that Mary instead did it for her, and it “troubled” her, and if Mary could “just say with your pencil – ‘it did’nt tire me – Emily’” she would cease her worries, as she “would not have taxed [Mary] – for the world -” Dickinson also asks about the new baby Charlie, and says she

sends a rose – for his small hands. Put it in – when he goes to sleep – and then he will dream of Emily – and when you bring him to Amherst – we shall be “old friends.”

Mary was a close friend of Dickinson, who frequently wrote letters to her, but received next to none back (the reply Dickinson asks for in the above letter “will be the first one – you ever wrote me -” she says).  In editing some of Dickinson’s letters and poems, Mabel Loomis Todd switched the addressee from Sue to Mary to make their correspondence look more extensive. In the above letter, Dickinson plaintively asks Mary if “yet – was I the little friend – a long time? Was I – Mary?”

This week, Dickinson also writes to Frances Norcross, one of two  young Norcross cousins she adored and corresponded with throughout her life, about her sister Vinnie’s illness:

 Poor Vinnie has been very sick, and so have we all, and I feared one day our little brothers would see us no more, but God was not so hard.

She also mentions that spring is supposed to be coming soon, but that this March has been particularly hard, with the Northeast hit  lately with violent winter weather.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Ivy Schweitzer

For my women friends who are all geniuses!


She is a neighbor and a painter,
mother of a wild red-headed girl
friends with my son
so long ago

calling to say she dreamt
of me in a café somewhere
hair wavy and golden
and I was sad, she said,

so sad, she had to call
though we are not close
how it flooded her night
snagged on the branches of sleep

and I am dumbstruck,
appalled by the mutinous grief
breaching my edges and
rushing into the ruts of the world

and I say yes,
I am sad and sorry to come
uninvited, and we talk
of the wild red-headed girl who works

at a women’s clinic in Texas,
facing protesters every day,
and my son dwelling in half-life
and our own lives as artists in this time

of profit and fools
and though nothing changes
I feel myself ebb as a tide
back into its almost

manageable course.

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is the creator and editor of White Heat.


Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Bradstreet, Anne. The Tenth Muse lately Sprung up in America … London, 1650. Early English Books Online.

Freeman, Margaret H. “George Eliot and Emily Dickinson: Poets of Play and Possibility.” The Emily Dickinson Journal. 21.2 (2012): 37-58.

Fuller (Ossoli), Margaret. Woman in the Nineteenth Century and Kindred Papers Relating to the Sphere, Condition and Duties, of Woman. Project Gutenberg EBook #8642. Section on “Tune the Lyre.”

Gee, Karen Richardson. “‘My George Eliot’ and My Emily Dickinson.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 3.1 (1994): 24-40.

Heginbotham, Eleanor Elsen. “‘What do I think of glory—’ Dickinson’s Eliot and Middlemarch.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 21.2 (2012): 20-36.

Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London, 1773.

Springfield Republican, volume 89, number 10. Saturday, March 8, 1862.

Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Frances and Louise Norcross, DEA

Emily Dickinson’s Correspondences with Mary Bowles, DEA

Johnson, Thomas, editor. The Letters of Emily Dickinson, 2 vols. Belknap Press, 1958.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. Yale University Press, 1960.

Smith, Martha Nell, and Ellen Louise Hart, editors. Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington






















It was given to me by the gods (F455A, J454)

It was given to me by
the Gods –
When I was a little Girl –
They give us Presents most –
you know –
When we are new – and small.
I kept it in my Hand –
I never put it down –
I did not dare to eat –
or sleep –
For fear it would be gone –
I heard such words as “Rich” –
When hurrying to school –
From lips at Corners of the Streets –
And wrestled with a smile.
Rich! ‘Twas Myself – was
rich –
To take the name of Gold –
And Gold to own – in solid
Bars –
The Difference – made me
bold –

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Packet XXXIV, Fascicle 21, ca. 1862. First published in Bolts of Melody (1945), 83-84, from a transcript of A (a tr360), as four quatrains. Courtesy of Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

This poem was also copied into Fascicle 21 as the last poem in the group, perhaps summing up its themes. It contains, for Dickinson, a rather straightforward narrative of “calling” or “vocation,” to use Puritan religious terms: the speaker receiving her “gift” of genius. She says outright that it is from “the Gods” and so assigns this genius a divine source, something out of her control and beyond human reckoning. But notice the pantheism here: not given by one God or the God, but by a raft of them, as if they are sitting majestically in Olympus, drinking nectar served by their cup bearer, Ganymede.

It is this gift that makes her “different,” and in this instance the speaker embraces her difference, even though it sets her apart. The poem characterizes this difference with the simple adjective: “Rich”–genius as a metaphorical form of wealth. These riches are both metaphorically material—“solid Bars” of gold the speaker owns, and also a description OF the self, “the name” the self takes for itself that she hears whispered by townspeople. In fact, it is the difference that “made me bold,” the speaker discloses; that gave her the strength to pursue her genius. For once, there is little to no ambivalence here, suggested by the exact rhymes of “Gold” and “bold.”

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February 19-25, 1862: Choosing

Dickinson lived in an era where women had agency in limited realms and were often overseen by men. During 1862, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. This theme of “selecting” and “choosing,” both in Dickinson’s life and writing, guides our post this week.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Charif Shanahan

“and I choose…”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Still ringing in our ears are the last words from the last poem in last week’s post:

“With Will to choose,
Or to reject, and I choose, just a crown.”

The flood of power that comes with embracing one’s agency, often associated in Dickinson’s poems with images of royalty, has the speaker feeling “adequate,” becoming “erect,” and “crowing” like a rooster over his roost—that has to warm any feminist’s heart. And because there is so much celebration in the news this week in 1862 on account of a string of Northern victories, we want to continue the mood of exultation by exploring the theme of “choosing.”

It is not clear how much choice women of Dickinson’s time, place and class could exercise in their lives. Within certain realms—the domestic sphere, emotional life, religion—women of this class had scope for agency, but always granted and surveilled by men. Dickinson’s father was notoriously controlling and supervisory, but so were the gossiping tongues of relatives and neighbors in the small town of Amherst.

Dickinson's room with three portraits
Dickinson's room 

During this year, as she withdrew more and more from activities outside her home and even within it, Dickinson contrived a mental sphere of empowerment for herself by choosing carefully how to live her life and who to allow in it. Her niece Martha, Susan Dickinson’s daughter, recalls a childhood memory of entering Dickinson’s upstairs bedroom with her, and tells how her aunt closed the door behind them, mimed the act of turning a key in the lock and said: “It's just a turn–and freedom, Matty!”

We also wanted an excuse to organize a group of poems around the incomparable poem, “The Soul selects her own Society.” When a version of the poem was published in the first collection of 1890, the editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson gave it the title “Exclusion.” While being “exclusive” sounds discriminating, as we know Dickinson was about people and silly social conventions, that word doesn’t capture the exhilaration of actively “selecting” and “choosing.” We want to explore the differences between s/electing and being s/elected; choosing and being chosen. And in the poems section, we will explore Sharon Cameron’s provocative phrase and title for her book describing Dickinson’s governing method and ethos in her fascicles, “Choosing not Choosing.”

Not that all choosing in Dickinson’s work or life was the occasion for celebration. There is exclusion in “The Soul selects her own society” and it has serious, even painful consequences. In another poem Franklin dates to late 1863, “Renunciation is a piercing virtue” (F782A, J745), the speaker finds that:

Renunciation – is the Choosing
Against itself –
Itself to justify
Unto itself

That is, sometimes the exhilaration of exercising choice is dampened by what one decides to choose. In this passage, one gives up a present joy “for an expectation.” Is it worth it?

“Who is she?


From the Springfield Republican for Saturday February 22, 1862

Review of Week: Progress of the War: “This has been a week of triumph and exultation, unbroken by a single disaster. The series of victories continues and increases in value. The victories at Fort Henry and Roanoke Island have been followed by the capture of Fort Donelson, with fifteen thousand prisoners, and all their arms and supplies, while Price has ignominiously fled into Arkansas and his army is being captured piecemeal or dispersed.”

Major-General Sterling Price (1809-1867) Credit: Civil War Trust

Home Matters: “The deep interest felt in the war has taken a new start and led to extensive rejoicings over the federal victories, which will culminate in this city in public services and a splendid illumination on Saturday, the 130th anniversary of the natal day of the father of the country. His soul need not now be ashamed of his loyal children.”

