August 20-26, 1862: Bowles and Bees

This week, we take our cue from a letter Dickinson wrote to the editor and family friend Samuel Bowles (L272), dated August 1862, while he is touring Europe for his health, in order to continue incorporating letters into our gathering of primary texts and to explore her use of bee imagery in this letter, the symbolism of bees in her writing, which can be quite racy, and the importance of anthropomorphism more generally in her writing.

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This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Efrosyni Manda

During August 1862, Dickinson wrote only two letters that survive to give us a glimpse into her mood and concerns: her fifth letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson (L270), discussed in a previous post, and a letter to Samuel Bowles (1826-1878), owner and editor-in-chief of the Springfield Republican and family friend of the Dickinsons, who had been touring Europe for his health since the spring. This week, we take our cue from this letter to Bowles (L272), in order to continue incorporating letters into our gathering of primary texts and to explore themes Dickinson includes in that letter.

Samuel Bowles (1826-1878)

In her letter, Dickinson expresses her longing for Bowles in terms of the changing of the seasons, from late summer to fall, and through the figure of a bee and its clover. As arthropods, bees are part of a large trove of images Dickinson's drew on frequently. Medical Entomologist Louis C. Rutledge notes that 180 of Dickinson’s 1775 poems (according to Johnson’s 1955 edition)—more than 10 %—refer to one or more arthropods, including her first poem and her last.

As an important pollinator of plants, bees are under severe threat in our time because of environmental challenges, and we wanted to bring attention to that. We also nod to a whimsical essay in Harper’s Monthly for August 1862 about “a fairy that had lost the power of vanishing” and appears in the form of cheerful crickets, another prevalent arthropod in Dickinson’s writing. With this focus, we bring attention to arthropods, explore the role and symbolism of bees in particular for Dickinson, which can be quite racy, and suggest the importance of anthropomorphism more generally in her writing.

“Authors ought to be Read and not Heard”

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862

Progress of the War, page 1
“The great event of this week has been the transfer of Gen. McClellan’s army to Yorktown [end of the Peninsula Campaign]. Not the slightest molestation was suffered from the enemy during the perilous operation.”

How Do These Men Feel? page 4
“When a man is praised by a scoundrel he ought to suspect himself. The Memphis (Grenada) Appeal, the most malignant of all rebel sheets, praises Seymour of Connecticut, Wood of New York, Vallandigham of Ohio, and ex-president Pierce as the only true friends the South can count upon in the North.”

Mexico and the West Indies, page 4
“The steamer Columbia, from Havana, has arrived at New York. The yellow fever was decreasing, but for the past month had been very fatal.”

Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864)
Adelaide Anne Procter (1825-1864)

Poetry, “Ministering Angels” [by Adelaide Anne Procter], page 6

Conversational Powers, page 6
“The late William Hazlitt was of opinion that authors were not fitted, generally speaking, to shine in conversation. ‘Authors ought to be read and not heard.’ Some of the greatest names in English and French literature, men who have filled books with an eloquence and truth that defy oblivion, were mere mutes before their fellow men. They had golden ingots, which, in the privacy of home, they could convert into coin bearing an impress that would insure universal currency; but they could not, on the spur of the moment, produce the farthings current in the marketplace.”

Book, Authors, and Arts, page 7
“A French novel is often an odd compound of fiction and philosophy; but when it is the work of a master, like Victor Hugo, each of these qualities is admirable in its own way. His philosophy is always piquant and readable and raises a thousand questions where it answers one. He drops here a theory and there an epigram, here a sketch from fancy and there a photograph from life, and then puts them all aside for the moment, or rather mingles them all, as he plunges into one of the most exciting stories of the day.”

Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

Literary: Poems of Mrs. Browning, page 1
“Mrs. Elizabeth Barrett Browning ‘ as a poet, stands among women unrivaled and alone. In passionate tenderness, in capriciousness of imagination, freshness of feeling, vigor of thought, wealth of ideas and loftiness of soul, her poetry stands alone amongst all that has ever been written by women.’ That opinion, comprehensive in its flattery, we readily adopt in lieu of any praises of our own.”

Amherst, page 3
“The enrolled militia of Amherst number a little more than 400, making the chance for a draft one in ten.”

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Tommatoo, page 325
“A fairy that had lost the power of vanishing, and was obliged to remain ever-present, doing continual good; a cricket on the hearth, chirping through heat and cold; an animated amulet, sovereign against misfortune; a Santa Claus, without the wrinkles, but young and beautiful, choosing the darkest moments to leap right into one’s heart, and drop there the prettiest moral playthings to gladden and make gay—such, in my humble opinion, was Tommatoo.”

“Jerusalem Must be like Sue’s Drawing Room”

Samuel Bowles
Samuel Bowles

Samuel Bowles was a handsome, charming and passionate man whose literary interests and public position appealed to Dickinson. He became friends first with Susan and Austin Dickinson, who hosted him many times at the Evergreens. In her “Annals of the Evergreens,” Sue wrote about him in glowing terms:

[He] seemed to enrich and widen all life for us, a creator of endless perspectives. … His range of topics was unlimited, now some plot of local politics, rousing his honest rage, now some rare effusion of fine sentiment over an unpublished poem which he would draw from his pocket, having received it in advance from the fascinated editor.

Dickinson met him in June 1858 at the Evergreens and immediately afterwards wrote him in passionate terms (apparently, “purple” was a color she thereafter associated with him):

Though it is almost nine o'clock, the skies are gay and yellow, and there's a purple craft or so, in which a friend could sail. Tonight “Jerusalem.” I think Jerusalem must be like Sue’s Drawing Room, when we are talking and laughing there, and you and Mrs Bowles are by.(L189).

Especially during the difficult period of 1861-62, Dickinson considered Bowles a special confidante and wrote him frequently, although the friendship suffered a breach which was not repaired until the death of Edward Dickinson, Dickinson’s father, in 1874. Some scholars consider Bowles a likely candidate for the person Dickinson addressed as “Master” during this period. Over the course of their relationship, she sent him 40 poems, and though he was a passionate supporter and publisher of women’s poetry, he never published any of them.

The letter Dickinson wrote to him this month in 1862 expresses her longing in revelatory terms. We focus on the allusion to bees, which comes at the end of the letter in a question:

Sue gave me the paper, to write on – so when the writing tires you – play it is Her, and “Jackey”- and that will rest your eyes – for have not the Clovers, names, to the Bees?

Dickinson refers to the special thin, air-mail stationery Sue gave her to write on. “Jackey” was the name Austin and Sue used for their first son Ned while still a baby. Dickinson suggests that if Bowles gets tired of her letter, he can “play” or pretend it is Sue and her son, comparing them to “the Clovers” that bees identify by name. This obscure reference gains clarity when we explore Dickinson’s wider use of bees in her writing.

Speaking broadly about Dickinson’s frequent references to animals and her attribution of subjectivity to them, Aaron Shakleford argues that Dickinson’s anthropomorphism

uncovers just how limited our own consciousness and epistemology really is, while also demonstrating how this shapes our knowledge of animals. … [Dickinson] demonstrates how to navigate both our inescapable reliance upon the human to "know" the external world and the limitations of our own ability to understand that world.

bee on cloverMore specifically, in her study of Dickinson’s gardens, Judith Farr notes the dual symbolic valence of bees. On the one hand, Dickinson

contemplated the sexual arena of her garden daily. There, the careers of flowers and the dramatic career of the bee as their lover/propagator commanded her attention, for “till the Bee / Blossoms stand negative” (F999).

Thus, bees often emblematize a promiscuous masculine sexuality, and the drama of active (masculine) bee and passive (submissive) flower figures a gendered human theater of love, intimacy, and desire. On the other hand, in her playful/heterodox revision of the Christian trinity dated to 1858, Dickinson prayed:

In the name of the Bee –

And of the Butterfly –
And of the Breeze – Amen!

Thus, as several scholars observe, Dickinson links the gendered sexuality figured by bees to Puritan doctrines of conversion and salvation as well as her own revisions of spirituality. According to Victoria Morgan,

Dickinson disrupts the industriousness culturally associated with bees by employing bee imagery in her depictions of physical and spiritual excess and pleasure. … Dickinson’s excessive bees emulate the “dangerous” sexuality that is forbidden, but also embody the rhapsodic spiritual pleasure which organized religion attempts to name and own.

Taking this one step further, H. Jordan Landry sees Dickinson’s bees as essentially “queer.” Although, as Dickinson would have known, worker bees are all female, she clearly marks them as male and penetrative. Still, they engage in what can be read as the lesbianic sexual act of cunnilingus with the feminine flower. According to Landry, Dickinson’s bee imagery

aims at reorganizing the experience, perception, and value of the female anatomy and rewriting its capacities to be pleasured and give pleasure.

bee and cloverFurthermore, Landry argues that Dickinson overlays this rewriting onto Puritan conversion in which Dickinson felt women were regarded as secondary. Landry reads Dickinson’s bee imagery through her early letters to Sue and the queer desires that can be discerned there. In the letter to Bowles, the bee image is connected to Sue and her young son but directed at Bowles. Is he the “bee” who names, recognizes and pollinates specific clovers? Does this imagery signify differently when Dickinson deploys it to express her longing for Bowles? What queerness inheres in that relationship?

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Efrosyni Manda

A letter requires two communicating poles and its presence presupposes the absence of one of them. It is meant to efface the very gap that brought it to surface by drawing the poles together. Senders were advised to include trivial and gossipy details of their microcosm in their letter so as to relieve the recipient’s pain of separation. However, these moments gone away forever widen the gap since they accentuate absence and exclusion.

In her letter to Samuel Bowles, Emily Dickinson carries the macrocosm of Nature, the Hills, the flowers and the bright autumnal Skies, over to him in an effort to retain a shared referential point, a cosmos that, regardless of the seasonal changes, is permanent, always waiting for him to come back to her. Time is inextricably bound with space and it is chopped away through a peculiar countdown: its passing is not measured by the linear succession of days or months; rather, it’s the changes in nature that constitute milestones towards Bowles’ return. Time is too abstract and immaterial for her to handle; she has to materialize it in its concrete symbols. The Grape, the Pippin, the Chestnut, separated with dashes yet squeezed into the same sentence, resemble a rapid time lapse and constitute tangible proofs that time has indeed passed, that his coming back gets closer. Unlike time in the poem, “If you were coming in the Fall,” which opens up to infinity, in this letter, time moves painfully slowly, closing steadily in to his return, “[Him]self”.

The absence/presence of the sender/receiver of a letter is mutually interchangeable and negated; concurrence of the poles is impossible. Dickinson’s letter, a communicative device which relies on the metaphor, becomes the vehicle that brings her to Bowles. She carries her parousia over to him; her writing travels through time and space to meet and possibly tire him. Painfully aware of the “Sea” between them, she tracks the steamer that took him away in an attempt to wipe away the ocean that separates them. The projection of his spatiotemporal zone into hers makes them coincide, even apparitionally, and she constructs an a-temporal, a-spatial niche in which the epistolary displacement is annulled so that they can touch each other; he has already returned and rings her bell. Her attempt to coordinate their spatiotemporal zones obscures or even eliminates the boundaries of the epistolary cosmos and produces time textually, allowing Dickinson’s live streaming interaction with Bowles.

Bio: Efrosyni Manda holds a BA in English Literature and Culture and an MA in Translation Studies. She is a PhD Candidate at the University of Athens, Greece. She is working on Emily Dickinson’s Letters and focuses on the ways Dickinson employed the letter, a means of interpellation, to dodge interpellation as well as on the techniques she uses to set a time and place a specific document free from its spatiotemporal boundaries. She has translated Dickinson’s Letters in Greek: "Emily Dickinson: Επειδή δεν άντεχα να ζήσω φωναχτά. Ποιήματα και Επιστολές." I could not bear to live aloud. Translation of a selection of Emily Dickinson's Poems and Letters. Athens: Gutenberg Press, 2013.


Rutledge, Louis C. “Emily Dickinson’s Arthropods.” AMERICAN ENTOMOLOGIST.  Summer 2003, 70-74.


Hampshire Gazette, August 26, 1862

Harper’s Monthly, August 1862

Springfield Republican, August 23, 1862


Dickinson, Susan. “Annals of the Evergreens. EDA, 2008.

Farr, Judith, with Louise Carter. The Gardens of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, 146, 196.

Landry, H. Jordan. “Animal/Insectual/Lesbian Sex: Dickinson’s Queer Vision of the Birds and the Bees.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 9, 2, (Fall 2000): 42-54, 50-51.

Morgan, Victoria. “‘Repairing Everywhere without Design’? Industry, Revery and Relation in Emily Dickinson’s Bee Imagery.” Shaping Belief: Culture, Politics, and Religion in Nineteenth-Century Writing. Eds. Clare Williams and Victoria Morgan. Liverpool: Liverpool University Pres, 2008. 73-93, 84.

Shakleford, Aaron. “Dickinson’s Animals and Anthropomorphism.” 
The Emily Dickinson Journal 19, 2 (2010): 47-66, 61.

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July 2-8, 1862: Marriage

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
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This Week's Reflection – Lisa Furmanski

July 1, 1862 marked the 6th anniversary of Susan and Austin Dickinson, sister-in-law and older brother of Emily Dickinson, and spurs this week’s exploration of the important theme of marriage in Dickinson’s work. We also take inspiration from the publication in this month’s Atlantic Monthly of Julia Ward Howe’s tonally ambiguous poem, “The Wedding,” the second in her series titled Lyrics of the Street, reproduced in “This Week in History.”

For a woman of Dickinson’s time, region, and class, marriage was the acme of a female life. Such women were not considered “complete” without it. In 1966, historian Barbara Welter described what she called “the cult of domesticity” or “cult of true womanhood,” a set of ideas purveyed by sermons, how-to books and women’s magazines for middle and upper-class white Protestant New-Englanders, in response to a range of social developments: the disappearance of the family farm, where everyone worked together; new professions located outside the home; and the flood of immigrants crowding cities and even small towns like Amherst, MA. She titled her book on the subject, Dimity Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century, taking her opening phrase from Dickinson's condemnatory poem, “What soft – Cherubic Creatures–/These Gentlewomen are –" (F675).

At the same time, in legal terms, when a woman married, she moved from the legal category of feme sole (single woman) to the legal category of feme coverte (covered or protected woman), where her identity merged with that of her husband and she, essentially, had no rights apart from his protection. Reform of these laws in the form of the Married Women’s Property Acts began in the mid-nineteenth century but was not fully accomplished nation-wide until the early twentieth-century.

This new vision of femininity reflected what scholars identified as an ideology of “separate spheres” for men and women, based on biologically determined gender roles and part of a complex system of “sex-gender conventions” that prevailed in the northeast US in the 19th century. It rested on four central “virtues:” piety, purity, domesticity and submissiveness. Recently, historians have challenged and amplified Welter’s definition. For example, Susan Cruea identifies four evolving and overlapping images of women in the nineteenth century: not only True Womanhood, but Real Womanhood, Public Womanhood and New Womanhood.

While the reality and effect of the beliefs in True Womanhood  are palpable in Dickinson’s circle, as we will see in the poems for this week, there were also palpable tensions in this ideology and strong resistance to it. In her poem, “The Wedding” published in July 1862, for example, Julia Ward Howe characterized the “the wedded task of life” as “Mending husband, moulding wife.”

Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections
Otis Phillips Lord (1812-1884). Amherst College Collections

A salient site of Dickinson’s desire and resistance to this ideology is her extensive series of poems that explore marriage in all its dimensions, often highly metaphorical and “mystical.” These poems explore betrothal, the bride and bridegroom, the wedding and its aftermath of consummation, the wife’s experience and entitlement, and the frequent renunciation that accompanies love and marriage. Although Dickinson never married, she had several proposals, one as late as 1882 from Judge Otis Lord when she was in her early 50s. Some scholars read her marriage poems biographically, but we will approach them as complex explorations of female identity. For models, Dickinson could draw on several very different types of marriages among her circle of intimates. We will look at these marriages, the current attitude towards marriage in the press, and Dickinson’s extraordinary poetry of marriage.