Religious Intelligence: Church and Ministry. “A revival has been going on in the Northampton Methodist church, for five or six weeks past … and as a result some twenty-three persons have professed a hope in Christ.”

Opinions and Movements: “A Massachusetts soldier on the upper Potomac, recently went to hear a hardshell Presbyterian slaveholder preach, and gives the following graphic account of his style:”

Like most men of his profession who live in open violation of the moral precepts of Christ, he is a perfect tiger in doctrines. … There was not one kindly, charitable word in the whole sermon. I can easily see how such a man–so positive where modest men utter their convictions with some sort of deference to the opinions of other men, and where the great majority of hearers have very poorly defined views–should be a very effective preacher. It is in religion much as in medicine–the mass of men concern themselves so little about it that the quack who assumes the most and speaks most positively usually carries the day.

A Visitor at Washington “Who is She?” Correspondence of the Republican.

The story is told of a certain Caliph … that he was in the habit of going about incog. to observe the state of affairs in his capital, and whenever he saw any disturbance, or heard of any trouble or quarrel, his one question always was, “Who is she?”– thereby proving his acuteness and knowledge of the world. … Perhaps, if we were Caliphs, we might arrive at the truth as to the part woman has taken in this wild and wicked rebellion; as it is, our information is partial, but startling. Beyond the line of Mason and Dixon, (is that why it is called Dixie?) they were early aroused, and were stirring up their sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, to resist this dreadful oppression. Poor dears, they did not stop to reason–women never do; they jump at conclusions, and it is but justice to say that their impulses are often right … But in this case … nothing that woman has done since Eve ate the fruit (I never did believe it was an apple) has wrought such mischief to the country.

The writer goes on to castigate the courage of the Southern women who “have quilted quinine into their skirts, and carried arms in their trunks” to support their fighting men and exclaims:

How they have taken advantage of our proverbial national courtesy to women.” But in the next breath, he recounts: “I know a man who applied for a certain post [in Washington] and he was well fitted for it, and had some claim. But, the highest lady in the land (who is she?) said, “Tell him he cannot have it, I have promised it elsewhere;” and she carried her point. It is certain we are indebted to the same influence for some very curious appointments, more curious than suitable.

We will see many more criticisms of Mrs. Lincoln from this source in the coming weeks.

Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882)

Books, Authors and Art. Notes a new edition of the popular author Bayard Taylor, and recommends a passage from “A Young Author’s Life in London,” which is relevant to Dickinson’s upcoming correspondences with Higgingson:

O, the dreams we dream! O, the poems we write! Kind are the hands that hold us back from rushing into print; tender the words which pronounce such harsh judgments upon our works. For a year, we proudly curse the stupidity of our advisers; forever afterwards we bless them as benefactors. Reader, that knoweth, peradventure, how many bad poems I have published, little dreamest thou how many worse ones a kind fate has saved me from offering thee.

The article concludes: “The reader will perhaps be reminded of those playful lines of Lowell’s:

While you were thinking yourself to be pitied,
Just think how much harder your teeth you’d have gritted,
It ‘twere not for the dullness I’ve kindly omitted.

Original Poetry: Printed “February” a long poem in tetrameter quatrains rhyming abab about the coming spring as a metaphor for the peace of summer longed for by the nation. [We found this in a volume titled A Quiet Life and Other Poems by EDR, or Elizabeth Dickinson Rice Biancardi 1833-1885, author of At home in Italy, NY: Houghton Mifflin and Co, 1884, but no more information on her.] “The Photograph Album,” in the same form, about the fear of loss of a loved one. “Along the Lines” uses a more rousing ballad measure to evoke the men fighting the rebellion, and “My Love,” a humorous poem in common meter of 8 line stanzas describing the speaker’s passion for an ill-favored man [which gets reprinted in the Labor Digest and other books about workingmen]:

My love, dear man, turns in his toes,
My love is tangle-kneed,
Cross-eyed, left-handed, hair and beard
In hue are disagreed.
He has no soft and winning voice,
No single charm has he.
And yet, this awkward, ugly man
Is all the world to me.

In Selected Miscellany: Two poems: “Into the Darkness” by Mary Forest, in iambic tetrameter quatrains with variable rhyming, about the inevitability of death. “The Compass” by S. D. Robbins, iambic pentameter quatrains rhyming abab about God as the speaker’s moral index.

Also, from Gail Hamilton, “The Time to Make Love to a Woman”– after she has been jilted by another; “The Army of the English Commonwealth” by John Milton, who, he claims, was exemplary for reading scripture and hearing sermons in their off-hours; “The Women of a Nation” by Alexis de Tocqueville, who, though he argues that women are sometimes a positive and redeeming influence on men, most often are negative influences because “the grand notion of public duty was entirely absent” from their minds. “Stick to your Opinions” by John S. Hart, “Baby Talk” a complaint about the degeneration of the language from Vanity Fair.

Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. c. 1879 (1809-1894)

Hampshire Gazette for February 25, 1862, publishes on its first page from the Atlantic for March, “Voyage of the Good Ship Union” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, with 8 line stanza of two quatrains of ballad measure rhyming ababcdcd and ending,

One flag, one land, one heart, one hand, / One Nation, evermore!

Besides coverage of the war they print a column on “A Royal Courtship,” about the late Prince Albert’s courtship of Queen Victoria, and “A Few Reflections on Boys” about how to raise honorable men.


From the Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862: “In the January number of the Westminster Review is an interesting article on the Religious Heresies of the Working Classes of England. In speaking of the atheism of a certain class of unbelievers, it is said that they carry their opposition to theism so far that their organs strike out the word ‘God’ in all poetry they quote. Thus, the ‘National Reformer,’ having occasion to quote, to serve its own purpose, Bryant’s celebrated stanza, beginning–

Truth crushed to earth will rise again,
The eternal years of God are hers

[from William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878) The Battle-Field,” ll. 33-34, which was made into a hymn. The first, famous line was quoted by M. L. King and gave the title to an album by the hip hop group House of Pain] alters the second line in this way,

Surely eternal years are hers.

In the minds of these bigots of atheism, Truth may be eternal, but God cannot be permitted to have even a momentary poetical existence.”

“Joyful Victory”

On February 17, the Springfield Republican reported that Edward Dickinson had been re-elected president of the Amherst, Belchertown and Palmer railroad for the current year. See Dickinson's poem about the railroad, “I like to see it lap the miles” (F383A, J585), written in 1862.

On February 20 the town of Amherst rang the bells to celebrate the news of the capture of Fort Donelson.

The stars and stripes were unfurled from the tower of the chapel and cheer on cheer rose from College hill.

And on February 22, a short notice in the news from Amherst, which presages the tragedy to come:

We have just ascertained that the son of President Stearns [of Amherst College 1854-187], engaged in the battle of Roanoke as Adjutant, was slightly wounded on the head. So we feel quite glorious over our share in the joyful victory.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Charif Shanahan

Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

To spend a life
In choice –
Not in having chosen, but in
Choosing –

A choice of its own
I suppose –
A railway paved as it goes –

The figs –
Ripe and dropping
From the encumbered boughs –
Before reach –

O Natural World
To commit – to be –
O to be certain so –

I was recently in Amherst for the first time and took the opportunity to visit Dickinson’s home. Unfortunately, the house was closed for the winter months, though I did have the chance to walk around and feel the energy of the estate. While there I recalled the details of a visit to Dickinson’s house that the great poet Jorie Graham had shared in an interview for Slate. Graham, pregnant with a child and at something of a crossroads in her life, was seeking guidance, direction from outside herself about how to proceed—perhaps from Dickinson’s spirit itself, still so alive in that small town it is almost tangible. During her visit, Graham noticed, on or near the poet’s grave, a ladybug, which then flew up and landed on her hand for a moment before flying in the direction of The Homestead. Graham followed the ladybug to Dickinson’s house, which was closed—for the winter season, as it was for me, or perhaps for renovations; I can’t recall the details. I do recall that Graham managed to convince the attendant to let her enter not only the house, but Emily’s upstairs bedroom where, incredibly, Graham found, next to Emily’s impossibly narrow desk, a small wooden crib—a sign to continue on the path of making poems in the face of imminent motherhood.

It’s likely I’m misremembering some details of Graham’s story—I looked for the interview in the Slate archives, but was unable to find it—though the story, as it exists in my memory, has stayed with me since I first encountered it years ago as an MFA candidate in New York City: I was struck that a poet as visionary and accomplished as Graham might, like myself and so many of the young poets I knew then personally, question how, or whether at all, to continue on a path of making poems. Given the demands of the world that might take us away from the craft, or simply given the other commitments one could choose to make in this life—some more clearly mapped, with fewer obstacles and less resistance, than a life of writing poems—I was encouraged to discern that the doubt, the questioning might simply be a part of the path that lies before any artist—of any age, background, experience, or life stage. As sentimental as it sounds, I think of the story—and of poetry—whenever I see a ladybug.

Years after first hearing Graham’s story, with a book of my own now in the world, I am grateful for the opportunity to re-read Dickinson’s poems “of choosing”—in her case, not only her art, but her reclusive life—and to be reminded of the many ways to be a poet in the world and of the responsibility we share to reflect the world back to itself, however we can.

At a time when so many of us carry a sense of helplessness and dread in the face of unimaginable greed, rampant and institutionally-sponsored violence, and the dehumanization of our brothers and sisters all around the world, I am “Held fast … By my own Choice” to engage in exactly the kind of truth-telling work that poetry allows. I sit in the Ferry Building of downtown San Francisco, looking into the open expanse above the Bay, on the opposite side of our “ample nation”—itself at a kind of crossroads and in need of the compassion and action that poetry can offer and inspire in us—and think of Dickinson at her small desk writing these lines:

A still – Volcano – Life -
That flickered in the night -
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight -


Bio: Charif Shanahan is the author of Into Each Room We Enter without Knowing (SIU Press, 2017), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. His poems appear in New Republic, New York Times Magazine, PBS NewsHour, and elsewhere. Called a "vital and profound new voice" by Publishers Weekly, Shanahan is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the Academy of American Poets, Cave Canem Foundation, the Frost Place, the Fulbright Program/IIE, Millay Colony for the Arts, Starworks Foundation, and Stanford University, where he is a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Poetry. Originally from the Bronx, he lives in San Francisco.


Hampshire Gazette, 
February 25, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 22, 1862


February 12-18, 1862: Entitle

This week, we explore the importance of naming. Dickinson’s own conception of identification was as unconventional as the rest of her—she sneered at her era’s narrow definition of womanhood and rarely if ever gave titles to her poems. Much of her poetry in 1862 ruminates on titles, self-naming and self-possession. What exactly was her relationship to naming, and how did it influence her life and her writing?

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Eliot Cardinaux

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 in reference to women:

“Ill worthy I such title should belong / To me transgressor. ”– Milton.

This is Eve speaking, 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.

Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885), General and 18th president

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.

Charles P. Stone (1824-1887)

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.

Augusta Jane Evans Wilson (1835-1909)

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.

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878)

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 -
unheard -
I’d harass God
until he let [you]
Emily.    (F275A)

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.

Letter 251 also includes a poem, “Through the strait pass of suffering” (F187).

Through the strait pass
of suffering -
The Martyrs – even – trod.
Their feet – opon Temptation -
Their faces – opon God -
A stately – shriven -
Company -
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
Degree -
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
on -
Does'nt – always – move -
Emily.    (F193A)

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. 

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Eliot Cardinaux

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.


January 29-February 4, 1862: White

There is no color more connected to Dickinson than white—she was known as “The White Myth of Amherst” because at this time she began to dress in all white and wrote of many “white” things. We ask this week what the color stood for and how it reflects Dickinson’s position in society. White has many meanings, yet the implications were evolving as 1862 was caught in a debate over race and privilege.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Michael Amico

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
There is no color more connected to Dickinson than white. And since we named this project “White Heat,” we feel duty-bound to interrogate the implications of that word choice.
The replica of Dickinson's white dress at the Emily Dickinson Museum

Seeing the project's title, a sympathetic colleague feared it invoked and, thus, endorsed the “myth” of Dickinson as the eccentric recluse in the white house dress she began wearing sometime around 1862, which is prominently on display at the Emily Dickinson Museum at the Homestead (though it is a replica! The original is at the Amherst Historical Society Museum). This humble garment, called a “wrapper,” with buttons down the front so she could dress herself and a discreet pocket for pencil and scrap paper, has been described as “the T-shirt and sweatpants of its day.” In the hands of contemporary artists, like Lesley Dill, this dress becomes a kinetic sculpture that features the power of Dickinson's words.

Lesley Dill, Dada Poem Wedding Dress, 1994. Made for Dada Ball, Webster Hall, New York, October 12, 1994.

Still, according to scholar Barton St. Levi Armand, the white dress quickly became a symbol for Dickinson’s public myth around town as “The White Moth of Amherst.” As soon as Mabel Loomis Todd, the young wife of a newly-appointed Professor at Amherst College, arrived in town in 1881, she heard about this “myth” or “moth” and proceeded to expand on and spread it. And it stuck.

Mabel Loomis Todd (1856-1932); also an example of typical daytime dresses of the period.

What did this color choice stand for? Innocence or spiritual/sexual purity? Brides, bridal gowns and weddings? Coldness, snow, and the forbidding blankness of New England winters? Bones and marble, alabaster chambers, pearls, death shrouds and ghosts? Or renunciation of society—by 1869, Dickinson rebuffed an invitation to visit her “mentor,” Thomas Higginson, declaring,

I do not cross my father’s ground to any house or town. (L330).

As her assumption of the white dress occurred during the years of the Civil War, we cannot ignore the meaning of white as a racial marker of class privilege and power, a category of identity that was undergoing cultural re-consolidation during this period. We have only to think of Herman Melville’s extensive meditation on “the whiteness of the whale” in Moby Dick (1851).

Smithsonian Magazine

Dickinson is also a product of her time, class and region. It would be surprising if she did not harbor attitudes of race and class superiority, though there is profound disagreement among scholars about what her attitudes towards race and class privilege actually were, and whether they evolved over the course of her life.

What we can agree on is that Dickinson uses white and its related imagery throughout her poetry and letters. We chose the term “White Heat” as our title, from  the poem,“Dare you see a soul at the ‘White Heat?’” (F401, J365) because it captured Dickinson’s intensity and the refining forge of creativity that characterized the year 1862 in her life. But that meaning does not cancel out the resonance of other meanings of white that appear her work. With her extensive knowledge of astronomy, Dickinson would have known that white is not so much a color as a compendium of the full spectrum of colors.

“The Delicate Crow-quill of the Fair”


The Springfield Republican reported on rumors that Queen Victoria, who recently suffered the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, was a Swendenborgian, as was her late husband, and that

the consoling character of the convictions thence derived in regard to the nature of the transition that the world calls death

has helped to produce the “calmness and resignation” the Queen has shown in the face of this tragedy. Surprisingly, the writer does not condemn this revelation.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Reports on “the New Conquest of Mexico,” that Spain has taken advantage of the Civil War in the United States to “regain her old foothold on this continent,” and is joined by England and France. “Some of the Peruvian papers are urging union of the Spanish American states for mutual protection against European invasion.” But, the writer opines:

The true cause of the invasion is jealousy of the United States, and a desire to obtain a position on this continent so as to be in readiness to check our rising power if occasion should require.


All the talk this week in the Springfield Republican is about the Burnside Expedition caught in storms and “delayed for a week or fortnight.” Readers would be eager to hear of the fate of this amphibious endeavor to close the blockade-running ports inside the Outer Banks of North Carolina, because Brigadier General Ambrose E. Burnside commanded troops primarily from New England.

The Burnside Expedition arrives at North Carolina, under Commodore Goldsborough and General Burnside, at Hatteras Inlet, N.C., Jan. 17, 1862. source: UNC Libraries/North Carolina Collection

The prospect of his being able to capture Newbern and to penetrate to Weldon or any other point where he can cut the railroad connection of Virginia with the South, has thus become sufficiently doubtful to give interest to adventure.

The upcoming battle of Newbern will have a large impact on the inhabitants of Dickinson’s Amherst.

“The Slavery Question.” In a long column, the writer considered: What should the government do with slaves who are seized and emancipated during the war? “The president’s suggestion of colonization abroad meets with little favor. Indeed everybody sees that the negroes are needed where they are, and that neither they nor the country will be benefited by their expatriation.” The writer finds evidence that emancipated slaves become useful citizens and, thus, argues that Congress should not do anything and let the war act as it will:

Already they have convinced some of our army officers, whose southern notions had made them skeptical on the subject, that the negro is capable of self-support and useful citizenship, as a free man, and that slavery is by no means essential to his industry or his well being in any respect.