“They Will all Have to Die Old Maids”

Springfield Republican, July 5

Progress of the War, page 1
“We are in the midst of the great struggle before Richmond, with only imperfect accounts of the events that occurred last week. The prominent and most important fact is that Gen. McClellan has changed his entire line in the face of the enemy, and while a severe battle was raging, and that his army now occupies the region between the Chickahominy and James river, that his base of operations at the White House landing is abandoned and his supplies and reinforcements now go up the James River. A series of great battles has been fought commencing on Wednesday of last week and continuing until Sunday, possibly until the present hour, and there is no reason to expect and further lull in the storm till the fate of Richmond and of the rebel armies that defend it is decided.”

From Washington, page 1
“No one can think of anything but the great battle at Richmond and the gigantic movements of the last few days. Is McClellan whipped? Is our army in danger of immediate destruction? Can McClellan still evolve victory from apparent disorder? Great battles have been fought—and the war department pretends it has no news.”

Poetry, page 5

General News, page 5

“English antiquarians are much exercised over the identity of a human skeleton just discovered at Leicester. It is supposed that the remains are those of King Richard III.”

“The reason the southern women are so bitter in this rebellion, against the people of the North, is that the southern men prefer the northern women to them, and they are afraid if the war ceases they will all have to die old maids.”

Wit and Wisdom, page 6
“Some married folks keep their love, like their jewelry, for the world’s eyes; thinking it too precious for everyday wear at the fireside.”

“Men love women for their natures—not their accomplishments. More men of genius marry, and are happy, with women of very common-place understandings, than ever venture to take brilliant wives, and enjoy a showy misery.”

The First Death, page 7
“It is wonderful how a war like this ennobles death. Once it was only sad to think of the first death, and no subsequent bereavement seemed quite like that. The heart was not accustomed to chastening when the first blow fell, nor the home used to such visitants when the destroying angel first crossed its threshold. That house of mourning may become again a house of feasting, but the memory of the darkened chamber and vacant chair below survive all change.”

Books, Authors and Art, page 7
“There are certain books which are not what we wish they were, because we are confident they are not what their authors are capable of producing—books of promise—books which betray a nature kept by circumstances from a free and full development—books which impress without satisfying—books which please moderately, yet yield us no full throb of pleasure—books with musical threats and warm bosoms and fine plumage, but no wings, no faculty of flight to take us up through the ether. One of these books is “Home, and other Poems” by A.H. Caughey of Erie, PA.”

Woman and Chivalry, page 7
“A man should yield everything to a woman for a word, for a smile—to one look of entreaty. But if there be no look of entreaty, no word, no smile, I do not see that he is called upon to yield much.”

Atlantic Monthly, July 15

Originality, page 63

Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)
Julia Ward Howe (1819-1910)

“A great contemporary writer, so I am told, regards originality as much rarer than is commonly supposed. But, on the contrary, is it not far more frequent than is commonly supposed? For one should not identify originality with mere primacy of conception or utterance, as if a thought could be original but once. In truth, it may be so thousands or millions of times.”

Lyrics of the Street II [from a series of 6], page 98
“The Wedding” by Julia Ward Howe

In her satin gown so fine
Trips the bride within the shrine.
Waits the street to see her pass,
Like a vision in a glass.
Roses crown her peerless head:
Keep your lilies for the dead!

Something of the light without
Enters with her, veiled about;
Sunbeams, hiding in her hair,
Please themselves with silken wear;
Shadows point to what shall be
In the dim futurity.

Wreathe with flowers the weighty yoke
Might of mortal never broke!
From the altar of her vows
To the grave’s unsightly house
Measured is the path, and made;
All the work is planned and paid.

As a girl, with ready smile,
Where shall rise some ponderous pile,
On the chosen, festal day,
Turns the initial sod away,
So the bride with fingers frail
Founds a temple of a jail,—

Or a palace, it may be
Flooded full with luxury,
Open yet to the deadliest things,
And the Midnight Angel’s wings.
Keep its chambers purged with prayer:
Faith can guard it, Love is rare.

Organ, sound thy wedding-tunes!
Priest, recite thy wedding tunes!
Hast no ghostly help nor art
Can enrich a selfish heart,
Blessing bind ‘twixt greed and gold,
Joy with bloom for bargain sold?

Hail, the wedded task of life!
Mending husband, moulding wife.
Hope brings labor, labor peace;
Wisdom ripens, goods increase;
Triumph crowns the sainted head,
And our lilies wait the dead.

Reviews and Literary Notices, page 124
“‘Fantine,’ the first of five novels under the general title of ‘Les Misérables,’ has produced an impression all over Europe, and we already hear of nine translations. It has evidently been ‘engineered’ with immense energy by the French publisher. Every resource of bookselling ingenuity has been exhausted in order to make every human being who can read think that the salvation of his body and soul depends on his reading ‘Les Misérables.’”

“That Great Blessedness”

Dickinson’s feelings about marriage emerge early in her writing. In a letter to Susan Gilbert, dated early June 1852, Dickinson recalls a walk with her friend Mattie, how they talked about “life and love, whispered our childish fancies about such blissful things” and

wondered if that great blessedness which may be our’s sometime, is granted now, to some. Those unions, my dear Susie, by which two lives are one, this sweet and strange adoption wherein we can but look, and are not yet admitted, how it can fill the heart, and make it gang wildly, beating, how it will take us one day, and make us all it’s own, and we shall not run away from it, but lie still and be happy.

It is not clear whether Dickinson refers here to heterosexual marriage or, as some commentators argue, a great love she feels for Sue. What is clear is that she is looking at this rapturous state from the outside and has some fear of it. The phrase, “but lie still and be happy,” echoes the advice about unwanted marital sex purportedly given to women at the time, sometimes attributed to Queen Victoria: “close your eyes and think of England.” Women were not supposed to have or feel or own up to sexual desires.

Dickinson goes on in the letter to chide Susan for being “strangely silent on this subject,” asks her if she has a “dear fancy, illuminating all your life … one of whom you murmured in the faithful ear of night,” and insists

when you come home, Susie, we must speak of these things. How dull our lives must seem to the bride, and the plighted maiden, whose days are fed with gold, and who gathers pearls every evening; but to the wife, Susie, sometimes the wife forgotten, our lives perhaps seem dearer than all others in the world; you have seen flowers at morning, satisfied with the dew, and those same flowers at noon with their heads bowed in anguish before the mighty sun; think you these thirsty blossoms will now need naught but – dew? No, they will cry for the sunlight, and pine for the burning noon, tho’ it scorches them, scathes them; they have got through with peace – they know that the man of noon, is mightier than the morning and their life is henceforth to him. Oh, Susie, it is dangerous and it is all too dear, these simple trusting spirits, and the spirits mightier, which we cannot resist! It does so rend me, Susie, the thought of it when it comes, that I tremble lest at sometime I, too, am yielded up. (L93; her emphasis).

From this “amatory strain,” we can draw several inferences. On the one hand, Dickinson feels that non- or pre-brides and unplighted maidens have dull lives, although the phrases describing brides as “fed with gold,” and gathering “pearls every evening” verge on the melodramatic and ironic. On the other hand, “the wife forgotten” is pitiful, and the scorching of delicate female flowers by burning “men of noon” is dangerous and threatens to consume women. Dickinson fears being “yielded up,” a doubling of the passive construction.

Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)
Susan Dickinson (1830-1913)

We know that Susan also feared marriage and put hers to Austin off for several years, mainly because of the sexual component. There is speculation that she had several abortions before her first child was born in June 1861, and that she may have tried to terminate that pregnancy as well. This resistance occurred, perhaps, because, by all accounts, her marriage to Austin was miserable. While Susan was a close school friend of Dickinson and was, at first, adored by the Dickinson family, she and Austin had very different expectations of their union. From a less stable background, Sue wanted financial security and improved status. Austin, by contrast, had a romantic streak and craved affection he did not get from his stern father and distant mother.

Although they eventually had three children together, Austin felt exiled from the family and spent much time at the Homestead next door with his two unmarried sisters. Unable to divorce Susan, Austin eventually began a passionate, long-term affair with Mabel Loomis Todd, a much younger woman.

Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd
Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd

Dickinson’s biography contains several types of marriages that might have colored her feelings about the state. Her parents’ marriage was steadfast but featured a controlling husband who exacerbated the fears and dependencies of his much frailer wife. Austin’s marriage to Susan was a dismal failure that caused much pain to all involved. By contrast, Austin’s lover Mabel was married to David Todd, a young professor of Astronomy, who joined the faculty at Amherst College in 1881, and who seems to have known about and even approved of (and participated in) his wife’s liaison—offering a very different model of an “open” marriage from the very “closed” Victorian model advocated by the reigning sex-gender conventions. A happier version of this ideal was epitomized by Elizabeth and Josiah Holland, friends of Dickinson discussed in last week’s post. As we noted there, Josiah was large, imposing, and intellectual and Elizabeth was small, doting, and warm-hearted. He had a public profile as a writer, lecturer and literary editor of the Springfield Republican while she maintained their busy and vibrant home.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Lisa Furmanski

No more families torn apartHow to Be Wife at the End of the World

Inside me is a scarlet feather, clenched
With gauze, it takes my mind abroad
Where I risk the end of our children.
Wed me not to bells, clanging knots,
Their sound is an eclipse of the spirit
Doming a lead gown. I can protest
A bare sun but no way to bear its melt,
Thus I am alone, that is, being a bride.
Night rites blue and our bed plumbs
What the radio said about loneliness.
Wife weeps. Wife pulls at her feather.
Fierce, a woman with such tiny wrists.
I am dogged enough to choir, to carry
Signposts, memes of sickness and vow.

— June 30th, the day of the March for Families, was unbearable in many ways. The incredible heat was ominous, and the speakers invoked the long, long arc of resistance, nothing near or soon. Is my marriage and wifehood in these times beyond the political, or can it strike a chord of protest? Proof and risk, defiance and intimacy, I want my shared life to be all of these. The
poems for this week’s blog, like much of Dickinson’s work that I depend on, are a “puzzle”: of faith and nature and relationships, and inspired this attempt to speak as a wife in these terrible times.

bio: Lisa Furmanski is a physician and writer living in New Hampshire. Her poetry has appeared in Poetry, Gettysburg Review, Antioch Review, Hunger Mountain, Prairie Schooner and elsewhere.



Cruea, Susan. "Changing Ideals of Womanhood During the Nineteenth-Century Woman Movement. ATQ: 19th century American Literature and Culture. Vol. 19, Issue 3, 2005: 187-204; General Studies Writing Faculty Publications. 1.

Gerdes, Kirsten. “Marriage and Property Rights.” All Things Dickinson: An Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Ed. Wendy Martin. 2 vols. Greenwood Press, 2014, 564-68.

Welter, Barbara. “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860.” American Quarterly 18 (2, 1966): 151-74.

As complication and challenge, see:

Davidson, Cathy and Jessamyn Hatcher, eds. No More Separate Spheres!: A Next Wave American Studies Reader. Durham: Duke University Press, 2002.


Atlantic Monthly, July 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, July 5, 1862.


Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 186-96.

Longsworth, Polly. Austin and Mabel: The Amherst Affair and Love Letters of Austin Dickinson and Mabel Loomis Todd. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1983.

June 18-24, 1862: Music, by guest blogger, Dr. Nicole Panizza, Coventry University

This post offers an account of Dickinson’s relationship to, interactions with, and employment of musical reference, gesture and idiom. It begins with a brief outline of Dickinson’s musical training and her reaction to musical performance trends of the day, and proceed to decode the many musical references in a selection of her poems from the period c. 1861-1865, with a focus on her “golden year” of literary industry – 1862.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Nicole Panizza
By Nicole Panizza, University of Coventry

What role did music play in Emily Dickinson’s life? While scholars have investigated countless aspects of  Dickinson’s life and literary output, there has been a surprising lack of inquiry into the role of music. While she was renowned as a poet of contemporary vision and sensibility, it is less well-known that  Dickinson was successfully trained in the fundamentals of music practice and theory, and reached an impressively high standard of technical agility and nuance. Further, she was also exposed to church music and hymnal in her formative years. Despite Dickinson existing within a conservative domestic environment, she created her poems and possibly also her letters based on a progressive  internal musical script, or musical roadmap.

Dickinson's Music Book, Houghton Library, Harvard
Dickinson's Music Book, Houghton Library, Harvard University

The musical qualities of Dickinson’s work derive from the musical influences that shaped her prosody, the syntactical and metrical qualities of her terse poetic lines, as well as the extensive role of music and musical instruments within the symbolic structures of her thought. Her writing generates a unique music of its own, which goes beyond the adaptation of existing musical styles. Carolyn Cooley observes:

The vibrant and throbbing rhythms and sounds, which Dickinson incorporates into many of her poems and letters testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical form, nuance and terminology. … [music] emanates from the depths of her own being to create contrapuntal melodies which achieve either an harmonic or a dissonant whole.

In Dickinson’s own words, from a letter to Elizabeth Holland about 1872:

In adequate Music there is a Major and a Minor –  (L370).

The human condition can be in a major key of exhilaration or a minor key of depression, or, as is often the case, both in direct contrast with one another. In a revealing testimony to Dickinson’s musical impulse, Clara Newman Turner, a cousin, extends the theory that Dickinson thought musically: 

Her Opera was the trilling of the birds outside her window; – the buzzing of the bees – the flitting in and out of the butterflies in their gauzy costumes. The crickets, and the frogs, and the breeze in its orchestra.

This post offers an account of Dickinson’s relationship to and employment of musical reference, gesture and idiom. It begins with a brief outline of Dickinson’s musical training and her reaction to musical performance trends of the day, and proceeds to decode the many musical references in a selection of her poems from the period c. 1861-1865, with a focus on her “golden year” of literary industry – 1862.

“New Music”

Springfield Republican, June 21, 1862

Review of the Week: Progress of the War, page 1

Secretary of War under Lincoln (1814-1869)
Edwin Stanton (1814-1869), Secretary of War under Lincoln

“This week has been one of unusual quiet. There has been no battle and no important movement that has been made known to the public. In the matter of slaves freed by the war, things are getting straightened out. Secretary Stanton informs Congress that Gen. Hunter has had no orders to enlist and arm the slaves, and has not informed the war department that he has gone into such an enterprise. It is likely that the enterprise will not be interfered with and that Gen. Hunter will be allowed to make the negroes useful in any way he can.”

Religious Intelligence, page 1
“Complaint has been made at the war department that a large number of army chaplains are absent from their regiments. At this time, when their ministrations seem particularly desirable, they are visiting their families, loitering in the cities, or lecturing upon their marvelous war experiences. With the feeling in Congress touching the office of chaplain, many members thinking it rather ornamental than useful, it behooves these gentlemen to speedily return to their posts, or they may find their occupation gone.”

Charles Sumner (1811-1874), Senator from Massachusetts and anti-slavery leader
Charles Sumner (1811-1874), Senator from Massachusetts and anti-slavery leader

A Letter from Mr. Sumner, page 2
“I say to you, stand by the administration. If need be, help it by word and act, but stand by it and have faith in it. I wish that you really knew the president and had heard the artless expression of his convictions on those questions [of slavery and abolition] which concern you so deeply. You might, perhaps, wish that he were less cautious, but you would be grateful that he is so true to all that you have at heart.”