In the Massachusetts legislature, there was some excitement about the governor’s veto of a bill extending state aid to families of the soldiers in General Butler’s New England division. “The great questions of finance connected with the support of the war — such as taxes, loans, treasury paper, etc. — are very actively discussed in the newspapers, but languidly acted on in Congress. We have reviving confidence, however, that the difficulties will be overcome, the credit of the United States preserved from any serious shock, and a good sound currency furnished to the loyal masses.”

Major General Benjamin F Butler of Massachusetts, USA Civil War 1862

“Piety and Patriotism”: The writer complains that “so little is heard from the chaplains in the volunteer army,” but adds, “Perhaps the most interesting letters from chaplains have been with respect to the negroes made free by the war.” The article then quotes a long passage from Chaplain Strickland from Beaufort, S.C. who narrates a “curious account of the celebration of Christmas eve by the freed negroes.”

They called the festival a “serenade to Jesus.” One of the leaders, of which there were three, was dressed in a red coat with brass buttons, wearing white gloves. The females wore turbans made of colored cotton handkerchiefs. All ages were represented, from the child of one year to the old man of ninety.

They sang hymns and spiritual songs,

and though none of them could read, it was remarkable with what correctness they gave the words. Their Scripture quotations were also correct, and appropriate … When asked as they could not read how they could quote the Scriptures, they replied: "We have ears, massa, and when de preacher give out his texts, den we remembers and says dem over and over till we never forgets dem. Dat’s de way, massa, we poor people learns de word of God."

Under “Dog Stories” appeared one entitled “Carlo,” but it was about a young terrier.

Original Poetry: “A Portrait” by Caroline A. Howard of a young, “strangely fair” woman, alone, standing on the cliffs above the beach “as sculptured in the stone.” And “To Herbert. Je te n’oublirai jamais,” that captures the popular sentimental ethos of loyalty in love.

In "Books, Authors and Art:" A negative review of a novel by an unnamed male writer elicited this sarcastic comment, which illustrates the biases of the day and an awareness of them:

We were at first in some doubt as to the sex of this new genius, for it has been the gallant custom of critics to impute weak novels, characterized by copious verbal infelicities, to the delicate crow-quill of the fair.

“My Snow”

Although no letters are specifically dated to this week, during this period, Dickinson wrote several emotion-filled letters to Samuel Bowles, a family friend and editor of the Springfield Republican, who was ill and was preparing for a trip to Europe. In one letter dated to early 1862 (L251), she begins,

 Dear friend
If you doubted my Snow – for a moment – you will never – 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 –.

Dickinson then includes the poem, “Through the strait pass of suffering– / The Martyrs –even– trod,” which ends with an imagistic amplification of her reference to “Snow” in the extreme image of “polar Air”:

Their faith– the everlasting troth–
Their Expectation – fair–
The Needle – to the North Degree–
Wades – so– thro’ polar Air! (F 187A, J792)

The letters from this period also share some of the tenor and imagery of the Third Master Letter, discussed in an earlier post; for example, a reference to “Chillon,” a castle on an island in Lake Geneva made famous by Lord Byron’s poem The Prisoner of Chillon (1816).

Castle Chillon, Lake Geneva

This poem tells the story of a monk, Francois Bonivard, the lone survivor of a martyred family who was imprisoned in the castle from 1532-1536. In addition to this image of martyrdom and imprisonment, Dickinson's letter contains a suggestive reference to white. Dickinson writes:

What would you do with me if I came ‘in white’? Have you the little chest to put the Alive–in? … I didn’t think to tell you, you didn’t come to me “in white,” nor ever told me why (L233).

Cynthia Wolff interprets these cryptic lines as references to writing poetry and in the context of the poem, “Mine–by the Right of the White Election!” which is one of the poems for this week.

One more important biographical context for the color white from later in Dickinson’s life. In a short poem sent to Susan Dickinson and dated 1871, Dickinson wrote:

White as an
Indian Pipe
Red as a
Cardinal Flower
Fabulous as a
Moon at Noon
Febuary [sic] Hour – (F1193A, J1250)

Dickinson reprises the image in a longer poem dated 1879, which is an apt example of her “it” poems – poems about an unidentified, often uncanny figure or experience. It is telling that Dickinson describes this “it” not only in terms of white things but as surpassing the whitest of them, as “whiter than the Indian Pipe:”

'Tis whiter than an Indian Pipe -
'Tis dimmer than a Lace -
No stature has it, like a Fog
When you approach the place -
Not any voice imply it here -
Or +intimate it there -
A spirit – how doth it accost -
+What function hath the Air?
This limitless Hyperbole
Each one of us shall be -
'Tis Drama – if Hypothesis
It be not Tragedy – (F1513A, J1482)

+designate – +What customs -

The Indian pipe, or monotropa uniflora, also known as the ghost plant or corpse plant, is a small perennial plant native to the temperate regions of North America, Asia and South America.

Monotropa uniflora

It gets its name from its coloration—or lack thereof—which is pure white, with sometimes a pink or red tinge and a yellowish flower flecked with black. It is white because it contains no chlorophyll. Rather than deriving energy from the sun, it is parasitic on certain trees, especially beech, and can grow in the dark understory of forests. It appears in early summer to early fall and often after a rain.

In early September 1882, Mabel Todd sent Dickinson her painting of Indian pipes, and Dickinson wrote back thanking her for “the preferred flower of life” (notice, she does not say, “my” preferred flower of life!), and enclosing a poem (“A Route of Evanescence” [F1489, J1463]) with the message, “I cannot make an Indian Pipe but please accept a Humming Bird.”

When Todd co-edited the first volume of Dickinson’s poems in 1890, she put her rendering of the Indian pipes on the cover.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Michael Amico

White contains all the colors of the spectrum … That makes me think that white collapses all points on a cultural map or a social topography. It does not negate them into an abyss of blackness. The points are still there, but their exact size, shape, and whereabouts seem not to matter. White is the mark of no-one-thing and no-one-where.

This blog uses news of the Dickinson family, the town of Amherst, the country and the globe, to cast light on Dickinson’s poems and give their particular words and phrases some color. Meanwhile, in the field of race studies, scholars are increasingly elucidating how the concept of a “white race” has asserted a kind of omnipotence and omniscience (containing “all”) when, in reality, it has been shading and apportioning all sorts of colors to itself and others with deadly consequence. As this week’s blog post tells us, scholars have also been asking what “whiteness” might signify for Dickinson as a “white person” in a racially “white” world.

I am not a scholar of Dickinson and hardly a regular reader of her work, until I began following this blog. What has struck me most is that Dickinson, let alone her poems, absorbs all the many historical and biographical and literary points we pin on and around her and her poems. She and they give no answer back, yield no colors other than the ones we shade and apportion to her and her work. That process of absorption without yielding is, for me, the whiteness of her and her poems.

The poems do not alone or together stage an argument about anything or anyone because the values that course through them are not stably ranked or even clear. The thinking and feeling that happens there is cut and re-cut so continuously across words and their letters, individual sounds, marks on the page, that I never know “what,” if anything, is important and why. Dickinson writes at the edge of any signifying chain. Wesley King analyzes the poems in this vein, as the editors here quote him,

to explore the crisis ‘between the image and the word, or between the realm of appearances and language,’ and reveal ‘the linguistic and epistemological underpinning of racial hierarchy.’

Surely the poetry does that, but not in the service of that goal. Rather, the writing seems to set as its task the claim, or maybe it needs to be the creation, of a position that is not a position, more powerful than any hierarchy, even if it were on top, which it has no interest in being.

Lesley Dill's Opera, based on the complete works of Emily Dickinson, 2008

Can you write that white? Perhaps the strength involved in containing all colors, and not leaning on a particular combination of colors to develop a categorizable “voice,” is simply too much for most people to harbor. Perhaps the more routine life of the women around Dickinson in Amherst, women who were out and about in colorful array, would have mitigated against the focus and effort, the very power of thought, needed to write as white as she did.

Dickinson’s way does not at all court madness, the dissolution of self, for that is the abyss of blackness, the absence of all color.