Words for Wives, courtesy of Monthly Religious Magazine, page 6
“I believe the influence of a wife to be always, for good or for bad, very decided. There is not a woman living, unless she has forfeited all claim to her husband’s respect but is making her mark day by day upon his character. One thing, let her understand—worrying, fretting, fault-finding, direct and frequent harangues, ill-tempered slurs, anything that looks like passion, suspicion or jealousy, will do no good. These are the things a man cannot bear and have driven many into the things they were intended to prevent. She lacks judgment and prudence who shall ever indulge in these. Let her know that the strongest influences are those which are silent and indirect, that it is impossible for her to be in the right, gently, patiently, consistently, without its being felt. It may not be acknowledged today, or tomorrow, or ever; it may not do all she hoped it would. Counteracting influences may be too strong for that, but it is felt among the deepest and last things of life, even when he jeers and scoffs and strikes.”

Poetry, page 6: “The English Skylark” by Frederick Tennyson and “Coming Home” from Boston Transcript; Original Poetry, page 7: “At My Mother’s Grave” by J.E.H.

Books, Authors and Art, page 7

Mary A. Denison (1826-1911)
Mary A. Denison (1826-1911)

“We would advise anyone who wishes to attain celebrity by the exercise of a moderate amount of talent to become, if possible, the favorite of a clique; such a step is fatal to true greatness, but remarkably favorable to ambitious mediocrity. We are not sure how far those remarks will apply to The Master, a recent novel by Mrs. Mary A. Denison. It is a tale of music and musical people, such as should be written, read and reviewed by those who are versed in the technicalities of that divine and difficult art. As a mere narrative, it is an acceptable contribution to the popular stories of the day.”

Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862

New Music, page 1
“From Joseph Marsh, Book, News and Music dealer, we have received the following pieces of music, all excellent. It is published by Oliver Ditson & Co., Boston, and of course must be good. “Fox glove March,” “Cupid’s Eyes, a ballad,” “The Colleen Bawn” [listen below] “Serenade—Wake Lady Wake,” “Miss Lorimer Bell, a ballad,” “Levinia Waltz.” Sold by Joseph Marsh.

Amherst College, June 16th, page 1
“The event of the week with us has been the exercises ‘Class Day.’ The reputation of the speakers for the occasion, together with the kind smile of nature which gave us a delightful day, had the effect to draw together a very large assembly. The village church, in which the exercises took place, was very finely adorned with flowers and evergreens, and its every nook and corner breathed with fragrance. The music for the exhibition was furnished by the Schubert Club of Boston, who did themselves very great credit, and met with a hearty appreciation from the large and critical audience.”

On Mexico, page 2
“The French were badly defeated, and the Mexicans at last accounts were uniting against the invaders. It is possible they will be driven out of the country. It is hardly probably that Napoleon will withdraw and thus confess himself defeated, he will be more likely to appeal to the patriotism of the French people and send reinforcements. He probably wants something for his army to do, and he undoubtedly thinks is as easy for his French soldiers to capture Mexico and it was for America.”

page 2
The London Times publishes a letter from its New York correspondent to England very plainly that the United States will soon become ‘the greatest military and naval power in Christendom.’ In a few days after the Times editorially informed the people of Canada that they must defend themselves from American invasion as England cannot do it.”

Dickinson’s Exposure to Music and Jenny Lind

by Dr. Nicole Panissa, Coventry University

In the summer of 1862 Dickinson wrote to Dr. and Mrs. J. G. Holland stating:

My business is to sing … how do I know but cherubim, once, themselves, as patient, listened, and applauded her unnoticed hymn (L269).

It is, therefore, fair to conclude that Dickinson viewed her own literary voice as a musical one – drawing on both her extensive musical training, and a sub-conscious synergy with musical idiom and reference.

Existing records show that  Dickinson was well-versed and trained in both music theory and practice, specifically in piano and singing, as was commonplace for many young women of her age and social class in mid-19th century America. Her father supported her musical studies during her time at Mount Holyoke Seminary. At fourteen, Dickinson wrote to her friend Abiah Root:

I also was much pleased with the news [your letter] contained especially that you are taking lessons on the “piny”, as you always call it, but remember not to get on ahead of me. Father intends to have a Piano very soon. How happy I shall be when I have one of my own (L 6, 7 May 1845).

Dickinson’s wish soon came true. That year, her father bought a handsome rosewood piano with ornately carved legs, manufactured by Hallett Davis and Company of Boston.

Dickinson's piano, Emily Dickinson Museum
Dickinson's piano, Emily Dickinson Museum

In September, Dickinson wrote again to Abiah,

I am taking piano lessons and getting along very well with them…now I have a piano. … I am very happy (L 8 25 September).

Records suggest that over a period of some six years, Dickinson actively engaged with daily piano practice, primarily based on the Bertini Method, a popular methodology of the day, resulting in a level of prowess that was deemed advanced, even by today’s standards.

Both family and neighbors regarded Dickinson as an expert improviser. Richard Sewall recounts that her cousin John Graves described her late night improvisations as “heavenly music.” When he stayed over with his cousins, he would be wakened from his sleep by Dickinson’s music making. She explained the next morning: “I can improvise better at night.”

Dickinson’s cousin, Clara Newman Turner, whose recollection of the poet Sewall reprints, also recalled that

before seating herself at the piano Emily covered the upper and lower octaves so that the length of the keyboard might correspond to that of the old-fashioned instrument on which she had learned to play.

And George Boziwick recounts how MacGregor Jenkins, another neighbor, noted in his memoir that:

[Dickinson] went often across the lawn to her brother’s house. It was through him, and his handsome wife – the ‘Sue’ of her letters and messages, that she kept in touch with the life of her circle, and to a considerable extent with the village and the world. It was here that she would fly to the piano, if the mood required, and thunder out a composition of her own which she laughingly but appropriately called “The Devil,” and when her father came, lantern in hand to see that she reached home in safety, she would elude him and dart through the darkness to reach home before him. This was pure mischief and there was much of it in her.

The proposition that, in artistic terms, Dickinson proceeded from not only a musical but performative perspective is supported by her finding freedom in thought and expression via an improvisatory musical language. Her choice to improvise at night, potentially based on well-known jigs, reels and patriotic songs of the time, demonstrates her desire to find release within boundary: to explore ways in which her innate sense of musical gesture, placement, breath, silence and cadence in performance terms could potentially inform her own poetic practice.

Despite a growing immersion in her literary practice, Dickinson nevertheless retained a musical ethos, transferring her practical musical skills to a more metaphoric one. Carolyn Cooley argues:

Melodic strains and musical references pervade her poems, providing unusually appropriate figurative language to express joyous and plaintive moods … To an astonishing degree, the pulsating rhythms and sounds which Dickinson orchestrates in hundreds of her poems testify to her rare ability to convey profound concepts in musical terminology. Sometimes, the very air around her seems filled with music, and the songs of the birds either lift her exalted spirit or trouble her downcast soul.

Jenny Lind (1820-1887)
Jenny Lind (1820-1887)

While Dickinson utilized the security that her strategically-designed domestic domain provided, she was nevertheless seduced by the exotic and unpredictable energy of live performance. After attending a concert by the famous 19th century soprano, Jenny Lind, in Boston in May 1851, 20 year old Dickinson became enchanted not only with Lind’s vocal range and technical abilities, but perhaps more importantly, with her adopted performance persona. She wrote in a letter to her brother Austin:

How we all loved Jenny Lind, but not accustomed oft to her manner of singing didn’t [sic] fancy that so well as we did her – no doubt it was very fine – but take some notes from her “Echo”- the Bird songs from the “Bird Sing” and have some of her curious trills, and I’d rather have a Yankee. Herself, and not her music, was what we seemed to love – she has an air of exile in her mild blue eyes, and a something sweet and touching in her native accent which charms her many friends (L 46, 6 July).

Judith Pascoe argues that Dickinson found a comparative conduit for performative expression through viewing Lind’s performance:

The Jenny Lind phenomenon provides a rewarding context in which to place Dickinson’s performance poems, suggesting a highly theatrical Dickinson whose refusal to place her poems before a broad audience had more to do with the vagaries of the marketplace than with a reluctance to perform. Lind provided Dickinson with an important – if ultimately disappointing – model of female self-fashioning. The several ways in which Lind’s public persona, and Dickinson’s private and poetic versions coincide suggest that Dickinson’s relatively brief encounter with Lind had a complex and enduring impact on her conception of herself as an artist.

For the musician and performer, Pascoe’s assertions offer an important insight when looking to engage with, analyze, and perform musical settings of Dickinson’s poetry and letters. The following section of poetry discusses my own critical engagement, as a practicing musician and performer, with a sample collection of Dickinson’s poems that feature musical references.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Nicole PanizzaNicole Panizza

The examples I offered in the poems section, while apt but by no means conclusive,  demonstrate the various ways Dickinson championed the medium of music as a primary inspiration and informant of her poetic process.  Dickinson’s personal music folio also offers the reader a unique window into her musical preferences; it contains scores that, in many instances, require not only an advanced piano technique and sophisticated level of performance and virtuosity, but also demonstrate a diverse representation of musical style and genre. Editorial markings found in many of these manuscripts support the notion that she was exposed to a sustained and determined level of expert music instruction, notably during her formative years. Spanning 484 pages, her selections were somewhat unusual for the time.

As a direct result of a surge in the technical development of the piano and interest in the piano as a home-based instrument, there was increased production and representation of solo and duet-based piano repertoire in personal music folios of Dickinson's time. What is interesting to note is that while Emily Dickinson did include standard piano fare of her day, including piano transcriptions of larger operatic and symphonic works, her tastes were predominantly centered on popular music of the time: Irish, Scottish and English folk song, patriotic ballads, minstrel songs and piano transcriptions of dances such as waltzes, quick steps and reels.

My research has been born out of my desire, as a professional vocal accompanist and coach, to explore and promote the art of song preparation and performance as a viable means of expressing the veiled emotional contours rooted in  Dickinson’s poetry and letters. By means of recorded performance, analysis and critical reflection, I have investigated both the musical embodiment of these contours and the specifics of narrative development within selected musical examples. Time and time again, I have been systematically drawn to Dickinson’s assumption of the role of musician, composer and performer; the way the interaction between these “players” in her drama of self is reflected and expressed in musical terms, and how both the composer and, ultimately, performer are inspired to then interpret her work through their own artistic filters.

It was this unexpected discovery that led me to a series of questions.

How do we read Dickinson? How does a composer read her work? How does a performer read the dual narrative of Dickinson and composer?

My work to date has sought to give insight into both Dickinson and the extraordinary response that she elicits within musicians and composers who are drawn to her writing. It is my intention that this research will ultimately establish a new forum for the way in which we read, hear and perform the work of Emily Dickinson.

bio: Nicole Panizza is an acclaimed UK-based vocal accompanist, coach and scholar. She was awarded her Doctor of Music degree in 2014 (Royal College of Music, London), and is a past recipient of an International Fulbright Award, in support of visiting research fellowships at Harvard University and
Manhattan School of Music. Nicole has worked for Opera Australia, the Cologne and Covent Garden Opera Awards, and as Education Manager for The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Her teachers have included Roger Vignoles and Malcolm Martineau. Recent research includes the internationally acclaimed album Nature with New-York based soprano Jane
Sheldon, key lectures and presentations (Singapore, Oxford, Cambridge), and chamber recitals (Vancouver, New York, Paris, Boston and Philadelphia).

Current ventures include an album with critically-acclaimed soprano Nadine Benjamin, featuring premiere performances of Dickinson-inspired song cycles by Juliana Hall, Ella Jarman-Pinto, John Gibson, and Luigi Zaninelli; an inter-medial performance project based on fragment manuscripts of Emily Dickinson with Prof. Suzie Hanna, Dr.
Sally Bayley, and renowned folk artist Hannah Sanders; a digital archive showcasing practice-led approaches to the performance and study of Dickinson’s poetry and letters, and an international song project showcasing critical examples of American war, memoriam and remembrance.

Nicole is a founding member of the International Zerere Arts Foundation, chair of the UK-based opera company OperaCoast; and a board member of the London Song Festival, and the Arts and Humanities
Council, Emily Dickinson International Society (EDIS). Recent posts include Visiting Research Fellowships (Rothermere American Institute and Faculty of Music, University of Oxford), and Research Summit Fellow, The Orpheus Instituut (Ghent, Belgium). She currently holds the positions of Senior
Lecturer in Music (Coventry University) and Research Associate (Oxford Song Network, TORCH – The Oxford Centre in the Humanities).
Further information can be found at



Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 270.

Hampshire Gazette, June 24, 1862

Springfield Republican, June  21, 1862


Boziwick, George. “'My Business is to Sing': Emily Dickinson's Musical Borrowings.” Journal of the Society for American Music 8, 02 (May 2014): 130 – 166.

Cooley, Carolyn. The Music of Emily Dickinson’s Poetry and Letters: A Study of Imagery and Form. McFarland & Company, 2003, 25.

Pascoe, Judith. “The House Encore Me So: Emily Dickinson and Jenny Lind.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 1, 1 Spring 1992: 1-18, 2.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980, 406, 272.


May 7-13, 1862: Wanderlust

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, the Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel and Dickinson’s fascination with the East.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Joe Waring

“Telescoping Places”

We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel.

              —Samuel Bowles, from a letter printed in the Springfield Republican, May 10th, 1862

During the month of May, Dickinson mourned the absence of her dear friend, Springfield Republican editor, Samuel Bowles, who had embarked on a long European tour to improve his faltering health. This week, we explore Dickinson’s complex, intense relationship with Bowles, and the pressures placed on it, through the theme of foreign travel. Though Dickinson didn’t stray far from the Homestead, she eagerly consumed news from abroad in the Republican, in her readings, and in her correspondences. She looked forward to letters from Bowles, some of which she read in the Republican, where he offered rich and sharply observed descriptions of England,  Ireland and the Continent.

Their relationship and correspondence underscore a fascination with travel, otherness, and foreign places that Dickinson exhibited in much of her writing, which is often expansive, reaching far beyond the narrow confines of Amherst life. Mary Kuhn points out that Dickinson frequently compresses vast distances into short lines or tight stanzas. For example, in 1860, Dickinson wrote:

Kashmir Valley
Kashmir Valley

If I could bribe them with a Rose
I’d bring them every flower that grows
From Amherst to Cashmere!     (F176A)

We are swept from the Homestead to the Kashmir Valley near the Himalayas on the Indian subcontinent in one line. That flowers are the means of such compression points to Dickinson’s consciousness of the international mobility of plants, a theme we explored last week.

Cristanne Miller is particularly interested in Dickinson’s images of Asia and the East and finds that her “use of the idioms of Orientalism and foreign travel” in her poetry reaches a peak between 1860 and 1863. Miller explains:

Such images were not unusual at the time; Orientalism was in its heyday during the 1850’s in the United States. Dickinson both extended this discourse and critiqued it in her poems. She was part of a community that perceived its material pleasures, religious obligations, and republican principles, if not identity itself, in relation to global exchange, including commerce with … the “Orient” or “Asia.”

Dickinson read about the East, Asia, and the lands of the Bible in essays in the Atlantic and Harper’s, and her family library had copies of The Koran and several accounts of expeditions to places in the East. In her letters to her brother Austin, Dickinson teased him about his passionate reading of the Arabian Nights, which was immensely popular at the time and fostered a stereotypical and colonialist image of the East as a land of luxury and sensuality (see Letters 19, 22)

Dickinson’s fascination with places and her ability to “telescope” space, in the words of Christine Gerhardt, has opened a new direction in Dickinson scholarship that unfixes her from a narrow confinement to the small town of Amherst and her local surroundings, instead highlighting her global and even planetary dimensions.

“The Wounded Heart”


Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 3
“Rev. Mr. Green, a colored local Methodist preacher, was five years ago sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment in Maryland, for having in his possession a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Numerous efforts have been made to secure his pardon, but without success until a few days since, when Gov. Bradford set him at liberty. He is required, however, to leave the state, and is already on his way to Canada.”

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Williamsburg Evacuated. Details of Monday’s Operations. Advance Near Williamsburg, Monday evening, May 5th—To the Associated Press:—

When my dispatch was sent last evening that the indications were that our troops would occupy Williamsburg without much opposition.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 5
Gen. McClellan Overtakes the Enemy.
The following was received at the war department Monday noon:—

Headquarters, Army of the Potomac, May 4th, 7 o’clock, p.m.—Our cavalry and horse artillery came up with the enemy’s rear guard in their entrenchments, about two miles this side of Williamsburg. A brisk fight ensued. … The enemy’s rear is strong, but I have force enough up there to answer all purposes. … The success is brilliant, and you may rest assured that its effects will be of the greatest importance. There shall be no delay in following up the enemy. The rebels have been guilty of the most murderous and barbarous conduct in placing torpedoes within the abandoned works, near wells and springs, near flag-staffs, magazines, telegraph offices … Fortunately, we have not lost many men in this manner—some four or five killed, and perhaps a dozen wounded. I shall make the prisoners remove them at their own peril. G.B. McClellan, Major General.

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 6 Poetry: “The Wounded Heart.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sweet, thou hast trod on a heart.
Pass! there’s a world full of men;
And women as fair as thou art
Must do such things now and then.

Thou only hast stepped unaware,—
Malice, no one can impute;
And why should a heart have been there
In the way of a fair woman’s foot?

It was not a stone that could trip,
Nor was it a thorn that could rend:
Put up thy proud underlip!
’Twas merely the heart of a friend.

And yet peradventure one day
Then, sitting alone at the glass,
Remarking the bloom gone away,
Where the smile in its dimplement was,

And seeking around thee in vain,
From hundreds who flattered before,
Such a word as, “Oh, not in the main
Do I hold thee less precious, but more!”

Thou’lt sigh, very like, on thy part,
“Of all I have known or can know,
I wish I had only that heart
I trod upon ages ago!”

                   —Mrs. Browning

Springfield Republican, May 10, 1862, page 7:  On A Rose.—Be An Epicure

I thank thee, fair maid, for this beautiful rose,
Fresh with dew from the favorite bowers;
In the bloom of the garden no rival it knows,
For the rose is the beef-steak of flowers.

“The Heart Wants What it Wants”

By April of 1862, Samuel Bowles had embarked on his trip to Europe, and on May 10th, Emily Dickinson—who was keenly affected by his absence—caught wind of his whereabouts in the Springfield Republican. His remarks, written from off the coast of Liverpool while en route to Paris,  were printed alongside a set of letters from passengers aboard the Steamer China.

Samuel Bowles

Bowles had entered into Dickinson’s life four years earlier, in 1858, and became an important presence in Dickinson’s poems and correspondences. As biographer Richard Sewall notes, his place in her life is difficult to determine:

whether Bowles was at the exact center of it, or whether he was only a part of it, a catalyst in a mixing of many elements, cannot yet be said with certainty.

At any rate, Bowles was certainly someone to whom Dickinson addressed poems. Somewhere between 1861 and 1862—scholars disagree due to her shifting handwriting during this period—Dickinson wrote, “Dear Mr. Bowles,” accompanied by the following verse:

Victory comes late,
And is held low to freezing lips
Too rapt with frost
To mind it!
How sweet it would have tasted!
Just a drop!
Was God so economical?
His table’s spread too high
Except we dine on tiptoe!
Crumbs fit such little mouths –
Cherries – suit Robins –
The Eagle’s golden breakfast – dazzles them!
God keep his vow to “Sparrows,”
Who of little love – know how to starve!  (F195A, J690)

The last line, Sewall points out, could indicate Dickinson’s willingness, even her desire to “exist on whatever bit (crumb) of love he chooses to bestow on her.” Hungry for such a crumb, Dickinson would have read the correspondences published in the Republican, pleased to hear the descriptions of Bowles’ journey:

We land at Liverpool this noon, and the end of our 18th day. The Irish and English shores in sight yesterday and today are a contrast in their rich green verdure and advanced cultivation to those we left behind us in America, dotted even in New Jersey and on Long Island with snow, or the barrenness and deadness of winter. The season here seems like the last of our May. We spend but a few days in England now, going over to Paris for May, and returning to Britain for the riper and richer June. We shall give you a gossiping personal letter occasionally, but a tour for health will not cheat its purpose with writing the oft repeated story of foreign travel. S. B.

Interestingly, the letter closes a temporal gap, as if to reduce the geographic distance between Bowles and his reader. “The season here seems like the last of our May,” he writes, likening England in late April to New England’s May. Thus, he and Dickinson occupy the same clime despite being separated by continents, and because the letter wouldn’t be published until May in the Springfield Republican, the “now” and the climate of the letter converge with the “now” and the climate of Amherst, upon Dickinson's reading.

Around the same time the Republican printed  Bowles’ letter, Dickinson wrote to his wife, Mary Bowles, expressing sympathy for her husband’s absence.

When the best is gone I know that other things are not of consequence. The Heart wants what it wants – or else it does not care (L262).

Notably, the letter reads as if in two voices. Dickinson refers to “the heart” in general, as if to imply Mary’s, but also her own. The doubling continues and intensifies when she writes,

Not to see what we love, is very terrible – and talking – doesn’t ease it – and noting does – but just itself.

The peculiar use of “we” in a letter ostensibly about another woman’s husband stands out, as Dickinson co-opts Mary’s longing for her husband as her own.

As we discuss in the poetry section for this week, one indication of Bowles’ influence is Dickinson’s fascination with “foreignness,” place names, and “exotic” references during this period. Cristanne Miller points out that Dickinson had some knowledge of Asia, and often criticized Western attitudes of racism and colonialist “Orientalism.” As exemplified in Bowles’ letter from the China Steamer, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican.” Dickinson’s isolation in Amherst, intensified by Bowles’ departure for Europe, was, perhaps, partly remedied by identifying “ontologically” with “epistemologies of foreignness” that brought her ever closer to him.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joe Waring

Joseph WaringBy the time Dickinson was writing in the year of the “white heat,” interest in “Orientalism” had reached its peak in the American cultural imagination (Miller 118). The “Orient,” as Edward Said notes in Orientalism, his groundbreaking work of postcolonial theory, is the

place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of its deepest and most recurring image of the Other

—and an interest in identity-formation in opposition to those images played out throughout the West (Said 1). Moreover, Said considers “Orientialism” to be not only a set of oppositions and ideas, but a

mode of discourse with supporting institutions, vocabulary, scholarship, imagery, doctrines, even colonial bureaucracies and colonial styles,

all of which would become fodder for Dickinson’s poetic lexicon (Said 2). In fact, Miller locates about seventy different references to the “Orient” in Dickinson’s poetry, as she played her role in a long-established tradition of evoking “Oriental” tropes in writing—a discourse she ultimately perpetuated as well as criticized (Miller 118-119). Understanding “Orientalism” in this way—as a discourse, Said contends, allows us to trace the

enormously systematic discipline by which European culture was able to manage—and even produce—the Orient politically, sociologically, militarily, ideologically, scientifically, and imaginatively during the post-Enlightenment period.

Dickinson’s poetry—in its frequent references and deep interest in the “Orient”—urgently calls to be understood as part of this process (Said 3).

Why was Dickinson so interested in the “Orient” in the first place? To start, she voraciously consumed the literature, news, and culture that she came into contact with. As Miller points out, “news about foreign lands was delivered daily to the Dickinson household through the pages of the Springfield Republican,” and she would have developed a deep interest in “foreignness” as her close friend, Samuel Bowles, set out for Europe in 1862, leaving her behind in Amherst. She also occupied a social milieu in which everyone else was fascinated by the “Orient,” too. New Englanders were constantly filling their homes with “knickknacks, the fine china dogs and cats, the pieces of oriental jade, the chips off the leaning tower of Pisa” (Tate 155). What’s more, Dickinson visited the Peter’s Chinese Museum in 1846, which documented the Anglo-Sino Opium War, spurring great interest in the use of narcotics (Li-hsin 9).

Among American writers, Dickinson was not alone in her invocation of “Orientalism.” Miller notes that “Emerson, Whittier, Bayard Taylor, Lydia Maria Child, and Whitman” were all deeply interested in “Asian scripture and literature” in a way that surpassed Dickinson (Miller 129). The transcendentalists in particular looked to “Asian philosophy and religion as a source of spiritual inspiration or knowledge” (129). Whitman, even more problematically, viewed “Asia as a natural partner to or goal of American westward expansion”—a form of U.S. imperialism that Dickinson largely avoided (130). Where the transcendentalists sought to incorporate the “Orient” both into their spirituality, philosophy, and—imperialistically—their geography, Dickinson saw Asia as an “unknown” that could inspire insight into her understanding of her own context.

While Dickinson’s use of “Orientalist” references was in line with historical trends and interests, what she read and learned about the “Orient” may have expanded her ability to think about contemporary issues at home, thus participating in what Said sees as a trend of oppositional identity formation. Dickinson’s 1864 poem, “Color – Caste – Denomination” (F836), which in its title alone addresses three pressing issues of American society, makes use of “Oriental” imagery to comment on contemporary social and political issues:

Color – Caste – Denomination – 

These – are Time's Affair – 

Death's diviner Classifying 

Does not know they are -

As in sleep – all Hue

forgotten – 

Tenets – put behind – 

Death's large – Democratic


Rub away the Brand -

If Circassian – He is careless – 

If He put away 

Chrysalis of Blonde – or Umber – 

Equal Butterfly -

They emerge from His Obscuring – 

What Death – knows so well – 

Our minuter intuitions – 

Deem unplausible

Race, socioeconomic status, and religion—topics that are well-documented in Dickinson’s poetry, as well as in the blog posts for several of the weeks in 1862—were important to Dickinson’s understanding of the “Orient,” just as they were in the United States; they are, universally speaking, “Time’s Affair,” unified across continents insofar as “Death’s diviner Classifying / Does not know they are.” Death’s “large – Democratic / fingers” are democratic precisely because they touch everyone, everywhere. “If Circassian,” she seems to ask, the effect is the same as if the question were, “If from Amherst?” The poem makes frequent reference to skin tone and race: “color,” “Hue,” “Blonde,” “Umber”—a lexicon that maintains its urgency whether in reference to American abolition or the Circassians.

What, then, do we make of these references? As Said points out, the academic and literary traditions of “Orientalism” are not innocuous; “European culture,” he points out, “gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self” (Said 3). The natural consequence of identity formation that opposes itself to an “other,” Said continues, is a “flexible positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand” (7). As such, there is much to be criticized, examined, and understood about conceptions of “otherness” and “foreignness” in Dickinson’s frequent evocation of the “Orient.” Miller offers some consolation in that, though Dickinson certainly participated in a troubling and long history of “Orientalism,” she did so with her characteristic empathy:

Instead, Dickinson’s Orientalism borrows from and rewrites the symbolic geographies of her era. While popular geographies portrayed people in relation to stereotyped coordinates of the South, North, East, and West, her representations of Asians were without exception sympathetic, even if romantically or ambivalently so (Miller 130).


Hsu, Li-hsin. “Emily Dickinson's Asian Consumption.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, vol. 22, no. 2, 2013, pp. 1-25,135.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-146.

Said, Edward W. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Tate, Allen. "New England Culture and Emily Dickinson." The Recognition of Emily Dickinson: Selected Criticism Since 1890. Ed. Caesar R. Blake and Carlton F. Wells. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1965.

bio: Joe Waring is a Dartmouth ’18, who studied English, Italian, and Linguistics. He came by Dickinson like most, in his high school classroom, where he memorized “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” and was happy to revisit Dickinson in Professor Schweitzer’s class, “The New Emily Dickinson: After The Digital Turn.” His favorite Dickinson poem is, unquestionably, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (J1298, F1350).

Gerhardt, Christine. “Often seen–but seldom felt”: Emily Dickinson’s Reluctant Ecology of Place.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 15.1 (2006): 73.

Kuhn, Mary. “Dickinson and the Politics of Plant Sensibility.” ELH, 85:1 (Spring 2018), 143-44.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 118-20.

This week in History:
Springfield Republican,  Sat May 310 1862.

This week in Biography:
Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 119.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980,  492-93.


April 23-29, 1862: Second Letter to Higginson

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay, responding to his critique of her poems and including several poems, thought which exactly are in dispute. This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week‘s Poems
This Week‘s Reflection - Joseph Waring
Sources/Further Reading

“Thank you for your surgery”

On April 25th, 1862, Dickinson wrote to Higginson for the second time, apparently after some delay:

Your kindness claimed earlier gratitude – but I was ill – and write today, from my pillow. (L261)

As discussed in last week’s post, Dickinson was first prompted to write after reading Higginson’s essay, “Letter to a Young Contributor,” published in the Atlantic Monthly on April 15th, and her letter inspired a swift response. Though we don’t know exactly what Higginson said in his reply to Dickinson, we do know that he offered some criticism of the poems she enclosed—criticism that she refers to in her second letter as “surgery.” Having her poems dissected by an established male editor “was not so painful as I supposed,” she writes, but she side-steps his advice, engaging on her own terms, in a series of dense, opaque lines, discussed in This Week in Biography.

Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)
Adrienne Rich (1929-2012)

This scenario is all too famillar to poets who are women. In 1964, Adrienne Rich wrote a poem to Emily Dickinson, referencing Higginson's involvement in and “garbling” of the posthumous publication of Dickinson poetry. The poem's title is a phrase taken directly from Dickinson's June 7th, 1862 letter to Higginson (L265). Check out the pun on “premises” at the end of the poem!

“I am in Danger Sir”

“Half-cracked” to Higginson, living,
afterward famous in garbled versions,
your hoard of dazzling scraps a battlefield,
now your old snood

mothballed at Harvard
and you in your variorum monument
equivocal to the end 
who are you?

you, woman, masculine
in single-mindedness,
for whom the word was more
than a symptom 

a condition of being.
Till the air buzzing with spoiled language
sang in your ears
of Perjury

and in your half-cracked way you chose
silence for entertainment,
chose to have it out at last
on your own premises.

    – Adrienne Rich, from  Necessities of Life (1966)

This week’s post explores one of Dickinson’s experiences of receiving literary criticism, underscoring the literary shrewdness and subversive assertions in her reply.

“This hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy”


Springfield Republican, April 26

The Pear and Grape Mania, p. 1:

“Pyrumnia, or pear fever, and vitifermania, or grape fever,” says the New York Horticulturist, are endemic diseases, affecting most violently the inhabitants of anti-rural towns, and chiefly those recently from city life in the spring. This disease, to plethoric purses, is well understood by nurserymen, to whom its appearance is as welcome as an epidemic to young physicians, or a financial crisis to briefless lawyers. The first stage of the disease usually commences soon after taking a country residence, and shows itself in a general admiration of fruit. Soon half a dozen or more thrifty tress and vines are bought. These trees are generally faultless in shape and proportion, and the nurseryman very reluctantly, but obligingly parts with them.

New Bradford Pear Tree
New Bradford Pear Tree

Emancipation and Colonization, p. 2:

Frank P. Blair of Missouri made a speech in Congress, on the 11th, in defense of the president’s war policy, and of his plan of colonizing the negroes as they are emancipated.

We can make emancipation acceptable to the whole mass of non-slaveholders at the South by coupling it with the policy of colonization. The very prejudice of race which now makes the non-slaveholders give their aid to hold the slave in bondage will then induce them to unite in a policy which will rid them of the presence of the negroes; and, as nine out of ten of the white people of the South are non-slaveholders, and as the right of suffrage is almost unlimited, it is easy to see what will be the result. It is objected, however, that we have no right to remove the negroes from their own country against their will. I do not believe that compulsory colonization is necessary to the ultimate success of this plan; but neither do I regard it with any abhorrence. On the contrary, I look at it as the greatest boon we can confer upon this race—greater by far than the gift of personal freedom in a land in which they must forever remain in a condition of social inferiority, among people who will treat them with every imaginable indignity.