If you thought and wrote like Dickinson, you would get bored of socializing. You would see how the “content” of anyone’s mind, including your own, was an illusion, and your pen would cut right through it to … the paper. And there you would act out the social masquerade in a play of words and sounds and marks. We would look for you and others there, try to identify feelings and thoughts and events, and you would be … What? Where?

On to the next poem.

bio: Michael Amico holds a PhD in American Studies from Yale University. His dissertation, “The Forgotten Union of the Two Henrys: The True Story of the Peculiar and Rarest Intimacy of the American Civil War,” is about the romance between Henry Clay Trumbull and Henry Ward Camp of the Tenth Connecticut Regiment. He is the author, with Michael Bronski and Ann Pellegrini, of “You Can Tell Just by Looking”: And 20 Other Myths about LGBT Life and People (Beacon, 2013), a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award in Nonfiction. He is presently a Researcher at the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin and can be reached at


Dill, Lesley, artist.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 173.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984.

Springfield Republican Feb 1, 1862

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 409.



January 15-21, 1862: The Third Master Letter

Dickinson wrote and addressed, but never sent, three letters to an unnamed “Master.” The third letter—composed in 1862—echoes much of her work over the course of the year. The language of this letter highlights Dickinson’s own autonomy as a female intellect in nineteenth-century America by defying genre, logic, societal values and physics of scale.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Renée Bergland

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

The Third Master Letter

Many poems Dickinson wrote during this year address what we might call “mastery”: mastery of her craft of poetry, of her time and space, as well as mastery by overwhelming feelings of love, loss, grief, power, powerlessness. Poems often involve issues of scale: the tiny and the huge, the daisy and the mountain, degrees and titles, royalty and subjects. Where there is a Master, though, there is inevitably a slave–language that suggests the political and ethical tensions underlying the Civil War.

We take up these themes in an exploration this week of the Third “Master Letter.” After Dickinson’s death, three letters were found in her papers that scholars have dubbed the “Master Letters.” They are grouped together because they all address an unnamed “Master,” appear to be drafts, and were never sent. According to R. W. Franklin, who published an edition of the three letters in 1986, they “stand near the heart of her mystery.” (Read his introduction). After studying the evolution of Dickinson’s handwriting, Franklin reconsidered previous scholars’ ordering and dating of the letters. He dates the first one, beginning “Dear Master / I am ill,” to Spring 1858. The second one, beginning “Oh – did I offend it –,” to early 1861, and the third and longest, beginning “Master / If you saw a bullet,” to summer 1861. This last letter has so much resonance for poems composed in 1862, we could not resist highlighting it.

Richard Sewall, a Dickinson biographer, pronounces dramatically about the Third Letter:

Like many a scene in one of Shakespeare’s more tightly knit tragedies, this letter may be regarded as a microcosm of the whole. Emily Dickinson’s whole life is here, the history of what could be called its failures and the reason for them and the prevision of its triumphant success and the reason for that.

For years readers have puzzled over the identity of the “Master,” and come up with different answers. (For a helpful summary, see Marianne Noble’s entry on “Master” in An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia.) In his desire for readers to experience the materiality of these letters, Franklin includes printed facsimiles stowed in a large envelope, so that we, their contemporary readers, have the dizzying experience of opening them up as if we were their recipients!!

The passionate and seemingly uncensored language of these letters leads many to read them as missives from a woman scorned. In the second letter, for example, Dickinson describes herself, in the third person, as virtually slayed by her feelings:

A love so big it scares her, rushing among her small heart — pushing aside her blood — and leaving her all faint and white […] I’ve got a cough as big as a thimble — but I don’t care for that — I’ve got a Tomahawk in my side but that don’t hurt me much, Her Master stabs her more.

Rather than reinforce the obsession with Dickinson’s love life, we focus on the writing in these extraordinary documents. For this discussion, we are indebted to the work of Renée Bergland, who has kindly shared ideas from her book in progress, provisionally titled Planetary Poetics: Emily Dickinson and Literary Relativity.

Bergland offers Adrienne Rich’s brilliant 1976 essay about Dickinson and power, “Vesuvius at Home,” as a framework. Rich rejects Thomas Wentworth Higginson’s evaluation of Dickinson as “partially cracked,” and the 20th century myth of a “fey or pathological” spinster, and imagines her “as a practical woman, exercising her gift as she had to, making choices. … too strong for her environment, a figure of powerful will …”

It was a life deliberately organized on her terms. The terms she had been handed by society—Calvinist Protestantism, Romanticism, the 19th-century corseting of women’s bodies, choices, and sexuality—could spell insanity to a woman genius. What this one had to do was retranslate her own unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities into a dialect called metaphor: her native language.

In this vein, Bergland considers Dickinson’s use and revision of “master narratives” in the Third Master letter. For example, how these texts defy genre, logic or, rather, phallologic (the language and law of the Fathers, the phallus), and the physics of scale. Are they letters if they were never sent? The second letter does not even have salutation. Are they poems (some parts of them scan) or prose poems or essays? Or a repository or catalogue of ideas, figures, and images for poetry? Or some kind of hyperobject? Tim Morton, author of The Ecological Thought (2010), defines a hyperobject as an object bursting with vitality, overruling distance, “molten” and “nonlocal”– that is, challenging the fixity of spacetime – and “interobjective,” or formed by relations between many objects.

Look at the image and read the transcript of the Third Master Letter and you will see why this last description might be the most appropriate. Dickinson at her rhetorically volcanic best.

“Curious Intelligence in a Slave”


This week, people all over the United States watched the events of the Civil War play out slowly. Since its inception the year before, only small skirmishes had occurred, no major battles. During the week of January 15-21, 1862, one of these skirmishes resulted in a Union victory: the Battle of Mill Springs. This battle took place on January 19 and marked the progress of the Union army into Kentucky, representing a slow but steady acceleration of the overall war. This first major Union victory eventually led Confederate Major General George Bibb Crittenden to resign in the fall of 1862. It was celebrated in the press and covered in both the Springfield Republican and Hampshire Gazette.

New York: Currier and Ives hand-colored print of the Battle of Mill Springs, 1862.

Also noteworthy was the resignation of Simon Cameron, President Lincoln’s Secretary of War, on January 15, to become the minister to Russia. Although historians determined that he was corrupt and incompetent, and annoyed the president by calling for the emancipation and arming of freed slaves way before Lincoln was ready to make this declaration, Cameron’s stated reason for leaving his position was that he did not find the work pleasant or enjoyable. The lack of major victories on either side led to a sense of restlessness and loss of faith in the war effort. On January 18, the Springfield Republican wrote that the present generation has

given up a belief in the future reign of peace, and if not also of good will among men, at least of other arbitraments than that of war for the solution of national differences.


The war was a large part of regional culture as well. On January 18, the Springfield Republican reported on the plan of Edmund Dwight, a wealthy businessman whose family members were leaders in education, to set up a military academy to educate and train soldiers. This would insure the army would be comprised of volunteers, rather than conscripts. The effects of the war were amply felt in Amherst. On January 14, the Hampshire Gazette described the solemn atmosphere at Amherst College:

one can but mark the effect which the call of their agonized country has wrought upon a company of generous, warm-hearted, young men.

Each edition of the Springfield Republican published updates on astronomy and science. On January 18, the paper discussed a new consensus among scientists that

throughout the whole universe there is diffused an ethereal medium which chemists cannot touch, and that the heat which we feel is communicated by motions of this body.

Another feature to note is the Republican’s publication, in a section called“Original Poetry,” of two poems by Caroline A. Howard, who we have not been able to identify further. The first, “By the Shore,” echoes the situation, if not the eroticism and fantasy, of Dickinson’s “I started Early ¬– Took my / dog,” which we featured last week:

With the lighter burdens of life opprest
So weary in heart and mind,
With the ceaseless longings that fill my breast
With pain that is undefined,
I come with a tremulous hope of rest,
At last to thee,
O whispering sea!

The Hampshire Gazette for this week published an anonymous poem called “The Armies,” which emphasized the need for the war to progress and “march forward.” This was a popular point of view at the time.

Finally, in a section of the Republican called “Selected Miscellany,” a short article appeared titled, “Curious Intelligence in a Slave,” culled from the Free Press, Burlington, VT. The author, who lived on a cotton plantation for several years, told about an older slave he met called Allan, whose job it was to weigh the baskets of cotton picked by the slaves and report the amounts every evening.

And though I subjected Allan to the severest tests I could think of to be assured of his accuracy, I never found a single occasion to doubt it.

“Master and Daisy”

According to Jay Leyda, Dickinson wrote only one letter this week, to Samuel Bowles’s wife Mary, who was in New York. She sends a rose and asks that they put it in the “small hands” of their infant son Charlie at night so he will dream of “Emily,” and when they meet, they will be “old friends.” Dickinson worries that Charlie will cause her friends to forget her and, in a barely concealed threat, says:

We shall wish he was’nt there– if you do– (L 253).

Mollie Bowles 1827-1893, Amherst College Archives and Special Collections

Dickinson’s passionate sense of attachment–to the point of violence–is fully on display in the Third Master Letter. Many readers focus on the differences in scale Dickinson employs there: she addresses a distant figure she calls “Master” and refers to herself as “Daisy,” and in that diminutive guise seems to abase herself to the larger, often overpowering force.

This same term appears in several poems she wrote in the later 1850s and early 1860s. In his extensive exploration of the popular concept of "romance" that shaped Dickinson's "private mythology," Barton Levi St. Armand notes that "in the Victorian language of flowers the daisy was an emblem of innocence." Other critics argue that behind this usage is the myth of Apollo (or Helios/Sol) and Clytie, in which Clytie transforms into a daisy or sunflower as evidence of her devotion to the male force.

Clytie, George Frederic Watts, R.A., 1817-1904 Metropolitan Museum of Art.

To support this reading, Sylvia Henneberg points to three early poems: “Glowing is her Bonnet” (F106B, J 72), “‘They have not chosen me’ –he said” (F87A, J85), and “The Daisy follows soft the Sun” (F161A, J 106). But she also observes that “daisy” derives from the Old English “day’s eye,” and in this sense, “represents a force with which the male – the sun – must contend,” a force of independence and strength. In a poem dated to 1859, Dickinson herself takes a playful attitude to the trope:

In lands I never saw – they say
Immortal Alps look down -
Whose Bonnets touch the firmament -
Whose sandals touch the town;

Meek at whose everlasting feet
A myriad Daisy play -
Which, Sir, are you, and which am I -
Opon an August day? (F108A, J 124)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Renée Bergland

August, 2015. My colleague is scarlet. He’s forty-five years old and I have always thought of him as worldly. I have never seen him blush like this. He laughs and almost stammers when he tells me that he made a very embarrassing mistake this morning, reading my book manuscript. The last part of the draft is a shaggy pile of conference papers and notes, with wild swerves in tone, but I don’t think it is terrible. Why is he so flustered?

It comes out. He has never read Dickinson’s third Master letter. Finding it in the middle of the pile, he’d mistaken it for a private musing written by me. He’d thought I was on drugs when I wrote it, maybe, or delusional. He’d been shocked by my passion, my startling (and uncharacteristic) lack of prudery. Eventually, he tells me, he’d recovered enough to continue reading, and picked up on the context clues in the following discussion enough to figure out that Emily Dickinson wrote that thing. In 1861. Even so, he has trouble looking me in the face all afternoon. I have shocked my colleague to the core.

My own first encounter with this letter was less disorienting: my friend Marianne Noble presented me with a clearly marked copy when she was working on an essay about Dickinson’s eroticism. Because I read the document before I knew much about Dickinson, my experience of reading Dickinson’s poetry is forever shaped by the experience of reading the letter beforehand. I expect Dickinson’s work to be shameless. But my colleague’s startled reaction makes me understand what a surprising document it is. I would blush too, if I found a letter like this in a friend’s files. It’s intimate, too intimate. It is artful—beautiful even—but it’s not polite. No filters, no rules, no protections. It’s naked. It’s dazzling.

In My Emily Dickinson, Susan Howe remarks that

Attention should be paid to Dickinson’s brilliant masking and unveiling (27).

As if we had any choice. No reader can look away, though none can really quite understand what they are reading either.

Poems and poets of the first rank remain mysterious,

Susan Howe explains (27). The third Master letter breaks every rule of grammar and logic and narrative, upends all proprieties, immerses us in its passionate tide of exalted emotion, and takes us outside of language and every other system. Although they are addressed to a master, the words transform mastery into mystery. These words are shameless, honest, and dazzlingly mysterious: It’s enough to make any reader blush.


Bio: Renee Bergland is Hazel Dick Leonard Professor of English, Simmons College and Visiting Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies, Dartmouth.

Like every cultural critic worth her salt, I am curious about everything. My research and writing tend to focus on nineteenth-century America, but in every piece I push against national and historical boundaries, trying to find (or make) connections and to think outside of disciplinary boxes. My first three monographs may seem to be on wildly different subjects: Native Americans, Women in Science, and Emily Dickinson. But there is a methodology to my madness. All of my work tends to span broad expanses of time, to offer slightly startling juxtapositions, to rely on close readings of both literary and historical texts, and to explicitly advocate a dialogic ethics of analysis. I keep trying to connect the past to the present.


Dickinson, Emily. The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Ed. R. W. Franklin.   Amherst: Amherst College Press, 1986.

Hampshire Gazette, 14 Jan. 1862.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 2007.

Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 45.

Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home.” Parnassus: Poetry in Review. 5 (1, 1976).

St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 81.

Springfield Republican, 18 Jan. 1862.

This Week in the Civil War






















January 8-14, 1862: The “Azarian School”

Previous generations regarded Dickinson as either unique and, thus, untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. This week, we focus on a contemporary literary style of 1850s-60s, the “Azarian School,” which delighted in fanciful matters of the soul and ecstasy. Dickinson read and engaged with this literature—and then perhaps used it herself.

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This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Victoria Corwin

War, Death, and Influence

Previous generations regarded Dickinson either as sui generis–that is, unique and thus untouched by the literary trends of her time, or so ahead of her moment as to be uninfluenced by it. Current scholars, such as Cristianne Miller, have laid these views to rest, in studies like her Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century (2012). To explore Dickinson's literary debts, our focus this week is on the “Azarian School,” a term coined by the writer Henry James to describe the work of Harriet E. Prescott Spofford and Rose Terry Cooke, two writers from New England contemporary with Dickinson. The school's name derives from the title of Spofford’s novel Azarian: An Episode published in 1864. It is important at the outset to show how Dickinson read, absorbed and adapted the literary techniques of other writers, in this case, the prose works of New England women. We also want to frame this year, 1862, with an exploration of a literary style that influenced some of Dickinson's most incendiary poetry.

We follow the lead of David Cody’s 2010 essay, “‘When one’s soul’s at a white heat’: Dickinson and the ‘Azarian School.” Cody argues that several well-known poems Dickinson wrote in 1862 were directly influenced by the prose works of Spofford and Cooke.

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Harriet Prescott Spofford

As he tells it, James’s review of the “school” was “scathing,” accusing Spofford

of a long list of literary crimes, including a tendency to indulge in ‘fine writing,’ and ‘almost morbid love of the picturesque,’ an emphasis on ‘clever conceits’ and the ‘superficial picturesque’ at the expense of ‘true dramatic exposition, a ‘habitual intensity’ of style, and an ‘unbridled fancy.’

Many readers at the time felt Spofford walked “a fine line between

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Rose Terry Cooke

permissible daring and a reckless disregard of conventional morality.” In short, this style was the antithesis of the realist school, soon to come into popularity with the ascendancy of William Dean Howells to the editorship of the Atlantic Monthly.

We leave it to you to decide whether Dickinson was a secret disciple of the Azarian School, which, according to Cody, was characterized by intoxication and ravishment 

by perfumes; sunsets; gems; diseases physical, psychological, and spiritual; fugues and symphonies; hurricanes; and panthers.

Barton Levi St. Armand argues that Spofford’s story, “The Amber Gods,” inspired Dickinson

to dare the technique of describing the moment of death from the dying person’s point of view.

The protagonists in Azarian works are almost always heroines, and matters of the soul and ecstasy are important topics. Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a big fan, being a friend and mentor of Spofford and Cooke as well as Dickinson, writing a supportive review of Spofford’s novel Azarian, and mentioning her to Dickinson in at least one letter. See L261 in which Dickinson responded,

I read Miss Prescott’s ‘Circumstance,’ but it followed me, in the Dark – so I avoided her –.