The Abuse of Words

It may be a small matter to some that the noblest words in the English language are daily prostituted to the commonest affairs of life, but to an admirer of his mother tongue it is certainly painful. The constant application of great words to small things is gradually undermining the native strength of the language, insomuch that to make an impressive statement it is not infrequently necessary to pile a Pelion of adverbs upon an Ossa of adjectives. But that is not the only bad phase of the subject; to plain matter of fact sort of people nothing can be more nauseating than this hectic grandiloquence so fashionable among the codfish aristocracy.

Books, Authors and Art, p. 7:

Mrs. H. B. Stowe’s Romances of Italy and America, “Agnes of Sorrento,” and “The Pearl of Orr’s Island,” will appear in book form on the same day. One is a story of the Old World’s loves and sorrows, and the other is a vivid picture of our own country’s romance of a newer life. Messrs. Ticknor & Fields, in Boston, and Messrs. Sampson, Low & Co., in London, will bring out both these charming stories on the 1st of May. The author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” thus provides summer reading for both sides of the Atlantic.

The Unparalleled Flood of 1862, p.8

The rapid melting of immense bodies of snow throughout New England has caused a sudden freshet in most of the rivers, wholly unparalleled at some points. No rain fell until the water had begun to subside. The few warm days of last week caused the snow to melt and run like butter… As the great spring freshet of 1801 was called the “Jefferson flood,” and that of 1854 the “Nebraska flood,” so this unparalleled one of 1862 may perhaps go down to posterity under the name of the “Secession flood.”

Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

New Orleans Captured, p. 2

Dispatches from Gen. Wool at Fortress Monroe, and Gen. McDowell, at Fredericksburg, contain the intelligence, obtained from rebel newspapers, published in different southern cities, that New Orleans has been captured by the federal forces.

Fredericksburg Fully Occupied

The correspondent of the Herald, under date of the 23d, states that Fredericksburg, Va., is now occupied by Gen. McDowell’s force. The troops are in excellent health, only 75 being on the sick list, including 14 wounded. The flotilla has succeeded in clearing the Rappahannock of obstructions, and reached Fredericksburg on Saturday. Work has been commenced on the Acqui Creek and Fredericksburg railroad, which will soon be in running order. The railroad bridge over the Rappahannock will of course be immediately rebuilt.

“The Most Experienced and Worldly Coquette”

Upon receiving Dickinson’s first letter, Higginson reported in a reminiscence published after her death that he was struck by

the impression of a wholly new and original poetic genius

exemplified by the four poems she enclosed. Just what Higginson wrote back to Dickinson is up for speculation; even he seems to have forgotten, as he admits in his 1891 recollction in the Atlantic, “On Dickinson’s Letters:”

It was hard to tell what answer was made by me, under these circumstances, to this letter. It is probably that the advisor sought to gain time a little and find out with what strange creature he was dealing. I remember to have ventured on some criticism which she afterward called “surgery,” and on some questions, part of which she evaded, as will be seen, with a naive skill such as the most experienced and worldly coquette might envy.

Indeed, in her letter Dickinson thanks Higginson “for the surgery,” riffing on whatever dissecting remarks he made about her four enclosed poems and the fact that, one line before, she claimed to be ill in bed. Jason Hoope, who studies their relationship, remarks that

these passages expand on the stylistic criterion of vitality established by the first letter

and that Higginson’s criticism

dovetails with the phenomenon of Dickinson’s own physical illness; both her poetry and her person, she suggests, are in a state of recovery from Higginson’s salutary critical procedure—the invasions of editorial “surgery” are appreciated as “kindness.”

In the Atlantic essay written many years after the events, Higginson claims that in her second letter Dickinson attempted to “step nearer, signing her name” and calling him her “friend.” He is also impressed by her astute response to his didacticism:

It will also be noticed that I had sounded her about certain American authors, then much read; and that she knew how to put her own criticism in a very trenchant way.

Dickinson’s lines were trenchant, to say the least, and convey a pointed dishonesty that obscures her intent in responding to, or accepting, Higginson’s criticism, advice, and correspondence.

You speak of Mr. Whitman. I never read his book, but was told that it was disgraceful.

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

Dickinson's demure categorization of Whitman as “disgraceful” leaves us wondering; a poet with her ear to the ground and an appetite for upending literary convention, she very well might have read Leaves of Grass, however disgraceful. As for Harriet Prescott Spofford’s Circumstance, the post for January 8-14 makes the case that several of Dickinson’s poems were directly influenced by what David Cody calls the “Azarian School” named after Spofford’s novel, Azarian. In fact, in a column Susan Dickinson wrote in the Springfield Republican praising Spofford’s works, she reports having sent “Circumstance” to Dickinson, her sister-in-law, after reading it. Dickinson immediately replied:

Dear S. That is the only thing I ever saw in my life that I did not think I could have written myself. You stand nearer the world than I do. Send me everything she writes.

Regardless of what Dickinson is willing to admit to Higginson, it is clear that she was interested in Spofford’s writing. And she clearly read the Azarian works thoroughly; Cody points to a handful of Dickinson’s poems that are intertexts for, or at the very least, heavily influenced by, Spofford’s novels.

These are not the letter’s only half-truths. “You ask how old I was?” Dickinson writes, “I made no verse – but one or two – until this winter – Sir –.” This is, of course, blatantly false, as Dickinson had been writing deftly since at least 1858, and had penned hundreds of poems, distributing many to friends and family members before contacting Higginson. She goes on to mischaracterize her status as a novice, asking

I would like to learn – Could you tell me how to grow – or is it unconveyed – like Melody – or Witchcraft?

In asking for Higginson’s guidance and simultaneously likening it to witchcraft, Dickinson belies her claim to being a beginning poet. What could a male magazine editor have to offer to the unconveyable art of witchcraft or melody? Further, Hoope argues that Dickinson’s fib stands as a parody of Higginson’s condescension in the Atlantic’s “Letter,” where he said:

Do you know, my dear neophyte, how Balzac used to compose?

Dickinson goes on to relay that she

had a terror – since September – I could tell to none – and so I sing, as the Boy does by the Burying Ground – because I am afraid.

Cynthia Wolff comments that “for a long time critics supposed that this ‘terror’ was some disappointment in love,” but she disagrees:

she scarcely knew Higginson at the time of this letter, and it would be astonishing to find her alluding to such an intimate matter in so early a note.

If she had been referring to a love affair gone wrong, Wolff thinks she would have said “loss” or “disappointment.” Instead, she asserts, it is more likely that the “terror” refers to “periods of severely impaired vision.”

Additionally, Susan Leiter wonders if Dickinson might be referring to the departure of Rev. Dr. Wadsworth, which made the news that week.

Philadelphia Daily News

The Arch Street Presbyterian Church firmly but kindly resisted the application of the Rev. Dr. Wadsworth for a dissolution of the pastoral relation. So urgent were the people, that the Presbytery sent back the application to the congregation. But when it was found that the Dr. had made up his mind that it was his duty to go to California, the congregation yielded, and he was dismissed. He was accepted to the pastorate of the Calvary Church, San Francisco…

If Dickinson’s meanings in correspondence with Higginson are so obscured and indirect, then what were her intentions? Hoope asserts another possible reading of her letters:

By radically joining herself and her writing to Higginson and his writing, moreover, Dickinson links the antinomian qualities of her charismatic personality to social belonging and poetic achievement. In one movement she thus reverses the alienation and commonness Emerson associates with portfolioists, who are on his account mostly lonely eccentrics who litter the “masses of society,” with the fruits of their inspiration “sacred” to themselves alone.

In exchanging reading lists, asking for literary criticisms but then asserting her own standard, and even commenting on Higginson’s own writing—“I read your Chapters in the Atlantic – and experienced honor for you,” Dickinson engages Higginson in a discourse of two equals, or, as Hoope calls it, a “poetic elect.” Referring to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “equality in honor,” Hoope thinks we can understand Dickinson’s “riposte” as a relationship between writers who are both up for the challenge, willing to “play the game.” At any rate, Dickinson’s rhetorical agility and coy rebuttals in her second letter spurred a long correspondence and friendship with Higginson, who would long be inspired by her “wholly new and original poetic genius.”

Read this week’s poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Joseph Waring

Joseph WaringScholars have argued for treating Dickinson’s letters, including her letters to Higginson, as literary texts, but rarely are they read for their subversive potential as queer. In light of her decision to sidestep the publishing industry and forgo conventional metrics of “success,” Dickinson wrote with a negative affect that resembles what Jack Halberstam terms a “queer art of failure.”

By negative affect, Halberstam means the “disappointment, disillusionment, and despair” that “poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life” (Halberstam 3). Dickinson’s disillusionment with the publishing industry is well-documented in her verse—“Publication – is the Auction / Of the Mind of Man” (F788, J709)—and her second letter to Higginson invokes an ongoing sense of unnamed despair: “I had a terror since September, I could tell to none; and so I sing, as the boy does by the burying ground, because I am afraid” (L261). 

Moreover, in a letter that otherwise might have been a request for literary mentorship, Dickinson insists on invoking illness, pain, and loss while concealing her motives behind a cryptic rhetorical mask. Her letter rejects what Halberstam calls a certain strain of “positive thinking,” a “North American affliction” that traffics in

a combination of “American exceptionalism” and a desire to believe that success happens to good people and failure is just a consequence of a bad attitude (Halberstam 3).

“Are you too deeply occupied to say if my verse is alive?,” Dickinson asks in her first letter, precluding the opportunity for Higginson to say if it’s good or “successful.”

Though scholars portray Higginson as a literary mentor and teacher, Dickinson’s letters verge on a vision of “education” that is anti-disciplinarian, anti-authoritarian, and untrained. First, she deceives Higginson, claiming that she “made no verse, but one or two, until this winter,” which we know to be untrue—a simple lie, but it undermines the teacher-student norm, which requires students to be honest. Second, she asserts herself as unschooled: “I went to school,” she admits, “but in your manner of the phrase had no education.” Instead, she avows an alternative form of education, an unconventional teacher: “When I was a girl, I had a friend who taught me Immortality.” Finally, she mentions past experiences with “tutors” that were rife with conflict. One died, leaving her with one companion, her “lexicon,” and the second “was not contented [that she] be his scholar, so left the land.”

Jack Halberstam
Jack Halberstam

Her misadventures with education and insistence on alternative pedagogy are akin to Halberstam’s “counterintuitive modes of knowing such as failure and stupidity” (11-12). Though no one would ever call Dickinson’s “stupid,” Halberstam invokes a sort of unschooled, subversive naiveté, a

refusal of mastery, a critique of the intuitive connections within capitalism between success and profit, and as a counter hegemonic discourse of losing (12).

“I would like to learn,” Dickinson insists, but she proposes only alternative pedagogies—learning immortality from a child, for example—and suggests that any “growth” might be unconveyed rather than studied, “like melody or witchcraft.” What does witchcraft have to do with education? It is, as Halberstam would call it, a “counter hegemonic discourse,” an alternative way of knowing (12).

In the closing line, Dickinson signs her letter, “Your friend,” as if to recall Ranciére’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster or Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Dickinson rejects the hierarchy of student-teacher relations, and insists on a “two-way street,” a “dialogic relation to the learner” (13). Halberstam comments:

[Ranciére’s book] examines a form of knowledge sharing that detours around the mission of the university, with its masters and students, its expository methods and its standards of excellence, and instead endorses a form of pedagogy that presumes and indeed demands equality rather than hierarchy.

Now, to zero in on the second letter’s most peculiar, and perhaps queer, diction. “Thank you for the surgery,” Dickinson writes, “it was not so painful as I supposed.” Why use a term like “surgery” to describe Higginson’s critique of her poetry? Why subject herself to his pen at all? Halberstam, verging on the Freudian, argues that “cutting”—where Dickinson’s “surgery” stands in as a textual metaphor for self-harm—

is a feminist aesthetic proper to the project of unbecoming (135).

Writing to Higginson, knowing well the pain it might entail, is Dickinson’s form of “unbecoming,” implicating a “desire for mastery, and an externalization of erotic energy” (135). In two moves—exposing herself to critique and then undermining it—Dickinson shatters the hegemonic “self” of the conventional poet, a practice that “may have its political equivalent in an anarchic refusal of coherence and proscriptive forms of agency.” Out of the public eye and away from the editor’s pen, Dickinson remains illegible to the hegemonic powers that be. Her “surgery” is the cut that breaks her away through a “masochistic will to eradicate the body” and leave only the page (135):

The antisocial dictates an unbecoming, a cleaving to that which seems to shame or annihilate, and a radical passivity allows for the inhabiting of femininity with a difference. The radical understandings of passivity … offer an antisocial way out of the double bind of becoming woman and thereby propping up the dominance of man within a gender binary (144).

What is queer about all this? Dickinson forgoes hegemonic structures, engages in self-shattering, revels in illegibility, and embraces the

incoherent, the lonely, the defeated, and the melancholic formulations of selfhood that it sets in motion (148).

If, at one time, her only companion was her lexicon, then that is a “lexicon of power” that, as Halberstam maintains, “speaks another language of refusal” (139).

Halberstam, Jack. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Bio: Joe Waring graduated from Dartmouth College, where he studied English, Italian, and Linguistics. He came by Dickinson like most, in his high school classroom, where he memorized “It Feels A Shame To Be Alive,” and was happy to revisit Dickinson in Professor Schweitzer's class, “The New Emily Dickinson: After The Digital Turn.” His favorite Dickinson poem is, unquestionably, “The Mushroom is the Elf of Plants” (F1350, J1298).




Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters,” The Atlantic, October 1891.

Rich, Adrienne. Necessities of Life.  New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966.


Hampshire Gazette, April 29 1862

Springfield Republican, April 26 1862


Dickinson, Susan Huntington. “Harriet Prescott’s Early Work: A Reader Who Agrees with Us That Mrs. Spofford Should Republish.” Springfield Republican. 1 February 1902: 19.

Leiter, Sharon. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2007. Print

Hoppe, Jason. “Personality and Poetic Election in the Preceptual Relationship of Emily Dickinson and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, 1862-1886.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language, vol. 55 no. 3, 2013, pp. 348-387, 352-58. Project MUSE,

Higginson, Thomas Wentworth. “Emily Dickinson’s Letters.” Atlantic Monthly, October 1891.

Wolff, Cynthia. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc. 1988, 165.


April 9-15, 1862: Edward Dickinson

This week’s post takes a look at the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out his reach.

Edward Dickinson

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Hannah Matheson
Sources/Further Reading

“He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them”

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Though Edward Dickinson may have bought Emily Dickinson many books, his role in her life was more complicated than that of a fatherly didact. One such book he purchased was Letters on Practical Subjects to a Daughter by William B. Sprague, a sort of etiquette manual of orderly conduct for women. At the very least, this gift shows some fatherly desire to control, to reign in his daughter's intellect. Edward also bought her Dr. Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to His Daughter, another advice manual. Writing to Higginson, Emily Dickinson comments that her father “buys me many Books” but knows little about her and how she occupied her time, because he is “too busy with his Briefs” (L261). Even when he was absent on business trips, the books he gave to his daughter were an attempt to maintain control over her conduct and shape her sense of social decorum.

That Edward Dickinson begged his daughter not to read books, fearing they  would “joggle the mind,” makes his gifts all the more curious. He certainly wasn’t afraid that she might internalize those instructive manuals on female conduct. He must have feared the effect other, perhaps literary and intellectual, books had on her—a father afraid that his daughter’s ever-growing intellect would break the belt he had strapped around her life.

Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University
Edward Dickinson, 1840. Portrait by O.A. Bullard. Houghton Library, Harvard University

This week’s post explores the influence Edward Dickinson had on Emily Dickinson’s life and writing. Having grown up in a family facing financial trouble, Edward Dickinson governed his own household with a firm hand, kept a tight domestic economy, and imposed his values on his family members. While Emily Dickinson respected her father greatly, and tended to obey the rules he set for her, she kept her poetry well out of his reach. She only mentioned him directly in one poem, “Where bells no more affright the morn” (F114), whic is based in fact: he would literally wake his children with a bell at an early hour. Still, he is largely absent from her poetry. Following the lead of Dickinson scholars, we’ve located him in other places: in her legal vocabulary, in her metaphors of domestic control, and in her notions of power.

“No more kid-glove policy”


Hampshire Gazette, April 15, responds to the battle of Shiloh on April 6-7th in southwestern Tennessee:

The best contested and most sanguinary battle that ever took place on this continent, occurred on Sunday and Monday of last week. The rebel forces, under Gens. Beauregard and S.E. Johnston, advanced from their fortified position at Corinth, evidently with the intention of defeating our army by piecemeal, and attacked that portion of it stationed at Pittsburg Landing in Tennessee. It was a complete surprise and during the first day our forces were defeated, and had it not been for the opportune arrival of reinforcements, the union army would have met with a most fatal reverse.

Springfield Republican, April 12, “Civil War in Cipher,” p. 4:

“A Cipher Despatch from Beauregard.—We have been shown a dispatch or message, in cipher, from Beauregard to some confederate in Washington, which, in addition to the ingenuity which characterizes the cipher, contains intrinsic evidence both as to its origin and the desperate means proposed by the rebel general for getting possession of the capital. It seems certain that arson and assassination were component parts of the chivalry of which we heard so much a year or so ago, and perhaps the publication of such a dispatch as this may modify the tender sensibility of those who adhere to the kid-glove policy in dealing with rebels who themselves stickle at nothing in prosecuting their traitorous schemes.”

Springfield Republican, April 12th, p. 5, Proclamation by the President:

“By the President of the United States of America—a Proclamation: It has pleased Almighty God to vouchsafe signal victories to the land and naval forces engaged in suppressing an internal rebellion, and at the same time to avert from our country the dangers of foreign intervention and invasion. It is therefore recommended to the people of the United States, that at their next weekly assemblages in their accustomed places of public worship, which shall occur after the notice of this proclamation shall have been received, they especially acknowledge and render thanks to our Heavenly Father for these inestimable blessings.”

The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012
The Amherst Cannon on display at the North Carolina Museum of History, 2012

Hampshire Gazette, April 15th: Edward Dickinson Makes the Paper

Presentation of Cannon.—The ceremony of presenting a six-pound brass cannon captured from the rebels at the battle of Newbern, by the 21st Mass. regiment, to the trustees of Amherst College, took place at Amherst yesterday. The occasion called together about two thousand people, who gathered in front of the college chapel building, where the ceremonies were held. The cannon is a beautiful piece. It bears the stamp of “U.S.,” and is believed to be one of the pieces captured from the federal army at Bull Run. … Hon. Edward Dickinson presided and introduced the speakers.

Atlantic Monthly, April 15, “Letter to a Young Contributor” by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

My dear young gentleman or young lady,—for many are the Cecil Dreemes of literature who superscribe their offered manuscripts with very masculine names in very feminine handwriting,—it seems wrong not to meet your accumulated and urgent epistles with one comprehensive reply, thus condensing many private letters into a printed one. And so large a proportion of “Atlantic” readers either might, would, could, or should be “Atlantic” contributors also, that this epistle will be sure of perusal, though Mrs. Stowe remain uncut and the Autocrat go for an hour without readers.

How few men in all the pride of culture can emulate the easy grace of a bright woman’s letter!

Yet, if our life be immortal, this temporary distinction is of little moment, and we may learn humility, without learning despair, from earth’s evanescent glories. Who cannot bear a few disappointments, if the vista be so wide that the mute inglorious Miltons of this sphere may in some other sing their Paradise as Found? War or peace, fame or forgetfulness, can bring no real injury to one who has formed the fixed purpose to live nobly day by day.

“His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists”

The eldest of nine children, Edward Dickinson—Emily Dickinson’s father—was born in Amherst, Massachusetts in 1803 to an established family. His parents, Samuel Fowler Dickinson and Lucretia Gunn Dickinson, valued education and, despite financial difficulties, sent their son to Amherst Academy, Yale University, and Northampton Law School.

Equipped with a first-rate education and a traditional set of values, Edward Dickinson launched a successful career in law, was elected as a Representative to the General Court of Massachusetts in 1838, the National Whig Convention in Baltimore in 1852, and to the Congress of the United States as a Representative from the Tenth Massachusetts District in that same year. His successful career buoyed his stature in the Amherst community, and he governed the Dickinson household with a authoritative hand commensurate with his status as a prominent legal and political figure.

Even his personal life was touched by his ambitious resolve; in a letter to Emily Norcross, whom he would later marry, he wrote,

My life must be a life of business, of labor and application to the study of my profession.

His obsessive commitment to his career set in motion a precarious, and at times, distant relationship with his family, especially his eldest daughter, Emily Dickinson. As a politician, he was eager to bring a railroad to Amherst, an accomplishment that was met with

great rejoicing through this town and the neighboring [one],

according to Emily Dickinson in a letter to her brother Austin (L72). She admired his success, commenting later in the correspondence that

Father is really sober from excessive satisfaction, and bears his honors with a most becoming air.

Though Emily Dickinson clearly thought highly of her father, his conventional values and imposing authority strained their relationship. Writing to Austin, who was away at school, she expressed regretfully that she and her family

don’t have many jokes tho’ now, it is pretty much all sobriety, and we do not have much poetry, father having made up his mind that it’s pretty much all real life. … Father’s real life and mine sometimes come into collision, but as yet, escape unhurt! (L65).

Similar sentiments emerge in other correspondences. To Higginson, Dickinson wrote,

and Father, too busy with his Briefs – to notice what we do – He buys me many Books – but begs me not to read them – because he fears they joggle the mind (L261).

Their relationship was  one of contrasts: Edward Dickinson was supportive of her education yet wary of its effects, overbearing in his authority yet distant, and, as Emily withdrew from religious observance, Edward underwent a religious conversion in the revival in Amherst in 1850. Her tone about him is routinely marked by a regretful distance. In a letter to Joseph Lyman, she wrote:

My father seems to me often the oldest and the oddest sort of a foreigner. Sometimes I say something and he stares in a curious sort of bewilderment though I speak a thought quite as old as his daughter… And so it is, for in the morning I hear his voice and methinks it comes from afar & has a sea tone & there is a hum of hoarseness about [it] & a suggestion of remoteness as far as the isle of Juan Fernandez.

Richard Sewall, Dickinson's biographer, describes their relationship as follows:

Emily’s attitude toward her father, even as we have seen it so far, was compounded of many elements incompatible with fear. It developed early into an amused tolerance, a touch of condescension arising from an entirely justified sense of intellectual superiority, a tender devotion that made her delight in serving him in many ways, and later on into a deep, pervasive pity for his lonely and austere life.

Edward Dickinson died in Boston on June 16, 1874 shortly after speaking in the General Court, where he reportedly felt ill. Though  Dickinson occasionally commented on her relationship with her father while he was alive, her posthumous remarks are keenest. In a letter to Higginson in 1874, a month after Edward's passing, she reflects on the memories she has of her father (L418):

The last Afternoon that my Father lived, though with no premonition – I preferred to be with him, and invented an absence for Mother, Vinnie being asleep. He seemed peculiarly pleased as I oftenest stayed with myself, and remarked as the Afternoon withdrew, he “would like it to not end.

His pleasure almost embarrassed me and my Brother coming-I suggested they walk. Next morning I woke him for the train – and saw him no more.

His Heart was pure and terrible and I think no other like it exists.

I am glad there is Immortality-but would have tested it myself- before entrusting him.

Mr Bowles was with us–With that exception I saw none. I have wished for you, since my Father died, and had you an Hour unengrossed, it would be almost priceless. Thank you for each kindness.

My Brother and Sister thank you for remembering them.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Hannah Matheson

Hannah Matheso photo

Two Poems


Salvation’s brutal logic. Our Father progenitor
of Munchausen by proxy: made us wrong
to be the one to fix broken. Fashioned
to fall. How’s that for self-
indulgence? His and mine,
I mean. Made in His image,
cheap facsimile that
I am, a mirror of ire. Anger is
unflattering. This is why we say
fear of God, and this is why
Sunday service finds me close-
fisted, fingernails carving red
crescents into my own palms,

but even if I gall I recognize
the architecture of a fine thing,
ornate scaffolding of psalms—
exquisite echolalia of call
and response, which is at least
an answer, even if it returns
in the sound of one’s own voice
whispering prayer, soothing
sleep along. What alternative
do I offer when, asked
a question, I can do nothing
but point to all my milk teeth
scattered on the floor?


and my eyes, like the Sherry in the Glass, that the Guest leaves –Dickinson

For so long, Emily, my body as a scaffold of loss: self-
portraiture a composite of leavable parts. Anatomy
predicated on negative space—skeleton defined
by the emptiness filling around it. My ribs so hungry,
bone stitches suturing air. So much nothing. So much
take it or leave it, as they wished. I did not want to tell you

about what I allowed this frame to weather.
My labia scoured by a whiskered mouth. Rawed down
until I swelled, bleeding rose—red spattering of cells
in my underwear. I took it like a moth pinned
to corkboard, wingspread, still. Another time,
a different pair of hands, also hungry… I yearned
my pelvis away from his looming need. Battering
ram of his fingers breaching my borders, somehow
he sowed longing, somehow I wanted him
to want me, the truth is I did

go back, as if searching for the pummeling. What
did I think I could wrest from another night
in that dank room? As simple as a dog returning, wanting
to be un-kicked. I keep running from, running to
this exacting metronome but and of course the jolts
of these pulses are like everything else
a familiar rhythm—heartthrums, footfalls, the same
frat house couch spring
it hurt it hurt it hurts

bio: Hannah Matheson is a member of the class of 2018 at Dartmouth College and was an English major concentrating in Creative Writing.  She studied poetry with Vievee Francis. She has edited for Mouth and The Stonefence Review, literary publications at Dartmouth, and sang in The Subtleties, an all-female a cappella group. . 


Habegger, Alfred. My Wars are Laid away in Books. New York: Random House, 2001, 46.


Atlantic Monthly, April 15, 1862.

Hampshire Gazette, April 15, 1862.

Springfield Republican, April 12, 1862.


Dickinson, Emily. The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Eds. Thomas Johnson and Theodora Ward. 3 vols. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Martin, Wendy, ed. All Things Dickinson: an Encyclopedia of Emily Dickinson’s World. Greenwood, an Imprint of ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2014.

Sewall, Richard B. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge: Harvard Univesity Press, 1974, 61. Print.


April 2-8, 1862: Publication

One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. We explore why a prolific and ambitious poet with such close relationships with prominent editors chose not to publish during her lifetime, and her evolving feelings about print publication and fame.

 “Firmament to Fin”

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection - Ivy Schweitzer
Sources/Further Reading

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf


One of the most intriguing aspects of Dickinson’s poetry is that most of her almost eighteen-hundred poems were published posthumously. Ten of them (and one letter) made it into print during her lifetime, none under her own name. (For a list of these, see EDA’s “Resources.”) Some people think that Dickinson contacted the editor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, in order to sound him out about publishing her poetry. But in her third letter to him, written on June 7, 1862, Dickinson responded, rather coyly:

I smile when you suggest that I delay “to publish”—that being foreign to my thought, as Firmament to Fin— (L265). 

We will see, however, in exploring Dickinson’s first two letters to Higginson later in this month that she did not always tell him the truth. In point of fact, her contacting him at all was triggered by her reading of his essay offering advice to young and potentially publishing writers.

Why would a poet with such close relationships with editors, such as Samuel Bowles of the Springfield Republican and Thomas Higginson of the Atlantic Monthly, choose not to publish during her lifetime? The question is complicated by the fact that several of Dickinson's poems did appear in the Springfield Republican—with varying degrees of her approval—and that she was already circulating poems to friends, family, and editors through correspondences.

A fascicle
A fascicle

What’s more, Dickinson edited her own poetry in a form of self-publication: she made fair copies, destroyed the worksheets, and bound more than 800 poems into 40 fascicles, as if intending that they should be read in the groups and order she chose and, perhaps, published in print posthumously.

One common explanation of her choice not to publish in print was that she was responding to the print industry’s tendency to edit, punctuate, reword, and modify poetry before it hit the press, without the consent of the author. We discussed this process in the post for February 26 – March 4 in which Dickinson’s poem “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” was renamed “The Sleeping,” heavily edited so that it conformed to conventional poetic norms, and published in the Springfield Daily Republican on March 1st, 1862.

Springfield Republican Still, Cristanne Miller argues that the “editing” argument—though clearly a concern for Dickinson—is insufficient to explain why so much of her poetry went unpublished. Miller points to two compelling reasons that go beyond Dickinson’s preoccupation with editorial interference. First, her most profound poems deal with matters like death, loss, and life in

familiar forms, working from the hymn and popular ballad-style poetry, and using the popular idiom.

Dickinson will balk when Higginson suggests that her poetic “gait” is “Spasmodic,” and resisted his advice to write in blank verse. This may indicate that poetry was a form of reflection for her, a way of working through deep questions of war, life, and time without concerning herself with an audience. In effect, the process of writing without the pressures and demands of publication allowed poetry to maintain its role of personal exploration and experimentation in her life.

Second, Dickinson likely found objectionable the way print publication implicated her poems as commodities in a larger market. This point becomes all the more urgent when considered in the context of slavery, a market in itself that involved the attachment of monetary value to bodies, spirit, and labor. We will explore this theme in the poems section in our discussion of “Publication – is the Auction” (F788, J709).

Furthermore, print publication fixes poems and makes them static. Karen Dandurand speculates that Dickinson’s frequent revising of her own poems, even years after they were written, suggests that she regarded poems as always “works in progress,” and it was essential for her to retain them within her control to keep them dynamic and open to change.

These reasons provide insight into Dickinson’s choice to avoid print and “publish” in her own way: binding her poems into forty fascicles, sending them off to friends and family in letters, and etching them into the corners of envelopes and paper scraps. Reworking the rules of “publication” allowed her to write, share, and preserve her work in a way that resisted the commodification of the “Human Spirit” that was so rampant in the nineteenth century’s media environment.

“Things that are Not Things”


As mentioned in the Overview, the horrors of war, death, and slavery were ever-present questions for Dickinson, just as they were for the nation at large. This week, the Springfield Republican includes extended meditations on both. A piece called “Things that are not things” focuses on the paradoxical treatment of slaves as both property and persons—a rhetorical gymnastics and perverse logic that slave owners use to argue their right to their own property and simultaneously avoid taxation:

The slaveholders refuse to be held to any definite theory on the subject, while they claim the advantages of the most opposite principles. Slaves are not property, when you talk about taxing them, or confiscating them, or in any way making them subject to the liabilities of other kinds of property; but if the government proposes to remove them from the national capital, paying a fair price for them, then they become property to all intents and purposes, and to touch them without the consent of the owners is a great outrage… The constitution does not recognize them as property… Slavery must not be allowed to shirk any of the burdens or evade any of the just consequence of the war it has instigated by mere quibbling.

A column titled “Speak kindly of the dead” attempts to make sense of death and offers instruction on how to think about the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, commenting that while “censure” might mean something for the living, it is powerless to the dead.

Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.
Fallen confederate soldiers with identifying headboards on Rose Farm. LOC, Civil War Trust.

Let us speak kindly of the life that is closed… Every nature has its ennobling struggles, its inherent discords that can only be subdued to harmony by vigorous effort… The soldier went forth to do or die, and was cut down before the final charge was made and the dear-bought victory attained. Let us accept him if he fell manfully, with his face to the foe, and bear him mutely homeward upon his battered shield.

The Republican also announced an important early step in the government’s involvement in the freeing of slaves by way of an Emancipation Proclamation:

The United States Senate, on Tuesday, the 2d, adopted the joint resolve from the House, suggested by the president’s special message, offering the aid of the general government to such states as may choose to initiate emancipation.