“War As An Educator”

This week was rather uneventful, as the Civil War heated toward its boiling point, and President Abraham Lincoln began sending orders to General McClellan to take offensive action against the Confederacy. There were small victories for the Union, on January 8th at the battle of Roan’s Tan Yard under Major W.M.G. Torrence and on January 10th at the battle of Middle Creek under Col. James Garfield.

The January edition of The Atlantic Monthly included an essay on “Methods of Study in Natural History.” It prominently featured Carolus Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist credited with founding the practice of botany. Dickinson was a passionate botanist, as evidenced by the herbarium, a collection of pressed and identified local flowers and plants, she created in 1844 as a teenager.


The January edition of Harper’s magazine opened with a lengthy travel narrative titled “The Franconian Switzerland,” which discusses European geography and offers illustrations of the Castle of Goessweinstein. The second article, “History of the United States Navy,” looked back to 1775 for a historical context that would have appealed to readers during the Civil War. Excerpted and mostly anonymous poems—one simply titled “Frost”—and part of a serial novel, Orley Farm, by Anthony Trollope, were also included. A biographical essay on Mehetabel Wesley illustrates a common attitude towards women poets. The essay focused on her beauty and morals: “Nature, which seldom grants the double favor, richly endowed her both in body and mind,” and added that her poetry is full of “silly conceits.” The month’s edition ended with a two-page spread titled “Fashions for January” with illustrations of two women, one in an evening dress in the other in a walking robe.

The January 11th edition of the Springfield Republican included a column titled “War as an Educator” that observed: “the present war is doing, and is to do, a great work in the education of the American people,” and criticized the inefficacy of party antagonism and the dangers of men attracted to power. It called into question the idea that the United States is the “greatest nation on the face of the earth,” and warned of waiting to take action about incipient rebellion. On the other hand, the writer insisted that the war will make that generation of Americans “superior to any generation that America has raised since the revolution” due to rigorous training, discipline, and courage. Another column brought good news, the release of two hundred forty Union prisoners from Richmond.


In a time marked with violence and death, the Springfield Republican  included a brief paragraph condemning the death penalty, a debate that might have influenced Dickinson poems like “The Doomed – regard the Sunrise” (F298, J294), featured last week.

Comment on the death penalty, included in The Springfield Republican on January 11, 1862.


“The Value of a Close Friend”

Dickinson’s reading in the Springfield Republican, as well as her personal and literary relationship with its editor-in-chief, Samuel Bowles, had a large influence on her life and writing. On around January 11, 1862, Dickinson wrote to  Bowles, who was in New York, planning to sail to Europe:

Dear Friend, — Are you willing? I am so far from land. To offer you the cup, it might some Sabbath come my turn. Of wine how solemn full! … While you are sick, we—are homesick. Do you look out to-night? The moon rides like a girl through a topaz town. I don’t think we shall ever be merry again—you are ill so long. When did the dark happen? I skipped a page to-night, because I come so often, no, I might have tired you. That page is fullest, though… When you tire with pain, to know that eyes would cloud, in Amherst—might that comfort, some?  (L247)

At the end of the letter, Dickinson included, “We never forget Mary,” referring to Bowles’s wife. It is clear from the letter that Dickinson was deeply concerned with Bowles’s well-being, and that his illness had taken a toll on her. This passage also contains a frequent Dickinson trope: that the skipped and blank page, or what is renounced, “is the fullest.” It appears as an image in the poem, “Going to them/her/him! Happy letter!” (F277), addressed to a personified letter Dickinson composed in early January of this year. The poem exists in three versions with three different pronouns (depending on the recipient), and contains this line, where the speaker charges the letter:

Tell Them/Her/Him – the page I never wrote.

Samuel Bowles, editor of The Springfield Republican and a close friend of Dickinson's.
Samuel Bowles

What was the darkness that Dickinson refers to in her letter to Bowles? Richard Sewall, in his biography, The Life of Emily Dickinson, comments about her letters that

at times one wonders whether the recipients themselves may not at some points have been almost as puzzled as we are.

Though this is true of many of Dickinson’s letters, as we will see with the “the Third Master Letter” next week, it is especially true of her correspondence with Bowles. As Sewall points out, this correspondence was important because it punctuated a time of “extraordinary stress and inner turmoil.”

Bowles’s correspondence and editorship of the Springfield Republican likely provided Dickinson with a way to look outward at the world while she was turning inward during this period. What’s more, Bowles often published women writers in the pages of the Republican, including, according to Sewall, women of “spirit and brains” such as

Colette Loomis [“a pretty little aunt of mine” according to what Dickinson wrote in a letter], Lizzie Lincoln of Hinsdale, N.H., Luella Clarke, Ellen P. Champion, and Fannie Fern (Sarah Willis Parton).

As for his sickness, Bowles had traveled to Amherst in the winter of 1861 and became afflicted with “a chill and severe sciatica that sent him to Dr. Denniston’s in Northampton that fall.” As he grew ill, Dickinson became increasingly aware that her worldly, literary, and affectionate friend might not be around forever.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Victoria Corwin

I started my Dickinson studies as many do: in a high school classroom, with an old, generic anthology sprawled open to “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers -,” pressed to question how a person who never left her own room could produce such striking imagery of the outside world. My teacher fed me the mythological Dickinson, the woman in white, and I remember imagining the poet as a shy, stunted personality concerned with nature and childish dreams who talked to herself in her poetry. Years later, I regard her as one of the most advanced writers I’ve ever read.

The disconnect between what many of us read in traditional published collections and what Dickinson actually wrote intrigues me. This week’s poems deliver some of the most famous lines in her body of work that I’m sure many high school students have memorized, but memorization takes something away from the character of the lines that can only be revealed through the visual picture of the manuscript.

For example, Dickinson’s big swooping handwriting forces line breaks and enjambments that publishers ignore when printing poetry. Pick any poem from this week and notice that the words spill over to a second line. It’s especially noticeable in “After great pain, a formal / feeling comes -,” which stood out to me the most in this set, partly because I love the ending line: “First – Chill – then Stupor – then / the letting go -”

The emotion pulses through this poem; the horrible metric “Feet” that “mechanically” “go round” sound like a “formal” march to death when you read it in orderly printed lines. It sounds unstoppable, but the first time I saw the manuscript of this poem, the breaks made me hold my breath. You feel the Chill and Stupor as the dash pauses force you to slow down your reading, like slowly freezing. Then, on a completely different line that physically separates–

the letting go.

It’s funny, enjambment is supposed to keep poetry flowing, but in this case, the reader trips over the breaks and truly sees them as breaks, because of the disjointed subject matter and because of the striking spaces left over after the concluding words. The words sit with you, mimicking the formal feeling and ponderous tone of the poem. The breaks intensify everything.

Not to mention that Dickinson’s handwriting lends its character to each of her poems. The shape of her words colors the mood of her poems, generating beauty or solemnity or finality with all her different letter forms. For example, the word “impatient” looks absolutely beautiful in “Dare you see a Soul / at the White Heat?”—no impatient reader would rush past individual words here!

It’s a completely different experience reading the manuscripts, one that I am glad to have discovered so early in my studies. It took a few months of practice to decipher Dickinson’s handwriting, but the payoff is worth thousands of (printed) words.

Bio: Victoria Corwin is a Dartmouth class of '19 (a junior, to the uninitiated), a student of English and Classical Archaeology, a member of "The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn" course in Fall 2017, and a member of the "White Heat" team.



Cody, David. “”When one’s soul’s at a white heat”: Dickinson and the “Azarian School”.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 19 no. 1, 2010, pp. 30-59. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/edj.0.0217


The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 9, Issue 51. January 1862.

Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 24, Issue 140. January 1862.

Springfield Republican, Volume 89, Issue 2. January 11, 1862.


Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson, 1974, 281.



January 1-7, 1862: The Civil War

As Dickinson’s “white heat” burned, her country faced the heat of the Civil War. News and discussion of the Civil War reached all parts of the country by 1862, including Dickinson in her Massachusetts home. This week we investigate the effects of the war in Dickinson’s writing, despite common misconceptions of disconnect between the two.

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This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Ivy Schweitzer

The Start of the Year at the White Heat.

We begin with the week that started one of Emily Dickinson’s most productive years as a poet, January 1-7 of 1862. Perhaps one of the most poignant issues for Dickinson was the American Civil War, which is why we start this year exploring some of the implications of the War on her work. The popular myth of Dickinson as a recluse perpetuated the idea that she was a poet apart from the world and its turmoil, but her connections with the Civil War in her writing reveal this damaging assumption to be false.