… it is a great thing that senators representing three of [the border] states should declare for this first step towards emancipation. It required high courage, and they should have all honor for the act, for we must remember that in the South there is no such connection between loyalty to the government and hostility to slavery as exists generally among us, and the southern loyalists are by no means to be judged by our standard of opinion.


In relation to this week’s focus on publication, it is important to note that the Springfield Republican frequently published poems by women on some of the same themes that interested Dickinson. The Springfield Republican for April 5, for example, includes “The Country Child” by Marian Douglas (Annie Green, 1842-1913), which invokes some of Dickinson’s favorite motifs: flowers, dew, and birds:

She seems to bring the country here—
Its birds, its flowers, its dew;
And slowly, as, amid the throng
She passes from our view,
We watch her, sadly, as we might
Some pleasant landscape fade from sight. …

So fair a flower should open with
The daisy buds at home;
Mid primrose stars, as sweet and wild,
As she will be—dear, woodland child!

It also includes a poem by Edna Proctor (1827-1923) on heroism (“Are the Heroes dead?”), while the April 12th edition includes “The Dying Wife” by Emily Gleason.

The Republican also included a literary snippet on primary school instruction that reads like a “How-To” guide on writing like Dickinson. The “Books, Authors and Art” section for this week describes “Object-Lessons,” a new form of pedagogy for the young:

The principle employed in Object-Lessons is one likely to modify the whole process of primary instruction, and the culture of which it is the basis. It employs the fresh faculties in observing, closely and accurately, and in committing to memory obvious facts, not meaningless words. It just takes the many objects with which the child is familiar, and bids him note carefully their sensible properties, their shape, size, color, texture, flavor, resemblance or difference; doing for the dullest what talent does for the gifted.

Dickinson & Higginson: A Preface

On April 5th, 1862, the Springfield Republican published a notice of the upcoming edition of the Atlantic Monthly that would prove crucial in Dickinson’s relationship to publication. In the section titled “Books, Authors and Art,” the Republican reportd:

The Atlantic Monthly for April is one of the best numbers ever issued; not of that popular periodical merely, but of magazine literature since its first inception. It is full of rich thoughts clothed in well-chosen words; the ripe fruits of culture, presented with admirable taste. Its leading article, T. W. Higginson’s Letter to a Young Contributor, ought to be read by all the would-be authors of the land, although such a circulation would surpass that of the New York Ledger or any other periodical whatever. It is a test of latent power.

Although we don’t know if Dickinson saw this notice, she may have been aware of the irony of advertising a literary essay from the Atlantic Monthly in the Springfield Republican: publication of literary writing—be it poetry or prose—was entangled in a large commercial economy.

Though she reads this essay and ultimately decides to write to Higginson, her letters are often coy and evasive. We will study them in the last two weeks of this month.

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Ivy Schweitzer

Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer
Prospect Cottage, Kent. I. Schweitzer

In Dickinson’s voice

As Firmament to Fin – I said
the robin snug in wood
and great white whales in aqua
seas +singing to their brood –    

To fling a song the world among
from throat and – fearless eye
+Leaping in golden lines beyond  
ocean and the sky –

As Firmament to Fin ­– I think
I could assay – the weight
of breeze and wave that language – make
an essence rare to strike –

     +crooning     +bursting

In a contemporary voice

The answer is no from the poetry editor,
no from the national grant.
My snarky response—dies on my lips,
failures – clamor at my heart.

The answer is no from my children
hurrying into grown-up lives,
no from my husband, plugged into
his virtual toys. No from my balky knees
grousing at every mile I run, every
delirious slope I ski.
No from my sciatic nerve, achy hips,
hair-line eczema, vaginal dryness.

The answer is no
from the justice I swore to promote
at every barricade, real and
abstract, with youthful panache,
no from a world fraught
and fracked, from peace punished
and starved.

It’s time, my Soul, to transmigrate into a stone.

bio: Ivy Schweitzer is Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Dartmouth College. Her fields are early American literature, American poetry, women’s literature, gender and cultural studies.  Her current projects include The Occom Circle, a digital edition of works by and about Samson Occom, an 18th century Mohegan Indian writer and activist,, and a full-length documentary film entitled It’s Criminal: A Tale of Privilege and Prison,, based on the courses she co-teaches in and about prison.



Dandurand, Karen. “Dickinson and the Public.” Dickinson and Audience. Eds. Martin Orzeck and Robert Weisbuch. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996: 255-77.

Dobson, Joanne. Dickinson and the Strategies of Reticence: The Woman Writer in Nineteenth Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989.

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Smith, Martha Nell. Rowing in Eden: Rereading Emily Dickinson. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.

History and Biography

Emily Dickinson Archive

Dickinson, Emily. Selected Letters. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 200.

Miller, Cristianne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.

Springfield Republican: April 5th & April 12th, 1862

March 19-25, 1862: Spring!

Dickinson had an affinity for the natural world, and nature comprises a critical part of Dickinson’s poetic language. This week, we delve into Dickinson’s relationship with spring. Its burgeoning scenery and release from winter inspired powerful language and symbols, but we may be surprised to learn how Dickinson used spring during 1862, a year of extremes for her.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Sharon Barnes

“The Mystic Day”

This week brings the Spring Equinox, and with it, the burgeoning scenery and release from winter that inspired Dickinson to write some of her most celebrated nature poems.

Spring light at the Homestead
Spring light at the Homestead. credit: Emily Dickinson Museum

Even as a child filling in herbarium books and studying natural sciences, Dickinson had an affinity for the natural world, and nature comprises a critical part of Dickinson’s poetic language. She uses flowers as powerful symbols for herself and her poetry, butterflies and bees as recurring characters under intoxication, birds as divine and philosophical beings, and the sun as an eternal clock that marks the changing of the human world.

To glimpse what spring, in particular, meant to Dickinson, we might delve into what Barton Levi St. Armand called Dickinson’s “mystic day,” an elaborate symbolic system that synthesizes what he determined are Dickinson’s mythological associations among the seasons, four directions, times of day, flowers, colors, geography, psychological states and emotions. He is working from Rebecca Patterson’s outlines of Dickinson’s “private mythology” in which she claims that

by means of these interconnected symbol clusters [Dickinson] has effectually organized her emotions and experience and unified the poetry of her major period, making of it a more respectable body of work than the faulty and too often trivial fragments in which it is customarily presented.

William Blake,
William Blake, "The Jealousy of Los" from "The Four Zoas," [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

St. Armand notes that such symbolism was not unique to Dickinson and resembles “the fourfold universe of William Blake’s prophetic books, especially The Four Zoas” (begun 1797), while fellow New Englander Ralph Waldo Emerson also provides “a stimulus for the development of such an elaborate map of consciousness” in Nature (1836) when he remarks:

the dawn is my Assyria; the sunset and moonrise my Paphos and unimaginable realms of faerie; broad noon shall be my England of the senses and the understanding; the night shall be my Germany of mystic philosophy and dreams.

St. Armand speculates that drawing on the associations in the mystic day  was a way for Dickinson to solve the dilemma of temporality—how to access the eternal world while trapped in human time—by collapsing human time into eternity and representing one mode of time through the other. This personal system of correspondences was quite elaborate, as St. Armand’s chart indicates.

Dickinson's "Mystic Day."
from Barton Levi St. Armand, "Emily Dickinson and her Culture," p. 317

In this system, Spring is associated with the cardinal point of the East, the human cyclical event of birth, the Christian cyclical event of the Resurrection or Easter, the spiritual cycle of hope, the psychological cycle of expectation, the colors of amethyst and yellow (for the dawn), the flowers of jonquil and crocus, the geographical places of Switzerland and the Alps, the illumination of morning light, and the religious cycle of conviction and awakening.

The Homestead on March 19, 2018, two days before the spring equinox!
The Homestead on March 19, 2018, two days before the spring equinox! credit: Dickinson Museum

But we may be surprised by what Spring means to Dickinson and how she uses it in her poetry during the year of 1862, a year of extremes: in the aftermath of her “terror” in the Fall of 1861, the death of Frazar Stearns in the war in March, and her decision in April of 1862 to reach out as a poet to Thomas Higginson.

“Your general loves you”


“A serious misunderstanding has occurred among the allied powers in Mexico,” as the British and Spanish return home, while the French increase their forces in Mexico. The American papers speculate that France and Spain had a falling out on how to properly handle the legislation in Mexico, and they abandoned their previous plan to install a foreign Archduke there.

The news of the capture of Fort Donelson reached England, resulting in a “considerable rise in American stocks” and general congratulations.

The Italian ministry reshuffles, due to the “Roman question”—the dispute over the temporal power of popes ruling a civil entity in Italy during the “Risorgimento,” the unification of Italy. For now, the question remains unresolved because the new Premier would like to keep Napoleonic France as an ally, and pushing the issue would likely upset the country and conflict with France’s future policy on the matter.

A series of small rebellions trouble the Ottoman Empire both in Greece and Turkey. Restless with prolonged foreign rule, decline of the empire, religious reform, and general dislike of the oppressive government, parts of Greece rebel. In Turkey, the same sentiments run wild and parallel rebellions occur all over the country and its Asiatic territories. The Springfield Republican says “with troubles abroad and brawls at home, Turkey is in hot water all the time, and the numerous insurrections throughout the territory seem to threaten her with immediate dissolution.” Not too far off the mark: the nearly six-hundred-year-old empire was experiencing a hard decline due to modernization, and would fall in around eighty years.


Springfield Republican, Review of the Week: Progress of the War. “The progress of the Union arms is still onward, and the record of the week is as brilliant as any that has preceded it.” The Confederate forces continue to retreat, fleeing northern Virginia. News of General Burnside’s capture of New Bern, North Carolina, reaches the papers, which tell how “our men bore themselves like veterans” in the “severe fight” leading up to the capture. This capture proves crucial, as it allows the Union to reach North Carolina’s capital and occupy the coastal railroad running through the South. The Union also has “all eastern Florida,” and multiple coastal points along the East Coast.

General McClellan’s “grand army” advances towards Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, and the Springfield Republican speculates that, “the capture of Richmond cannot be many days distant.” In reality, Richmond would not fall until April 5, 1865, and this attempt to capture the city would result in a five-month long campaign leading up to the Seven Days Battles in July of this year, where the Confederacy would successfully protect Richmond.

From Washington. This article reports on the controversy around General McClellan stirring up the country.

George B. McClellan. 1861 photograph by Mathew Brady.

McClellan’s fall and winter campaigns ended in mistakes and failures, and one instance where the South successfully deceived the general and managed to escape from his grasp. The country is divided over the competence of McClellan, most saying that the general cannot continue to lead a regiment and needs to be replaced. However, the Republican’s author argues McClellan “is to have one more opportunity at any rate,” but nothing more.

General McClellan “is at home among his troops, and to a great extent is popular among them,” but it remains a question whether or not the general is competent, or if his appointment was purely political.

In other news, emancipation continues to be a controversy in the Senate. The paper assures the reader that the bill would pass, “if it can ever come to a vote.”

picture of Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)
Wendell Phillips (1811–1884)

The paper also reports on abolitionist orator Wendell Phillips’ tour through Washington, and his lectures. The capital received him well, the column reports, and says, “this is in itself almost a miracle, and will be set down as an ‘event’ when the history of these times comes to be written.” Later this week, on March 24 in Cincinnati, Ohio, the orator would be booed off stage and pelted with rocks and eggs at his suggestion of fighting a war to free the slaves.

A Bit of Secret History. An 1861 letter from former Florida Senator Yulee to a correspondent from Tallahassee named Joseph Finegan was recently found.

David Levy Yulee

It reveals a secret meeting of the Southern Senators, and a part of the letter is quoted in the paper:

The idea of the meeting was that the states should go out at once, and provide for the early organization of a confederate government not later than the 15th of February. This time is allowed to enable Louisiana and Texas to participate. It seemed to be the opinion that if we left here, force, loan and volunteer bills might be passed, which would put Mr. Lincoln in immediate condition for hostilities; whereas, if by remaining in our places until the 4th of March, it is thought we can keep the hands of Mr. Buchanan tied, and disable the republicans from affecting any legislation which will strengthen the hands of the incoming administration.

The senators and states did in fact go through with this plan, and Northern newspapers now have no problem calling treason on these former senators.

Letter from the Owner of “Old Glory.” William Driver, a sea captain and Union sympathizer living in Nashville, owns the original “Old Glory” flag that became famous after his merchant ship traveled the world and saved five other American crews from ruin. Many armed and unarmed attempts to seize the flag during the Civil War led Driver to hide it safely away until Nashville fell in February, when Driver took it to the Union generals and requested it to be flown over the city in triumph. The Springfield Republican publishes a letter from him to his daughter, chronicling his feelings after seeing the flag flown over the city.

Letter from Old Glory
Letter from Old Glory, Springfield Republican, March 22, 1862

From the Potomac: Proclamation by Gen McClellan. General McClellan issues a proclamation to the armies of the Potomac, addressing his decision to not take on the Potomac Blockade in the winter, which earned him criticism and contributed to the controversy around him and his competency as a general:

you were to be disciplined, armed and instructed. The formidable artillery you now have, had to be created, other armies were to move and accomplish certain results. I have held you back that you might give the death blow to the rebellion that has distracted our once happy country.

The general announces the end to the waiting period, and pleads

in whatever direction you may move, however strange my actions may appear to you, ever bear in mind that my fate is linked with yours, and that all I do is to bring you where I know you wish to be, on the decisive battle field… you know that your general loves you from the depths of his heart.

“Early Soldier-heart”

This week, Dickinson, her family, and all of Amherst dealt with the aftermath of Frazar Stearns’ death, marked by his funeral on March 22.

Frazar Stearns (1841-1862)
Frazar Stearns (1841-1862). credit: Amherst College

Amherst, March 21: In the Express: A telegram was received at 2 P.M. on Tuesday, announcing that Lieut. Fred Sanderson was returning with [Frazar Stearns’] body … His body arrived here on Wednesday in charge of Lieut. Sanderson, and the funeral will take place on Saturday [tomorrow], at 1 ½ o’clock, in the village Church.

March 22: Dickinson writes to Louise and Frances Norcross:

He went to sleep from the village church. Crowds came to tell him good-night, choirs sang to him, pastors told him how brave he was—early soldier-heart. And the family bowed their heads, as the reeds the wind shakes.

See the full letter and account in last week’s post.

We don't know exactly when Dickinson composed the following poem, which she included in Fascicle 19, but it was likely prompted by Stearns’ death and uses phrases from the letters she wrote to her Norcross cousins and Samuel Bowles about it, quoted in full last week. It is significant that in those letters and here again, Dickinson refers to the death as “murder.”

It dont sound so terrible -
quite – as it did -
I run it over – "Dead", Brain -
Put it in Latin – left of my school -
Seems it dont shriek so – under rule.

Turn it, a little – full in the face
A Trouble looks bitterest -
Shift it – just -
Say "When Tomorrow comes this
way -
I shall have waded down one Day".

I suppose it will interrupt me
Till I get accustomed – but
then the Tomb
Like other new Things – shows
largest – then -
And smaller, by Habit -

It's shrewder then
Put the Thought in
advance – a Year -
How like "a fit" – then -

Murder – wear!

(F384A, J426)

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum


Sharon Barnes

Spring Equinox, 2018: The aconites are in bloom in Toledo, Ohio.

yellow flowersWhen I was in 8th grade, my one year of Catholic grade school, Mr. Sarasin, my homeroom teacher, made us memorize a poem by Emily Dickinson, right down to the punctuation. Not surprisingly, it was a poem about how sure she was that heaven existed! (“I never saw a Moor” [F800A, J1052]). I was uninterested, and nobody was asking about the variety of heavens present in her work.

When I matriculated to a small Catholic liberal arts college in Michigan in the 1980s, the nun who I now feel sure was a lesbian, who taught us grammar using what we imagined was a holster of colored pens attached to her hip, performed a cloying Dickinson for campus poetry events, acting uncharacteristically shy in a white tatted lace collar. I remained uninterested, and a little creeped out.

Imagine my surprise a handful of years later in graduate school when I rediscovered Dickinson and found her wild paganism ranging across the pages. I was interested indeed. In a pleasurable side by side morning reading of Whitman and Dickinson with my partner, we paired days of poetry with selections from Open Me Carefully, and frequently howled “Sue!” at each erotic gesture we encountered thereafter. We abandoned Whitman in time, preferring Dickinson’s challenging, rewarding, sometimes impenetrable lines.

Blue aconitesThe analysis of Barton Levi St. Armand and Rebecca Patterson presented in this week’s blog confirm my young pagan heart’s response to Dickinson’s work; nature is symbolic, mystical, mythical, and catholic in that other sense: universal, wide-ranging, and all-embracing. Presented here for us to see, to notice, to breathe in and embrace, nature in Dickinson’s hand is a supreme teacher of humanity’s place in the natural order.

For me, the Morning in F246A, J232, that “Happy thing” who believes herself “supremer,” “Raised,” and “Ethereal,” but who flutters and staggers as her dews give way to the sun’s hot rays, is an affirmation of nature’s endless cycle and of humanity’s hubris in thinking we are here to use the earth “for meat,” as some versions of the Christian Bible say. “So dawn goes down to day,” (Robert Frost, “Nothing Gold Can Stay”) like a spring flower that wilts in the heat of the sun, so Spring will yield to Summer, and the crown of dewdrops will give way to the one bloom, her unanointed flower. So, too, humanity’s hubris about our place in nature will always be challenged in the cycle of death and birth presented in this poem and in this time of year. We too will eventually flutter and stagger.

Professor Schweitzer reminds us again this week that Dickinson was not removed from the social and cultural contexts surrounding her, the Civil War. In the midst of a March surely as full of aconites, snowdrops, and crocuses as ours are, Dickinson and the members of her community were grieving the life of Frazar Stearns, a young soldier returned home from the war for burial. And we, too, grieve the loss of young lives, in school shootings, in preventable deprivation, in what can feel like endless wars, as we note Professor Schweitzer’s convincing discussion of Dickinson’s use of the word “Murder.”

Here at the Spring Equinox, where light and dark are in perfect balance, we begin to head into the lengthening of days, the Happy Morning where all Life would be Spring. All too soon, though, the solstice will be here, and the shadows will begin to overtake the Sun King’s haughty presence in the orchard as he makes his retreat.

But for now, let us enjoy the light and the Sun’s gentle touch. Happy Spring!

Sharon Barnes

Bio: Sharon Barnes is an Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Toledo in Toledo, Ohio, who recently completed committing Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck” to memory, a highly recommended exercise.


  • Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. vol. 1:17.
  • Patterson, Rebecca. Emily Dickinson’s Imagery. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1979, 181.
  • St. Armand, Barton Levi. Emily Dickinson and Her Culture: The Soul’s Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984, 277-8, 317.
  • Leyda, Jay. The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson. vol. 2. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960, 49.



February 5-11, 1862: Meter

This week we focus on Dickinson’s metrical forms to determine the rhythm of her poetry. Despite some popular notions that all of Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” readers find her forms varied and the effects she achieves transgressive. We also explore the relationship between the meters of Dickinson and the poets she read.

This Week in History
This Week in Biography
This Week's Poems
This Week's Reflection – Susan Castillo Street

Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf
Emily Dickinson by Jedi Noordegraaf

Dickinson's “Microscopic Meter”

It’s easy to get caught up in the entrancing language, images, themes in Dickinson’s work, and gloss over the forms in which they are embodied and the sheer music of her poetry. This week we get down to the nitty-gritty of Dickinson’s metrical forms, considering prosody (poetry’s patterns of rhythm and sound) and scansion (marking the stresses or beats in a line of poetry to determine its rhythm). For further explanation, see “scansion made easy." Often, the forms of the poems are crucial in making their meanings. English poet Ted Hughes refers to Dickinson’s “microscopic meter,” suggesting that it achieves its effects by tiny, subtle shifts, but shifts that magnify the development of meaning. We will look closely at these weighty details.

Despite some popular notions that all of Dickinson’s poetry can be sung to the tune of “Mary had a Little Lamb,” readers find her forms varied and the effects she achieves transgressive—more so, for some, than the more obvious formal innovations of Whitman. Cristanne Miller has studied Dickinson’s forms intensively and in the context of the metrical practices of her contemporaries. She finds that Dickinson composed in terms of the stanza, and that studying her use of stanzas in the Fascicles reveals patterns that

suggest that Dickinson thinks of her poems in terms of formal patterns in addition to or rather than in thematic clusters.

Miller treats the fascicles as Dickinson’s “fair copies,” but Dickinson revised continuously and there are often different formal versions of poems. For a competing view of Dickinson's forms, see Susan Howe, Jerome McGann and others who read Dickinson’s texts as “visually intentional” with important “graphemic” elements such as word spacing, length of dashes and handwriting.

Given Dickinson’s wide reading, her familiarity with the metaphysical poets, John Donne and George Herbert, her adored Shakespeare, Keats, Wordsworth and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, she had the Western metrical tradition at her fingertips. Still, she avoided the meter that predominated among these poets and dominates English verse—iambic pentameter (a ten syllable line made up of five “feet,” a 2 syllable unit with a rising rhythm of unstressed/stressed syllables). Unrhymed iambic pentameter (called “blank verse”) is the meter of Shakespeare’s plays, of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s The Prelude and Barrett Browning’s long poem, Aurora Leigh, which was a favorite of Dickinson's. Dickinson used this meter sparingly and adapted it strategically, as in the first line of “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” to render the “formality” of numbness and then show its disintegration.

Rather, Dickinson wrote the majority of her poems in the hymn’s form of common meter, also known in secular terms as “the ballad measure.” This shorter form served her desire to work in a communal idiom and her need for concision and compression. Some feminist scholars argue that this was a conscious decision on her part to reject the poetic norms of a patriarchal culture. Others counter that such decisions are not always fully conscious.

Isaac Watts, 1674-1748

Growing up in a Congregational household in a predominantly Puritan community and attending church every week until she stopped when she was around thirty, Dickinson was steeped in the Protestant hymn tradition, epitomized by the English hymnist, Isaac Watts.

Dickinson’s mother owned a copy of Watts’ Hymns and the household had his Church Psalmody and Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs.

In several poems Dickinson quotes or echoes Watts and rewrites him, often in playful or ironic ways, using his familiar devotional rhythms as counterpoint for some of her more radical and skeptical notions about God, faith and salvation.

But she was also deeply influenced by the ballad tradition, an older, looser and more imaginative narrative form that had been revived in the 18th century and deeply influenced the British Romantic poets. Because hymns were written to be sung communally to a handful of familiar tunes, they needed to be more regular, while ballads were more metrically inventive and meant for popular consumption.

The first bestseller in Puritan New England drew from this tradition: The Day of Doom by the Reverend Michael Wigglesworth, published in 1662, consisted of two hundred and twenty four stanzas narrating the Last Judgment when Christ will return and pass judgement on those saved and going to heaven and those damned and going to hell.  The bouncing rhythm of its meter (called “fourteeners,” or long lines of 8 and 6 syllables) made it easy to memorize. Into the nineteenth-century, many elderly folks could be found in New England still reciting it from memory.

Dickinson used several versions of hymn form, as we will see, but she especially relished the looser form of the ballad measure. She also sometimes abandoned regular or recognizable form altogether, writing a kind of free verse, which might have been influenced by Whitman and seeing parts of the King James Bible lineated as verse.

We will get into the details of her verse form in the discussion of the poems for this week. In our section on history, we highlight the kinds of poems Dickinson would have come across in her newspaper and journal reading for the week.

“Badinage and the Ball Room, Bonnets and Bouquets.”


Springfield Republican, February 8, Review of the Week: “The status quo continues. The story of the week is soon told. Inaction and suspense everywhere … an embargo of mud and water all along the line, which only days – it may be weeks – of sunshine and wind can raise. … The news from the South is still of the same tenor. The disaffection and reaction increase … The tone of the English press is becoming more pacific. …

Jesse D. Bright, 1812-1875

The best thing that has been done in Congress during the week is the expulsion of Jesse D. Bright of Indiana, from the Senate, for treasonable correspondence with the enemy.”

From Washington: “The gay dance which is to come off to-night at the White House produces much talk and considerable indignation among the members of Congress,” especially at this time of military inaction.

A column titled “Opportunities:”

…life has nobler opportunities than those of making money, or even spending it in gorgeous display. The present times give opportunity for self-sacrifice, for sorrow relieved and loss endured and temptation spurned. There sits a lady in our land to whom the fates have granted a possibility not open to one woman in a century, the privilege to lead the feminine loyalty of America, to bless with the charm of her sex and station the camp of the volunteer and the ward of the hospital, to pledge her fair hand, more honored than honoring, to all these womanly benignities that soften the horrors of war, to frown with severely truthful eye upon the shameless panderers to treachery and greed, and putting aside the ensnaring ties of a misguided kindred, to say truly to the hero of her choice,—“thy people shall be mine!” Such is the peerless opportunity, granted and lost. Such is the high privilege of winning a beautiful and enduring fame, a memory cherished in a nation’s heart of hearts,—all overlooked and wasted, all bartered for badinage and the ball room, bonnets and bouquets.

On the Emancipation Question:

The experience of all these islands [the West Indies] teaches that to emancipate the negro is to advance him at one stride further on the road of civilization than a century of slavery could do.


A column titled “Reading the Bible in Schools” discusses the Massachusetts State legislature’s consideration of this thorny question and finds that the Puritan majority feels

that the Catholic citizens of the state are not citizens in the full sense of the word, but interlopers, resident here by the sufferance of the Puritan majority, and having no claims to any larger share in the civil and social privileges of this community than the anti-Catholic majority may choose to concede to them.

The writer proposes a compromise and urges the passage of the act,

excusing all who have scruples on the subject … and let them institute measures for the preparation of a book of selections from the Scriptures which will be generally acceptable.

Original Poetry in Springfield Republican: “Buried Memories” written in quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab with some variations in the third line of 9 syllables, but fairly regular. Also, “The Soldier’s Wife,” written in quatrains of iambic tetrameter (8 syllable lines of 4 feet and beats, each with a rhythm of unstressed/stressed) rhyming abab, also very regular.

Hampshire Gazette: “From The Atlantic Monthly for February: ‘Song of the Negro Boatmen’” by J. G. W. [John Greenleaf Whittier, an outspoken abolitionist], set in Port Royal, Jamaica, and written in black dialect, 12 line stanzas of three quatrains of 8686 syllables rhyming abab cdcd, with a refrain in the third quatrain rhyming efgf, very regular. Also, notice the reference to the “day of doom” (here, the concept and probably not Wigglesworth’s poem)!!

Oh, praise an’ tanks! De Lord he come
To set the people free;
An’ massa tink it day ob doom,
An’ we ob jubilee.
De Lord dat heap de Red Sea waves
He jus’ as ‘trong as den;
He say the word: we las’ night slaves;
To day, de Lord’s freemen.
De yam will grow, de cotton blow,
We’ll hab de rice an’ corn:
Oh, nebber you fear, if nebber you hear
De driver blow his horn!

“Glimpses of Other Worlds”

Hampshire Gazette, February 10, 1862, Amherst College:

The first in our series of “home-made” lectures was delivered by Rev. Dr. Hitchcock, last Thursday evening… the lecturer’s subject was, “Glimpses of the Geology and Habitability of other Worlds.” Many astounding facts with reference to the Universe in which we dwell were developed, and some exceedingly ingenious and plausible theories touching the condition of the worlds around us were put forth.

Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864) was a geologist, professor and later president of Amherst College, and friend of the Dickinson family. His many books on geology tried to reconcile science and Scriptures, and he was a strong influence on Dickinson. In a letter to Higginson from early 1877, Dickinson wrote,

When flowers annually died and I was a child, I used to read Dr Hitchcock’s Book on the Flowers of North America. This comforted their Absence – assuring me they lived (L488).

Read this week's poems

Credit: Emily Dickinson Museum



Susan Castillo Street

As a poet myself, I have learned that Emily Dickinson’s poems should be approached with the greatest caution. We are blown away by their power, and captivated by what looks like their elegant simplicity. Elegant they absolutely are: simple they most certainly are not. We soon find this out when we attempt to write “in the style of…” My own attempts in this direction are something with which I could be blackmailed for very large sums. The delicacy and subtlety of her rhyme schemes and her metrics are extraordinarily complex, and imitations of Dickinson’s style in less able hands have an alarming tendency to turn into unfortunate Tiddly-Pum verse.

That said: there is something about her use of ballad meter that I find powerfully seductive. Somehow it reminds me of the powerful ebb and flow of the hymns of my Southern childhood. The following poem isn’t written in ballad meter, but I’ve tried to capture a similar effect here:

Grand Isle

My cousin Martha and I go crabbing.
She holds the string, I dip the net.
We don’t talk much. Two solemn pigtailed girls
intent upon our task. Heat beats down.

In the distance, Uncle John floats
out on the waves, spreads out X-shaped,
buoyed up by tractor tire. The waves go
hush hush hush against the shore.

The beach house is made of timber.
No running water. Aunt Mary boils and scrubs and cleans,
raises an eyebrow when my flighty mama
says to cousin Stevie let’s go fish.

Mama’s voice is low and sweet,
thick Mississippi honey. She and Stevie,
pirates both, conspirators.
They go out to the jetty, bait their hooks,

sit down to wait, legs dangling low.
Stevie, silent, straightens, motions to my Mama,
points to his bending pole.
We strain to hear their voices

but the words are indistinct.
She puts her arm around his shoulders,
helps him reel in a silver squirming fish.
His grin could light the sky.

I don’t know if I believe
in a Heaven full of wings and harps,
But if the Hereafter does exist,
I imagine it will be

Grand Isle with Uncle Johnny floating,
Aunt Mary bustling,
Martha and me crabbing
Mama and Steve, two pirates fishing.

Bio: Susan Castillo Street is an international woman of mystery. She has published two collections of poems, The Candlewoman's Trade (2003), Abiding Chemistry, (2015), and a pamphlet, Constellations (Three Drops Press, 2016). A third collection, The Gun-Runner’s Daughter, was published by Aldrich in 2018. Her poetry has appeared in Southern Quarterly, Prole, The High Window, Ink Sweat & Tears, Messages in a Bottle, The Missing Slate, Clear Poetry, Three Drops from a Cauldron, Foliate Oak, The Yellow Chair Review, Poetry Shed, The Lake, Smeuse, Algebra of Owls, Picaroon, Riggwelter, and other journals and anthologies. She is owned by three cats and lives in a restored oast in Sussex.

Her blog is The Salamander and the Raven.


Finch, A. R. C. “Dickinson and Patriarchal Meter: A Theory of Metrical Codes.” PMLA, 102 (2 March 1987): 166-76.

Howe, Susan. My Emily Dickinson. New York: New Directions, 1985.

Ladin, Joy. “ ‘Where the Meanings, are’: Emily Dickinson, Prosody, and Postmodernist Poetics.” Versification, 5 (2010): 1-8.

McGann, Jerome. “Emily Dickinson’s Visible Language.” The Emily Dickinson Journal II, 2 (1993):

Miller, Cristanne. Reading in Time: Emily Dickinson in the Nineteenth Century. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012, 49-81.

Pugh, Christina. “Ghosts of Meter: Dickinson, After Long Silence.” The Emily Dickinson Journal xvi, 2 (2007): 1-26.

Ross, Christine. “Uncommon Measures: Emily Dickinson’s Subversive Prosody.” The Emily Dickinson Journal, 10 (1, 2001): 70-98.

Hampshire Gazette, 
February 4, 1862
Springfield Republican, February 8, 1862

Hampshire Gazette,  February 10, 1862