This week’s news heavily centered on the War, still fairly new in the country’s mind as the second anniversary quickly approached in April 1862.

“Breaking the Backbone of the System”


Ireland officially announced that if Britain became involved in the American Civil War or declared war anew on the US, it would take the side of the US against Britain. Whether that would be the North or the South was never specified. This decision was sparked by the Trent Affair and provided a big confidence boost to the States, especially the North.

Also, news of the death of Prince Albert, beloved consort of Queen Victoria of England, on December 14 reached the States. On the one hand, his death inaugurated a Victorian culture of mourning (Victoria dressed in black for the rest of her life), but the backdrop for this culture had been created by Alfred Lord Tennyson's popular elegiac poem, "In Memoriam" (1849) and by the preoccupations of the late Romantics. Tennyson's influence on Dickinson will be explored in next week's post (many thanks to Colleen Boggs for this addition).


The year 1862 starts in the throes of the second year of the American Civil War. This week, all is quiet – the Civil War saw no major battles recently and what battles there were the North won “handsomely” and tidied up “nicely” in the words of the Springfield Republican.

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani
Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani

Notable, however, was the debate regarding emancipation of all slaves in the South, which would be announced later this year.

Both the Springfield Republican  and the Atlantic Monthly ran op-eds about the debate. The opposing sides included those who saw emancipation as a strategic misstep that would give the South reason to say the North took away its freedom to own slaves, and those who supported emancipation for solely ethical and socially justified reasons. Springfield’s op-ed, entitled “What Are We Fighting For?” is a good example of the debate. Dickinson’s friends were mostly abolitionists, as was her father.

An interesting “Letter From A Missionary ran in the local Hampshire Gazette. The author, a Christian missionary “to the Zulus in Africa,” describes the horrors of war and states what he believes the Civil War is about: liberation from slavery and “breaking the backbone of the system. The Atlantic also ran  historical pieces about President Thomas Jefferson and his views on slavery as a slave owner, and General Fremont’s “hundred days” before his controversial dismissal from the North’s army.

Celebrating and Mourning

Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.
Edward Dickinson, Emily's father.

This week, on January 1, the Dickinson family celebrated Edward Dickinson’s fifty-ninth birthday. Dickinson had a close relationship with her father Edward, but his restricting parental control caused much strain. In a letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson written in April of this year, Dickinson said of her father:  


He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the Mind (L261).

Reverend Charles Wadsworth

Dickinson wrote a letter to Edward Dwight, a former local pastor, during this week. A month before, Dickinson received a letter from Dwight informing her that his wife, Lucy Dwight, had died. The couple, who were family friends, lived in Amherst until Lucy fell ill. Dickinson thought Dwight the best pastor in town. She wrote a passionate letter in response lamenting his loss, but accidentally switched it with a letter to Charles Wadsworth, another minister she met in Philadelphia, to whom some biographers connect her romantically. Awkwardness ensued: a recent widower and family friend receives a letter which might have contained romantic yearnings, and the very much alive Mrs. Wadsworth wonders at her assumed death. Dickinson cleared the air and sent an adapted version of the last stanza of There came a day at summer’s full(F325, J322)  to Mr. Dwight, and received a poem and a photo of Lucy in return.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

I tell people who ask, that Dickinson called me. That is why I came up with this year-long project to document one of the most intense years in Dickinson’s writing life. I am both a scholar of early American literature with a particular focus on women, and a poet. Wanting to invigorate my relationship to poetry as a writer of it, I thought to immerse myself in all things Dickinson and get as close as I could to her writing process and to the texture and networks of her daily life. There are many exemplary biographies and accounts of Dickinson (see Resources) and no end of fascinating fan literature and fiction, but I wanted something more experiential and sustained.

I had just finished a digital humanities project, The Occom Circle, a scholarly digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, a Mohegan Indian leader, public intellectual and Christian minister. In the course of working on that project, I explored the Dickinson Electronic Archive, an innovative research and teaching tool created by a collective of Dickinson scholars in the wake of the recently digitized Dickinson manuscripts by Harvard University and Amherst College. The world of Dickinson scholarship had been revolutionized in 1981 by the publication of Ralph W. Franklin’s The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, which afforded a unique view of Dickinson’s texts as she wrote (and rewrote and preserved) them. Since then, scholars have been busy “unediting” Dickinson’s writing, as Marta Werner expressed it in Emily Dickinson’s Open Folios: Scenes of Reading, Surfaces of Writing, “undoing” a century of editorial and critical work so that we can finally begin to read what Dickinson actually wrote. The digital form of Dickinson’s manuscripts is producing another revolution, again in Werner’s words, “constellating these works not as still points of meaning or as incorruptible texts but, rather, as events and phenomena of freedom.” I wanted to explore and find a way to present Dickinson’s poems as events of freedom.

I thought I would use the digital technologies I learned about to share this immersive experience with a wider audience of poetry lovers, students of Dickinson, and folks interested in the nineteenth-century. I test-drove a good deal of this approach in the two iterations of a junior level colloquium on Dickinson I taught at my home institution of Dartmouth College, titled The New Dickinson: After the Digital Turn. It was a revelation to see how our readings of the poems changed, deepened, and grew more complex and dynamic when we worked with the digital scans of the manuscripts. As my students often commented heatedly, they felt “gipped” when comparing printed versions of the poems with the manuscript images. How dare the editor make those choices about diction, syntax, line breaks, and the fixed length of Dickinson’s iconic dashes without telling us! they complained. This “new” way of reading Dickinson was further aided by the ease of finding contextual materials on the web like newspapers, magazines, Dickinson’s lexicon, information about the Civil War and others. That is what I imagined our blog posts would offer.

And so, to the first week in January 1862.

Beyond the debates about the Civil War and why it was fought, Dickinson seems preoccupied with its effects, especially the nearness, prevalence, and arbitrariness of death. It is a commonplace that in the midst of life, we are all near to our mortality, but the line that haunts me in these poems is Dickinson’s description of dying as “passing into Conjecture’s presence.” We cross the boundary between life and death and so pass into a “presence,” but when it is personified as “Conjecture,” my mind starts buzzing. What would it be like to stand in the presence of Speculation, Guess, or another great Dickinson word from a related poem, “Because I could not stop for Death,” Surmise? Is this where she imagines death brings us: into a vast hall at the end of which presides a powerful Spirit whose demeanor and character we do not and cannot know? Whose character is Not-Yet-Knowing? Will we be devastated when we learn the true nature of this Spirit, or rapturous? or simply disappointed? This makes me think of the iconic line from Whitman’s answer to the child, who asked, “What is the grass?” in Song of Myself, Section VI: “And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”

I am also struck by the speaker of “Unto like Story,” who remembers the tales of “Kinsmen” who died for their beliefs, who have “marched in Revolution,” and prays, “Let me not shame their/sublime deportments.” I have often pondered how we, how I, can live our lives in the light of our ideals and deepest-held beliefs. Especially in a time of perpetual war, of atrocities committed in our name in far-off places we will never see. And so, listening to the news every day, I try to put myself into the lives of the people I hear about in news stories, as a way to honor the dignity of their struggles and their humanity. And sometimes it takes the form of a poem, with words borrowed from Dickinson’s poems:


They call it attack of panic
when alarms clang in my head
as if I had swallowed fire drills,
forcing me back into the night,
under our hut, boots thumping overhead.
The teachers at my new school
gather me up, pressing me back into myself.

Before, I was surrounded by bustle.
Neighbors’ chatter, banging pots,
the bubble of simmering azuki beans
we loved to eat mashed with butter and sugar.
Sometimes, distant growls
measured how we shared the bush.

Here on our American street,
houses loom mutely on lawns.
Cars sleek as gazelle
slide soundlessly into garages.

New mother, corral my flying parts
my belly full of surmise,
tell me nothing can send me back.
Our entwined hands like long evenings
lit by a full moon.

Bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Dartmouth College, where she teaches American literature and WGSS courses.  She is the editor of “White Heat.”



The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 9, Issue 51. January 1862.
Hampshire Gazette, January 7, 1862
Harper's Monthly Magazine, January 1862.
Springfield Republican, January 4, 1862

Attack of the 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, by Don Troiani